I recently spoke at the National Action Network’s 17th annual National Convention in New York City. NAN is one of the leading civil rights organizations in the United States, as it was founded in 1991 by the Rev. Al Sharpton to “promote a modern civil rights agenda that includes the fight for one standard of justice, decency and equal opportunities for all people regardless of race, religion, nationality or gender.”

Over the course of four days, April 8 to 11, the convention proved to be a great stage for productive dialogue and conversation through various panels. Some of the topics discussed included housing, health care, law enforcement, corporate finance and education, among other issues.

I greatly appreciated Sharpton’s invitation to not only attend this event and hear the words of various speakers, but also to be a plenary keynote speaker. A very well-respected crowd attended, including leaders in the field of government, sports, education, social and public policy and media. It is critical having people of all backgrounds and perspectives involved, as we continue to organize and establish substantive approaches to address the issues facing our great nation.

Sharpton understands the critical nature of assembling minds from throughout country to contribute to this conversation. He has maintained a solid foundation of values, and I respect him for that, as he continues to fight for the equality of all our children.

One of the primary topics I enjoy reflecting upon is that of education. In May of 2009, Sharpton and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich spoke at the White House on the 55th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. In his speech, he alluded to the importance of our nation’s actors working together to explore how the educational achievement gap between races and classes can be fixed. A very important initiative was later announced in 2012 by NAN, as the organization partnered with Education for a Better America to “promote, sponsor, conduct and fund activities that will build an educational system that serves the needs of students in urban communities.”

Education is so incredibly important, and it made the difference in my life. Yes, education is the great divide in our country. A well-educated individual in America can usually write his or her own ticket in today’s world, regardless of ethnicity, race, gender or financial status at birth. There is a strong correlation between educational attainment and lifestyle. According to a 2011 study by the College Board, high school dropouts have an annual median salary of $25,100. Those with a high school diploma average $35,400. Those with an associate degree $44,800, while those with a bachelor’s degree average $56,500. Those with master’s degrees average $70,000, while those with doctoral level degrees average $91,000, and professional degrees yield an average of $102,200 per year. It should also be noted that skilled laborers fit solidly into the middle class, with salaries averaging in the mid-five-figure to low-six-figure range. These are averages, and, of course, some people make considerably more.

One obvious question is, how can we increase the number of people graduating from high school and seeking higher education? This is particularly important in our inner cities, where public high school graduation rates are often less than 70 percent. That is why NAN’s mission to create dialogue between policy makers, community leaders, teachers, parents and students is truly significant.

Ever since I was introduced into medicine and surgery during my young adulthood, I saw a plethora of young families in stress, and that has shaped who I am today. As people of all different colors have had their health in my hands, I truly have been able to understand all their brains, brilliance and decency. I have come from dire poverty and not knowing where the next meal will come from at a young age. I have assumingly been called an orderly in the hospital—despite my pedigree as a pediatric neurosurgeon—because of my race. I have been through tough times and struggles, and I can relate to the plight of many. But God has given us all the tools to overcome tribulations to be as productive as the next person. There is no stone that we cannot overturn.

America achieved greatness in record time because of its talented and diverse population, and there remains a great deal of this in America today. Let us come together to espouse values that can uplift all communities and foster equality. That is what I plan to do when I speak during the 2015 NAN National Convention, and I am confident that both my fellow speakers and the audience will partake in this vital mission.

Benjamin S. Carson Sr., MD, emeritus professor of neurosurgery, oncology, plastic surgery and pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Medicine and president and CEO of American Business Collaborative.