Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at the National Action Network's (NAN) 17th annual National Convention in New York City. NAN is one of the leading civil rights organizations in the United States, as it was founded in 1991 by the Rev. Al Sharpton to "promote a modern civil rights agenda that includes the fight for one standard of justice, decency and equal opportunities for all people regardless of race, religion, nationality or gender."
The convention proved to be a great stage for productive dialogue and conversation through various panels over the course of four days (April 8-11). Speakers included leaders in the fields of government, sports, education, social and public policy, and media. Some of the topics discussed included housing, health care, law enforcement, corporate finance and education. I voiced my opinion on several of these issues, while also promoting the idea that the choices we make in this world have the most to do with our outcomes. Personal responsibility and self-determination – not the household into which you are born, the police force of your neighborhood, or the color of your skin – are the key contributing factors of your life.
I feel it is very important to have people of all backgrounds and perspectives involved, as we continue to organize and establish substantive approaches to address the issues facing our great nation. Rev. Sharpton understands the critical nature of assembling minds from throughout the country to contribute to this conversation. He and I have the same goal, and that is to build a brighter, stronger America that provides equal opportunities and access to the underserved and forgotten. However, we have a fundamental difference of opinion regarding the best way to achieve such an end.
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I know from my own experience of having been raised in dire poverty by a single mother that education has a great power in bridging socio-economic divides and lifting entire families out of destitution. My mother, who is the hero in my life, was one of two dozen children. She got married at age 13 and later discovered that my father was a bigamist. With only a third-grade education, she was forced to raise two children by herself. An interesting thing about my dedicated mother is that she never felt sorry for herself and never became a victim. Her blood, sweat, tears and prayers – not reliance upon or intervention of the government – helped my family rise up. She refused to embrace a victim mentality that many do in today's world. That is why I stressed the importance of instilling in our children the mindset that they can accomplish anything if they do not think they are victims.
Fifty years ago, this nation began a war on poverty that we have not come close to winning. This is due to the fact that rather than creating a system that lifts people out of a meager financial situation, we have developed a system that perpetuates generational dependence and an inability to escape hardship. The programs established throughout the years have not worked because the implementation and follow-up procedures do not match the rhetoric heard in press conferences and announcements. Some have attempted to win the war on poverty and improve the lives of our community by holding boycotts and assembling demonstrations. This method has made some lives wealthy (the organizers), but not the lives of the people it claims to help. It is crucial that, through various policies and self-reflection, we get more people from a state of dependence to one of independence. In the African-American community, we do not need to wait for others to help us. We need to use our God-given talents to achieve greatness and raise others up.
Education is so incredibly important, and it made the difference in my life. Yes, education is the great divide in our country. A well-educated individual in America can usually write his or her own ticket in today's world, regardless of ethnicity, race, gender, or financial status at birth. One obvious question is: "How can we empower our youth and increase the number of people graduating from high school and seeking higher education?" This is particularly important in our inner cities where public high school graduation rates are often less than 70 percent. On this note, I used part of my speaking time at the NAN Convention to discuss the Carson Scholars Fund my wife, Candy, and I started 18 years ago with 25 scholarships in Maryland. As of today, we've given out more than 5,000, and we are in all 50 states. We've also put in reading rooms. These are fascinating places no student could possibly pass up. We particularly target Title I schools where the children come from homes with no books and they go to schools with no libraries.
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Ever since I was introduced into medicine and surgery during my young adulthood, I saw a plethora of young families in stress, and that has shaped who I am today. As people of all different colors have had their health in my hands, I truly have been able to understand all their brains, brilliance and decency. I have come from dire poverty and not knowing where the next meal will come from at a young age. I have assumingly been called an orderly in the hospital, despite my pedigree as a pediatric neurosurgeon, because of my race. I have been through tough times, struggles and can relate to the plight of many. But our diversity is a blessing, and God has given us all the tools to overcome tribulations to be as productive as the next person. There is no stone that we cannot overturn. America achieved prominence in record time because of its talented and diverse population, and the future should be no different.
Let us not play into the game of having enemies. Let us come together to hold fast to our principles and family values that got us through troubling times so that we can uplift all communities and foster equality.