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Luck Not Merit: Inequality and Opportunity in America Today

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I am a grumpy Pollyanna. And, this summer, the world is giving me lots of reasons to be grumpy. Gridlock and political posturing have consumed Washington. The Middle East is erupting on 12 fronts. Europe is caught in another round of East/West machination. Our moral compass is wildly turning as tens of thousands of desperate children stream across our southern border to be treated as criminals when they arrive.

And yet, the Pollyanna in me has no option but to believe that we as a society hold the keys to solving our own challenges and, by example at least, helping those struggling for personal freedom in other places. As Nicholas Kristof concluded in his excellent piece "Is a Hard Life Inherited?" about America's poor, solutions have to be powered by empathy.

Three years ago, we launched New Voice Strategies, a nonprofit designed to close the empathy gap by giving individuals a more direct say in our public institutions. We began with a focus on public education because we believe our investments in our children's future are a mirror to our collective power of empathy. If we can care as much about every child getting the opportunity to succeed as we do our own children, we can go a long way toward a more equitable society. We also believe in the wisdom of experience. Our work empowers leaders of large, cumbersome bureaucracies and their stakeholders to work together to solve the biggest problems and overcome the hurdles to success.

There are powerful forces against this kind of leadership. Research shows that human nature is wired against empathy because those in power have a hard time recognizing the perspectives of those on the front lines.

But, we still hold the keys. Our work uses technology to directly connect individuals with each other and with public officials -- U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, among others -- in deep problem-solving. The results prove the power of a more deliberative approach. Thanks to Gov. Dayton and Brenda Cassellius, commissioner of the Minnesota Dept. of Education, for example, teachers across the state had input on the design and implementation of new principal and teacher evaluation systems.

That's why Kristof's observations about solving the problems of inequality in our society make so much sense. The way we create solutions is almost as important as the solutions themselves. We need more leaders who understand that and engage in more authentic engagement. We need them to do more actual listening and less checking the constituency outreach box. If teachers and public leaders, amidst the politics of education reform and posturing of labor relations, can overcome the powerful forces of human nature, who can't? With the power of a little more empathy, just imagine all the opportunity gaps we can close.