Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode Luck, Fortune, And Chance.
About Eshauna Smith's TED Talk
Eshauna Smith says we cannot let luck decide the fate of underprivileged youth—we need to make purposeful interventions to create opportunities for all kids to reach their full potential.
About Eshauna Smith
Eshauna Smith is the CEO of Urban Alliance, a national youth development nonprofit that provides low-income youth with access to the opportunity, support, and training needed to encourage lasting economic self-sufficiency.
Prior to joining Urban Alliance, Smith worked as a Senior Policy Advisor in the Washington, D.C. Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education where she led the development of Raise D.C., the District's first cradle-to-career partnership focused on improving educational and workforce development outcomes for Washington, D.C. youth from 0-24.
Smith received her undergraduate degree from the University of California, Berkeley and a Masters of Public Affairs from the University of Texas, Austin.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
On the show today, ideas about luck.
AMY HUNTER: So I think luck is a complicated word.
RAZ: This is Amy Hunter.
HUNTER: So do I think people are sometimes lucky, like, if you're at a carnival and you keep winning all the time - sure. Do I think you're lucky if you win the lottery - absolutely. That was pure luck.
RAZ: Amy is a community activist based in St. Louis.
HUNTER: But I think more importantly, the way that people use it in the context of it often relates to fortune of good things that are happening to you because of something, because you've done the right thing or because you went to the right school or something that's related to something that actually isn't lucky but more tied to a socioeconomic factor or diversity factor or racial factor. And so although the word is used pretty casually - like, I'm a really lucky person, or I was lucky to be born to these parents - I think it also gets us off the hook sometimes in, like, trying to figure out solutions on inequity and systems that keep people from being quite as lucky.
And I think that probably hurts people's feelings to hear that they aren't lucky but they are benefactors from systems that oppress certain populations of people over and over again. And so I think you're not born lucky. The system is structured in a way that some people are born into an oppressive or targeted state, and other people are born in a privileged state. And that has nothing to do with luck.
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RAZ: And Amy says one of the predictors for how supposedly lucky you are is your ZIP code. Here's more from Amy Hunter on the TED stage.
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HUNTER: So a lot of times people will come to our town, and they will ask, where is the best school district? Where should I live? And they will be given some advice usually around ZIP code status - 63121 is Normandy. It's an under-resourced, unaccredited school district; 63124 is Ladue. It is like a sky and river parallel universe. So what ZIP code you're in does matter. So I started doing a little research about where ZIP codes were located and who is in which ZIP code and what that meant for schools. There are a couple of key, really important moments in U.S. history that we want to pay really good attention, to places where the government was helping with land ownership - so VA loans, GI bills after World War II - really important - really important because white Americans that were kind of working-class moved from working-class to middle-class in just the same generation.
It is one of our largest government handouts we've ever seen, and it was an equally distributed, meaning that African-American people didn't get to access those resources in the same ways even though they had served their countries. But it forever changed the trajectory around intergenerational wealth and who was going to be located in a lucky ZIP code. So we're paying attention to how some people got lucky and how some people aren't.
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RAZ: So OK, let's dig into this idea of lucky ZIP codes a bit more. What are we talking about here?
HUNTER: Yeah. Here in St. Louis, they're very easy to identify, particularly within the educational system but also the health care system. So we know that if you're born in ZIP codes that are predominantly white ZIP codes, your life expectancy is greater. The chance of losing a baby within the first year - so infant mortality - decreases quite a bit. So I think although we were articulating these luck ZIP codes in a way that made people feel fortunate or that they had worked really hard to be in those ZIP codes, if we really kind of peeled back the story, we would see that had - luck had very little, if anything, to do with it at all.
RAZ: It sounds almost like what you're saying is that luck, at least in the context of the U.S. or similar countries, is manufactured and is available to certain people.
HUNTER: Absolutely. And it's easy to sell. It's sexy, right? So if I can tell you, you do all these things; you're going to be really, really lucky, then it's easy to sell, and it's easy for us to ignore the people who aren't quite as lucky. That's cognitive dissonance in play - the ways in which we have been trained to justify inhumane treatment sometimes, to rationalize unfair systems and allow us to still remain happy. And so as long as we can kind of intellectualize or verbally rationalize, then, again, we don't have to look at the structural nuances that have allowed some people to be more advantaged than others.
RAZ: And so it allows people with privilege or people with access or people who don't experience being followed in a department store or being pulled over by the police or being denied a loan to say, well, that's not me; I'm not - that's - I'm not part of that.
HUNTER: Absolutely. It allows this individualistic culture to permeate in U.S. cultures in particular versus a collectivist culture where we're all in here together. Instead, cognitive dissonance says, well, I got to take care of me and my family. I can't really worry about that right now. Hey, you know, a teenager was shot today, but it wasn't my teenager, right? So the cognitive dissonance part keeps us from getting close because if we were close, if we really cared for one another as kin, we would fight for each other, and we would fight to dismantle the systems that keep people oppressed.
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HUNTER: How many people in here have a woman or a man that you feel is like your brother or sister? Yeah, OK, that's fictive kinship. Fictive kinship means that people who are not biologically related to you, you treat as if they are kin. What's really cool about fictive kinship is that it allows us to be connected and feel connected even though we're not biologically related.
We can solve what is going on here in St. Louis but also globally if we use fictive kinship as a way to get close to each other and look for solutions. It is the belief that something has happened to make that so. It is the distance from each other that we are not treating each other as kin that doesn't have us working towards solutions. It is our lack of falling in love with one another that has given us the situation we're currently in today. And this is so solvable.
RAZ: Why do you think so many people feel threatened when the conversation around privilege and race are brought up?
HUNTER: I think some people quite honestly lack the imagination of creating a better world, that this world that they have, no matter how messed up it is, is something that they're very familiar with and used to. And I think the cognitive dissonance in the physical geographic perspectives of people being in the really lucky ZIP codes - they have no idea what's happening in the unlucky ZIP codes. They had never gone to a city school that lacked resources to find out what the differences were between those children and their own biological children's educational experiences.
And I mean, I think ignorance can only last for so long. And then when we find out and we know something more, I think it calls us to do something different and be better than we were before we had the knowledge.
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HUNTER: When my son was 12, he walked home less than a mile away from our house. And he saw police officers circling. And he knew he was going to be stopped. He was about five houses away from home. And sure enough, at 12, he got stopped. So he came home to me because he was 12, and he was flustered. And he was asking all these questions about what happened and why it happened. And so he said, you know, Mom, I want to know, like, is it because I'm black? I said, I don't know, maybe. He said, well, I knew you were home, and I actually thought about running home to you. And I said, whatever you do, don't run.
And he looked at me, and he said, Mommy, I just want to know how long will this last. And then I looked at my 12-year-old son, and I said to him, for the rest of your life. I want this to stop. I honestly believe that we are the right people to make a change in this community, to be role models and examples of how to get this right and create the kind of world and reality that we'd like to see, to create a more equitable society where there are no lucky ZIP codes.
And when people come to our town and ask us, where should I live for a really good school district? We can tell them, anywhere you like. There are no lucky ZIP codes here. All of our schools are good. All of our children are doing well. Thank you.
RAZ: That's Amy Hunter. She's a longtime community activist in St. Louis and currently does diversity training for Boeing. You can find the rest of her talk at ted.npr.org. On the show today - ideas about luck. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.