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Rising to the Challenges of This Moment

March 25, 2021
Four global leaders describe a course to find opportunity amid difficult times

Solving the greatest challenges of our day requires taking a long lens – focusing not just on what comes tomorrow but how the decisions we make now affect future generations.

The Walton Family Foundation has always approached its mission – to create access to opportunity for people and communities – by pursuing bold, innovative and long-term solutions on everything from the environment to K-12 education to the success of our home region. But moving forward also means taking stock of what has come before.

As the foundation launched its 2025 strategy in February, we virtually convened global changemakers and community leaders for thoughtful conversations on the work ahead.

This Moment
2020 was a year like no other. Before we can plan for the future, we must understand the present. Raj Chetty, Lonnie G. Bunch III, Jennifer Morris and David Brooks offer perspectives on the state of our nation as it relates to the most important topics of today.

There was a shared understanding that the challenges of a global pandemic, environmental and economic upheaval and deep social division would not simply disappear with the beginning of a new calendar year. The gathering was a moment to stop and reflect on what has worked and what needs to improve to truly advance durable solutions for community-driven change.

Here in the United States, “opportunity” is frequently referred to by another name – the American Dream. It’s a simple metric that measures whether children can advance beyond what their parents could achieve. According to Raj Chetty, professor of public economics at Harvard, what was once a near guarantee of upward mobility (92% of children born in 1940) is now a virtual coin flip (50% of children born in 1980).

“An era of disruption like this creates new opportunities to fundamentally rethink how we deliver education, how we organize our cities, how we train people in the labor market.”
Raj Chetty, director of Opportunity Insights

Chetty’s research found that where you grow up factors massively into a child’s potential for upward mobility. But these disparities are more complex than simple geography.

“The answer doesn't fundamentally seem to be about jobs,” said Chetty, who also serves as director of the nonprofit Opportunity Insights, a Walton Family Foundation grantee.

Communities that focus on equitable, high-quality education and foster social connections between diverse economic and cultural groups see better outcomes. Chetty sees tremendous potential moving forward. “An era of disruption like this creates new opportunities to fundamentally rethink how we deliver education, how we organize our cities, how we train people in the labor market.”

Author and columnist David Brooks also studies America’s economic and cultural divides.

Brooks says the country has become “torn apart” along a series of fault lines that have resulted in Americans feeling alienated from each other.

“If you look around, it's obvious what the big divides are. We have economic divides between the classes, we have racial divides. We have partisan divides. We have urban-rural divides. We have generational divides, and we have educational divides,” said Brooks, founder of Weave: The Social Fabric Project, a foundation grantee.

“What you get is an inequality of respect.”

Brooks says Americans need to first rebuild relationships with each other from the “bottom up” – in neighborhoods and communities – to then close the country’s larger systemic divides.

“As we think about how to go forward, we do have to fix our systems. We have to fix our economic system, so it's more equitable, our racial system, so there's less disparity and less injustice,” he said. “But we also have to think in the softer terms. We have to think about what values our organizations are bringing to people around them. It has to be bottom up. It has to be the nitty-gritty of me seeing you, and you seeing me, and each of us feeling seen, heard, understood and valued.”

If we learn anything from the past and even our present, it's that change is possible.
Lonnie Bunch, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution

Lonnie Bunch has spent a lifetime documenting the history of our country. As former director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and current secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, he sees 2020 as a unique moment in the country’s racial reckoning. “Public sentiment isn't always on the right side of history, but in this case, it is,” said Bunch, from larger and more racially diverse protests to corporations and other organizations responding to the challenges of inequity in unprecedented ways.

Bunch is one of many global arts and culture leaders prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion in their institutions. “If we learn anything from the past and even our present, it's that change is possible. But only with concerted effort, only with struggle, only recognizing there will be loss and sacrifice. If we want reforms and social, environmental and racial justice, we must first acknowledge the problems and then work to address them.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare our broken connection with the natural world,
Jennifer Morris, CEO, The Nature Conservancy

There are few more urgent challenges facing society today than climate change, says Jennifer Morris, CEO of The Nature Conservancy, a foundation grantee. This threat not only affects the health of our planet but the livelihood of communities shaped by their relationship to water.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare our broken connection with the natural world,” said Morris, but it has also shown us “the power of global collaboration in addressing complex problems.”

Morris believes 2021 will set the direction and ambition for a decade of environmental work. She pointed to the importance of focusing on smart policy and solutions developed through collaboration, like the recent landmark water-sharing agreements in the Colorado River Basin. This work, alongside prioritizing more equitable representation from communities most vulnerable to climate change, can create “enormous opportunity to build a future where nature and people thrive together.”

With each hurdle we face, meeting this moment will first require listening and learning from the communities at the center of the challenge and following their lead toward solutions. Over the next five years and beyond, the Walton Family Foundation is dedicated to creating lasting change for future generations through bold efforts driven by and for communities.

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