There’s a price to delay. Investing in public health, for example. Maintaining our bridges. There’s also a price when we postpone racial and social justice. This last year, it showed itself in disproportional everything: sickness and death from COVID-19. Job loss. Hunger. Housing insecurity.
Where does it end? In his short poem “Harlem,” written in 1951, the celebrated Black poet Langston Hughes asked, “What happens to a dream deferred? … Does it explode?”
The question is as relevant now as 70 years ago — perhaps more so, given the events that, over the last year, have repeatedly filled our streets with righteous protest. We all pine for peace. But this time, it may elude us unless we first — and at last — deliver more justice. This is the catalyst behind Equity Can’t Wait, a new campaign on behalf of the 41,000 students at the Seattle Colleges: South, Seattle Central and North.
When Seattle residents who are Black, Indigenous and other people of color enroll in college — if they enroll in college — the majority come to our schools. The same holds for those from backgrounds of economic disadvantage. We welcome all these students with 130 different programs, several varieties of degrees (including 14 baccalaureates), apprenticeship programs, professional credentialing opportunities and more.
Each spring, thousands complete their programs and graduate, which is gratifying. But we’re haunted by those who start and don’t make it through, even more by those who never start at all. Our city abounds with good jobs, but at least 70% require a postsecondary credential.
The widely heard phrase “inclusive prosperity” means that all of our city’s citizens take part in the region’s economic success. We share in the hope that we can achieve this. But reaching it will take a new level of community investment in those intended for inclusion.
Here’s what’s thrilling: It’s begun. An example is Seattle Promise, a program that provides two years of tuition and critical support services to new grads of Seattle’s public high schools. This fall nearly 1,000 — or a quarter of the eligible students — signed up. We celebrate that 62% are young people of color, a demographic where colleges usually see the largest gap in direct-from-high school enrollment.
Seattle Promise is made possible by a levy championed by the mayor and the City Council, and approved by Seattle voters. It’s a huge boost to these young people’s prospects. Yet participants are often from families that — like so many — are struggling financially. They may need added support. Today we feel growing optimism that we can raise it, both because Seattle’s people are big-hearted, and because our community increasingly sees and appreciates those we serve.
Over the last year our alums have been hard to miss: The nursing and respiratory therapy graduates who have fought COVID-19 head-on. The early childhood education graduates who have kept the children of essential workers engaged and learning. The technical and skilled-trades graduates who have kept the lifeblood of today’s economy — power and the internet — flowing.
Seattle’s Black and brown young people need our city, and our city needs them — in every role, all the way to the C-suite. But to make that happen, we have to invest, building on starts like Seattle Promise.
For us, this is a startling statistic: Of every philanthropic dollar contributed to higher education nationally, just one cent goes to community colleges. Yet here in our city, the Seattle Colleges educate well over 40% of those doing undergraduate study.
Given the resources, we know what works, not just for the part of our student body that’s fresh out of high school, but the far larger part that’s older (the median student age at the Seattle Colleges is 28). What’s needed is more one-on-one mentoring, tutoring and support that keeps students engaged, confident and mentally healthy. More programs that place students directly into growing career fields and set them up for success. More support to recruit and retain racially and culturally diverse faculty and staff. More upgrades to our decades-old facilities for a future of blended in-person and online coursework.
The needed investment isn’t trivial. But the price of waiting would be higher, not just to those left out, but everyone. In this moment of peril and possibility for our community, our country, our planet, we can’t leave anyone’s talents undiscovered and undeveloped.
There is social progress in this world; for proof look no further than the three authors of this Op-Ed. Not long ago it would have been unimaginable that three women of color with doctoral degrees would be leading together as the Seattle Colleges presidents. But, with a city whose under-18 population is half youth of color, progress has to accelerate, and get to scale, starting now. Equity can’t wait.
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