The general perception about the events in London over these past few days is that they have been perpetrated by a group of uncivilized, amoral thugs who occupy the lawless underbelly of English society. Normally reserved British politicians have expressed outrage at this criminal element, claiming the moral high ground from which judgment is so easily passed. The police have cracked down with equal and opposite ferocity (click here and have a look).
It seems that we are easily falling into a simple explanation for the whole thing – good versus evil, moral versus immoral, right versus wrong.
However, is it really that simple? What should we be hearing from this “call” across the pond?
No rational person can condone what we are seeing, nor justify the riots as an appropriate response of those on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder (which often takes the form of a mass of marginalized urban youth). However, we are missing the point if we cut our thinking short, and don’t ask why this is happening, and what led to it.
It’s no surprise to anyone that inequality has widened significantly over the past thirty years, our public education system is under-performing, and we are facing the highest levels of youth unemployment since the Great Depression. Couple that with an economy that is demanding higher and higher levels of skill, and you have the perfect storm for marginalizing huge swathes of our young people. And, sorry folks, but given the current state of public investment in discretionary programs, it is hard to project that this will get better before it gets worse.
So… what are we to do?
Peggy Noonan made the bold assertion in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend that “the problem, at bottom, is love”, or rather, the lack of it. I don’t disagree with Peggy at all, although her cure is too abstract. To me, the problem, at bottom, is about opportunity: opportunity to gain a good education, to pursue a job that pays livable wages, and to take proper care of yourself and your family.
Here is my suggestion: Let’s create a new agency – part public, part private, part non-profit- and call it the “Opportunity Agency”. Anyone can participate by being an “Opportunity Provider”. There are countless ways to do this – read to a three year-old, mentor a child, tutor a student, help someone learn to speak English, donate time to a homeless shelter, assist someone with getting financial aid, provide someone a job shadow experience or internship, hire someone who has been incarcerated, etc, etc.
The goal is simple – to provide people with more opportunity. We could measure this pretty easily, and track the results. To make this work, two things are required: First, people have to believe that each of us – regardless of zip code, race, income level or education – deserves opportunity. Second, we have to believe that given the chance, the vast majority of people will take honest and sincere advantage of this program.
Bottom line: people are good, they want to do good things, and given the chance, they will.
Imagine a “flash mob” that comes together only to provide opportunity for others. Now that’s a flash mob I like!