“Lost Einsteins” by Molly Shaw – How we are squandering American innovation

Einsteinby Molly Shaw, President & CEO
Communities In Schools of Charlotte-Mecklenburg

This article first appeared in the 12/7/18 print edition of The Charlotte Business Journal.

I know how it feels to be underprepared. When I joined Communities In Schools I brought unexpected deficiencies in perspective stemming from a lifetime of private school education, white collar jobs, and privilege—surrounded by people who looked like me and shared similar experiences. It is not uncommon for non-profits to hire leaders who have little in common demographically with the organization’s clients. While we often bring connections, passion and fundraising experience, we can also struggle to relate wholly to the work. I have learned a lot about children living in poverty, yet I still don’t know what it’s really like to be a child living in poverty.

My best use is to listen, learn, synthesize and empower. In eight years, I’ve learned a lot, but two things stand out. First, the language we use to talk about kids matters. Second, our kids are extraordinary—and our community should capitalize on their gifts by shifting our mindset, creating access, and changing our systems.

Words can either unify or divide, empower or belittle. When someone told me to stop trying to save kids, I was confused. Saving kids was my mission, I thought. Then someone else asked me to stop calling our kids those kids or these kids, and start claiming our kids. “They’re kids,” my colleagues explained. They are awesome, challenging, happy, sad, brilliant, curious, extraordinary, growing kids. Just like my kids.

Like my kids, our kids need support—not saving. Saving someone means they’re helpless. Our kids aren’t helpless. They are strong, resilient, talented and ready for opportunity. Some are ready for their first conversation about college; others are ready to learn about growing industries; some are waiting for a door to open; some are waiting for someone with influence to value them.

Unfortunately opportunities are rare when you’re one of our kids growing up in our city. Harvard researcher Raj Chetty made that clear in his 2014 study that landed Charlotte last (50 of 50) in economic mobility and pointed to our racial and economic segregation as a primary culprit. When we segregate, we stop seeing each other, and we slowly stop seeing ourselves in one another. So we’re back to the point: calling kids those or these instead of ours is both a symptom and a cause of our city’s economic mobility epidemic.

There’s some good news: Chetty has new findings that identify solutions. His work, Lost Einsteins, studies American innovation and concludes we have lost generations of potential inventors and squandered high-impact discoveries. He suggests our systems have failed to ensure girls, students of color, and children in low-income households have access to STEM education, interaction with innovators, or support to navigate systems. There are a handful of exceptions, but generations of children can’t be what they can’t see, and many of America’s 15 million less-advantaged kids—our kids— have not had the opportunity to see possibility (101,249 of them live in Charlotte).

Chetty’s research claims we could quadruple American innovation if we surrounded more high-potential youth with exposure and access. The inquisitive girl in the corner who scores well on her math test but takes two city buses to a grocery store could be the scientist who discovers the cure for cancer. The quiet boy in the last row whose mom works three jobs could develop the next generation product that boosts your stock portfolio.

The inventors who changed the world once stood three feet tall. There are millions of discoveries waiting to be uncovered, and in Charlotte there are thousands of children waiting to do the discovering. But first, they need us to stand for and with them. They need us to stand for their strengths and talents and every piece of potential that burns brightly inside them. And they need us to stand with them as OUR kids — kids who will learn and grow and one day stand for us.

Sources: The Equality of Opportunity Project; National Center for Children In Poverty; Council for Children’s Rights July 2017 State of Mecklenburg’s Children