A Startup Manifesto

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.

Join us.

For our youth,


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Fighting Poverty in Boston

This week I met with three critical stakeholders in Boston to learn about the existing fabric of care that supports people living in poverty-afflicted communities as part of my feasibility research for launching Connective Possibilities (more on that to come later). LIFT and Healthleads are nonprofit organizations that provide resources to community members. Maicharia Weir Lytle, LIFT’s Boston Executive Director, gave me a tour of their multi-service center in the heart of Mayor Menino’s audacious Circle of Promise in Roxbury. Community members work one-on-one with LIFT volunteers to find jobs, secure safe housing, make ends meet through public benefits and tax credits, and obtain quality referrals for services like childcare and healthcare. Sonia Sarker, Healthleads’s Chief of Staff, also shared with me their similar model — except their volunteer-staffed “help desks” are located in hospitals and clinics that low-income people frequent.

Both services help people navigate through the turmoil inherent below the poverty-line, and provide support so that people don’t spend more in money, time, hassle, and exhaustion. No one thinks about the lines and bureaucracy that the poor have to wade through. Weir Lytle showed me a thick stack of papers, which represented all of the various applications for private subsidized housing that a person would have to fill out to look for a safe and stable home. A LIFT volunteer collected all of these applications, scanned them into PDF files, and uploaded them into an internal wiki of resources, so that people don’t have to traverse all over town to pick them up – a savings of at least 10 hours of travel time.

One of my main questions about Healthleads’ model was whether connecting clinic clients and hospital patients to resources was leading to a fade-out effect. Sarkar explained how Healthleads’ model actually made hospital interventions better. Currently the healthcare system reacts to the exacerbated ailments of poor clients. A doctor might prescribe an inhaler to a child with chronic asthma, but she can’t do anything about the child’s apartment that is crawling with roaches. Healthleads aims to fix this by being “Physician extenders” and unbundling this social responsibility off of the physician’s plate so that she can “work at the top of her license.” Healthleads fills a missing operational gap in the value chain of hospitals that serve high-poverty communities: Doctors => Nurses => Social Workers => Healthleads volunteers (who release the pressure off the previous three positions so that they can work at the top of their license.

My third and final visit this week was with Principal Cynthia Paris-Jeffries at one of Boston’s turnaround schools, Blackstone Elementary in the South End. Blackstone is a K-5 school with a largely Latino (80%), Black (15%), and poor (over 90% on Free/Reduced Lunch) student body, and because the school failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress in both English Language Arts and Math for several years, they’ve been labeled a “turnaround school” and provided resources from the district. My meeting with Principal Paris-Jeffries reminded me of Isaacs and Sawhill’s conclusion that the best intervention to improve social mobility is to focus on high quality, early childhood education targeted at children from poor families. Paris-Jeffries compares the job of a good principal to that of a skilled chef — every school needs a healthy mix of carefully and artfully chosen services and partners. Some principals just throw in every intervention or partner into their school without really thinking about how that affects the school as a whole. Paris-Jeffries alluded to making a simple, yet effective set of interventions tailored especially to early childhood education for children from poor families, which includes partnerships with City Year, READ Boston, South End Health Center, the Power Lunch Program, and Big Brothers/Big Sisters.

Each of these three organizations tries to tackle the poverty-related issues that cause family background to play a role in why families and kids fall behind or get ahead. Providing resources and connections, like the informal social capital in middle and high-income communities, helps kids and families receive the resources they need to do better. And although poverty has risen to 13.2% (Sherman, et. al) — its highest level since the 60’s — it’s reassuring to know that communities, organizations and schools are doing their best to fight poverty and the hidden issues that poverty brings. However, it’s also clear that more needs to be done, and we have just touched the tip of the ice berg in regards to the full effects of the recession on people living in poverty.


Me, Inc. Workshop at Summer Search Alumni Summit 2008

I had an absolutely fantastic time today with about 50 Summer Search alumni at their annual leadership summit at the Masonic Center in San Francisco. I facilitated a workshop entitled “Me, Inc.: Building Entrepreneurship into your Life,” which led to discussions on entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship.

It was great to be in the presence of so many engaged, eager, and “hungry” leaders. I could tell that they were so ready and willing to absorb lessons so that they could take them back and affect change in their communities. It was so refreshing! Summer Search is definitely an organization to keep on your radar. This year they have a $12 million budget and seven sites across the nation serving almost 800 students. They want to aggressively grow with a capital campaign of $20 million, to serve 2,000 students in the next few years. Judging from the amazing individuals I met today, the program is working, and I look forward to seeing their growth in the next few years.

If you went to my workshop, and have questions, comments, or feedback for me, please do not hesitate to contact me! I know we ran out of time, and I could have spent hours more discussing it, so feel free to connect if you have any questions or ideas for me.

I also promised the Summer Searchers that I would post up my powerpoint presentation and worksheet on my site, so you can get them below. I only ask that if you found my tools useful, share the knowledge and tell someone about it. Maybe you can get together with people in your support networks to discover how each of you are living and being the CEO’s of Me, Inc.

To download the worksheet, right-click and “save as” the following link to get the PDF.

And lastly, if you are interested in learning more about the Level 5 Fellowship that I briefly alluded to or know someone who would be interested, please check out our website at level5.efozzie.com. Help us spread the word!

It was a pleasure and a privilege, Summer Searchers! Thanks!