The Truth About Opportunity In Rural America

As we usher in a new year and a new administration, we must all be mindful that every child deserves the opportunity to succeed, regardless of race, gender, income, language, disability, or zip code.  Unfortunately for far too many of this nation’s young people living in rural communities, circumstances of birth remain a barrier to learning and opportunity.  But I assure you, if you give a child the opportunity to learn, that child will succeed.

I run a one-stop center in Bertie, North Carolina called The Hive House, working with children and families in and around Bertie County. And I can tell you that some of our nation’s most resourceful, resilient and talented young people reside in rural communities.


The film “Raising Bertie” which follows the story of three young black men from our community who attended The Hive, is shining a much needed light on the needs of rural America. As depicted in the documentary, one of the biggest challenges our youth face is the dearth of opportunities to pursue high-quality jobs.  The only real opportunities for a good job within a hundred miles are with one of the 27 prison facilities or the Perdue Chicken facility. Beyond that hundred miles, our young people must travel to the neighboring state for opportunities to work at The Newport News Shipyard or Smithfield Packing.  Our children don’t suffer from a lack of talent and work ethic; they suffer from a lack of opportunity to demonstrate their skills.

Our nation as a whole is experiencing rising graduation and college going rates, but in Bertie County and too many rural communities, our children are still left behind.  As a result, we create our own opportunities in Bertie.  We use a term here and it is called “Make Do.”  We improvise solutions and do everything we can to provide our children, with mentorship, computers, books, food, space, and most importantly, the opportunity to learn.  We do all this at the Hive House.
Without a doubt, our children need the tools to be successful.  They need high quality education, starting with access to high-quality preschool.  They need effective teachers who understand that every child learns differently and that teaching is a passion and not just a job; children come to school with a set of circumstances unique to the child – whether they live in poverty or come from a family with money, have a learning disability, or speak a language at home other than English.  They need access to technology and work-based learning opportunities, such as internships and apprenticeships, in order to be prepared for jobs in this 21st century economy.  But education and job training alone are not enough.  A child can’t learn if he is hungry, or cold, or sick.  In order to give a child a meaningful opportunity to learn, we must address the needs of the whole child.  And that’s what we try to provide at the Hive.

If we provide our children with the tools and the opportunity, there is nothing to hold us back.  We as a nation must recognize that our rural children and families have value.  Our youth have strengths and skills that they can meaningfully contribute to their communities and our nation.  I know our youth are here, and I am not the only advocate for them out there.  Our children are not invisible.  We have to give them the opportunity to show us their value.  If we do, they will.

Among other revelations, the 2016 election brought to light the deep pain felt in rural America.  As we begin a new administration, this conversation should remain at the forefront of our national dialogue because we can’t afford to leave these communities behind any longer.  We want to open people’s eyes from the top down to invest in job training and improved education in rural communities.  American companies must invest in our youth as well.  If they only hire the traditional suit and tie Ivy League university graduates for positions, they are missing out on a whole lot of talent.

As Dr. Martin Luther King said at the great March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, “we refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”  There must be sufficient funds of opportunity for our youth in rural America. Our public and private sector leaders must invest in them if it our country is truly to live up to its title as the land of opportunity.

Vivian Saunders is director of the Hive House, a nonprofit community center and after-school program in rural Bertie County, North Carolina.

The GradsofLifeVoice Forbes team provides thought leadership, research and expert commentary on innovative talent pipelines and related issues such as the skills gap, income inequality, workforce diversity, and the business case for employment pathways. We seek to change employers’ perceptions of young adults with atypical resumes from social liabilities to economic assets. This post was originally featured here.

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