An Idea Changes a Neighborhood


Last fall I wrote about the fundraising event I chaired to raise money for the Hathaway-Sycamores Learning Lab. Today I am pleased to share with you a short video celebrating the dedication of this site, which you can watch here.

If you listen carefully to the story told by Henry Matson, you’ll hear not only how a simple yet visionary afterschool program is changing the lives of countless at-risk youth, but how it has transformed an entire Los Angeles county neighborhood.

Just a decade ago, our Family Resource Center in Highland Park was a much-loved landmark, but a bit of an island on a street ripe for reinvention. That transformation has now occurred. The doors of our beautiful, historic building are wide open to the community. The building has been restored to its full glory, and our Learning Lab is filled with eager minds.

Anytime you get the idea in your head that an individual can’t make a difference, I invite you to visit our Learning Lab. Look at the joy in the students’ faces. Look at the spectrum of college logos on their t-shirts. Listen to them talking about the futures they are pursuing.

They are engaged in the mission of learning. They are engaged in the mission of personal change. They aren’t waiting for the future to come to them. They aren’t letting circumstance take its toll. They are inventing their own future through math, science, language arts, and learning to work in teams.

They inspire each other and they will inspire you. They inspire me, and nothing gives me greater pleasure than to welcome your participation in our work.

Young people on our community who never thought they had the chance are going to college, many on full scholarships they win competitively on their own merits!

Paulette and Henry Matson anchored this campaign because it mattered to them. They made a choice to make a difference, and that difference is now more than an idea. It is a place, a comfort zone, a tangible path to endless possibility. Those aren’t just words. Those are a conduit to bright futures that begin with a spark, the access to a mentor, the bright light of a teacher. Once we help ignite that spark, the kids take it the rest of the way. They are virtually unstoppable.

A small amount of caring always matters. A small amount of money can go a long way.

Education opens minds and changes lives.

Come see just how powerful a living dream can be. Join us this year at Celebrating Children. One night could change your life. Then you can help change a neighborhood.

It all begins with an idea and a commitment.

We can do this. We are doing this!

Learning a Different Way

HSCC 2015

The kids in this picture all wear the logos of the colleges they hope to attend. Like many of the kids you know, they dream of becoming alumni of famous universities, where they will study hard and ready themselves for a productive career. Yet there is a difference in their lives that may not be similar to that of the kids you know. Many of these kids may not have food in their refrigerator every night. Some may not even have a real place they call home. These kids didn’t get a lot of breaks coming out of the gate.

The two adults in the middle, Paulette and Henry Matson, are trying to change that by investing in their future. Paulette and Henry are friends of mine whom we recently honored for their public service, but they wouldn’t want me to talk about that. They would only want me to talk about these kids—these bright, energetic, optimistic kids who are working diligently to change their fortune. We are working with them closely to change their future. It’s a magical partnership, a journey toward hope. You might want to join us, or perhaps learn more about what we mean when we say they are Learning a Different Way.

Earlier this month I again chaired Celebrating Children, the annual gala fundraiser for Hathaway-Sycamores Child & Family Services where I also serve on the board. This year’s event was held at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. The program focused on our Learning Lab, where we work with at-risk youth to help them prepare for college. These kids sign a contract with us to make their lives different, to commit to their studies and ensure the lives ahead of them will be self-sufficient, fulfilled, and noble. They want a better life than the one they have now and are willing to work for it. We want to help them achieve their dreams and more.

At the event we met an incredibly inspiring individual, Alejandra Negrete. As you will learn in the short video embedded here, Alejandra never dreamed of going to college. She didn’t even know “what SATs were.” Then she met Simon Gee, founder of our Learning Lab, and in a quiet way the entire universe changed. This is her story. My words will never do it justice. Please watch this, you won’t soon forget it:

Alejandra’s triumph touched the hearts of the more than 400 people in attendance, who contributed over $300,000 in support of expanding our Learning Lab. It costs about $500 to provide annual afterschool tutoring to each student in this visionary workshop, so we know that a lot more success stories are in the works in Highland Park, California. A lot more lives will be saved from poverty simply by offering these young people a real chance to succeed, to grasp the tools they need to make it on their own. Give them a little help now and their dreams will become real through their own achievements. They want to dive into education, listen and be heard, give back to their communities. The opportunity we share is that real, that tangible. The need has never been greater, and we can make a difference.

If you’d like to join us in supporting these highly motivated kids who need our focus, attention, and love, please click here to make any contribution you can to further our work. As shown in the video, there is only one way to make a real difference, and that’s one kid at a time. Add them up, and pretty soon you change a neighborhood. Then a city. Then a society.

Dream a little. No one’s final path has to be determined at the outset. Everyone can make smarter choices when given the chance. Together we can embrace Learning a Different Way.

Tavis and Maya

Tavis and MayaEvery year the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books continues to cement itself in my psyche as a major go-to event. Now the largest book fair in the United States, its bustling aisles fill the USC campus for two days with eager authors and insatiable readers. Each year I joyously look forward to attending, not just for the schedule of talks I plan to experience, but for the inevitable surprises I discover. This year’s surprise was an exceptionally powerful book talk on an open-air stage by Tavis Smiley about his lifetime of interaction with Maya Angelou.

Although I have not yet read Smiley’s new book, My Journey with Maya, my takeaway from the forty-five minutes my wife and I listened to him speak was profound enough to report here as a stand-alone inspiration. Smiley talked openly and honestly about how he personally crashed and burned after a failed election campaign for Los Angeles City Council following a gig on the staff of Mayor Tom Bradley. With a mountain of campaign debt crushing him, he was to be evicted from his apartment with no prospect of employment. A friend arranged a happenstance job for him to travel with Angelou on a brief trip to Africa as an assistant, mostly to carry luggage. That kicked off a lifelong friendship and dialogue between them where they didn’t always agree, but Smiley always found a way to learn.

I’m going to read the book and I hope you will as well, so I won’t go into a lot of detail here on all he said. What I want to share are the two most striking learnings from Angelou that Smiley encoded, largely because they have been stuck in my head and churning ever since we stood there in the sunshine listening to him. I have only seen Smiley a few times on television over the years, but standing in front of him, hearing his passion, listening to the heartfelt words that flowed from his inner being completely coherently without any notes or podium, I was moved completely by the sweat and memory that poured from his soul. The two ideas that Angelou planted for growth in his brain couldn’t have been more relevant to me than if I’d heard her say them to me herself. As far as I am concerned, I think I did hear her speak on both counts, channeled in full energy by his voice calling on hers:

“Baby, we find our path by walking it.”

“Sometimes rejection is redirection.”

If you think those are just broad, sweeping, generic statements of advice from the elevated dais, stop here and go read someone else’s reflection, or perhaps today’s stock market results. On the other hand, if you’re like me, copy those words onto a Post-it and put them in plain sight for the next decade or so. When Maya speaks, it’s a good idea to listen. Tavis did, and his life was reinvented.

I write a lot on this blog and in my books about resilience and reinvention, the lifeblood of innovation. When I heard Smiley put the notion of self-motivation in so few words from Angelou, I was heartened, invigorated, and inspired. She got it. He got it. I wish everyone could get it. And still, transferring the words of others into action is immensely difficult, filled with pain, buried in setbacks, and only on the most wondrous of occasions celebrated in brief victories.

Smiley was adrift after losing his election and identity in public service. He sat stunned and stared at the failed image of himself. He wanted desperately to reinvent, but had no idea how. He was frozen. Angelou saw through him to his core. “Baby, we find our path by walking it.” If it had been a Nike commercial saying “Just do it,” it couldn’t have been clearer advice: Just do something. Do anything that matters to you. Find thought in action, not in dire contemplation. Whatever you do is better than nothing, and it will inevitably lead somewhere. Sometimes I tell people to form a plan—a conceptual roadmap of any kind—not because you will follow the path from here to there, but because if you start with a map, you will go somewhere, and that has to be better than nowhere. You won’t connect the dots—the dots will connect themselves in ways you never could have imagined. Yes, you find your path by walking it. Get busy. The rest will be discovered when you least expect it.

Smiley was crushed because the electorate said no to him. He wanted to serve, but the voters said “no thanks.” Again Angelou saw motivation in the otherwise unfortunate result. “Sometimes rejection is redirection.” If the voting public did not wish to recognize Smiley as an elected official, was that the only way he could realize his dreams? Obviously not, because a few years later Angelou appeared as a guest on Smiley’s national PBS talk show. How about that? From apartment eviction to the interviewer’s chair in so little time you almost think he made the whole thing up. He didn’t. He listened. He accepted “no” as meaning “not now, not here.” Then he went another way, and his dreams were realized beyond all imagination. Can it happen to you? Yes, if you see the negative before you as motivation to go another way. That new way might be a million times more fulfilling than what you thought was your only way. We have no only way, just opportunity to be who we need to be in an as-yet undiscovered path.

Both of these precepts have been guiding lights in my own life, yet until I heard Tavis channel Maya in an unplanned walk by the stage where he happened to be speaking when I was on my way to another place, I wasn’t aware how much I shared with so many others there on the grass listening intently to every word. Maybe we are more similar than different. Maybe we all do share the same dreams of enrichment and fulfillment. Maybe if we all listen to each other a little more closely, we can help each other get from the stagnant to the unstoppable. To quote another dreamer, “Imagine.”

I sure do love the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. I can’t wait until my walking path takes me back there next year for another dose of redirection. See you under the tents. I’ll be the guy taking copious notes, or maybe talking ideas if you start the conversation.

Let’s Argue About Something

The way to read the title of this article is “Let’s Argue about Something,” with the emphasis on the final word—as opposed to Nothing.

But now for something completely different. Remember this bit from Monty Python’s Flying Circus:

MPFS ArgumentA: An argument is not the same as contradiction.

B: Well, it can be!

A: No, it can’t! An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a definite proposition.

B: No, it isn’t!

A: Yes, it is! It isn’t just contradiction.

B: Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position!

A: But it isn’t just saying, “No, it isn’t.”

B: Yes, it is!

A: No, it isn’t! Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.

B: No, it isn’t!

A: Yes, it is!

B: Not at all!

Excerpt from Argument Clinic, Copyright 1972 Python (Monty) Pictures. Here’s the full video clip on the official Monty Python YouTube Channel:

What’s my argument here? There are some things I am not going to argue about anymore.

I am not going to argue about whether global warming is real. It’s real, and it’s a problem we need to address. This is settled science. If you haven’t bought into the settlement, I am sorry for your inability to grasp facts.

I am not going to argue about basic vaccines and immunizations for preventable diseases like measles, mumps, and rubella. Unless your doctor specially tells you your child must opt out for a clear reason, I believe you have a moral obligation to your child and an ethical obligation to society to get this done as soon as practicable.

I am not going to argue about who has a right to marry whomever he or she may select (absent DNA concerns around family history). This is a civil right. Civil rights are inviolable.

I am not going to argue about evolution and natural selection. I am not going to argue about the age of the Earth or the number of years human beings have been inhabiting it. I am also not going to argue that the science here is incompatible with religion, because many of the distinguished scientists who have proven these case studies have been profoundly religious people who aligned their faith with their findings. I have. I believe you can, too. If you don’t, I am not going to argue the point. It, too, is settled.

Why no more argument from me here? Because there is no point. These are not arguments. We have data at more than sufficient scale to make the findings. Thus these become matters of contradiction. If we don’t agree, there is nothing you can say to me to get me to change my mind, and I know there is nothing I can say to you to change your mind. Remember, for a few centuries now we no longer debate whether the Earth is flat or the sun revolves around it—there was plenty enough data collected to make those arguments moot. Likewise on the other referenced topics. I am moving on.

Want to argue? Cool, then let’s focus on subjectivity.

I will argue with you about tax policy—who should pay and how much. That’s a great argument to have.

I will argue with you about allocation options within the federal budget—entitlements,  debt, defense, infrastructure, social programs—we can have a great debate about that! If it turns into an argument, maybe we’ll learn from each other as long as we both commit to 50% talking and 50% listening.

I will argue with you about which wars can be justified, and which wars can’t. Yes, I think that is subjective, and people do change their minds about this over time.

I will argue with you about whether there will ever be a band as magnificent and important as the Beatles, whether Beethoven is a better composer than Mozart, and whether I am missing the point entirely on Katy Perry.

Essentially I will argue with you about any subject where I think by investing the time, passion, and energy, at least one of us might come away with even a slightly altered point of view. If I can learn from you by hearing you construct a reasonable case, I am open to it. If you can learn from me by believing there is a possibility I could construct a reasonable case, I will share it with you. I will spend as long with you on the argument as we both deem it interesting. Should we continue to disagree at the conclusion, as long as you have not lambasted me with an ad hominem attack, I promise to respect your opinion, however wrong you may be. Yet if you sneak back into emotional ideology that is not grounded in reason or supported assessment, I won’t argue with you again. Lucky you.

Now the ground rules. I promise to read widely about subjects of interest and study them before I subject you to my argument. I expect that you will do the same. If you don’t read much or challenge your own thinking before you subject me to it, let’s not bother. We can only do each other some good if we do ourselves some good as well. That means preparation. That means readiness. That means a serious consideration of the point at hand. That means caring enough to study and be well versed on a topic before passionately expressing a strident point of view. It worked in college. It will work in the real world.

Don’t like the rules? No worries. We don’t have to argue at all. I know lots of people who like these rules. I learn from those people every day. They make me a better person because they care about ideas. I trust them to stretch my mind and to prompt me to reconsider anything that can be reconsidered.

No, they don’t.

Yes, they do.

Are you contradicting me or seeking an argument?

Let me know before we engage.

What Should You Study to Be More Valuable in the Workforce?

webucatorWith so much recent talk and public debate about education as our path to prosperity, I was asked recently by a career training program what I believed were some key areas of focus students should pursue to assure job readiness. While I hardly consider myself a subject matter expert in this complex arena, the question certainly got me thinking about what I am looking for when I hire or when I recommend people for open positions. Here are three items I hope are obvious, but unfortunately may not be obvious enough.

Critical Thinking: These two words are so overused and misunderstood they are becoming clichés even before they are broadly adopted in practice. When I advocate critical thinking, I am talking about the ability to apply abstraction to a real-world problem, wrestle with the alternatives and implications in abstraction, and then synthesize the relevant tangents to a firm set of hypotheses that can be tested against the original problem. Here’s an example: Suppose the sales on your company’s website are trending poorly after a period of hyper growth and you are tasked with attacking the problem. The first thing I want you to do is abstract the problem, noting all the possible reasons sales could be down from seasonality to price to competition to product selection—you name it, the variables are endless. Now I want you to challenge your own reasoning against every one of those possibilities as they might apply in other real-word scenarios that are similar to yet somewhat different from your own business, whether it’s storefront sales or online sales in a different industry segment. Next I want you to narrow the possibilities to a set of concepts you can test so you are not boiling the ocean for an answer. Then of course I want you to act, where acting means collecting data that proves or disproves your hypotheses so you can make a recommendation. Studying math, science, philosophy, or the arts can help you learn critical thinking, but I promise you when you enter the workplace, the number of people you find who are really good at this will always be too few. That’s an opportunity for you to shine!

Fast Iteration: Coming directly down the path from critical thinking is fast iteration. What this means is that after you abstract a problem, you don’t have an endless amount of time to serve up your practical solution—competition is always coming at you without pause. You may have heard the phrase, “fail fast, fail often.” This is a mantra of Silicon Valley culture, where failure is often encouraged if it results in learning that can be applied. Fast iteration means framing a rough solution for a problem, testing it in application, reading the data and interpreting it quickly, and then putting a new version of your solution to test that incorporates the results of your prior test. Sometimes you’ll hear this referred to as A/B testing or multivariate testing. This is a fancy way of saying take something that sort of works, make a change of one kind or another, send some of your customers to the original version and others to the new version and see which one performs better. Then take the knowledge of what performs better and repeat the cycle, with a champion version of the work being the best one you have and the challenger being one where changes are being made. This cycle continues endlessly, and the faster you can make changes and test new assumptions, the faster you will make continual progress. Want to know what you should learn from science labs like chemistry and physics? Learn this method of inquiry. It can help you sell shoes, put rockets into outer space, cure disease, or make better ice cream.

Results-Driven Teamwork: This one flows nicely from fast iteration. I don’t care if you are the smartest person in the room if you can’t work well with others. Even if you are the smartest person in the room, you still can’t get things done as quickly as a small team of people who are all reasonably smart. We used to time people playing a really difficult computer game that would take the average person about 40 hours to solve alone. Two people could solve it together in about 25 hours. Three people could solve it in about 10 hours. Four people could solve it in about 3 hours. Funny enough, adding more than four people created diminishing returns, which also brings its own learning. The point is there is exponential leverage in putting teams against projects to work together by exchanging ideas and challenging each other’s thinking to move at lightning speed past dead ends and serve up new ideas that can be vetted and recalculated with extraordinary results. Most complicated challenges in the workplace today are broken down and resolved by individuals sharing ideas and refining plans, not so much resolving design by committee as building consensus through collaboration. Software engineering is a good example of this, as libraries can be compiled from contributors all over the world, many of whom you might never meet in person. You can learn this skill participating in team sports, playing in an orchestra, performing in a play, or being on the debate team—anywhere you have to be great at what you are doing, but the whole result is beyond what you could do on your own. That’s today’s workplace, a collection of specialized talents interacting as an empowered collective.

Obviously this is not meant to be a comprehensive framework for anyone’s curriculum, but I think if you embrace concepts like these, you will put yourself on a path to being a lifelong learner. Make no mistake: If you want to be successful, learning only begins in school. What you most need to learn from formal instruction is how to continue your learning on the job and off the job. If you learn how to learn again and again, your core skills will never become obsolete because you will be continually replenishing them year after year. Remember also the intangible values and qualities you bring into the workforce are as or more important than your learned skills. Think resilience, perseverance, integrity, flexibility, openness, honesty, and a positive attitude. More than a prestigious diploma, what you need to take from school is the ability to think on your feet, work well with others, embrace nonstop change, and never consider your learning mission complete.

When Reunions Work

High school and college reunions can be terrifying. When former classmates tell you that “you look the same,” how can that be? It might be a nice way of saying you look marvelous now, but does it also mean you looked 30 years older than you were back then? Does anyone really want to hear this? Does anyone really want to be in a conversation where looks come up at all? Or lifetime accomplishments? Or lack of lifetime accomplishments? Or thinly veiled comparisons of someone else’s bragging rights to your own?Paul Simon Art Garfunkel

Suppose it didn’t have to be that way. Suppose there was another way to do a reunion that was enlightening, uplifting, and actually fun. I’ve recently returned from one of those, and I wanted to share what I thought made it a success, along with the last few I attended.

Don’t focus on the then, focus on the next-to-be.

Reminiscing is not that interesting. If you’re like most people, it gets old quickly. At the college reunion I just attended, I found myself spending almost no time talking about the good ol’ days (or the not-so-good ol’ days). I spent most of my time talking about the future, what dreams and plans people currently have and how they are setting out to realize them. It was almost uncanny how little we talked about ourselves as 20-year-old people decades ago and how much we talked about ourselves as 80-year-old people decades from now. My sense is we all got the same memo: You can’t change the past, but you can invent the future. Hmm, which is more interesting, something you can still do something about, or something that is etched in stone? No question, hearing what people still wanted to do with their lives was a rallying cry for engagement, something we could share and something we looked forward to discussing again in five years when we next gathered.

Don’t just talk to people you knewmeet people you could have known and can still get to know now.

Unless you went to a very small school, it’s unlikely you knew everyone in your class. No doubt there is easy measure in finding a familiar face at a crowded party, but maybe that’s only half the story. Or less than half the story. We all had personal interests back then, took specific classes, might have lived in assigned dorms that kept our circle of encounters more contained than it could have been. Here you are now, surrounded by people with whom you might have only a timeline in common, but they have the same number of decades of learning that you do. Can you make new friends later in life? You can if you try. So try. Doors open when people connect, opportunities are unlocked, ideas are shaped and molded. You might even get to hear some new jokes, since you already know the ones your old friends keep telling.

Don’t worry about your perceived shortcomings; see if you can help someone.

We all have dreams. Something many of us have in common is that as we get older our dreams are less grand in perceived scope than they might have been when we were earlier on the path. That doesn’t mean they are less profound. Presume everyone around you has met challenges, overcome some, might be stuck by others. There, you have something else in common. As you network around the floor, think in terms of how perhaps you can offer a tiny bit of assistance to someone else, rather than what they could do for you. Can you listen to one of their eerie stories without judgment and lend a caring ear? Can you introduce someone looking for a job to a friend in your outside network? Do you know a decent insurance broker, honest painting contractor, in-network doctor, or responsible dog sitter who might help someone out of jam? Some of the reunion takes place at the reunion, but it doesn’t have to end there. We have email, texting, Facebook, LinkedIn, and an ancient contraption called the telephone for staying in touch and helping a classmate move forward. All you have to do is put up your hand and offer.

Don’t bring a resume, bring an appetite for good conversation.

One of the things I have enjoyed most about my reunions has been the opportunity to re-engage in abundant dialogue. I’m not talking about chit-chat or exchange of war story credentials or detailed itemizing of the Bluetooth extensions in your low-interest leased car. I’m talking about give-and-take discussion noting how the world has changed in the decades since we left campus. I’m talking about spirited but cordial debate of leaders in public office and business who impact our decision making. I’m talking about a deep verbal dive into a historical biography you and someone else read, a poem that caused you to rethink your values, a comedian who changed your point of view on a political topic through laughter, a social cause that changed the fairness in your community. If you’re at all like me, what you miss most about your school days was the absurd appropriateness of philosophical meandering, the complete normalcy of spending endless hours talking about which artist did or didn’t change the landscape of a craft, the actual line items in a Congressional bill that contradict each other because they are only meant to sound good. When you have financial obligations and work obligations and family obligations and almost no discretionary time in your daily routine, where do you get the refreshing power of pure intellectual exercise? If you haven’t had a good long non-consequential talk in a while, try it at the reunion. You may find it is a bucket or two more consequential than you otherwise believed.

Still not convinced? No worries, the Wayback Machine is not for everyone, but let me leave you with this: When I mention vacationing on a cruise ship or allocating PTO for a class reunion, the reaction is often a visceral: “That’s not for me.” I used to feel that way. Then I actually went on a cruise and had the time of my life, because I did it my way, with lots of daily shore activities and very few trips to the buffet. I had little desire for many years to go to a reunion and reminisce, so when I finally did go, I did anything but reminisce. If you haven’t actually done something, you may not know what it is, so don’t rule it out just because you think you know what it is. You can make any event into the adventure you want if you approach it with an open mind and a reasonable amount of humor.

Connecting with others is a gift that in many ways is without equal. Give that naysayer in you another try. I hope like me you have a blast.

Reading to Kids

Reading to KidsLast weekend my wife and I had the inspiring opportunity to spend the morning with five energetic first graders through a Los Angeles non-profit program called Reading to Kids.  As it is said about so many volunteer opportunities, I am sure we got way more out of it than the children.  It was an eye-opener on any number of levels.

Reading to Kids follows a simple but profound philosophy, that “the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children,” cited in the 1985 report of the Commission on Reading.  On the second Saturday of each month, volunteer recruits gather at one of seven underserved elementary schools near downtown Los Angeles, and are assigned in pairs to read an age appropriate book to small groups of kids beginning in Kindergarten and advancing to Grade 5.  The books are selected by the regular curriculum teachers at each of the seven schools, and are all award winners by well-known authors for children.

Training is provided on arrival, and new volunteers are paired with experienced participants, some of whom have shown up more than 50 times for the three-hour block!  After training and a chance to review the book, readers meet their groups on the playground, where parents are waiting with their eager kids to line up and walk the volunteer pairs to an assigned classroom.  Everyone is there because they want to be, even the school principal who walks around to make sure everything is going well.  The children are happy, exceptionally well-behaved, curious, excited, thankful, warm, all of that, well beyond expectations, even the shy ones.

We started as instructed with a thematic overview and picture tour of our assigned book — A Sick Day for Amos McGee — then read the book and acted out the characters, many of whom were animals from the zoo (I won’t spoil the ending).  We asked tons of questions of the children before turning each page, which they more than answered.  After we finished the book and discussion, we did an arts and crafts project about the book’s theme of friendship, making Valentine cards which the kids took home (some gave their artwork to the volunteer adult readers to say thank you).  At the end of the morning, every child is awarded a prize book to take home with them after a brief farewell ceremony.  A copy of each read-aloud book is then donated to the school’s library.

It’s that simple.  It’s beautifully organized, and we even went to lunch afterward with many of the other readers at a nearby restaurant that offered free snack trays.

Why in the world am I writing about this on my business blog?

It’s no secret that I have spent a reasonable amount of my career around children’s media, and that I have some deep convictions about the necessary link in learning between education and entertainment.  This experience was different.  What I saw before me at this Los Angeles Unified School District facility — surely in need of financial investment — were five young people as motivated about learning as any I have encountered in all my travels and focus tests.  There was one minor difference, English was their second language, even though they were growing up here in Southern California.  For my thinking, that actually put them at the head of the class — how many six-year olds do you know already equally fluent in two languages?  These children knew most of the words on the pages of our book, they had opinions about all the characters, they were willing to go out on a limb and predict how the story would twist and turn, and they were clearly able to interpret the moral of the story, that when we are at our weakest, we most depend on our friends.

These kids were amazing.  They have all the potential in the world.  They are ready to dream and learn and help each other and work hard.  As we drove home and I looked around at parts of Los Angeles where many of us don’t spend enough time, I wondered, where will these kids be in five years when they hit middle school?  In ten years when they are in high school?  Will they go to college?  Will they have the kinds of opportunities that will let their dreams come true?  I couldn’t know, but that’s what I wanted to happen.

We allow the subject of education to be politicized, but it’s not really a political topic in my mind.  Year after year, I fill out the surveys sent to me by government leaders, local and national, whichever party is in power, always asking for my priorities.  My priority for tax dollars never changes, I believe the priority has to be education.  If we want these kids to have good lives, they need education.  If we want our economy to thrive, we need an educated population.  If we want a new generation of businesses to be born and staffed, education is the proven route to success.  The thing is, at six years old on a Saturday morning, the kids are showing up, their parents are bringing them, so what they need they already want.  How can we not see that of every possible investment we could make with a taxpayer dollar, this is the one that will pay off?

Is there inefficiency in school districts and administration?  Of course.  Will these bright young kids soon enough become less exuberant adolescents?  History would seem to confirm that.  Do we have competing priorities for underserved community needs?  Without a doubt.  All of those are realities, which simply makes them challenges.  What I want to see are those first graders I met last weekend on a path to realize the same kinds of dreams we all share.  I think in a nation as great as ours we have a moral responsibility to make that happen, broadly for the greater good.

What can we all do to think globally and act locally?  First off, try a little volunteering.  Reading to Kids is one fine program among many, find one that makes a difference in your home town and sign up.  You will do good, and it will do your soul good.  Second, as the national debate on budget control escalates to hyperbole, think hard about where money should be saved and invested, with an emphasis on the notion of capital that can provide a return on investment, where human capital is the most precious resource we can nurture.  Third, if you are investing in your own future, consider investing in the future of our communities with whatever dollars you can afford, in the form of a donation, directed to a program you find of value.

Reading will always be one of the most magical experiences we enjoy as human beings.  A love of reading brings a love of learning, and that is a gift of boundless reward.  Spend three hours reading a children’s storybook to some kids you’ve never met and you might just learn more than they do.  I did.