A letter from Laurene Powell Jobs
Ralph Waldo Emerson
In one soul, in your soul, there are resources for the world.
With those startling words, Ralph Waldo Emerson enlarged our conception of the value of a human life. I read his simple declaration about the reach of human capability as a statement of fact: there really is within each of us the potential to improve the world around us. But Emerson’s line is not only a description, it is also an imperative: while all of us possess this transformative potential, too many of us don’t get the chance to fulfill it—which means that we all have work to do.
At Emerson Collective, this is what drives us every day. If we’ve helped someone transcend the limits of circumstance and chart a new course for themselves and their families, we know we’re fulfilling our mission. Like our namesake, we believe deeply in self-reliance; but we recognize that the road to self-reliance sometimes leads through reliance on others. We trust that hard work and determination can make anything possible, but opportunities for hard work and determination must be found and even created.
For people trapped in the quagmire of poverty and disenfranchisement, a strong will to overcome the odds is rarely sufficient to beat them. For the 22 percent of children born into poor neighborhoods in the U.S., hard work will not likely be enough to overcome the obstacles they will face, including those that remain invisible to outsiders. For students in challenging environments—where schools are chronically short of funds, where advanced classes in high school are non-existent, where expectations are often low and mentors are few—force of will alone cannot ensure a college education and a bright future. And for families forced into the shadows by a dysfunctional immigration system, perseverance cannot secure legal status and equal rights.
Qualities of character, in other words, must be supplemented and supported by policies and inspirations. These lives, these communities, are gardens of promise, but they need water in order to flourish.
Many years ago, I visited a nearby high school where students were working to defy the odds and do something very difficult: to become the first in their families to earn a college degree. They had the same dreams and talents as students from neighboring communities, but faced far more daunting obstacles. As the first to apply to college, the first to attend and to graduate, and the first to embark on a professional career, they faced, at every stage, uncharted territory.
It takes a unique brand of boldness to envision—and pursue—a future so different from the world that surrounds you. These students possessed courage and drive, but lacked the gateways to achieve their dreams—this struck me as a great injustice. It inspired me to launch a program called College Track—which has, to date, guided and supported thousands of students on their quest to earn college degrees, most of whom are the first in their family to reach this pivotal milestone.
Today in the United States, with few exceptions, where a person is born determines how far he or she can go in life. Among developed countries, the U.S. ranks second to last in economic and social mobility. This is shameful. It wasn’t always this way—and it doesn’t have to stay this way. This is not how we want our country to work.
This imperative underpins both the moral and practical mission of our work at Emerson Collective: we are idealists with our feet on the ground. Students can’t become self-reliant adults unless we give them an excellent education and a pathway cleared of obstacles. Immigrants can’t contribute their fullest to our communities, can’t live open and free and productive lives, unless they are liberated from the fear of detention and deportation. Complex systemic failures require flexible approaches, new models, and improved public policy. Every day with new ideas, true numbers, and smart practices, we at Emerson Collective do our part to advance these solutions. We do so in partnership with innovative thinkers, entrepreneurs, and organizations—with the broad community of concern and solidarity that we seek to foster.
Our basic belief, as Emerson taught, is that we are doubly obligated: we must rely on ourselves and we must rely on each other. By helping individuals to achieve their dreams, we unleash the full force of the world’s most powerful resource: human potential.
Laurene Powell Jobs