Heather McGhee ’97 works every day to address economic inequality. As the 2012 Martin Luther King, Jr. Speaker, she urged students to think about difficult economic issues. “If Dr. King were alive, he would be calling on people—particularly young people—to address economic justice in this country.”
Ms. McGhee is a director at Demos, a multi-issue national organization that combines research, policy and advocacy to influence public debate and catalyze change.
Acknowledging that the economy is a “daunting topic,” she enlisted seven student volunteers to help her demonstrate—through a moving human graph at the front of the audience—the disparity between rich and poor in the United States today. Each studentheld a sign representing a household income bracket. By taking steps forward or backward they gave life-size representation to movement among income brackets over time. The lowest income bracket saw the largest economic growth from 1947 to 1979. Between 1979 and 2009, this growth slowed dramatically, or stopped completely, for four of the five income quintiles.The top quintile, especially U.S. millionaires, saw spectacular growth in the same time.
Ms. McGhee noted that economic justice was part of Dr. King’s civil rights message; notably it was part of the mission for the March on Washington. “It is never too early to stand up for what you believe in,” she said as she reminded students that Dr. King was only 26 when he led the Montgomery bus boycott, and 34 when he gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
“We are the children of Dr. King’s dream, because we are the most diverse generation in American history. We are the generation charged with fulfilling that dream. I believe that our generation, the Millennials, will finally and fully realize a sustainable and fair economy for everyone, regardless of what zip code or school district you were born into. Everyone should be able to meet their basic needs and have a chance of fulfilling their dreams.
“The relative privilege that all of us in this room have, compared to the vast majority of Americans, is not a reason to avoid questions of economic inequality—because it makes us uncomfortable, or because of where we sit on the ladder. Our relative privilege is an opportunity. It is power, and what is power but the ability to make change?”
Ms. McGhee holds a B.A. in American Studies from Yale University and a J.D. from the University of California at Berkeley School of Law. She was the deputy policy director of domestic and economic policy for the John Edwards for President 2008 campaign, and a program associate in Demos’ Economic Opportunity Program. Her writing and research on debt, financial services regulation, retirement and inequality appears in numerous outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, theDetroit Free-Press and CNN. She is the co-author of a chapter on retirement insecurity in the book Inequality Matters: The Growing Economic Divide in America and its Poisonous Consequences.