In his new book, author, scholar and charter school founder Ian Rowe argues each child in the United States should know he or she can succeed in life, regardless of the circumstances. The road to success, however, requires personal behaviors and institutional supports that help children discover their own pathways to power – and the rejection of a “victimhood narrative.”
Specifically, Rowe points to the “Success Sequence” and to a four-point plan he names the Family, Religion, Education and Entrepreneurship or “FREE” agenda.
In “Agency: The Four Point Plan for ALL Children to Overcome the Victimhood Narrative and Discover Their Pathway to Power,” Rowe explores these ideas with the goal of empowering individuals to achieve upward mobility. While the book speaks to all people, it also holds important implications for the national dialogue around race.
At Philanthropy Roundtable, we work to help those in struggling communities overcome barriers and succeed, and Rowe’s framework to help children in difficult circumstances underscores the importance of values our donors hold dear, including personal responsibility, faith and family. Our President and CEO Elise Westhoff calls Rowe’s message “a compassionate, inspiring and refreshing alternative to the divisive, disempowering rhetoric we so often hear today.”
A research-based framework for success
Through research at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Rowe points to the proven results for youth following the “Success Sequence” as an effective pathway to upward mobility for those mired in poverty.
The Success Sequence posits that those who complete high school, get a full-time job, get married, then have children in that sequence have only a 2% poverty rate.
By comparison, the national poverty rate is 16.1%. Emphasizing the point, Rowe shows that 97% of millennials who follow the Success Sequence will achieve middle class prosperity, regardless of race or socioeconomic background.
This, of course, begs the question of how can we empower more people to follow the Success Sequence? To this end, Rowe proposes the “FREE” agenda. The four FREE pillars encompass the mediating institutions that empower individual agency, both formal and informal. In the Black community, they’re most recognized as churches and barbershops.
Challenging existing narratives
Rowe’s framework for upward mobility pushes back against two prevailing narratives associated with Black communities: “blame the system” and “blame the victim.”
Adherents to the “blame the system” narrative argue that America is so inherently racist there is nothing Blacks can do to succeed. Rowe quotes The New York Times Magazine journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who has argued, “None of the actions we are told Black people must take if they want to ‘lift themselves out of poverty’ and gain financial stability – not marrying, not getting educated, not saving more, not owning a home – can mitigate 400 years of racialized plundering.” Similarly, a study from the Institute for Policy Studies emphasizes this narrative with its claim that, “changes in individual behavior will not close the racial wealth divide, only structural systemic policy change can do that.”
Next, Rowe explains the “blame the victim” narrative, which says America is so full of opportunity that if you fail it’s because you’re personally insufficient. This viewpoint is best personified by academics Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth. To illustrate the point, Rowe cites Duckworth’s seminal book on the subject, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” where she writes, “Without effort your talent is nothing more than your unmet potential … and your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t.”
Rowe rejects both meta narratives and instead says helping individuals rise out of poverty requires formal and informal networks to empower individual agency, which he defines as “the force of free will when it is governed by morally discerned choices that dictate its eventual impact.”
Though agency is not free will alone, Rowe quotes philosopher William James’s understanding that “my first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” In other words, an individual must first believe he has agency over his life to even begin the upward climb.
The “blame the system” narrative robs Blacks of the agency needed to rise above their immediate circumstances, so Rowe alternatively prioritizes the role of mediating institutions to equip individuals with the agency to prosper.
“Agency” as an Alternative
The ideas Rowe presents may be instinctively understood by most Americans, but amid the contemporary social justice movement, they sound refreshingly heterodox and subversive.
Rowe’s empirical data and relevant real-world experience launching public charter schools in New York City make his arguments pragmatic and accessible.
The book’s suggested pathway to prosperity for those who are struggling rises above the noise of the polarizing national conversation on race and offers a tangible plan for all individuals to realize the American Dream.
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