After speaking with many partners on numerous college campuses this past year, and speaking with groups like the one assembled for Pathways to Prosperity at Harvard, IdeaGen in Washington DC, and CGI America in Denver, I find lots of opportunities to talk about the important work of educators, finding new ways to reach the underserved, and abundant innovations that bring learning to many. And then, at the very end of our discussions, I usually find a few people lingering afterward to ask me in hushed tones, “So did you mention, you really live in Detroit?”
The question inevitably shrouds the kind of shock and awe that awaits returning military veterans who face similar situations. I know the real question they’re asking is: “What’s it really like? Is it as bad as they say out there? Did you ever take flak or gunfire?” The strange thing is this: I live in downtown Detroit, the largest city to go through a municipal bankruptcy, and I work for a company that just exited bankruptcy. And you know what? Never in my life have I felt more optimistic about the future! What bankruptcy is teaching me is that we must re-define what we want our future to be. And as importantly, we must be the future we seek. For me, the future is about three things: education, interconnectedness and opportunity.
So I think the questions surrounding Detroit, my home town, are entirely relevant. First of all, education is ultimately local. Secondly, if the economic tsunami of 2008 taught us anything, it’s about the need to re-set. And a large municipal or corporate bankruptcy forces us to think about how we re-set everything from our approach to basic services to our expectations for what’s possible. Having an educated community is a solid starting point.
So let’s start with a simple snapshot of local life in my neighborhood for example. At the turn of the century, Detroit was America’s fastest growing and fourth largest city, with abundant prosperity. Today my neighborhood is rife with unparalleled unemployment and blight. You can’t swing a jump rope without hitting some formerly glamorous and currently unoccupied building in need of demolition. Over 70,000 buildings to be exact, which occupy an expanse the size of downtown Boston or Paris. Unemployment is stagnant at 14.5%, twice the state average, and structural unemployment is projected to be as high as 50% or greater, because 24% of adults above the age of 20 lack a ninth grade education and over 50% lack a high school diploma. Today, 4 out of 10 children in my Detroit neighborhood will not graduate from high school. This is not to gloss over tremendous progress being made in many quarters. Over the past year, the Detroit public school district’s graduation rate has increased from 59 to 64%. But this still means that 1/3 teenagers are not going to graduate from high school anytime soon. Now what makes this statistic interesting is that one of our county agencies, the Family Independence Agency, is posting graduation rates in excess of 90%. When taken together, what does this tell us?
By way of explanation, the Family Independence Agency is responsible for providing high school completion programs to juveniles who are Class A felons (those under 21 guilty of murder or first degree sexual assault). In a cruel twist, taken together, these statistics tell us that if you are a young man living in my neighborhood, between the ages of 14 and 17, you are almost twice as likely to graduate from high school if you sexually assault or kill someone. Somehow this doesn’t seem right on so many levels, and yet it is defining our future for so many. The larger question this poses is: How do we fix our education system? Where is the moral outrage? How do we create educational opportunities that aren’t solely dictated by our zip code, and where one happens to live. Bringing education online is part of the answer, but it still requires the human touch—close interaction between those learning and the learned. That’s where we need to get truly innovative.
Thinking about the example of Detroit, it doesn’t take much of a mental leap to say this is not the world we want to live in. We are the United States of America. We are the most powerful and prosperous nation in the history of the world. It doesn’t matter which political party we support, or to which organization we belong. In the short saga I’ve just described, we find not only a lesson in Detroit, but a lesson for our times. Detroit is simply a beacon that sends out a tiny ping, saying, “here.” It’s happening right here, right in front of us, and we cannot move ahead if we all don’t take a few steps forward together. For the motor city, a town that’s always been about mobility and putting people on the move since the turn of the last century, that’s a powerful signal.
With big challenges facing us right in our neighborhoods, at a breadth and scope like never before, many of us are asking deeper questions about our work, and our communities. In discussions among friends, neighbors and colleagues, my observation is that since the “economic tsunami” of 2008-9, many of us have consigned ourselves to the fact that we may have to work longer, save more, and spend less in order to make things work out in the end. But I also sense something deeper, a desire among people to connect to causes much more profound, work that is driving toward a much greater purpose. I think we are starting to ask ourselves, if I’m going to work longer, can the work I do make a difference in the lives of those around me?
How can I play a role in making a difference? Is it possible to do well, and do some good? What about cross sector collaboration? Creative shared value? Purpose economy? Leveraging private and public partnerships? Clearly acting alone will not be sufficient to the task at hand. The problems we are facing are too large to cover solo, and the consequences of inaction are far too sobering. We need to start mobilizing ourselves.
These are all bold notions, synergy and leverage and collaboration, but they also start sounding like business speak. Whether or not we work for the government, in the private sector or the non-profit realm, these words carry common currency until they get so overused that they mean little if anything. At the same time, if they don’t bring us together in some common cause, they’re irrelevant. I think that we are all poised to become part of a much bigger conspiracy of the caring. Think about this: we are in Washington DC today and we’re having a productive day. How many people can boast that? The opportunity in front of us then is to make a difference, and embrace others as never before to create a common cause, to create networks and make things viral and create a greater community of purpose. If education is a means to making a difference, than making education accessible to everyone certainly falls into that broad category of care. And let’s face it: in today’s strange political times, we can all appreciate a good conspiracy!
That’s why I love working at Cengage and ed2go, because I get to spend my days talking about things that actually matter—how to create solutions, and make a difference in the world of learning. These conversations are awfully important to be having now more than ever. Our work with CGI America this past year convinces us that we cannot waste a minute more figuring out who gets the credit and who carries the blame. In this past year working with everyone from the largest retailer on the planet (Walmart) to the biggest fast food company (McDonald’s), I’ve learned that at our level – the “people leader” level—folks really want to make a difference in their own organizations and across the divide that’s been separating us.
I’m not convinced big corporations are bad. I’ve met some of the most passionate, bright and devoted people across a broad expanse of organizations. Some may need to be guided or re-directed along the way. But in my conversations with people in myriad businesses, the desire to make a difference is as strong as it’s ever been, and the resolve is frankly greater than ever before.
So let’s figure out how to summon the resolve necessary to launch the greatest conspiracy ever, bringing caring folks from private, public and government organizations into the conversation. Let’s figure out a way to confront the day, confound the evildoers, and enable the encumbered along the way to provide the education, skills and tools necessary so we can compel real and lasting change.