The Art of the Opportunity by James Branch
Life gives, life takes away, and difficulty is inevitable. Neither the good nor the bad ever comes easy -- at least, that's what I've learned in my fifty years living in North Philadelphia. But in every situation, good or bad, opportunity awaits. The art of living well is really just the art of discovering, creating, holding onto, and taking advantage of opportunity.

Some opportunities promise us great achievements or just the satisfaction of accomplishing a task and doing it well. Other opportunities may bring us riches or fame. There are the everyday opportunities we all miss in life -- getting the job we wanted or having the relationships we desire. And in each of our lives, there are opportunities that seem to have been snatched from our grasp, pulled out of reach even before we could explore them. When other deny us opportunity, our belief in ourselves can be can be mentally and physically wiped from our very existence, from our souls. At such moments, it is imperative not to let anyone or anything deter you from whatever your hopes or dreams may be.

Growing up in the early sixties, the racism I encountered as a young African American male came to define my very being. During my Junior High years, professional "counselors" came to my school to help us decide on our future careers and courses of study. At the time, I was avidly reading our classroom's encyclopedia and was intrigued by the article on sociology. When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I replied, "A sociologist!" The woman interviewing me was clearly taken aback, and her partner made some statements that still cut me to the core: "I bet you don't even know what that is, do you, boy? You're just meant to become a laborer; don't even think about a higher education. It's not for you, even if you're extremely lucky. Don't go striving for more than you can achieve, or your life will be only a disappointment to you, do you understand me?!"

I left the room without any feeling that I could or would be anything in life. I was depleted, left empty without a willingness to even try. The "truth" these "counselors" had presented to me seemed too official -- insurmountably sanctioned by an establishment of which I could never be a part and, unfortunately, affirmed by my own self-doubt. Yet, in failing to try, I not only failed to prove them wrong, but failed myself, as well.

Many residents of my current neighborhood believe they have no control over what happens to them. This feeling of powerlessness is rooted in lives riddled with disappointment -- in finding no support from the people and institutions they encounter. It is more a fear of failure -- or a fear of hope -- than a lack of initiative. Often all it takes is one concerned individual or one competent agency to turn around a lifetime of inadequacy and despair. Believe me; I know. My life experiences have included prison time and serious illness. And through all my difficulties, I've come to realize that you have to strive to reach the goals you desire. You have to discard discouragement and just believe in yourself.

COSACOSA art at large, Inc. developed the Opportunity's Gate project to relay just such a message within North Philadelphia communities. The project focusses on young people as essential community builders for their neighborhoods -- creating in them, through art-making and technology, a sense of self-determination, motivation, and community engagement. Opportunity's Gate demonstrates the nearly limitless capacity for positive advancement that exists even in our most challenged communities and within ourselves -- art celebrating the art of the opportunity.

Community-based writer and artist James Branch serves as a Board Member and Community Liaison for COSCOSA art at large, Inc.

Artolatry bread image after Salvadore Dalí's Basket of Bread (1926).