Recently, as I sat at my friend’s graduation, I got to thinking about the different
educational choices we’ve made—and how we have still managed to end up in the same place.

My degree will be from Howard University’s School of Communications. His is from Mandela Cypress Center for Construction Training. 

My school was created in 1867, when the need to educate the freed slaves skyrocketed and the U.S. government created the Freedman’s Bureau. His school was started in the
early 1990’s, after the Loma Prieta earthquake shook the Bay Area and caused the Cypress freeway to fall; the need for construction workers in the East Bay skyrocketed.

He is a certified carpenter, which allows him to go out and build some of those lovely condos that are gentrifying America’s urban sprawl. In due time, I will be a professional media producer, which will allow me to produce those lovely news stories about victims of violence, and how their bodies are sprawled out across urban America.

He’s a construction worker. I’m a constructive writer. 

He chose vocational training, I chose liberal arts; both of us are looking to attain what Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois called “first-class citizenship.” We’re living proof that the ideological debate between Washington and DuBois is alive and well in the first decade of a new century.

At the start of the 20th century,the once enslaved Africans in America debated the quickest route to achieving “first-class citizenship,” which was defined as full economic,political and social engagement as Americans. This is otherwise known as achieving “the American Dream.”

Washington stood firmly behind the philosophy of mastering a trade, showing your value to America through contributions and earning political, economic and social inclusion. While DuBois challenged the status quo and stated that we should not sacrifice civil rights in order to attain first-class citizenship, but instead we should study liberal arts and engage in
America’s social, economic and political arenas.

My friend John chose the path that Washington spoke of, mastering a trade and contributing to America’s blue-collar labor force. I chose Dubois’ method, studying
liberal arts and contributing to America’s white-collar labor force.

But the question is, who is on the right path to achieving the American dream?

An interesting article appeared in Newsweek in early June, addressing the growing division between American classes and how factors such as location, race, education and the current state of the economy are aiding that division. The author concluded that, people trying to enter the job market, such as John and myself, will have to “…cobble together part-time jobs to pay the rent or accept positions with lower salaries or fewer opportunities for growth. Long-term, as the economy rebounds, this nagging unemployment rate means the economic disparities in this country will keep growing.”

I’m applying for internships, but to no avail as yet, so this summer I am freelancing for three different outlets; I knew all my supervisors before going to college. John belongs to a union, but since gaining his certification he has only done work with his grandfather, whom he obviously knew before his certification program.

In essence, we are both working part-time. As the economy is rebounding, we are both “cobbling” together jobs in order to make ends meet. And as we both live paycheck to paycheck, we are slowly starting to realize: this isn’t exactly the American Dream we dreamed about.

Although we’ve taken different roads, we’ve ended up on the same cobblestone path, one made of place-holding part-time jobs that we’ve only landed due to old bridges
we didn’t burn. John and I constantly talk about how this makes us feel like we’re running in place. 

First-class citizenship isn’t going to come from working for someone else. Cobbling those jobs together is merely throwing stones at a much bigger issue: Ownership is
the key to the American Dream.

As the author mentioned in the Newsweek article, there is a growing divide between the classes in America. Which side of the divide do you want to be on?

The division isn’t between the wrench workers and the writers, but between the owners and the hourly workers. If it’s first-class citizenship we are seeking, then the
question is not, which is a better path—vocational training or traditional education. The question is, which method better prepares us to leave the beaten path of part- time jobs and make the trail-blazing
move toward ownership?

Pendarvis Harshaw is an Oakland-based writer and a senior at Howard University. His writing, videos, and radio segments have appeared on Youth Radio, NPR, and Youth Outlook. This piece was also published in YO! Youth Outlook