REGIONAL — A former senior member of the Clinton White House last week gave her views on how to bring greater equity and opportunity to Americans of all backgrounds.
Maria Echaveste, deputy chief of staff for President Bill Clinton from 1998 through 2001, discussed the topics as part of the Rae Dorough Speaker Series. These talks are traditionally presented to live audiences in Livermore’s Bankhead Theater but have been streamed over the internet during the pandemic.
Today, Echaveste is president and CEO of the Opportunity Institute, a Berkeley-based organization that has been described as a “research-oriented nonprofit focusing on education policy and economic mobility.”
For the discussion, she was interviewed by Don Johnston, a member of the Speaker Series board.
In her remarks, she expressed dismay over divisions that have separated Americans despite their clear interest in similar or even identical goals.
“There’s a tendency to put people in constituencies – women want this, men want that,” she said, making it clear that she was referring to reducing people to stereotypes.
In reality, however, she noted that “people want the same things.”
“It’s really astonishing,” she continued. “They want safe communities; they want good schools, decent jobs; they want to provide for their families; they want housing … health care … a dignified retirement …
“What vexes me is that, since we want the same things, how is it that we can’t work together, to compromise to get us to that place where we are making progress?”
Much of her discussion revolved around ways for factions to find middle ground by listening to and treating others with respect.
In seeking educational opportunities for children of varied and often disadvantaged backgrounds, for example, her Opportunity Institute makes an effort to work with local school districts, state education officials, nonprofits and national policy organizations, like the Urban League and the American Institutes of Research.
“Coalitional work … sounds like it should be easy, but it takes energy, working with partners,” she said. “We need to put our institutional interests a little to the side … to encourage schools to develop relationships with communities and families and have that trusting relationship.
“If it sounds exhausting and complicated, it is. But I think there is no more important work.”
Echaveste considers a good education key to opening opportunities for success.
“Education is something that all of us should care about,” she said. “No one can ever take a good education away from you.”
She believes the nation needs “people who are empowered to engage in the civic life of our country to help it reflect our values, all of our values.” That includes viewing children as the future and recognizing the importance of “investing” in them.
Echaveste pointed out that one reason that the U.S. has had to deal with large numbers of immigrants is that Central American countries do not offer opportunities for their citizens.
As the daughter of uneducated Mexican farm workers in the Fresno area, she was enriched by educational opportunities created at a time when California ranked high among the 50 states in per capita spending on education.
“We invested in the public education system, not just K-12 but the CSU and UC systems,” she said.
Today, California ranks low among the states “in terms of our investments in public education.”
Asked by Johnston to identify factors that lead some to resist these kinds of human investments, she identified two.
One is the philosophy that society has little or no responsibility for what happens to its members; people are responsible for their own plights.
She expressed this position as, “Anybody can make it; you just have to work hard, and if you don’t make it, then it’s your fault.”
She said she recognizes the importance of people taking responsibility for their own actions, but that attitude carried to an extreme allows society to ignore its responsibilities.
She identified the denial of social responsibility with the Reagan era and the anti-tax movement that followed.
That attitude is, “I’m not going to invest in public education; not going to tax myself, because ‘those people’ aren’t willing to work hard, aren’t willing to study.”
The second factor that has led to resisting investment in human well-being is an “us versus them” attitude, she said.
She again sees this position reflected in the 1970s rise of anti-tax sentiment and opposition to education costs.
“There was a sense of, ‘Those are not my children! Why do I have to worry about them?’” she recalled.
She emphasized a statistic from a 2015 study that she believes should be brought to everyone’s attention: two-thirds of all children born in California are born to women with a high school education at best.
Given the close relationship between education and economic success, she said, “We know that’s likely to mean a majority of kids are in poverty,” growing up in families headed by a single parent.
“That’s our future work force!”
Asked about immigration, she said she believes it will never be stopped completely, but the U.S. can help itself by helping the countries from which immigrants typically flee.
“No one believes in the concept of Open Borders,” she said. “Every country has the right to determine how many people to let in, for how long and for what purpose.”
Still, “our country hasn’t done enough to invest in countries like El Salvador and Guatemala” and “we could have a whole discussion on interventions in Central America that made things worse, which is why we have Central Americans leaving the violence and dirty wars of the 1980s.”
She believes that “most people want to stay in their own countries” and will do so “if there are (job and educational) opportunities for them.”
As a result, “if you want to do something about illegal immigration, you have to build the institutions that create opportunities and economic growth in the ‘sending’ countries.”
She is currently alarmed, however, at the challenges the U.S. itself faces.
“Until the last four years, this country could pride itself on having strong institutions, institutions that could weather shifts in political winds,” Echaveste said. “We’ve seen such an attack on the institutions of this country that one of the questions we should be looking at post-November and for the foreseeable future is whether our institutions are strong enough.”
She sees today as “a pretty scary, stressful time” in America. Still, she considers herself an optimist.
“We couldn’t anticipate how hard the last four years have been with (social and political) divisions,” she said. “I have to believe the basic underpinnings of our democracy are strong enough to get us through this hard time.
“The basic decency of Americans and recognizing dignity and the right to be part of the American story … I have to believe we’ll get through this. It’ll take a while, but I’m not going to give up on America.
“I hope you don’t either.”