Career Exploration

Free to Dream: How I was Inspired by the Words of Award-Winning Artist Common

Contributions by Judy Goldstein

Today, some 5.5 million young people are neither in school nor the workforce and another 728,000 young people are classified as justice involved. Why are there so very many kids who fall into these life-altering categories? The reality is that American kids don’t have enough opportunities in school to dream, plan, experiment, and learn about themselves and their potential connection to the wider world. If these things do happen, they don’t happen early or often enough.

Yet—what happens when we switch things up? What happens if we reorient the school experience, redefine postsecondary success, and fill young peoples’ lives with opportunities that inspire them to imagine the possibilities for themselves? What happens when we ask them to dream big, and learn about –and then pursue—the specific steps they need to take to achieve their dreams?

At this year’s ASU+GSV event, we heard from Academy, Emmy, and Grammy Award-winning artist, Common, who is also the Founder of the national multi-year i am FREE TO DREAM™ initiative, designed to increase equitable access to vitally important career exploration and skills-building experiences for young people. Common was joined by Dr. Gholdy Muhammad of the University of Chicago Illinois, and Kara May of Art in Motion (AIM) High School, to talk about the power of dreams.

Common shared with the audience his powerful story. While I could summarize it, I wouldn’t do it justice. I want to focus on a particular excerpt from Common’s story. It is a lesson about how we, through movements like FREE TO DREAM™, can empower kids to do their best. His is a story about getting to know yourself, finding your passion, having a dedicated adult who invests in your success, and having access to opportunities to try, test, learn, experiment, and repeat until something clicks. His story essentially contains a list of ingredients that, no matter the child or their circumstance, can be a recipe for future success. Here’s what Common told us:

“I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. I had an incredible mother and stepfather – they were incredible human beings who raised me with great integrity and values. But I also saw a lot of things that existed on the South Side that lured many people, people exactly like me, into drugs, into gangbanging, and into other things. I realized, ‘Man, that could have been me.’ And as I reflected on my life, I wondered what was the difference between me and my homie who chose that path? I’m no more special than that individual. I have my gifts, and that individual has his or her gifts. But it was the dream. And the dream had me feeling like I had some value because I was dreaming of doing something different. And that affected my choices and the way I moved in life. Because I wanted to do something with my life. This dream only came about because I was given access to different things. My mother took me to computer class. She let me play basketball. She put me in music. She was trying to allow me to find what I wanted to do and what I was passionate about.”

Free to Dream is based on that. On creating that access. On creating that avenue for young people to find their dreams. And we want to clear the way for them to do that. How can we do that? We set up pillars within Free to Dream because we know we need to take a holistic approach. It can’t just be about academics and doing well in school; there are other aspects. Education is very important. But our pillars are: education; jobs; wellness; and justice. These are the main things that have served me.”

I urge you to listen to the rest of the conversation here.

I am beyond excited about FREE TO DREAM™ – an initiative that we at ASA are supporting. I am in 100% alignment with the idea that empowering kids can’t just focus on academic pursuits; it must be a holistic endeavor and it must be supported by a community of people who care about kids’ success. And, as Common’s story proves, I fervently believe that every kid deserves not just the power to dream, but the power to have that dream brought to life by truly diverse, exciting, and meaningful opportunities. You can learn more about FREE TO DREAM™ here.