Kevin Jennings knows a thing or two about the American Dream. He came from a trailer park in Lewisville, N.C., where he was raised by a single mother who had a sixth-grade education. Jennings went on to become the newly appointed CEO of Be the Change, a nonprofit organization that creates national issue-based campaigns. He also previously served as a deputy secretary in the Department of Education under President Barack Obama, founded a national organization that seeks to end homosexual discrimination and holds a trio of degrees, from Harvard, Columbia and New York University.
Suffice it to say that Jennings' mother, now deceased, would be proud. But stories like Jennings' are getting harder to come by. "We're in a critical moment in history where we could see this being the first generation where our kids do less well than we did," he says. Which is why Jennings' organization and some 200 others (including TIME) banded together to host Opportunity Nation on Nov. 3 and 4 at Columbia University in New York City.
Throughout the two-day summit, which is dedicated to increasing social mobility in America, people from both sides of the aisle are coming together to talk about how to restore the promise of opportunity in the U.S. Attendees will hear from the likes of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church and Arianna Huffington, president and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post Media Group. The speakers will focus on four main topics: how to provide a high-quality education for all, how to create jobs and train people for them, how to build stronger communities and tackle issues like childhood hunger and how to help families build economic security.
The summit officially kicked off with a theatrical event at New York City's famed Apollo Theater a venue that has opened up opportunities to many over the years. Between the vocal performances were video interludes narrated by Broadway star Lisa Nicole Wilkerson that featured the personal stories of people who overcame obstacles to achieve success: people like Sotheara Yem, who took advantage of Year Up, a one-year, intensive training program that prepares its participants nationwide to enter the workforce by providing them with professional and technical skills and a corporate internship. When Yem came to Year Up, he was homeless; now he works in advertising at a San Franciscobased agency.
Yem was presented as an example of many people in the country who, had they not been given an opportunity to succeed, may never have made it to the top. "How many potential doctors, lawyers, inventors and developers are out there living in communities that are holding them back?" Wilkerson asked.
About a year ago some of the organizers of Opportunity Nation sat down with TIME Managing Editor Rick Stengel, who will deliver opening remarks at the summit on Friday, about working together to host the event. Back then, as John Bridgeland, CEO of Civic Enterprises and former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under George W. Bush, remembers it, he and Stengel were convinced of the need for an event like Opportunity Nation when they looked over studies that showed the immense income inequality in the country. "I said to him then, 'I'm surprised there haven't been protests in the streets,' " Bridgeland says.
But now, of course, there are protesters in the streets, as the Occupy Wall Street movement has spread from Lower Manhattan to cities across the U.S. and worldwide. The 1% they decry takes home 21% of the country's income and accounts for 35% of its wealth. That inequality, as detailed in TIME's Nov. 14 cover story, has significantly lowered the chances of the average American making it into the middle class. In fact, as Opportunity Nation highlights, a child's future today is most accurately determined by the zip code in which he or she was born. "That's a huge problem for a couple of reasons," Jennings told TIME. "It's a betrayal of what we stand for, and it means we are wasting a lot of talent in this country. The American Dream is slipping away."