I’ve spent years reflecting on my personal journey and the path that helped me get where I am today. Hard work surely played an important role, but the support I received from family, friends, and public programs was indispensable, too.
Earlier this summer, the Ford Foundation launched an interactive tool called Your American Dream Score, which aims to help each of us examine the factors that have helped us succeed or held us back, and to start conversations about the role of inequality and opportunity in our lives. From where we’re born to our access to education, physical health to family, the work we’ve put in to the luck we’ve experienced: The tool challenges the idea that it’s hard work alone that makes the American Dream possible.
My American Dream Score is 67 (out of 100), representing a balance of factors that I had to work to overcome and others that worked in my favor.
My sister and I were born in Lafayette, Louisiana, and soon after moved to Ames, Texas, a poor, rural town in East Texas. It was a very small town that offered little socioeconomic diversity or chance for mobility. Despite her best efforts, my mother—a single mother—struggled at times to put food on the table. But she protected us from the difficulties that surrounded us. She worked hard to support us not only financially but also emotionally: She always told me she loved me, and affirmed the parts of my personality that made me different. Even while others used these differences as an excuse to put me down, having my mother’s support gave me confidence. And she always sought out new opportunities for us to have a better life.
When I was five years old, for instance, my mother enrolled me in Head Start, a prekindergarten childhood development program for low-income children. Through that program, I had access to opportunities that gave me a strong educational foundation, along with a deep love of books and reading. Not long after, we moved to Goose Creek, Texas, a larger town closer to the rest of our family. It was there that I encountered a teacher who changed my perspective on the world. I was a fussy child, but my teacher taught me the concept of self-control. She warned me that without it, black boys did not make it very far in life. This advice, along with the feeling that she was rooting for me, helped me focus on succeeding in school and being the best version of myself, even when things at home were difficult to handle.
The quiz asks, “Which best sums up your school days?” I found this question and the options offered particularly interesting. I was lucky to go to good public schools my entire life—from my pre-K program through my undergraduate years, followed by law school at the University of Texas. I benefited not only from Head Start but also from the Pell Grants that enabled me to complete my higher education despite my family’s financial challenges. All these interventions are widely understood as things that help set people up for success. But beyond traditional education, I benefited from another factor that is often overlooked: I was taught how the world works, and how to present myself in different situations.
Without that kind of education, I would have had a much harder time navigating interactions and opportunities that were unfamiliar to me. And so the experiences that helped teach me about the world were immensely important in helping me get to where I am. My grandaunt worked for a family that was much wealthier than mine, and she often brought home high-quality hand-me-downs, including books. Those books transported me to another world—they took me out of where I was and brought me to a place I could only dream about. My favorite books were about art, and I trace my passion for the arts directly back to the time I spent poring over each page. The clothing hand-me-downs taught me to take pride in my appearance and to understand how other people perceived me.
I didn’t have the opportunity to travel or ride in an airplane when I was younger. In fact, when I arrived at college in Austin, it felt like a foreign city to me—that relatively small city was just so different from my much smaller hometown. Adjusting wasn’t easy. But the knowledge that there was more out there, a bigger world far beyond my immediate surroundings, encouraged me to adapt.
Growing up, I always felt that America was cheering me on, investing in my potential and my dreams. But not everyone is so lucky. Though talent is spread evenly across America—and it surely is—opportunity is not. Still, many people think success is a function of solely talent and hard work. My own story proves that having help makes a difference. I often wonder what my life might have been like if I hadn’t been blessed with such a supportive mother, hadn’t been enrolled in Head Start, or hadn’t known how to get help paying for college. The truth is, the playing field isn’t level—but government policies and public programs play a critical role in ensuring that basic rights and life-shaping opportunities are accessible to everyone. These interventions can help ensure that inequality isn’t a determining factor in people’s lives. They certainly made a difference for me.
What made a difference for you? I hope you’ll take the quiz, and that knowing Your American Dream Score will help you reflect on what’s helped and hindered you throughout your life—and how those same factors might have impacted those around you.