Being a Nonprofit with Balls, Part 3
After several months, I was able to meet with Ted, Luke's multi-millionnaire friend. It had taken a while to arrange this meeting, and the coordination was done through Ted’s assistant, leaving me to conjure up the image of Ted as an elusive genius, like Batman inside his Bat Cave devising plans and building awesome gadgets to combat injustice.
I got there 20 minutes early, parked my car, and started googling Ted and his accomplishments. They were numerous and very impressive. Obviously he is a very smart man. And he's trying to improve education. Since I chair the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), which is trying to rally community-based organizations and schools to work together to help all the schools in Southeast Seattle succeed, my primary objective was to learn what he's doing, and to tell him about what SESEC has been up to, and see if there is any ground to collaborate.
The secondary objective was to convince him to give Southeast schools a gazillion trillion dollars.
He had a modest office, a small room tactfully decorated, and all around were pictures of his family. What a nice man, I thought.
"Thank you for meeting with me," I said, "I know you are extremely busy, and I am very appreciative of your time." He nodded. Behind his high-quality but simple desk, Ted described his effort with Luke to reform education. I asked him question after question, and he was open and articulate, the easy confidence of a man who has earned his laurels. One day, I thought, I too shall have the easy confidence of a man who has earned his laurels. And I’ll also have a high-quality yet unostentatious mahogany desk.
Ted is trying to build a movement that will change the educational tides, pushing agenda items that many would agree to, like giving principals more control, reducing bureaucracy, firing bad teachers, etc. As he talked, however, I was getting a little concerned. Not so much about his policy agenda, but about his approach to building the base.
"Our strategy is to target the low-hanging fruit," he said. I had heard this term before from Luke. Low-hanging fruit are families that are already engaged, have the language skills, don’t work several jobs to make ends meet, etc. “Basically, White families, and some Asian families,” Luke had said.
"So then high-hanging fruit," I said to Ted, "are people like immigrant/refugee families, or others who have language, socioeconomic, transportation barriers and other stuff they have to deal with that make them hard to reach?"
"Don't you think, though, sir, that these families have been historically left out of these types of discussion, even though we know they are MOST impacted by our flawed education system?"
He sighed. "Yes, but we only have so much funding.” He paused. “However, we do everything with them in mind."
I argued that this low-hanging fruit approach is one of the weaknesses of current educational advocacy efforts. How could you inspire people to action when you see them as passive fruit on a tree, waiting to be picked? And doing things with people "in mind" is patriarchal and condescending, which might even be OK if it were actually effective. It hasn't been. For several decades we have had this "achievement gap," and this approach has not been closing it.
Having worked in the community for a little bit of time, I understand the temptation to go fast, to go big. We get pressure by funders who are driven by regional, global reach. But it is counterproductive if in our urgency for change and for scope of impact, we leave behind the very people who most need this change. SESEC, comprising over 25 organizations and growing, take our time building relationship and trust and agreeing to a collective agenda. We are rallying diverse communities who speak different languages, who face all sorts of historical and political traumas, who are still trying to navigate a very complex system. We will not be able to quickly agree on anything. It is complicated and sometimes frustrating and always challenging.
It is also inspiring. We are starting to see the SE communities starting to work together. Funders and education advocates need to understand that it takes lots of time to build bridges. It takes years and a series of small victories, leading to medium ones, leading to big ones. It takes belief in the premise that those who are most impacted by anything should be leading the efforts to change it, no matter how messy that process might be.
For forty-five minutes I sat across from Ted. Debating with him didn't get me anywhere. I also realized nearing the end of our meeting that he never asked me once why I wanted to meet with him. He never asked me a single question about anything, in fact. I started telling him what SESEC is doing, which is precisely trying to engage these "high-hanging" fruit. He nodded, asking no follow-up question. He seemed both focused and bored; focused on his own methods, and bored by my attempts to argue with him and also present the work that SESEC has been doing. He was meeting with me probably only as a favor to Luke.
I thanked him for his time and left the Bat Cave disappointed. Ted seemed intellectually uncurious, as if his admittedly impressive success in life made him immune to ideas that run counter to his own. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne has vast resources to invest in new technologies that he uses to fight injustice. He is influential, connected to others who are just as powerful. Together they can change the world for the better. Batman becomes a symbol of hope for the city. I don’t think that was whom I met.
Or, who knows, maybe Ted just had a bad day. I want to give people the benefit of the doubt. Still, I wrote him the customary thank-you email and have yet to hear a response. Maybe I should hang lower.