McFarland Shows a Sprint, but the Real Race Is a Marathon

Overcoming the odds takes much more than luck and talent. As seen in the new movie McFarland, USA, it takes passion, determination, and the will to succeed.

The film, based on a true story, follows a teacher in California's Central Valley who decides to start the high school's first boys cross country team and encounters many unexpected challenges and successes along the way.

The predominantly Latino school district is housed in an area rich with farmland but plagued with poverty. There is no budget for uniforms and no efficient equipment for training. The students do not own running shoes and their family obligations mandate work in the fields both before and after school. Teen pregnancy and school dropout are common, and college, most students believe, is not in their future.

But where these young people lack resources, they make up for in ability and resolve. As one of the runners says to the coach in the film, "It's not the size of the dog in the fight. It's the size of the fight in the dog." With the odds stacked against them, the students manage to win the state championship, starting a more than two decade-long winning streak at the school.

The realities of McFarland don't rise and fall with the film's credits, however. These same realities are happening in communities throughout our country, both rural and urban, every day. Every day, young men of color, like those in McFarland, struggle against the odds to succeed.

Our young people -- our sons and brothers -- are more likely to grow up in poverty and live in unsafe neighborhoods. Many attend under-resourced, overcrowded schools and lack the support they need to thrive. While any one of these obstacles alone would be a challenge, together, they create significant barriers that limit the resolve to succeed. Over time, these life challenges lead to high rates of unemployment, a higher chance of going to prison, and a greater likelihood to die from homicide.

Here in California, fully 70 percent of all our young people under 25 are of color, many of whom face seemingly insurmountable odds. And yet our young people, like those in the film, are overcoming them for the same reasons that have helped many of us to reach our own goals and dreams -- because someone cared. Because teachers, coaches and family members didn't give up on us. And because personal resiliency coupled with a caring community enables anyone to pursue their dreams.

As our nation divides along the racially charged fault lines of the tragic Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island deaths, McFarland delivers a story that all of America should pause and reflect upon regarding the potential of young people of color.

We have seen these successes with young people like Omar, who grew up in a low-income, rural area of Fresno, California, where unemployment and poverty are daily struggles most families face. Though many of Omar's peers joined gangs in high school, Omar believed there was something better. Realizing that his school unfairly disciplined students for minor infractions, which ultimately pushed many to drop out, Omar looked to his community for help.

With the support of his peers and caring mentors along the way, Omar and fellow students helped develop and lead a campaign against the school's harsh discipline policies that eventually influenced the district to adopt more restorative practices. Today, Omar continues to give back to his community by fulfilling his lifelong dream to become a local police officer. He was even recently awarded for his outstanding service as a cadet, the only cadet ever to receive such an honor on the force.

Like in the movie McFarland, Omar found the strength to believe in himself because others believed in him. Through their encouragement and support, Omar was able to realize the power of his vision and the power in himself to have an impact.

Unfortunately, there aren't enough adults believing in the power of young people to succeed, and too often young people have to struggle against the odds alone. It goes without saying that all kids should have access to good schools, adequate health care, and a safe place to sleep at night. Every young person should have a mentor and feel empowered to make a difference. Yet far too many don't.

But while our youngest Californians face many challenges today, they are also living at a time of opportunity for unprecedented change. Landmark school finance reform is bringing extra dollars to our schools with the neediest students. More families than ever before have access to adequate health care under the Affordable Care Act. Individuals charged with minor felonies are now being given a second chance at life with lowered convictions on their records. And, millions of undocumented Californians can now legally apply for work permits.

Real change can't happen with policy alone, though. Real change takes people making an impact in communities like McFarland each day, starting with our most vulnerable and most needy: our young people. Young people not only impact our nation's future, they are our future. And by investing in their futures, we invest in our own.