I believe that communities have the power, potential and the will to lift themselves out of poverty. In East Palo Alto, a poverty-afflicted community in the San Francisco Bay Area, it was not uncommon to hear that the high school drop out rate was 60%. But for that salient statistic, we can look at the converse and realize that in East Palo Alto, 40% of the kids were NOT dropping out of high school. Who are these kids and families? Amid a turbulent and poverty-afflicted community, why and how were these students successful?
When I worked at a college access nonprofit organization, I saw firsthand the reasons why these kids and families were successful. They leveraged the social capital that was around them. They had a loving teacher or nonprofit program manager who pushed them. They had a trailblazing mother or cousin who led the way for the entire family. It’s people talking to people, working together to find solutions for each other. Through this critical network we leveraged every single connection to ensure that our students were on a path to personal success.
I believe that this network can be scaled up to entire communities. What if we built the connective tissue in communities so that people could access this human-powered network at a larger scale. What if all families, community members, educators, nonprofit workers, business people, and leaders took ownership and responsibility for the future success of all children.
However this will require a shift in the way we currently think about the purpose of education. A few years ago I was planning an event that showcased our students’ successes to the community and needed a large venue. Naturally I thought to ask the neighborhood schools to see if they would allow us to borrow their gym for an evening, and I was shocked when a school principal was completely unwilling to help. She aggressively asked, “How many of MY students are you serving?” When I named only a handful, she rejected my request stating that she only allowed use of her premises for “her students.” It’s this kind of insular attitude that hinders relationship-building in the community. Instead of thinking just about “her students,” how can we change the community conversation to “our students”? I knew there had to be a better way.
The good news is that hundreds of nonprofits, community-based organizations and innovative schools and initiatives across the country have already made progress and action. There is a movement happening in the education sector towards rebuilding the system from the inside out and from the outside in. Although we’ve got a lot of new and innovative initiatives happening all across the country, many of these initiatives work in isolation, don’t collaborate, or don’t communicate — they’re still acting like that isolationist school principal, thinking about “her school” and “her students.”
We can change this.
With your help and with the help of many other supporters from communities across the nation, we will launch Connective Possibilities (CP, a working title), a social movement that will connect kids and families to vital poverty-fighting resources.CP aims to build the connective tissue in low-income communities to transform our lowest performing schools.
The vision is to create a human-centered platform in low-income communities across the country that will help to strengthen and innovate entire education systems from the ground level, rather than from the top-down.
The first phase of the movement will start at the ground level to address poverty-related issues that plague students and families from low-income communities. We will build a one-stop shop of all of the resources in the community in low-income schools. It’ll have a “Wikipedia” for who to go to for whatever issue kids and families are going through. We will staff them with heart-driven, innovative college students so that teachers can focus on teaching. There are a hundred more details about how this will work, and if you want I can even share the business plan with you.
Starting a new nonprofit organization is a daunting task, and I’ve spent enormous amounts of time in solitary reflection and in consultation with many supporters about the concept. However the time for action has come, and I’m incredibly excited announce that we will launch (and incubate) Connective Possibilities this year and do a full launch during summer 2012 (after I graduate from my masters program at Harvard).
Just like I believe that a community has to work together to improve schools, I believe that I can’t launch this organization by myself. Well, technically, I can, but that completely goes against the core beliefs that undergird this startup. I hope you’re intrigued and curious. I also hope you can join our growing movement to help families fight poverty and transform our nation’s schools.
On this day of personal reflection and national introspection, it’s not hard to think about the dramatic changes that have occurred over the last decade. Since the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, our lives have changed to include more ubiquity of digital tools and technologies, like cell phones, social media, and broadband internet. I can’t help but imagine how our reactions, lives and society might have been different if we had today’s technologies back then.
A decade ago I was a resident advisor at the North Residential College at the University of Southern California. At around seven in the morning several of my residents hurriedly woke me up to show me the frightening news, and I felt like I was having a nightmare. At that time, I just got a cell phone, I was still a year away from signing up for Friendster, and email was reserved for the nerds (i.e. me). As an RA, it was my responsibility to disseminate information to my residents about cancelled classes and events — so I walked up and down the halls and talked to my boys one-by-one. Later that day I posted up a flyer in front of a classroom to alert club members that our evening meeting was cancelled. Today, I would have broadcasted the same information via email, text and tweets in a matter of minutes.
During today’s anniversary ceremony at Harvard, David Gergen, professor at HKS and director of the Center for Public Leadership, said that right after 9/11 our initial instinct was to embrace our family, and by that he meant to nurture and care for our close loved ones — and over the last decade we’ve used emerging tools to embrace our families. Facebook groups to stay connected with loved ones. Flickr, Instagram, and Youtube to “see” them. Skype and FaceTime to keep the communication lines open. Gergen, however, urged us to embrace our larger extended families, and by that he meant communities of people outside of our own networks who are suffering and marginalized — those who live in the shadows of the recession while we live in the light.
In Clay Shirky‘s book, Here Comes Everybody, he suggests that technology and social tools are ubiquitous, but the underlying assumption is that everyone has access to these tools and technologies. While working with low-income students and families in the Bay Area, I tried to use cutting edge forms of communications tools, like blogging, wikis and email, and I realized that wasn’t working. The young people and their families weren’t using the same technologies, partially because they didn’t have access to computers and/or high-speed internet access. I had to shift my strategy from forcing technologies onto my students to understanding what technologies they use and how they use them. Because of this mind shift, I noticed that although computers and internet access were prohibitively expensive for my low-income families, most of them had cell phones and more recently smart phones. Rather than using the more conventional tools like emails and blogging to organize my students and their families, I used texting and Facebook tagging to foster community and mobilize the group to act. And then something happened that I wasn’t expecting — my students started to self-organize. The more vocal ones began to forward my text messages to others, and they created subgroups within our group to tackle issues. It was kind of like Wikipedia’s spontaneous division of labor, except in a tangible way within a community of about 300 students.
I didn’t introduce this mode of communication to my students — I merely discovered that they were already texting each other and forming informal groups online. And I guess the common point is that people throughout all generations are having and will continue to have conversations on and offline. People will continue to form groups on and offline. If we have to communicate one-by-one by knocking on people’s doors or if we text hundreds people at the same time, it doesn’t take out the base fact that we are communicating and connecting with people. After all, “Conversation is king.”
I’ve gotten quite a few questions about how to navigate HBS’s byzantine cross registration process, so I thought I would share some words that I sent to a fellow classmate in case anyone else was interested.
First, don’t be afraid! Cross registration can be daunting, but once you get to the class, it’ll be worth it.
ZERO STEP: Peruse the Course Listing Check out the many interesting HBS classes, and find one that is open to cross registrants. The class I took was “Leading and Governing High-Performing Non-profit Organizations” and was taught by Alan Grossman. I highly recommend it!
FIRST STEP: Scheduling
Make sure the class fits in your schedule. HBS’s schedule is ridiculous and, I suspect, purposely difficult for anyone outside of the HBS world. They have classes that fall on “X” days and “Y” days, which are not compatible with HKS’s schedule at all — or any schedule that makes sense. X classes are generally M, T, W during the time block, while Y classes are generally W, Th, F. The only way you can fit an HBS class into your schedule is if you don’t have another class during the same time block all week — for example, my class last year was at 8:30-9:50 am, X schedule, so some weeks the class was M&T, others it was M&T&W, and still others it is T&W. Since I had no other classes all week between 8:30-10, I was fine.
SECOND STEP: Contact the Professor
I would contact the professor and tell him/her that you are interested in cross registering. If the class was like my class last fall, all non-HBS students had to apply to join the class, and they only had a limited number of spots. Email the professor and give him a brief blurb about why you want to take the class and how your experience will add value to the class — HBS is all about “adding value.”
THIRD STEP: Go to Class
Then just go to the first day of class, and obtain the professor’s signature for your petition form. There might be an application or lottery. My professor made us write a short essay with our experience and how we’d add value to the course. Make sure you talk to professor after or before class, tell him who you are, and reiterate how much you want to take this class.
After a couple of days, the professor will inform you if you made the cut, and you have to obtain his/her signature. After you get the signature, you just submit the form to HBS’s registrar office, and that’s that.
In terms of the actual class… That’s a whole ‘nother story. Some cross reg students felt really behind on some of the business school jargon and financial aspects of the class. Case method takes a bit to get used to, but once you get the hang of it — and how cutthroat HBS’ers are — it’ll be fine. I’ve attached an unofficial guide to HBS case method for cross reg students, which you’ll probably get if you get into the class.
SUPER SPECIAL TIP: SEATING MATTERS
One other thing, when you get to class on the first day, the seat that you sit in will be your seat for the rest of the semester. The best seats to sit in are in the middle section and not the front row. HBS’ers generally will get to class WAY early to snap these seats up because they are valuable. The professor generally calls on the middle seats the most because those seats are in plain sight. It’s harder for him to see people who sit in the front rows and also on the side seats. Get to class early and snap up a middle seat. This is also a good way for you to meet some HBS students. I wish I knew this because I sat in the front row off to the side, and it sucked. Almost all of the cross reg students sat on the sides or the front rows because we didn’t know.
Lastly, don’t get intimidated. The HBS class I took last year was one of the best classes I’ve taken at Harvard! And it’s great to get out of the HKS bubble! Let me know if you have any questions, and good luck.
Last month I had the incredible opportunity to partake in the Dubin Fellows New York City Leadership Trip, and I have just recently started to process the entire amazing experience. I joined about 20 Harvard Kennedy School classmates in New York City to have intimate conversations with high-impact, socially minded leaders–like Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Former NYC School Chancellor Joel Klein, Harlem Childrens Zone CEO Geoffrey Canada, and Teach for America Founder Wendy Kopp. The three-day sojourn was sponsored by Glenn Dubin, who is the founder and leader of Highbridge Capital, a successful hedge fund company.
The most impactful portions of the three-day trip were the meetings with both Joel Klein and Michael Bloomberg. Because of my background working in the education sector and my aspirations to be part of the movement that creates systemic change in the sector, the entire weekend seemed to be specially tailored to my interests since we met with several prominent education leaders! Our discussions with Bloomberg and Klein really helped to give me the bigger picture perspective on leadership and how to make an impact through different angles in my life. I could tangibly feel Bloomberg and Klein’s energy and sense of purpose. I felt like both of those meetings were also a call-to-action in some sense, and it seemed like they were giving us as much advice and wisdom as they could because they could see that we were the next generation of leaders. In that sense, I was invigorated and felt empowered by their call-to-action.
EDUCATION IS A “PEOPLE BUSINESS”
I think it was coincidentally appropriate for the field visit to be so educationally skewed because of the urgency of the issues facing the education sector. My biggest take away from those conversations was that education is a “people business.” Despite all of the issues surrounding the debate for solutions, the education sector needs an infusion of great talent at all levels in order to create true systemic change. Multiple leaders–Deborah Kenny (CEO of Harlem Village Academies), Canada, Kopp, and Klein–mentioned this pressing need, and again, personally it felt like a call-to-action. To me it also signaled an incredible opportunity, and got me thinking, “how can we open up and widen the pipeline of talent into the education system and what are the levers we can use to make that happen?”
Another major issue that was constantly in the back of my mind was the issue of scaling impact. How were these leaders tackling the issue of scale, or were they at all? It was fascinating to see the different approaches to scaling impact from the very strategic and methodical widespread impact (Teach for America, Endeavor) to the thoughtful saturation of one market (Mt. Sinai Adolescent Center, Harlem Children’s Zone, Harlem Village Academies). Throughout the trip, I wanted one of the leaders to just tell me which method was the right way to go, but it became clear that there is no one right answer. Both approaches seem to be necessary in order to push an entire movement forward. However, I did appreciate getting insights from Kopp, Rottenberg, Canada and Weinstein (Robin Hood Foundation) about using data to thoughtfully inform their decision-making. And what I realized about myself is that I am the type of leader who doesn’t just want to create an excellent program that serves one market well; rather I realized that I am the type of leader who strives to disrupt a system to create long-lasting change at a large scale. Listening to Kopp talk about starting Teach for America with 500 corps members because that was the tipping point for a national movement really resonated with me.
Probably the biggest takeaway I had was not even a tangible meeting or something that a leader said, but for me it was having the incredible opportunity and privilege to join a talented group of students to meet some highly accomplished leaders. Being surrounded in that environment with these people is something that was truly energizing, and something that I had never dreamed of. I kept thinking about what the young me (shy, immigrant kid) would have done in that environment, and it blows my mind to realize that I had this opportunity. It was affirmation for me to follow my heart and my instincts and to continue to fight for what I am passionate about. All of the leaders we met were inspirational in that they were following their hearts and doing what they believed was right. I appreciated being in their presence, and truly appreciated having the opportunity to be part of this prestigious group.
At one point during the field visit, I looked around the conference room and I didn’t see the faces of fellow graduate students or competitors vying to get better grades in class or the more profound answers to questions. I saw the faces of future leaders, movers, shakers, and change-makers. Future colleagues, funders, mentors, advisers, friends, confidants, and comrades fighting against inequity and injustice. I was rejuvenated when I realized that we will be making an impact on the world soon, and we all had this foundational experience together. Learning about their rich experiences during busrides, lunch, or en route to the next meeting was valuable, and I sincerely hope that we take the opportunity to stay connected with each other.
BREAKING SOCIAL BARRIERS
Growing up, I rarely engaged with people outside of my social strata. I think there was a sense that barriers existed between people from different social classes, particularly if you grow up with humble means. What I appreciated about my interaction with the Dubins is that they made sure that those social barriers did not exist with them and even among the visiting fellows. They went out of their way to expose all of us who came from different backgrounds to high-performing leadership. Glenn was incredibly down-to-earth, and from his example I was reminded that high-performing leaders are people, too. I was able to see myself in his shoes. The biggest lesson that I learned from Glenn Dubin was the importance of finding, cultivating and nurturing talent. And to do that, you’ve got to be able to communicate, connect and build relationships with people not in spite of your differing backgrounds but because of them.
I cannot emphasize enough how grateful I am to the Dubins, the Harvard Center for Public Leadership staff, the Highbridge staff, and all of the leaders we met, to have had this incredible opportunity! It was a clear call-to-action, and I will definitely use what I have learned to make an impact on our society.
My fall semester at Harvard has been a great mental playground. I learned a ton about the enormity of the problems with our national education system while also starting to dream up some potential solutions. I recently wrote a business plan for a national social venture that aims to solve some of our nation’s issues, and below is a portion of an essay that I wrote that catalyzed that plan. The prompt was “Why has it proven so difficult to create more good schools in the US, particularly in urban areas?”
Stronger Schools from Stronger Communities
The exploding growth of the American economy in the past century created a platform for incredible educational opportunities for middle and high-income communities, while simultaneously limiting educational opportunities for those in low-income communities. In his book Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol (1991) gives us a disturbing view of how high poverty East St. Louis was plagued by struggling schools that are choked by a lack of resources. The problems of creating and scaling effective schools in urban America are due to the pervasive social inequities inherent in low-income communities like East St. Louis. In order to tackle this root cause, solutions need to address the social context in high poverty communities. A promising solution lies in building a strong network of support within and around schools in low-income communities to provide a network of comprehensive wrap-around services for students and families, while promoting the school as a community hub.
Critics would argue, however, that creating such a network of services to fight poverty is not only beyond the scope of schools, but also beyond schoolsâ€™ means. I contend that building this network of support within and around schools in high-poverty urban areas is a small price to pay for positive results. Another solution is to give families school choice so that students can theoretically attend schools that provide a higher level of academic and social support for students and families. Yet because we want sustainable solutions, we must build scalable solutions that start at the local community level. By building a strong network of support within and around schools, students will do better academically and families will have more access to the services they need to lift themselvesâ€”and their communitiesâ€”out of the shadow of poverty.
Poverty Bleeds into Schools
In urban communities, students bring the most pervasive social issueâ€”povertyâ€”into school everyday. As stated in the Coleman Report (1966), â€œA schoolâ€™s poverty level is a stronger predictor of how a child will fare in school than any other factor save the childâ€™s own socioeconomic (SES) background.â€� Attending a high poverty school likely means that the student comes from a high poverty family and community. As Traub described, â€œeducational inequality is rooted in economic problems and social pathologies too deep to be overcome by school aloneâ€� (2000). The current educational system cannot handle and sustain the heavy case management required to help students and their families deal with the plight of poverty. When students face problems, like health and dental issues, poor nutrition, violence, gangs, and drugs, school becomes a low priority (Kozol 1991). Because the problems are so commonplace and the interventions are â€œso slow and heavily encumbered with red tapeâ€�, teachers and administratorsâ€™ perceptions of normalcy have become skewed; they learn to operate and live with the glaring social issues (Kozol 1991, 21).
We can see then that high poverty urban schools are unable to swiftly address student needs outside of the classroom because they lack capacity and, furthermore, it has not been the schoolsâ€™ responsibility or goal to lift students and their families out of poverty. Our society has drifted away from the common school movement of the 1800â€™s when â€œspreading prosperity and ending povertyâ€� was an important aspect of creating public schools (Wirt and Kirst 2005, 32). In this day and age there is no unified expectation for schools to address student needs that stem from poverty, and thus schools have no incentive to do so. However, if studentsâ€™ basic needsâ€”like housing, health care, nutrition, and safetyâ€”are not adequately met, we also cannot expect schools alone to compensate for the consequences of poverty (Warren 2005).
A Network of Community Partnerships
It is interesting to note, however, that in any given urban community, a myriad of external service providers already exists to support low-income students and families. The issue seems to not stem from the dearth of social services, but rather from a lack of direct links between schools and the necessary service providers. In my own work experience at BUILD, a college access nonprofit organization, we provided direct services to students in low-income communities like East Palo Alto and Oakland, California. I observed that while there were a plethora of service providers in the East Palo Alto and Oakland, they almost never collaborated or shared resources with schools and with each other. Furthermore, many of the service providers had only marginal relationships with the surrounding schools. While the service providers perceived that they were doing good work in the community, there was only a tangential relationship with surrounding schools during the fall recruitment season.
By consciously partnering with community development organizations, schools can work together with the community to directly raise the level of social and economic health of families. By addressing problems that students face in a holistic manner (e.g. if students had adequate healthcare, received proper nutrition, and were safe from violence and drugs), students would be healthier and safer and schools would thrive. However, there is a link missing between service providers because oftentimes schools do not build relationships with them.
By strengthening the schoolsâ€™ relationships with external service providers and also connecting service providers with one another, we strengthen the network that can support not only students, but also families. It is not enough for external service providers to fill a void that schools are unable to because teachers and counselors often do not have the capacity to research service providers, pick out ones based on a studentâ€™s need, and refer them to the appropriate one. However, if a school is the hub of a community, we can create a centralized and organized system that connects teachers, students, families and service providers in an efficient manner with one another. This centralized system could serve as an efficacious information-sharing process that students and their families can use to access servicesâ€”like homeless shelters, job training programs, and food banksâ€”that will likely improve their livelihoods.
I recently read a book by Frederick Hess, entitled Commonsense School Reform, and so far my favorite quote from it is â€œ…great schools are not legislated into existenceâ€¦ they require nuanced leadership that forges a sense of shared purpose, rewards creative thinking, and inspires excellence. Public policy cannot mandate great schools any more than it can mandate great leadership of great teaching; it can only make it easier or harder for great schools to exist.â€� But the reason that we have bureaucracies plaguing our educational institutions — that trickles down to our principals and our teachers — is because so many good recommendations get pushed through legislation without a clear, thoughtful strategy. So while statesÂ mandate classroom sizes, teacher requirements, curricula standards, assessment test conditions, etc., all of these just add to the confusing patchwork quilt of “reforms” that are supposed to improve student outcomes. In reality, however, these perpetuate a culture of compliance! As Hess put so eloquently, “Compliance rewards obedience rather than excellence.”
I attended a discussion last week with Harvard Professor Tony Wagner, who presented his findings from his 10-day delve into Finland’s education system–Finland arguably has the best and highest performing education system in the world according to a set of international assessments that the OECD nations partake in (read more about it here and here)–and I was immediately struck by the subtle yet pervasive differences in their culture of education. Wagner kept bringing up that their education system’s foundation was built on a system of trust. State trusts that the districts will manage. Districts trust principals to lead their schools to the highest results. Principals trust teachers to teach effectively and to deliver results. Teachers trust students to be engaged in the classroom and to take responsibility for their education. The culture of trust not only trickles from top to bottom, but also throughout the Finnish society.
Americans, on the other hand, love to do assessments, and when those assessments aren’t stellar (as evidenced by any number of recent studies), we love to play the blame game: it was the teachers’ faults, the principals’, the districts’, the unions; it was because we did not have enough money/resources/support or not enough family involvement. If we are starting our education reform conversation by placing blame, we easily marginalize essential groups of people: teachers, principals, unions, families, schools of education. How can we expect everyone to be bought in to the recommendations and reforms in an environment that is so unsafe? We need to move away from our system of distrust and compliance, and start to cultivate a culture of trust. The question is… is that too un-American?
The first week at Harvard has been a rollercoaster. Coming off of a fantastic vacation in Spain, I definitely started out on a high note. Even biking around town in the pouring rain to buy groceries and take care of other business didn’t really phase me. Sure, I miss my car a lot. Every time it rained in San Francisco — actually even when the sun was out — I took my trusty Prius to where I needed to go. This biking/walking/busing lifestyle will take some adjustment, but I’m getting there.
And then orientation at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government started, and let me just say that I have some ridiculously amazing classmates. We’ve got a guy who was one of the first astronauts from South Korea, a lady who has her MD and her MBA and who’s looking to get a third. We’ve got fellow nonprofiteers, former teachers, servicemen and women, and people who have hobnobbed with heads of state. We have this one girl who has three passports, and this one guy who has visited 86 countries. We’ve got future politicians, future ambassadors, future foreign ministers, leaders who are bound to make some real social change in the next few years. Wow. To say that I was humbled on that first day upon meeting my classmates is an understatement, yet I held my own. I know my purpose here, and I am extremely excited to have such high caliber classmates to add to the fabric of my education.
However, I’m not going to lie. There was a millisecond where I felt like I slipped in undetected, like I was a spy living a double life. “I snuck into Harvard! I got in without them noticing! Ha!” I certainly felt a tinge of that as I sat in HKS’s storied John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, where heads of state, celebrities and students all have had the chance to speak. But Debbie Isaacson, the director of the MPP program, reminded us that “Harvard does not make admissions mistakes. You belong here, and you were meant to be here.” And as several other speakers reminded us on day one, each of us was chosen because of our propensity to be leaders and our drive to fix our world’s most pressing problems. We answered the call.
So as I lay here in bed, after a long weekend of being ill (I had to get these vaccinations, which caused side effects, like fever, aches, cramps and tiredness, for about 48 hours), I am still astonished at this journey of which I am about to embark. And I remain grateful to everyone that has helped get me to this place.
Wish me luck as I start classes this week! (And that I get over this illness quick so I can actually go to classes!)