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Seahawks lineman Russell Okung is the co-founder of Greater, a Seattle-based non-profit that helps mentor youth.
Seahawks lineman Russell Okung is the co-founder of Greater, a Seattle-based non-profit that helps mentor youth. Photos courtesy of Okung.

Editor’s note: Seahawks lineman Russell Okung, also co-founder of a Seattle non-profit called GREATER and an investor in local eSports startup Matcherino, wrote this piece for GeekWire in response to Paul Graham’s essay on income inequality

Just a few days ago, a kick that landed wide left in the final moments of a hard-fought game against an admirable opponent sent us, the Seahawks, into the next round of the playoffs. Two teams equal in athletic ability and access, one winner.

Now, imagine if the National Football League only gave the Seahawks access to helmets and pads, for instance, and not the Vikings. Two teams equal in athletic ability no longer equal in access. I can’t help but draw parallels as I sit and reflect on this fleeting game, and how it relates to life off the field.

45RussellOkungLast week, I stumbled upon Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham’s essay on economic inequality, which he argues is a good thing.

Shrewd and a bit heartless? I’m not entirely sure.

Graham is perhaps one of the greatest men in Silicon Valley. He helped create a program that invested in people, helping further not only their companies and products and services, but also their teams and their understanding of the market. People like the creators of Dropbox, Airbnb and Heroku. People who had dreams and needed someone else to believe in those dreams, too. The business model of YC was centered on empowering people who would go on to create some of the best companies in the world.

But for a man who has invested so much in others, Graham, your words leave me baffled: What happened to your first love? What happened to building up those people? I believe wealth has the potential to breed elitism. And I believe because of Graham’s success, he may have lost his way.

Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham
Paul Graham

Some think working hard solves the problems of poverty and institutional oppression and the lack of social mobility. Some think that by sheer determination, one can overcome such issues.

But economic inequality isn’t the symptom; it’s the virus that attacks. You, Graham, like the rest of America, have been deceived. You are a victim of the American Dream, the belief that anyone who works hard can move up economically regardless of his or her social circumstances. American cultural optimism is one of the greatest lies ever told.

It does take determination, but that’s only part of the equation. People need breaks. I say this as a man from an at-risk background who “made it.” Was I determined? Yes. I’ve worked diligently at my craft to make it to the highest level of my profession. Not everyone was so fortunate, and there are a number of reasons for that, but I wouldn’t attribute their ability to “make it” to laziness or lack of ingenuity so much as I’d attribute it to a lack of exposure.

Nicholas Fitz writes that “By overemphasizing individual mobility, we ignore important social determinants of success like family inheritance, social connections, and structural discrimination.” Whether it’s the NFL hypothetically giving only one team protective gear, or a talented high school student who’s denied admission to a prestigious university because her school doesn’t offer Advanced Placement classes, the common denominator is access — or lack thereof.

So many people will never experience their dreams because there are far too many barriers of entry they can’t do anything about. And that all goes back to that elitism — the elitism that’s manufacturing economic inequality.

Can you have a healthy society with great variation in wealth? Yes! It looks like the dream that manifested into YC: a community that invests in people to turn ideas into action. Perhaps the man living under the bridge needs the man living on top of the hill. Perhaps the man on the hill needs to feel empathy for the man under the bridge. Rethink compassion. The common notion is to give handouts, but we need to give a hand up. People are dying for opportunity. They’re dying to see something bigger than their current circumstance.

The reason this is hard to communicate is the man on the hill and the man under the bridge have different views with completely different starting points. I’ve seen both sides.

I admire people who live outside themselves and work to bring those sides together. People like Laura Wiedman Powers, co-founder and CEO of CODE2040, a non-profit that creates avenues in the innovation economy for underrepresented individuals. People like Steve Case and Barack Obama, who are actively working to expand capital and invest in untapped talent across America. These are the people who see an injustice or an underserved area and believe it’s their civic duty to do something about it.

greaterfoundationRegarding startups, Graham, America needs more Silicon Valley, scattered as opposed to centralized in one place. We need to build people up.

Every day I ask myself: What can I do about it? How can I step in and share myself? How can I give a hand up?

I co-founded a nonprofit called GREATER. We believe the answer to the problems we’re facing in the world today can be solved once we create a deeper roster of leaders who are willing to serve. GREATER partners with existing schools, youth groups, non-profit organizations and businesses not to create new leaders, but to work with the existing leader in each of us. We believe if you’re willing to serve, you should be willing to lead, and if you’re willing to lead, you should be willing to mentor others to do the same.

I urge you, Graham, along with the rest of the community, to return to your first love. Build people up.

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