A Decade of Conversations

This post was originally published on my new website, reyfaustino.org, which I created as part of a my Digital Media, Politics and Power class at Harvard.

Photo Credit: Marc Loresto

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.”

Tips on Cross Registering for an HBS class (Navigating an Unnecessarily Complex Process)

You in an HBS class

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.

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.


UPDATE: Link for the list of HBS classes is here, and link to find out what time each HBS class meets is here.

Inside the Belly of the Philanthropic Beast

Two weeks ago I started my Education Pioneers Graduate School Fellowship at the Highland Street Foundation. A couple of basics before I get deep into this post:


  • Education Pioneers is a national nonprofit organization that “identifies, trains, connects, and inspires a new generation of leaders dedicated to transforming our educational system so that all students receive a quality education.” Fellows are placed in educational organizations for a 10-week high impact project during the summer between their graduate school years.
  • The Highland Street Foundation is a small family foundation based in Newton, MA, which is a suburb of Boston. The foundation boasts a $190 million endowment and funds education, youth, mentoring, health care, and cultural institutions in Massachusetts and California.


When I was placed with the Highland Street Foundation in May, I was slightly concerned because I didn’t know if I would be able to connect with the grant-making side of the nonprofit world. For over a decade, my worldview and context has been shaped by grant-seeking organizations. Yet here I am spending 10 weeks with the good folks at Highland Street, and thus far the experience has been eye-opening.


My project this summer is to do an evaluation of one of the foundation’s grant programs, Free Fun Fridays. The Free Fun Fridays program opens up the doors of over 20 of Massachusetts’ most famous cultural institutions for free this summer. Highland Street will underwrite all of the admissions costs of the cultural institutions. This is the third year that the foundation has implemented Free Fun Fridays, and this year they were interested to learn about the economic and social impact of the program — what is the economic impact on museums, neighboring businesses and families?


The interesting thing is that the foundation doesn’t have a history of doing evaluations or assessments of their grant programs (other than a post-grant report that grantees must submit). I’m literally starting from scratch and have called on my professors and friends who are experts in the field of program evaluation to lend me their expertise.


I’ve also noticed that being on the grant-making side of the table provides a completely different angle, and I feel a shift in the power dynamic. I accompanied my executive director on a site visit to one of our grantees. The grantees (who will not be named) included over 20 bigwigs from their organization to the meeting, and I thought they would overtake the meeting since we were significantly outnumbered. Instead, however, my ED ran the show sharply and with such certitude and ownership. He threw out questions quickly, and the grantees’ staff tried to answer as adeptly and succinctly as possible. You could feel the power hovering strongly over the Highland Street side of the room. It was an absolutely new feeling to know that you were on the side of the room that held all of the chip, while the other side of the room wanted those very chips. To their credit, they didn’t exude any overt desperation. I did, however, sense that the balance of power was definitely on the corner that held the potential to give them another $1 million grant.


Since I’ll be in the belly of the philanthropic beast this summer, I hope to learn about what truly makes philanthropy work and how to build relationships with decision-makers at foundations. So far, my assumptions have been challenged, and I’m looking forward to sharing more of what I learn as the summer progresses.


Lessons from my work with Gawad Kalinga

It’s been nearly six months since my last trip to the Philippines, and I still am having trouble synthesizing the immensity of the lessons that I received from that visit. I’d been to the Philippines several times since I received my green card back in 2003, but there was something incredibly different about my latest trip in January 2011.

The visit changed my life, and altered the way I think about the Philippines and about how ordinary people can make an extraordinary impact on society.

Tito Tony Meloto
Gawad Kalinga Founder, Tony Meloto

It all started out on a rainy November day in Harvard Yard. I came to listen to Gawad Kalinga’s founder, Tony Meloto, speak about how his organization is fighting intergenerational poverty in the Philippines. Tito Tony (as he is called by Filipinos who know him and means “Uncle Tony”) spoke emphatically about GK’s mission and vision for two hours, and I was hooked. I promptly sought him out after his talk, and after a few email exchanges, I agreed to do a volunteer consulting project with him and his brand new social innovation office in Manila.

I went to the Philippines because I thought I was going to impart all of my American wisdom on my Filipino countrymen, and what I found was that I was on the receiving end of some of the most important lessons of my life.

The pre-existing social change frameworks that I used were blown up.

I realized that the American way of thinking about social change is very compartmentalized and actually quite narrow in scope — even the largest nonprofit organizations in the States have an incredibly narrow view when it comes to tackling our largest social issues.

On my first day of work I got a crash course on the inner workings of GK. My pre-visit research taught me that GK transforms Filipino shantytowns from slums into beautiful, livable and clean communities with the support and investment of the shantytown residents. Over 2,000 barangays (or villages) have made this transformation and over 200,000 families were affected thanks to Gawad Kalinga. But I thought that was it, and, like Habitat for Humanity, I thought all GK did was build houses for Filipinos.

I was completely wrong. During my orientation meeting, Karl, a member of the GK Center for Social Innovation staff, shared that GK is involved in food/farm development, child and youth development, health care, environmental issues, entrepreneurship, disaster management, government partnerships, tourism, and many more. As I listened to Karl, my understanding of GK became hazier and more cluttered. My American sensibilities doubted that this one organization (with only about 200 full-time and part-time employees scattered across the 7,000 Philippine islands) could handle such a large number of priorities, and I began to wonder about the efficiency  levels of the organizations’s dizzying multi-pronged strategy. How could the organization adequately implement all of these projects? Who was funding this confusing bundle of priorities? How were they tracking the impact of the varying projects across the country? All of these questions immediately surfaced as I learned more.

I think I came off incredibly judgmental that day, and I’m not exactly sure how Karl felt about our fast-paced and intense question-and-answer session, but I was just so fascinated. I later learned that I needed to soften my fast-paced, judgmental American demeanor because Filipinos don’t respond well to it–they much prefer slower relationship-building conversations over San Mig Light (a popular Filipino beer) and enormous amounts of food.

In the back of mind, I kept thinking about all of the traditional American ways to conduct business (even in a nonprofit): have a strong and targeted mission, maintain tight control of your brand, understand and leverage your core competencies, quantify and use data to drive your organization’s efficiency, and most importantly stay focused. While GK borrowed and was influenced heavily by these American lessons, they certainly were not singularly focused on one or a few main priorities. It seemed like they have dozens of missions all working together at the same time. And these missions have a singular vision of nation-building.

This may have been the most important lesson I learned on my trip.

Traditional nonprofit organizations, like Habitat for Humanity or the Red Cross, treat their operations like a business, divided into projects, strategies, competencies, and the like. GK, does that too, but does it through a lens of nation-building. GK is nation-building. I heard this several times during my trip, and I didn’t quite understand it until I traveled with Tito Tony and his team to the small island of Negros, where we met with local businessmen and thousands of GK villagers at a large celebration for GK. The sun boiled the little town’s largest meeting space where thousands of villagers gathered, wearing T-shirts in primary reds, blues, yellows, and greens, which denoted which village they represented. The cavernous and sweltering hot convention center (cooled only by oscillating fans) was adorned with bright banners that read “One Family,” “One Community,” and “One Nation”. The murky philosophy suddenly became clear to me. While traditional nonprofits were busily rallying people around their projects, whether it be to stop child trafficking, fight for gay rights, or reform the education system, GK wasn’t focused on running a “project,” like transforming slums into livable communities. GK was in the business of nation-building; which means every Filipino citizen (whether he is actually in the Philippines or not) is a stakeholder, a builder, a fundraiser, a partner and a steward of not just GK’s mission but of the country.

I learned from Tito Tony that by sharing your vision and following how others may innovate and challenge your vision, partners can become stewards of your vision (and they also become volunteers, fund-raisers, evangelizers). This was radically different from the way I saw American organizations running, which is by and large still operating under the auspices of philanthropy and charity. GK was about patriotism, and being patriotic means stewardship, not charity.

I see a lot of room for growth in the American social sector. Instead of tackling a compartmentalized mission, how can we go back to the days of truly advancing large scale causes that galvanize people to become stewards of that cause–kind of like effective activism. How can we transform our philanthropic sector to also become partners of the vision rather than enablers.

Tito Tony is a visionary. He’s a master planner, but not in a rigid way. He understands that he wants to end poverty, but he’s not mired in the details of what it takes to do that. Yet he boils down GK’s message to something that is both tangible and aspirational. The process of building a nation is easy to grasp, and he uses that to galvanize supporters. He’s an evangelizer, storyteller, and philosopher. I felt like I was spending time with someone who shares the same energy as Martin Luther King, Jr. or Gandhi. He has a presence that is welcoming, challenging, and inspiring. He has a way of making you feel like you are an incredibly important person. This is how he gets people to join the nation-building movement from all over the world.

He challenged me to keep the Philippines in my heart, and he inspired me to rethink about the way I can make a tangible impact on education reform in the States. Because of this trip, I’ve dreamed up a vision of a national education nonprofit that will innovate low-income schools and and create human-centered networks all across our nation. I’ve written enough on this post, but very soon I’ll be writing more about the launch of this new educational social venture.

Until then, I want to thank again all of the people who supported me and believed in me enough to sponsor such a crazy trip. I also want to think the folks I worked closely with at Gawad Kalinga–Tito Tony, Karl, Shannon, Jerry and many others. And perhaps most importantly, I want to thank my family, especially my Tita Badette, Tito Bong, Jovic, Gelo and Bea, who took care of and housed me while I was in the Philippines.

This was just a small sliver of the lessons I learned from the Philippines, and it mostly centered around what I learned from Tito Tony. I hope to also share the lessons I learned from other aspects of my trip. I’ll end it with one more quote from Tito Tony:

The root of poverty is the perpetuation of a culture of elitism.

Parental Involvement & Technology

Parental Involvement seems to be the holy grail of education. We all want it and know that there are major benefits when you get it, but it seems too elusive, particularly in struggling low-income communities. In a recent reading for my Achievement Gap class, “Family Involvement in Middle and High School Students Education,” the authors recommend creating more small schools because “teachers at small schools are able to communicate with parents more frequently and provide parents with the information and knowledge they need to support their children in school.”

I definitely see benefits to having a smaller teacher to parent ratio, but I doubt that this is a realistic systemic recommendation particularly in entrenched, large schools in low-income communities. With budget cuts in our nation’s most struggling school districts and with the recent revelation that small schools aren’t all that they’re cracked up to be, class sizes are growing and the divide between parents and teachers will continue to grow. Should we then add more to teachers’ plates by requiring them to maintain tight communication streams with their students’ families? Conversely, how can we think about unbundling this strategic piece off of teachers’ responsibilities while still maintaining a steady flow of information that parents need.

I don’t mean to sound mechanical, but I think technology can play an integral role in providing steady, reliable and consistent information about a student’s progress to parents. I actually think technology can empower teachers to do this better and more efficiently than ever before. Why have we clung to the physical quarterly report card system when we can check get instant access to current trends in both the world news and our own personal social circles with the click of a button? Imagine having a system that allows parents to track their students’ progress academically and behaviorally in a Facebook-like instant stream. And imagine if you can communicate with both teachers and administrators in such a system. This vision isn’t too far off because the technology exists. However, it won’t do any good for our current systems, but if we can start to embed some of the principles of a system like this–quick feedback, instant and consistent communication between parents and schools, parental buy-in–we may be able to start unbundling this piece from teachers’ plates.

What we do need in the meantime are schools (regardless of their size) that create a culture of community rather than compliance. Parents often have an antagonistic relationship with schools, and they may only come to school because of behavioral issues. I can’t tell you how few of my students’ families came to open houses (maybe less than 30% of our students). The parents don’t see it as relevant because they’re frame of school is what they have known: compliance. How then can we start to involve parents and family members in a way that gives them quick feedback on their students, and instant and consistent two-way communication streams? Answering this question may lead us to that holy grail.

New Years Goals 2011


I can’t believe we are already at the end of February, and I haven’t posted my 2011 New Years Goals yet. Alas, this is the life of the graduate student. School comes first, and everything else is secondary. I mean, if you’re spending several gold doubloons for something, then you should immerse yourself in it, right? I’m pretty sure you can tell from my tweets and blog posts that I’m all up in the intellectual and academic world of Harvard and enjoying every bit of it. But enough about that.

2011 promises to be a year of evolution. At the very least, it will be the culminating point of three decades of evolution, along with the bright beginning of a new chapter in my life. It’s hard to imagine turning 30 in December. Some days I still feel like a kid and some days I feel like I just want to be out of school already to get some work done. The past 29 years have weaved a rich tapestry of experiences, and I’m kind of excited to be turning 30. So 2011 is really about the end of an evolutionary period in my life and the start of a whole new one.

As I was thinking about the goals I wanted to set this year, I thought about making a “bucket list” for the final year of my twenties, but that just didn’t seem appropriate. I feel like turning 30 is more subtle–more evolutionary–than that. I actually don’t agree that 30 is the new 20. I think we should let 30 be 30. 30 is the year that you automatically get street cred. You’ve been around the block for a little while. You’ve built up a reputation and 30 is dignified. So I’m going to ease into my 30’s, and keep doing what I’ve been doing to make the last year of my 20’s as classy, dignified, and fun as possible.

As I do every year during my reflection time, I started by re-examining my goals and values from last year and then brainstorming new goals that fit with my revised personal values. I did not change my personal values at all and have created 10 new goals for 2010.

Personal Values

  • Challenging Adventures – I live for new and challenging experiences, whether that’s professionally or personally, with others or in another country. The thrill of adventure stimulates my soul.
  • Contribution to the World – I live to make lasting, positive impacts on society’s most pressing problems.
  • Expressing Creativity – Being able to express myself artistically, musically or professionally keeps me inspired.
  • Lifelong Learning – I love to learn. I am energized by the steady and deliberate journey from ignorance to competence to mastery.
  • Quality – I choose to live a full and quality life, which is neither excessive nor is it below my standards of excellence.
  • Family & Friends – Above all, my life is about the people I choose to journey with. They are my heart.

New Years Goals 2011

  1. Do something physically challenging
  2. Do better at celebrating my friends and family
  3. Explore and get to know Boston and New England
  4. Continue improving my Tagalog comprehension and speaking skills
  5. Enter in a case competition and a business plan competition
  6. Take a risk with a personal relationship
  7. Go through the start-up phase of business plan for nonprofit
  8. Honor and celebrate the last year of my 20’s

Here’s to a constantly evolving and improving life, and to a fabulous culmination of my 20’s!

Reflections on Dubin Leadership Trip

Dubin Group

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.

Conversing with Joel Klein

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.


Bonding with Geoffrey Canada

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?”


Asking Wendy Kopp an important question

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.

The group with Wendy Kopp

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.


Fellows at the Colbert Report

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.


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.012111_259

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.

Why has it proven so difficult to create more good urban schools?

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 schools’ 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 themselves—and their communities—out of the shadow of poverty.

Poverty Bleeds into Schools

In urban communities, students bring the most pervasive social issue—poverty—into school everyday. As stated in the Coleman Report (1966), “A school’s poverty level is a stronger predictor of how a child will fare in school than any other factor save the child’s own socioeconomic (SES) background.� Attending a high poverty school likely means that the student comes from a high poverty family and community. As Traub described, “educational inequality is rooted in economic problems and social pathologies too deep to be overcome by school alone� (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 “so slow and heavily encumbered with red tape�, teachers and administrators’ 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 schools’ responsibility or goal to lift students and their families out of poverty. Our society has drifted away from the common school movement of the 1800’s when “spreading prosperity and ending poverty� 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 students’ basic needs—like housing, health care, nutrition, and safety—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 schools’ 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 student’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 services—like homeless shelters, job training programs, and food banks—that will likely improve their livelihoods.

Continue reading Why has it proven so difficult to create more good urban schools?

Upcoming Plans with Gawad Kalinga

New Years Dinner
New Years Dinner

It’s Sunday night (Jan 2) here in the Philippines, and I’ve been having a fantastic time catching up with my family before getting started on the Gawad Kalinga project. I’m staying with Tita Badette, Tito Bong, Jovic, Gelo and Bea, and we celebrated New Years with my Tito Eddie, Tita Ving and Robert. I thought the end of the world was coming, but it was just the hundreds of illegal firecrackers going off all over the city. And of course, we ate tons of amazing food. Yum.

I got some more concrete details about the project plan, and below is my schedule for this week.

Monday, Jan 3
Meet with GK National Office folks to get more background on the organization. We are possibly meeting at a farm in Valenzuela.

Tuesday, Jan 4
Meeting with the team that runs the Center for Social Innovation (CSI, catchy, huh?), including GK Founder Tony Meloto, at Ateneo de Manila University (one of the top universities in the Philippines). They’re going to give me an orientation on CSI, and then in the evening, I’ll get to meet some of the entrepreneurs from the program.

Wednesday & Thursday, Jan 5-6
We are heading to check out some GK farms/villages in north Bulacan, which is a provincial area just north of Manila.

Over the weekend
I’m spending the weekend in Bacolod, which is about an hour and a half flight away in Western Visayas. This is the target location for the next expansion of CSI, so it’s important that we check this out. They speak Visayan there, so that should be interesting since I don’t speak Visayan and I’ve never been there. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve been to northern Bulacan either.

Map of Bacolod
Map of Bacolod

In between the work, I’m also trying to get together with a few other relatives and family friends. So far the trip has been great (thanks to my family here), and the rest of it should be quite an adventure.

End of the Year Check-in 2010

At the beginning of 2010, I said that this was going to be the year of taking incredible leaps and trusting that I’ll land safely, even though I wouldn’t know exactly where I would wind up. Ominously, last year at this time I said that 2010 was not going to be easy, and guess what…. it wasn’t. 2010 was indeed a rollercoaster of a year. After spending a inordinate amount of my fall of 2009 working on grad school applications and essentially hidden from the world, I spent the beginning of 2010 wondering if all of that work paid off. And then in January, there was a large blow to our family when my dad’s mother, Nanay Ising, passed away. I was able to be there with her in the Philippines during her final moments, but it was an incredibly sad way to start 2010. I knew, however, that my grandmother was with me in spirit on March 22 when I received my acceptance letters to Harvard. The beginning of the year was truly bittersweet. Here are some other highlights from the year.

  • Spending Nanay’s funeral and mourning period with my entire family in the Philippines
  • Trips to New York (Tony’s bday & watching the US Open), DC, LA (Steve & Jen’s wedding!), Austin, New Hampshire, Maine and of course Las Vegas (oh, and my parents moved to the Strip!)
  • Finding out that my little sister got engaged, and then finding out that she’s pregnant!
  • Going on my 10th BUILD college tour
  • Leaving BUILD (and SF) in July after 5 amazing years
  • Moving to Cambridge and starting at Harvard
  • Getting certified as a Rap Director after 3 years of training with College Summit!
  • Dream come true: visiting the mother of all mother countries (Spain) with Karla and falling in love with Sitges, a gorgeous beach town
  • Meeting CEO’s of successful nonprofits: Year Up, Pratham, Planned Parenthood, United Way, and more
  • Watching some awesome speakers: Muhammad Yunus, Michelle Rhee, Rachel Maddow, Arne Duncan (OK, so he wasn’t an awesome speaker, but it was interesting nonetheless)
  • Becoming an uncle when my brother’s baby, Elliot, was born in October
  • Writing a business plan for my Education Policy course that I will probably launch
  • Let’s not forget that Prop 8 was overturned and DADT was repealed
  • Raising enough money to work with Gawad Kalinga during my winter break

And as I do every year, I wanted to check-in on the goals that I set for myself last December.

  1. Go on a spiritual journey – Yes, the trip to the Philippines for my grandmother’s funeral was quite the spiritual journey.
  2. Take a GIGANTIC risk – There have been a couple of gigantic risks taken this year, but the biggest by far was leaving my position at BUILD after five years and starting my grad program at Harvard.
  3. Get more involved and make a positive impact in the gay community by doing some gay rights advocacy work – This wasn’t exactly as I imagined, but I joined the staff of Harvard Kennedy School’s first-ever LGBTQ Policy Journal.
  4. Learn how to write music and then write a song – Yes!
  5. Build something with my hands – Yes, I built a laptop stand. 😉
  6. Continue improving my Tagalog comprehension and speaking skills – Yes, they’re getting better
  7. Deepen my spiritual practice (yoga, Catholicism) – Yes, at least definitely with the yoga.
  8. Read at least 8 new books – Yes, I think this is true, particularly since I started grad school, and we do a ton of reading all the time.
  9. Connect with my international relatives at least once a month – Yes, via video chat or IM.
  10. Continue spending time with family members – Yes, I took a lot of trips home.

It’s been a great year, and I’m really looking forward to 2011!!!