Inauguration Weekend Reflections

By John Gomperts, President & CEO, America's Promise Alliance

I know it won’t surprise anyone that it was quite a remarkable weekend here in Washington. No matter who becomes President, the Inauguration is always an extraordinary time. This year was no exception, and made all the more special by coinciding with the Martin Luther King Day of Service.

It was also a great weekend for America’s Promise Alliance and the work we do. Here are just a few highlights.

The two big themes of the President’s Inaugural address — the never-ending journey toward freedom and opportunity and the centrality of community and collective responsibility and action — are at the heart of the work of America’s Promise. I thought of our work often during the President’s speech and never more than when he said:  “We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”

And the President’s speech was only a small part of what made the weekend so special for America’s Promise.

Many of our national partners led activities over the course of the weekend, and I was struck by how the themes and specific goals of America’s Promise have become a central part of the national conversation.

On Saturday, the MLK Day of Service, the President served at a local public school with CityYear, a key partner that has turned all of its considerable energy toward the campaign to raise high school graduation rates. At the same time, the Vice President and his entire family joined a remarkable service event organized by our partners at Target.  More than 10,000 people participated in that event.  And America’s Promise staff and others joined in a service project with our local partners at the DC Promise Neighborhood as well the National Service Fair on the Mall, with 20 Alliance partners.

On Sunday, Points of Light — one of our founding partners — joined with Target in hosting a truly extraordinary event called The Sunday Supper. Meant to recreate the tradition of a Sunday meal with conversation about the important matters of the day, this Sunday Supper focused on education and opportunity. 

Our own leaders, General and Mrs. Powell kicked off the event with breathtaking remarks. 

A room full of notable national leaders was hushed and people were leaning forward in their seats. My wife Katherine was sitting several seats away from me and she turned to me with one of those looks that says:  “Holy smokes, this is fantastic!”

I want to quote how our friend and Chair finished her talk, drawing on the last Sunday sermon Martin Luther King preached in Washington.

Dr. King retold the story of Rip Van Winkle, who passed a tavern with the image of King George III on his way up the mountain. On his way back down, he passed the same tavern, which now bore the image of George Washington. He had been asleep through a great revolution. In the years before 1968, Dr. King said, America had undergone great revolutions in science, in technology, in learning. The revolutions had given us the power, like never before, to fulfill the promise of opportunity for all — if only we were awake to the possibilities, if only we had the will.

Dr. King’s question still calls out to us across the years.

We now have the knowledge and the power to end the dropout crisis forever, and to make the American dream within the reach of every American child. It’s only a matter of whether we have the will. And for the sake of our children, our values, and our futures, there can be only one answer:  Yes. Yes we do.

The room rang with applause, admiration and commitment.

In addition to the memorable speeches from the Powell’s, one prominent speaker after another talked about how essential it is to raise graduation rates, improve the quality of education and create the reality of opportunity for every American. It was straight from the America’s Promise songbook, and I have to say I was absolutely thrilled to hear those voices. From Michael Nutter to Rahm Emanuel to Antonio Villaraigosa to Janet Murguia to Kaya Henderson, the theme was the same:  We must rally Dr. King’s “fierce urgency of now” to push hard to improve outcomes and opportunities for all young people.

I was also heartened by the repeated references to the importance of early childhood development. One after another, speakers said that early investment is crucial. I just kept thinking — wow, am I happy that Marguerite brought in Sara Watson and made ReadyNation a part of the America’s Promise family and campaign. 

As if all that weren’t enough, it was still dark this morning when I opened my Washington Post expecting to read all about the Inaugural activities. And there on Page 3 was this big headline:  “National public high school graduation rate at a four-decade high.

Along with all the themes and specific mentions over the course of the weekend, this headline suggests that along with our many partners we have succeeded in making the high school graduation rate a national issue, and that we are making real progress toward our goal of 90 percent graduation by 2020. This good news is consistent with our push to lift up solutions, to show the American people we can make progress on this difficult and critical issue.

I am delighted to be able to share this report. As always, I am eager to hear your reflections and thoughts on the events of the past several days.

With thanks to all for your support, enthusiasm and commitment.