Opportunity Nation Scholar Working to Create Opportunity for All in Alaska
My name is Ed King and I live in Fairbanks, Alaska. With a city population of about 30,000 people, Fairbanks is part of the North Star Borough representing about 100,000 residents spread over about 7,500 square miles. The Borough is situated in the center of the State, about 350 miles north of our largest city, Anchorage. Our economy is almost completely dependent on the money injected from military, federal and state spending, with an emphasis on retail sales and consumable goods. The distance from any other economy drives up the price of all goods and the frailty of that supply chain is a major concern.
Additionally, the harsh winter climates, which average somewhere around -23 Degrees Fahrenheit and 3 hours of daylight in the winter, drive up the demand for heat and light. High costs of delivery to individual houses that are spread far apart prevent access to the power grid or gas distribution systems for many residents. Therefore, people living even a couple miles out of town depend on diesel fuel or wood for home heat. The additional challenges of freezing water lines and frozen ground prevent even basic indoor plumbing from being practical outside the city limits. Finally, the enormous costs of maintaining a structure including high energy costs and property taxes lead to extremely high housing costs. In fact, a person working for minimum wage would have to work over 30 hours a week just to pay for an average apartment. Although our average income is relatively high compared to the rest of the country, the costs of basic needs are also very high. The actual purchasing power of a resident is surely lower in Alaska (especially excluding Anchorage) than most places in the country.
All of these challenges are compounded in rural communities where economies of scale further prevent economic opportunity, including access to healthcare, banking, or grocers. What we are left with is a challenging dichotomy of need. The basic infrastructure of developed countries does not exist for over half our state’s population and the cost per capita to provide it is economically prohibitive. At the same time, our developed economic centers are lacking in comparison to the rest of the country. So, how can we expand opportunity in Alaska? I have begun this effort about 18 months ago including working with non-profits to expand their impact and sustainability and even getting involved in local politics. My efforts grow each day.
One of the most basic ways to protect opportunity is to ensure it exists for all people. Children are the special case in which outcomes are a condition of their environments. It is never by the choice of the child that food is not available or that education is not provided. They must rely on their parents or others they can depend on. In cases where parents are not capable of providing for their children, opportunity does not exist for them unless it is created by others. Many programs now exist to ensure that is the case, not the least of which is our public education system, for which I am a strong advocate. However, even access to education and food does not always provide the opportunity to utilize it. Without positive role models, mentors, and counselors, children lack the ability to take advantage of those opportunities.
I am actively involved in a student group, Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) at The University of Alaska. We partner with a local non-profit called Joel’s Place to provide a safe, comfortable, encouraging place for at-risk youth. Our mission is to increase the likelihood that these kids end up with a degree and a job rather than a record and regret. For the adults that didn’t get the chance to take advantage of opportunities, we start working with the rescue mission to provide assistance to those looking for a little help. We provide financial literacy workshops, workforce development, and individual consulting for homeless and people in need.
How do we ensure that there are economic opportunities out there for these people? We help create them. When our local Small Business DevelopmentCenter closed down due to budget cuts, we stepped up and provided those services ourselves. So far, we put 30 aspiring business owners through a business planning workshop series and are helping them prepare to open their very own businesses. I plan to expand this community service project into a larger scale center where students will work with business people, gaining experiential education while providing a valued service.
Although I cannot help every person in need single-handed, I have found that there are plenty others willing to help. It would be great if we had a network of like-minded individuals, collaborating and moving forward in a concerted effort to create opportunity. Rather than competing for funds and volunteers, we could create a mission and strategic plan on how to accomplish it together. That is my next goal. This spring, I will be putting together a summit of community leaders to accomplish the much needed task of strategic doing. My goal is to walk out with a plan in hand that outlines exactly what our community needs are, who will be meeting them, and how much money it will cost.
I am diligently working to achieve Opportunity Nation’s vision by creating opportunity for all people, at all levels. A lot of my work these days is in the form of working directly with political and business leaders on solving our energy issues, access to education, creating economic development potential, and increasing the efficiency of the non-profit network. I am working tirelessly to better my community, my state, and beyond. I appreciate your help in achieving ever greater results through the Opportunity Nation network.