Foundations of the Earth – Part I

Dano Jukanovich

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Behold, I am of small account.

Job, Hebrew Prophet

Teach for America (TFA) Corps members change the world for those students, families and colleagues they serve during their two years of contractual commitment and for the rest of their lives as they continue to advocate for educational equality.

David Brooks describes Wendy Kopp’s generation in his 2001 Atlantic Monthly article, “The Organization Kid,” as “extraordinarily bright, morally earnest and incredibly industrious.” Recruiting the first cohort of TFA teachers meant looking for replicas of the founder, Wendy Kopp, and her team: “hard-driving, high-achieving twenty-somethings who, when contemplating their futures, were filled with a mix of idealism and indecision, in equal measure.” Kopp wisely saw a need to appeal to the “Me Generation” with a program that would be highly selective, becoming the Rhodes Scholarship of service opportunities. With only a slightly greater than 12% acceptance rate, TFA qualifies. 

Unintentionally, TFA attracts those of us with a drive born of some insecurity that manifests in a need for approval. In one of its star recruits, Hrag Hamalian, TFA had transformed “a party-loving senior at Boston College with a double major and great grades” into “an overworked, stressed-out, lonely guy winging it as a teacher in a dysfunctional inner-city school thousands of miles from his home in New Jersey.” He was drowning in fear of failure under the weight of responsibility for these vulnerable kids.

It is possible to do both: work tirelessly to change the world while maintaining a healthy perspective on our vastly limited influence. Picture if you will for a moment, standing in the middle of an artisan’s compound in a rural African village watching the CEO of a US billion-dollar multinational tour the facility and engage with people in the village. The women range from young single mothers with barely enough to feed their children to elderly seamstresses who at fifty easily look seventy from a lifetime of literally scraping by. They are dressed in beautiful colors and welcome the CEO with a joyful traditional dance and song. He and his team paint a picture of economic development and empowerment that these women can experience by partnering in developing and making products for customers around the world. The people in the village truly have no context by which to grasp the scale of change this might bring to them and their community, but they are by nature and culture a hopeful and joyful group of people so they look forward to this amazing but incomprehensible future. Our business was intended to be the local partner responsible for making this grand vision a reality. I spent most of the day feeling like an outsider observing this drama that has played out thousands of times in developing countries over centuries where the white Western savior-figure comes and promises miracles, and actually spends a lot of money and time over many years, but concludes in shattered dreams inspired by false hope. It wasn’t a feeling of fear or dread or cynicism, but a healthy humility in face of the insurmountable, endemic problem of persistent poverty that we were implying we could solve for this community. It’s analogous to the Teach for America Corps of teachers parachuting into poor rural and urban schools aiming to solve the problem of educational inequality.

We joined the CEO that evening for a business dinner – to continue advancing the relationship in hopes of him hiring our firm to serve as the local implementing partner for this project. However, ours was not the textbook sales pitch. I wasn’t, in good conscience, able to leave that dinner without sharing the picture I had seen earlier in the day and the concerns it raised. I said, “we are aiming to address a problem that has existed at least for generations in this community. There are so many complex variables that have caused and maintained this persistent poverty – environment, education, culture, history, politics, and race or tribe to name some. We can bring all our money, education and training, business experience, compassion, passion and commitment, and we will do that to the utmost of our ability – but at the end of the day we are going up against insurmountable odds and success will be largely outside our control.” He responded with uncomfortably crossed arms and a positive, CEO-like “rah, rah, go team” speech about how we would “make it happen.”

As with the culture of Teach for America, there was nothing less than total commitment in what we proposed to that CEO. Similar to closing the educational opportunity gap, we knew we carried the treasure of the hope of Justice – taking form as economic opportunity in a place where persistent poverty had reigned for generations. But the difference in our corporate cultures was that we knew we carried the treasure in jars of clay – our own less-than-perfect humanness. We led with the reality that we lacked power to control our own destiny, let alone that of 5,000 of the world’s most economically disadvantaged.

With that recognition comes a capacity to serve even more effectively. Teach for America has branded itself a place for the best of the best altruistic young people to do justice today and step forward into a career that brings societal power and positive impact for years to come. Our concern for personal interests and the interests of others are indirectly correlated – the more of my capacity taken up by caring for my interests, the less capacity available to care for others’. To the extent an organization is built on the personal success of its members, that organization will by definition be less focused on advancing other’s interests, particularly in cases where those interests are misaligned. Using the extreme as proof, if Hrag Hamalian’s entire concern was about his students, he would have no space left to be concerned about whether he succeeded or failed. This is not a criticism of Teach for America alone, but of all of us “do-gooders.” We have to ask and understand how much of what we do is about our personal successes versus those of the ones we actually hope to serve.

There is no disputing the tens of thousands of Corps members’ and millions of students’ lives changed for the better by Teach for America over the last twenty-plus years. But there is a TFA culture that would lead to even deeper change through more truly selfless service by its Corps of teachers. That would be a TFA culture with not one heartbeat less of commitment, but instead a more holistic understanding that those beating hearts are treasures residing in jars of clay. TFA affects the change it envisions to the extent its leaders and Corps members care more for the success of their charges than for the organization’s or their own personal successes.

Masters of the Universe

Over just a decade, four of the most powerful men in the history of the world with both good and ill intentions, played an integral role in setting the stage for unprecedented human and financial losses that would nearly destroy Western civilization.

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