When I was a girl I never really noticed my gender or, for that matter, my race. And I never ever thought of myself as somehow inferior or different than anyone else. Not really. My parents, both of whom grew up during legalized segregation, simply didn’t see either characterization as impediments, reasons or excuses to do anything other than achieve….and so I was never allowed the luxury of deeming myself oppressed, or worse, inferior….and didn’t know and didn’t learn that by virtue of gender or race, or the combination of the wrong gender and wrong race that the world might somehow see me as less than. Instead, I was raised to believe that with hard work, discipline, passion and a commitment to inquiry and excellence, I could do and achieve whatever I wanted.
My parents, even when I did not realize or appreciate it, even when they might not have been able to afford it, provided me and my siblings with absolutely everything we needed as children: a loving, stable, intellectually curious home, rooted in our devout practice of Catholicism (as taught to us by Jesuits)….they provided us with the material comforts they could afford, lots of books, but also a heavy, heavy investment in our academic and cultural educations….
I was already aware as a young child that my parents were doing something for me, investing in me and my siblings in ways that other parents simply could not….this imbued me with a sense of justice and a desire for some sort of equanimity–it broke my heart that I got to do things other kids did not get to do or could not do because they or their parents had somehow been stripped of their own humanity (whether because of society or their own doing)….I suppose that to me, passing through the poorest parts of Washington D.C., on my way to symphony rehearsals and passing through utter poverty in the deep south where I spent every summer until I turned fourteen….seeing that others were forced in many cases by circumstance: by the circumstance of birth, the circumstance of oppression, the circumstance of lack of opportunity or the circumstance of being raised to somehow believe that you are inferior or not entitled to every opportunity and success….I realized then that I would need to build a life that would allow me to bring opportunity to more people.
As I grew older, and I began to understand my parent’s commitment to justice as well as the good works of my maternal and paternal grandparents….I also began to understand deep, deep within my bones, that service, dying to self, endeavoring to elevate others and using whatever skill, power or influence I might attain to improve the lives and prospects of others, would also be essential to any success I might achieve; sitting on a pedestal by yourself is not success (if anything, it is a personally unacceptable form of failure)–it is only when we sit up there surrounded by many that we have truly succeeded on an individual and societal basis….and so a habit of service and promoting and encouraging the positive actions of others became ingrained very early on….
And while I do not believe in redistributive policies or government handouts of any kind–to me those actions can be as destructive and violative of our human dignity as structures that explicitly strip away our humanity (fundamental to our humanity is the ability to create and fail, and we cannot create or fail ourselves when someone is doing it for us) …. I do believe we must consciously engage in actions and pursue policies that will lift all boats, that will grow the pie. Quite practically, if we don’t lift all boats, we cannot expect to prosper genuinely and permanently–it is simply impossible to move forward with anyone left behind. It will not work.
If we want to grow our economy, if we want to change the world, we can only do so by including more people, by growing the pie, not slicing it up differently….we can only do so by recognizing, respecting and promoting the fundamental dignity and humanity of every single person. Those who have otherwise been left behind will only produce at their maximum potential if we respect their human dignity, rights and genuine aspiration. Truly, if there is anyone who sees themselves as anything less than human, how can we expect them to achieve the fullest expression of their humanity? How can we expect a woman who believes she is inferior to make a contribution? It just isn’t possible. So by creating conditions that allow for equality of opportunity, that recognize our basic humanity and dignity, we also create conditions that allow for, indeed stimulate the further creation of wealth and societal well being.