Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Can Opportunity Be Defined?

by Denis R. Rhoden, Jr., Research Associate for the Kirwan Institute

It has been over four years since the Institute embarked on its mission “to deepen our understanding of the causes of and solutions to racial and ethnic disparities and hierarchies.” In carrying out this charge an emerging philosophic and empiric tension arises. The activities required for knowing (through analysis) and those for doing (engaging clients in strategic and policy solutions to persistent problems) often require a ‘bridge’–the multiple spatial, psychological, social and spiritual states of opportunity.

As practitioners, our understanding of opportunity centers on a place-based, often regional, interpretation of opportunity and its proximity to households, individuals and neighborhoods. In this form opportunity appears to function as a comprehensive, often interdependent bundle of investments that create wealth and meaningful connections to society as a whole. Over time this understanding, coupled with technology, developed a quantifiable sense of “opportunity.” The opportunity based model over time has been adopted as part of policy-making, advocacy and grass-roots organizing by the legal community, industry, advocacy and academia.

Adoption has further shaped the discussion, challenging supporters and practitioners to examine the merits of defining opportunity. A call by the more skeptical of the Kirwan’s position on “opportunity” frequently asks “what does it mean to be located in, or exposed to, a high (or for that matter a low) opportunity area?” As we have gained an unprecedented amount of experience in the subject matter, additional supporters and resources to explore new applications, it becomes clear that operationalizing opportunity was necessary to convey the importance of the work.

Below you will find the applied definition of opportunity, an attempt to provide a grounded understanding of the relationship between opportunity and its antecedents: people, place and linkages. At a minimum the definition aims to enhance awareness of and the implications for, distribution, proximity and access for communities in your region. At its best, this time also provides a moment where readers can reflect and share how they relate to this definition, and how a definition of opportunity provides value in your own work.

“Opportunity in our definition includes the structures and environmental conditions which contribute to community stability and individual advancement, such as sustainable employment, high quality educational institutions and experiences, healthy and safe communities, stable and safe housing or health care. Expanding and maintaining access to opportunity means deliberately connecting people to the critical resources needed to excel and succeed in our society.”

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