In a city that has come to symbolize the growing inequality gap, The Nation magazine hosted a conversation about the country’s inequality crisis with a panel of experts. San Francisco was the city, and Less Equal than Ever was the theme, and the occasion was the 150th birthday of the magazine begun by anti-slavery abolitionists in 1856.
Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, Dream Corps Founder Van Jones, National Domestic Workers Alliance Director Ai-jen Poo and The Nation Editor Katrina vanden Heuvel talked about “the greatest threat to the world,” according to a 2014 Pew survey. It’s a core issue on which The Nation has long been sounding the alarm. The event was co-presented by the Commonwealth Club November 17 at the packed Herbst Theater.
Moderator Judge LaDoris Cordell opened with a trick question: “Who said this? ‘‘Under President Obama the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse and there are more people in poverty in America than ever before.’”
The answer surprised the crowd. It was Mitt Romney, earlier this year, just one example of how Republicans are now incorporating this message along with Democrats.
“The wealth controlled by the top tenth of the top 1 percent has more than doubled over the past 30 years in the United States, approaching unprecedented levels,” said Cardell. “Are we about to tip?” she queried the panel.
“No,” said Robert Reich with finality, then dramatic silence that brought a laugh from the audience. Then he continued, “The good news is inequality is something people are talking about. For Republicans, this is fashionable to talk about now.”
For Ai-jen Poo, a conversation about inequality starts with wages. “Low wage workers are organizing now, fighting for $15. Starbucks baristas. Walmart workers--they’re organizing with the same vibrance of Black Lives Matter. We are in the early stages of next great social movement,” said Poo.
“From an African American perspective, the conversation about inequality starts with mass incarceration. It is, in fact, the most significant defining issue of the African American community,” said Van Jones, founder of #Cut50, a national initiative to cut prison population by 50% in 10 years. “The incarceration rate of African Americans is six times that of their peers, though their white counterparts are doing drugs at the same rate. You can’t give African Americans a fair shot at equality in this society if you’re making them felons for doing the same thing as young kids in college or some of you are doing this weekend.”
Katrina vanden Heuvel, who has been Editor of The Nation since 1995 and a frequent commentator on inequality, said, “Cynicism about government is the wrong way to go. Blaming people is dead politics on arrival. Show how you can improve the conditions of people’s lives.”
Poo jumped in to give concrete ideas for improving 27 million lives in the upcoming “silver tsunami”: The senior (85+) population is the fastest growing and soon to be the largest demographic ever. Homecare is such a fast-growing occupation that the average median income is still just $13,000. By 2050, 27 million people will need care. “If we could connect the dots, we could invest in an infrastructure now,” said Poo. “This is the kind of inequality agenda that connects people across race and ideology.”
Cordell concluded the evening asking each panel member, “What would you do about inequality if you were elected President?” Poo said she would create a new system to support caregiving for families. Jones said end mass incarceration. Vanden Heuvel said end America’s endless engagement in wars. Reich had the last word. “Get big money out of politics,” he said. Reich underscored his optimism to close out the evening. “I’ve been teaching for 35 years,” said Reich, a professor at University of California, Berkeley. “I’ve never seen a more idealistic group of young people than the current one. We can build a coalition working toward equality based on interconnectedness. As the market tilts and the wealthy have even more power, grassroots organizations will be the countervailing power in working for equality.”
Alicia Keys took to a different stage this week to ask Congressional members to sign a petition for justice reform that she will deliver to President Obama once it reaches 1 million signatures.
Alicia Keys speaks to lawmakers.
"I am a mother," said Keys. "My heart is breaking for mothers left behind by incarceration, struggling to hold it all together. There are 1.1 million fathers in prison and 5 million children with a parent in prison. Is that our America? Is this who we are now?"
Keys began the day in East Baltimore with #Cut50's Van Jones. Her organization We Are Here joined forces Monday with #Cut50, which aims to reduce prison sentences by 50 percent in 10 years.
In the same community where unarmed black man Freddie Gray died earlier this year in police custody, Keys talked to children and mothers forced to support their children alone, stigmatized. "Their lives are full of stress and they do their best not to lose hope. In a way they have been imprisoned too," said Keys.
Van Jones, Alicia Keys and U.S. Senator Cory Booker.
She spoke to children affected and mothers whose children were tried as adults when they were as young as 14. “We can no longer afford to be this cruel to our young," said Keys. “These are just regular boys and girls trying to find their way."
Felicia "Snoop" Pearson of the HBO series "The Wire" gave Keys and Jones a tour of the street where she grew up, of boarded-up row houses and a funeral home where many of her friends ended up way too young. Snoop was born a premature crack baby to a mother who was in and out of prison and a father she never knew but who was believed to be a local stick up artist. She was convicted of second-degree murder at age 14, sentenced to 16 years, and released after 6½. Snoop spoke of the difficulty of re-entry into society, a subject Keys addressed later that day on Capitol Hill.
Snoop gives Jones a tour of the street she grew up on.
"Currently, when released, ex offenders are forced into a life in the shadows," said Keys. "They can’t vote, they’re ineligible for public housing, food stamps, and often barred from formal employment due to their status as convicted felons. We need to ban the box on job applications. It's up to the private sector. Starbucks and Facebook have no box to tick, showing us the power in believing in second chances."
In less than 30 years, since the "war on drugs" began, the penal population has risen from 300,000 to 2.3 million. It costs between $30,000 and $100,000 a year to keep someone in prison, and reducing sentences for nonviolent offenders could save $40 billion a year. "Can you imagine the good a mother could do with that money?" Keys asked Congressional lawmakers, urging them to sign the petition.
"Moments of opportunity like this come along once in a generation," said Jones, who also spoke to the packed room about letting judges judge and providing alternatives to prison like rehab and job training.
Jones introduced one of the most vocal leaders of criminal justice reform, U.S. Senator Cory Booker, who spoke of the progress in introducing the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. It would be the most significant federal action in decades and has the backing of the White House, where Obama has made criminal justice reform a pillar of his second-term agenda.
Keys meets with Baltimore kids affected by incarceration.
Keys' deep, rich voice filled the room as she spoke of an extraordinary moment to change the country, and her performer's instincts crept in as she punctuated her words with expressive hands and measured each word musically: "You have the ability to change things. Not them. You. Us. We."
As this is our first This Week in Dream Corps blog, let me explain how it is here. At our Dream Corps office in downtown Oakland, you could be talking about ending mass incarceration one minute, training disadvantaged youth to code the next, then getting dirty energy to invest in the communities they pollute. You have to think fast because there’s breaking news in each of our three arenas all week long. It’s kind of fun to try to keep up, and to see all the connections from our Oakland office to current events--for example:
Oprah recently bought the movie rights to our own #cut50 Director of Strategy Shaka Senghor’s memoir.
Or there was the time last week that a police officer assaulted a non-violent student in South Carolina, and our #Cut50 Director of Policy Matt Haney quickly responded in the press because he happens to be VP of the San Francisco School Board and championed an innovative alternative to student discipline that avoids herding kids into the legal system.
Twitter, eBay, Yelp, Pinterest, Square and dozens of other tech leaders recently announced they are teaming with #YesWeCode to hire non-traditional candidates over the next 5 years in light of a million-worker shortage coming by 2020.
And when the EPA added the Clean Power Plan to the Federal Registry in late October and 26 states immediately sued to block it, our #GreenForAll Director Vien Truong took to the road to bust the myths and share the success stories of real Californians whose energy bills did not in fact go up as the naysayers predicted--like Maria Zavala, whose bill went from $200 a year to $1.50.
Maria Zavala & family, photo courtesy of The Greenlining Institute and UpLiftCA
This week brought the usual whirlwind of interesting developments, and as usual our Dream Corps team was traveling all over the place.
Wednesday #GreenForAll Director Vien Truong and Dream Corps President Van Jones were speaking to a Hollywood crowd hosted by Mark Ruffalo that included Normal Lear and Alicia Silverstone. The event was called Hollywood United for a Healthy California, and the point, says Vien Truong, was “to tell Governor Brown to leave oil in the ground.” She talked to the entertainment industry crowd about the lies being told about how the green movement hurts low-income people. Van Jones said, "Good people got together and said let's take dollars out of polluters pockets and use those dollars to green up poor communities. It went from being a fantasy that people like me wrote bestsellers about but didn't know how to make happen to a fact today in California. California has invested $1 billion dollars in a clean power economy for poor folks in the last two years."
#GreenForAll's Vien Truong and Mark Ruffalo
Another cool conversation occurred in San Jose at the Verge sustainability conference between Van Jones and Tom Steyer, hedge fund manager and founder of Farallon Capital Management. Their keynote was called “The Business Opportunity Hiding in Plain Sight,” which was about getting the business crowd to engage all communities in the sustainability movement.
Van Jones, who is a CNN Political Commentator, appeared on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday as a panelist, and offered this meaty bone to chew on, “What’s so weird is that we’re in this moment where we have a white female who’s a front-runner for the Democrats. We don’t even notice that anymore. We now have an African-American man, front-runner for the Republicans. Ben Carson bewilders, I think most black Democrats. I mean, he certainly is professionally impressive. Personally, he can be somewhat impressive. Usually politically he’s probably the least impressive on that stage and yet, this morning, he was great.”
Finally, this week #YesWeCode got to pick the brains of the best in the business when they were selected out of 100 nonprofits to come to the Schwab Pro Bono Challenge in San Francisco and sit down the Charles Schwab’s CFO, two VPs, and a senior manager and discuss how to beginning thinking about the scholarships they will offer to 100,000 low-opportunity youth. The lightbulb moment for the #YesWeCode team was learning from the experts that when you go to a corporation to get money, fit yourself into their models--take advantage of H.R., because that’s where the money is, so instead of asking for donations, #YesWeCode should consider themselves a placement service thereby getting a fee for bringing in talent from an untraditional pipeline. It was a very practical conversation, which is exactly what the team was looking for.
Oh boy, next week we’ve got a lot more coming down the pike to tell you about...
“Diversity in tech is not about guilt, morality, or the word ‘should,’” said Van Jones, president and co-founder of #YesWeCode. Diverse companies are showing strong evidence of outperforming non-diverse companies, Jones explained. Diversity in tech is about the bottom line.
“At this moment, we have reached a breakthrough level of Bay Area employers committing to the idea of apprenticeships sourcing talent from nontraditional pipelines,” said Jones at the Diversity in Tech Summit at the Oakland Museum October 19. #YesWeCode announced a new Employers’ Council of 30 leading tech companies who have committed to 300 paid positions for non-traditional candidates over the next 5 years.
The Oakland summit brought together leaders from Twitter, Yelp, Lyft, Pinterest, eBay, Square, SolarCity, Pivotal Labs, thoughtbot, NationBuilder, and Good Eggs to address head-on how to get more diversity in the tech economy.
"The reason diversity is a priority for companies and the reason the government is getting involved is there will be a million-worker shortage by 2020,” said Dave Hoover, co-founder of Dev Bootcamp, which transforms beginners into full-stack Web developers in 19 weeks. “Finding non-traditional talent sources is a very cost-efficient alternative to outsourcing.”
“Silicon Valley was built on a particular monocrop of genius,” said Jones. “Oakland is the most diverse city in the country. Every kind of human ever born lives in Oakland. 37 languages are spoken in our public schools. There’s an extraordinary amount of genius in this town 38 minutes — without traffic — from an industry built on scaling genius. How do we connect the brilliance of Oakland to these opportunities?”
#YesWeCode facilitates access for companies to nontraditional pipelines such as community college, an online degree, military schooling, or boot camp.
“We aren’t going to use PC terms. We are talking about young poor kids,” Jones told the crowd that included representatives from three mayors’ offices and US Rep. Barbara Lee. ”When we held our national Hackathon, there were engineers from top companies literally with jaws hanging open at how incredibly smart these kids are, trying to solve problems the engineers had never heard of. Like the kid who had an idea for an app for court date reminders. Now when I went to Yale, 80% of my peers were unpoliced drug users. But these kids are from a different world and end up in the system, and that’s a whole untapped world. There is opportunity here.”
“There was a young woman in foster care who said her clothes were all hand me downs from charity,” Jones continued. “‘People laugh at us,’ she said. ‘We do things you wouldn’t want your daughters to do so people don’t laugh at us.’” But she had a great idea: what if we had a way to pick our own clothes from uploaded photographs? Now, the secondhand trade is worth a billion dollars, so here you’ve got a foster kid with a billion-dollar idea in her head.”
“Motivated young people may have circumstances that prevent them from attending 4-year colleges,” said Johnnie Williams, #YesWeCode’s Apprenticeship Director. “The talent is there. It’s all about providing resources.”
Hoover, who ran Groupon’s apprenticeship program, explained how apprenticeship is ideal at this moment because of the way hiring has changed, “There’s a lot of great potential out there, and there’s a new industry saying, ‘potential over credential.’ The great thing about software development is that when bringing someone new on board, you can ask them to code something and look at the product.”
Marcy Tavano, Director of People at Pivotal Labs, echoed that analogy: “When hiring we think of ourselves as the basketball coach considering a new player. Let’s get you on the court so you can show me how you play.”
“Software is a team sport,” said Dan Croak, chief marketing officer of thoughtbot, “The internship that tech companies use has evolved into a more structured mentorship. You come on board as a second pair of hands on a client’s project. But your primary purpose is to learn, so you are encouraged to pause client work and go deep into a topic when you need to. We hire two-thirds of apprentices, and recently there’s been a 10% lift of people of color in the program.”
It’s no longer enough to hire exactly the right narrow candidate, because that role might last, say, 8 months. Companies have learned that when hiring, it’s more cost-effective to think like a skill producer than a skill consumer. “Your business is your talent,” said Hoover. In an age of non-templatized jobs, the ability to transition roles is key, and apprenticeship is the perfect platform for cultivating the full-deck, evolving developer.
Tamika Ross, chief of staff for Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf, said, “The word we like to use now is ‘tequity.’ We have a new talent pipeline. The growth can be shared. New cities can connect to a regional economy. And we can set young people up for success.”
“We think a lot more is possible,” said Jones. “It’s like Prince said — the older people in the crowd know who Prince is — you can have more Mark Zuckerbergs and Marissa Mayers if you have different expectations of people.”