The State of Opportunity in Nebraska

Just over six months ago, Nebraska voters, by a smaller margin than was anticipated, passed a constitutional amendment to prohibit laws and policies that help those who have traditionally and to this date, been denied equal access to a wide range of opportunities.  As part of that debate, and recently at the national level with the nomination of Judge Sotomayor, the argument was raised that the playing field has once and for all been leveled for women and people of color.  The implication being that no longer do we need to strive for diversity of experience and perspective among qualified applicants in higher education admissions, public employment, and government contracting.  It will happen naturally, of course, because we have come so far that those who have been marginalized by a host of both overt and less visible policies no longer struggle more than others.  After all, how could we have an African American President if racial discrimination was more than just a rare happenstance by an occasional rogue individual.

The reality, however, is that despite significant progress, women and people of color are still disproportionately impacted by our most challenging social problems, are still underrepresented in our power structures, and despite competitive qualifications, are still overlooked for employment opportunities.  While the constitutional amendment encapsulates a noble objective, a world where race and gender have no impact on someone’s ability to succeed, the statistics and personal experiences of folks all across the state reveal a very different reality.

So what do we do, hamstrung by an amendment that prohibits change, but faced with very real challenges that will keep highly qualified and capable individuals from making a full contribution to our community?  The exit polling done on this issue reveals some real openings to work with Nebraskans to create meaningful change.  For example, 32% of Nebraskans who voted for the Amendment did so because they felt “everyone should be treated fairly/equally and were against discrimination.”  Only 9% of voters supported this policy because they were against the type of programs that would be impacted.  This indicates that educating folks that discrimination is still a reality faced by many in our state and in many cases is perpetuated by laws and policies could create momentum for change.

My hope is we will do what Nebraskans do so well, reach out to our friends and neighbors to share the very real struggles many in our communities face in accessing opportunities and put our nose to the grindstone to find innovative ways to break down existing barriers.  Appleseed will do our part to help make this happen.  In the months ahead, our staff will continue our series of community conversations on racial justice.  We will work with communities focusing on addressing divisions based on race and ethnicity and creating a welcoming environment for all through the Nebraska Is Home project.  Finally, we will invest in educating Nebraskans about existing obstacles to equal opportunity for all, and work with our partners to identify and implement meaningful and practical changes.  Please join us in this work.  The Amendment passed will make the work ahead more challenging, but we cannot let it stand in the way of the progress that needs to be made to ensure that no one is denied an opportunity to succeed.

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