"You Know It Has Soul": Reflections on the Launch of Oakland Promise

EDITOR'S NOTE: Director of Children's Savings Carl Rist and Founder Bob Friedman were in Oakland on January 28 for the official launch of the Oakland Promise initiative. Oakland Promise marks perhaps the most comprehensive children's savings initiative in the country, and we're excited to watch it grow!

It was with great pleasure that we were able to take part in the launch of the Oakland Promise, described as a cradle-to-career effort to ensure that every child in Oakland graduates from high school with the expectations, resources and skills needed to complete college and be successful in the career of her or his choice. The launch event was one of the most inspiring we have ever attended: it gathered more than 500 people committed to the idea every community deserves to have a future better than their past.

Bob at Oakland Promise

In so many ways, Oakland Promise raises the bar for municipal-level children's savings initiatives. Here are three ways we think Oakland Promise stands out among a growing crowd of municipal children's savings initiatives:

  1. Soul. At the post-launch reception, Michael Sorrell, President of Paul Quinn College, described why he participated in the launch, even though Paul Quinn is located nearly 2,000 miles away in Dallas. "If you know anything about Oakland, you know it has soul," said Dr. Sorrell. That soul was certainly on display at the launch. An incredible array of community partners was in attendance to lend their support, including Mayor Libby Schaaf, school superintendent Antwan Wilson, every member of the school board and every member of the city council member. Add endorsements by 100+ public officials, including Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom (who introduced California Promise legislation the same day); 100+ community partners; more than 70 private donors, led by Mark Bennioff (CEO of Salesforce, who upped his $5.4 million grant in support of the two-generation Brilliant Babies initiative); 22 colleges and universities, led by University of California System President Janet Napolitano; and a range of others.
  2. Hope. Oakland Promise doesn't just provide hope for the community; indeed, it provides hope for a range of other communities as a model for boosting college success that draws on two proven strategies. First, as its name suggests, the Oakland Promise draws on the best of the so-called "Promise" models—starting with Kalamazoo—that commit to covering the cost of postsecondary education for all who graduate from local high schools. Second, Oakland Promise adds a full dose of the best of asset-building and children's savings—the kind of "hope in concrete form" that Michael Sherraden first wrote about and that research shows makes such a difference in college access and success. In Oakland, this means following the well-known Kindergarten to College model that was cultivated across the Bay in San Francisco.
  3. Leadership. Hope and soul would be for naught were it not for good, old-fashioned leadership, and that's where Oakland's new mayor, Libby Schaaf, comes in. Mayor Schaaf has made Oakland Promise her number-one priority because of the importance of education to the future of her city. Leveraging resources from the philanthropic community, Mayor Schaaf hired David Silver (formerly the Executive Director of College Track) as her new Director of Education. Under Mayor Shaaf's leadership, David assembled an all-star team of experts, including Amanda Feinstein (most recently a leading funder of children's savings programs with the Walter and Elise Haas Fund) and Vinh Trinh. Together, this team has already raised $25 million in commitments. Never before have we seen this level of support at the launch of a CSA effort.

So what does Oakland Promise mean for other communities? With the right mix of soul, hope and leadership, Oakland stands as a beacon of what is possible to all communities; its lessons and inspiration is rife. But as participants noted, even Oakland has a long way to go. For Oakland to deliver on its promise, it will require hundreds of millions of dollars in funding beyond the existing commitments, as well as lifetimes of devotion. Luckily, the seeds have already been planted in Oakland.

Of course, the fact is that the promise Oakland is making to its young people is a promise America should be making to its youth, regardless of where they live. This is a much more significant undertaking. It would require, for starters, a reallocation of our national investment in asset building. In other words, the $600 billion in upside-down federal tax expenditures would need to be turned right-side up so that universal, progressive savings programs can benefit those who need them the most. With these reforms in place, the promise Oakland is making can be a promise America can make to all its young people.

When we launched the Campaign for Every Kid's Future in 2015, we set an ambitious goal of 1.4 children with savings accounts by 2020. Oakland proves that with the right leadership and a whole lot of soul, our goal is within reach.

Want to expand access to Children's Savings Accounts for even more students? Join the Campaign for Every Kid's Future!

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