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Redefining Education through Technology

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One of the most fundamental errors we make as problem solvers is to define a problem in an overly narrow way, in essence limiting our success from the very beginning.

Perhaps this is what we are doing with education.

When I reflect on my own efforts to add value in the field, they have focused largely on introducing innovation within systems that are inherently insensitive and unresponsive. My approach has been one of strategy and mediation, delicately avoiding areas of extreme dysfunction while creating pockets of shared interest and capacity.

The ultimate limitation of this approach was recently revealed as I found myself pondering how to best introduce 1:1 technology within the Buffalo Schools. Although the opportunity of interest- providing low-cost tablets manufactured by a brilliant new company, Bak USA- is undeniably advantageous and well aligned with our hopes and goals for city students, figuring out how to navigate the layers of complexity quickly became an exercise in frustration.

And then it dawned on me. Maybe it wasn’t about the schools. Maybe we had been defining the problem incorrectly.

Ultimately, our goal is to open possibilities. By putting tablets in the hands of all students, especially those from impoverished backgrounds, we can afford them access to a world of knowledge and opportunity- the same access that is fueling our most exciting paradigms and innovations.

But trying to force these notions of open access and opportunity into the constraints of a system that perpetuates the very opposite? Suddenly, the folly of my thinking became apparent. We find ourselves trapped by the very definitions of education that spawned the system that now traps us.

Those who follow my work can anticipate where I’m heading. By redefining the problem as one of cultivating talent in its most varied and abundant forms, and connecting talent with opportunities for growth and impact (see my TEDx talk), we can free ourselves from viewing the schools as our primary solution or vehicle for empowerment.  In fact by doing so, it moves the responsibility for stewardship and cultivation to the highest levels of community leadership.

We already know that inequality of opportunity, and measures of success, can be mapped largely to the learning that takes place outside of school, reading and conversations at home, summer enrichment, interaction with mentors and role models, and all the opportunities to navigate and study the systems that regulate growth and advancement. Accordingly, this same out of school time becomes an obvious vehicle for enrichment and empowerment. The beauty of technology lies in its ability to bring a world of opportunity and learning to those who are traditionally left out or behind, and reach them wherever they are and wish to go.

Rather than seeing technology as a luxury or a threat to short-sighted self-interests, we need to challenge ourselves and one another to think beyond the constraints that continue to limit our collective growth. By redefining our notions of education and harnessing the power of technology, we can finally realize the benefits of talent in its most diverse and abundant forms.

moral murkiness

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Recently I uncovered the full extent of my obsession with moral complexity. After opening a box of mementos that included artifacts from my entire life, I found myself racing past the photos and yearbooks and diving breathlessly into a stack of Ethics papers from my first year of college. As if discovering the Holy Grail, I poured over my final exam, an analysis of case studies conducted through the lenses of various theoretical approaches.

The cases were extreme examples of moral transgression. They included gross abuses of power, failure to intervene in heinous crimes, all clear-cut scenarios that could be neatly unpacked and dissected for the purposes of assessment. I recalled that it was soon after this exam that I left the major of Philosophy. It had felt too detached and esoteric, barely relevant to the dangerous challenges that threatened our society and even then captured my attention. After leaving Philosophy I had done a brief stint in English which I greatly enjoyed until realizing that I only liked to read and write about people, and especially those toiling with deep and complex moral crises. I had been relieved to finally find a home in Psychology, and eventually the world of Cognition, where I could explore the underlying structures and processes involved in decision making.

How ironic that as I reread my final Ethics paper, almost twenty-five years since I wrote it, I couldn’t help resonating with the relevance of the analyses and the obstacles they revealed. Without even realizing it, I found myself reading the paper yet again, this time inserting the case study of public education for analysis and moral critique. The most recent Buffalo News article about the dysfunction of the School Board and its likeness to a reality TV show echoed in my mind- name calling, accusations of self-interest and political pandering, all swirling around high-stakes decisions about closing and transforming city schools.

My paper had walked through some common approaches to moral analysis, the thinking behind decision making which can undermine the reasoning that serves as the foundation for a strong and healthy society. Moral relativism, egoism, dogmatism, and polarization- all flavors of self-centeredness that trap individuals in the emotions associated with protecting and aggrandizing their own views. In my paper I had made the point that although feelings are often good indicators for what’s right and wrong, ethical reasoning involves much more than venting one’s feelings.

And yet somehow it seems that we have plunged ourselves in a moral swam, indulging in a never-ending stew of self-validation and attack. Clearly, the issues facing our public schools- and other key social systems- are much more complex and multi-faceted than mere issues of ethics or morality. They involve structural and systems-level failures that call for strategic and bold solutions, perhaps better tethered to the world of Cognition than Philosophy. And yet, ironically the very same critique holds true. Emotionalism and self-centeredness always get in the way of good decision making, especially when our decisions have critical implications for the world in which we live.

Because Words DO Matter

I recently attended a press event and left dumbfounded by the remarks of the presiding dignitaries. The vast majority either didn’t make sense at all, or were essentially vacuous in terms of actionable promises. Since literally bolting from the event, I have found myself pondering the importance of words as they relate to community development.

I have already confessed my general fascination with words in an early post https://marabhuber.com/2014/03/24/sculpting-our-words/, but in this case I’m reflecting on the lack of intellectual and ethical discipline that they often convey. Just recently I was accused in a LinkedIn group of being too academic and using “the turgid style that seems to say: “I’m smarter than you are.” The critic urged me to say what I mean. While I admit that I have often been accused of being difficult to understand, I would argue that my intentions are at least noble. In choosing my words, whether verbal or written, I strive and struggle for clarity and precision. In the world of higher education, which is my home, and more specifically in the realm of research, we are left to constantly defend the veracity of our assertions, and so we take our words very seriously. Whether in peer reviewed articles, presentations, or meetings, our words are scrutinized for logic and proof, and accordingly they serve as the very foundation on which our relationships and reputations are built.

I realize that Higher Education is not the real world, and that many “normal” people would argue that academics get lost in words and their meanings. Yet I strongly believe that regardless of your background or professional culture, words DO matter and should be treated with more care and thoughtfulness. And I would assert that this is especially true when we deal with matters of community development.

Why? Well, for one reason words are simply not interchangeable. It’s true that we have multiple words to describe similar ideas or concepts, but each connotes nuanced distinctions that are subtle yet important enough to be named. The differences between a partner and a customer, an opportunity and a contract, collaboration and commitment all become extremely important as projects play out, grants run their course, or tensions begin to rise. The ability to articulate one’s goals, needs, and boundaries in a way that is respectful yet clear can make all the difference in project outcomes and the ultimate longevity of relationships.

This is especially the case in community development where organizations are seeking to help and add value in humanitarian ways, while at the same time attending to their own budgetary needs and agendas. Even when all parties are nonprofit with no direct gains or monetary interests, the complexities of their missions and funding sources and associated political lifelines guarantee that ethical conflicts and landmines will abound. Without the ability to clearly articulate and maintain one’s position using carefully selected words with their associated meanings, the promise of successfully navigating the treacherous waters of community development will remain dismal at best.

Who is that Leader in Buffalo, NY?

I hope you can help me.

I’m looking for the name of a specific community leader, the one with the courage, commitment, and most importantly the capacity to bring us all together.

I’m not talking about waterfront development, or tourism. We’ve got those areas covered, and I too am excited by the growth.

The leader I’m searching for is focused on human capital- someone who understands the complexities of politics and poverty, but is driven ultimately by the promise of untapped potential; someone who can see and work across systems and is not constrained by specific agendas or ideologies. The leader I am seeking is a facilitator, a designer, a navigator of complexity, someone with thick skin who can deflect the negativity and fickleness that so quickly emerge, someone exceptionally smart, and definitely kind.

We are certainly not lacking in community leaders.  But I don’t think they’re the ones I’m looking for. And I have been waiting for so very long.

My search began back in 2007 when I was working with former Superintendent of Schools, Dr. James Williams, as liaison for higher education partnerships. When he would introduce me to leaders from various sectors of the city, I would pose the question in the most earnest and hopeful way, explaining that I was eager to offer my assistance once I could identify the right person.

Can you believe that in over eight years of asking the question, I haven’t gotten a single enthusiastic response- not one.

Since leaving my role with Superintendent Williams and returning to my work at the University at Buffalo, I have pulled back from the world of educational partnerships, waiting for the dust to settle so that I could identify the appropriate opportunity to reengage.  And throughout the years and months I have continued to ask my question.

Just recently I learned of Mr. Wilmer’s press event and grew excited that perhaps the time had finally come. If Mr. Wilmers, a leader for whom I have great respect and admiration, a leader who makes big things happen for our community and schools, if he was rallying the troops, then maybe we could finally get something accomplished.  But alas, I was told by numerous attendees that he was clearly not the one, that he had emphasized throughout his presentation that he was a banker and not an educator, and that the responsible community leaders needed to step up and find a way forward.

And then just this morning, a few brief minutes ago, I read of the upcoming Superintendent search and the School Board’s expectation that there must be a suitable internal candidate, a principal, who can step up and lead the District forward.

My heart aches as I ponder the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. I continue to ask myself who is that leader, and I am hoping desperately that one of you knows.

Systems Calibration: How Boards Can Save our Most Challenged School Districts

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Once we establish that our education system is complex, fragile, and precious (see earlier posts), the responsibility of leadership becomes one of calibration.

In https://marabhuber.com/2015/01/17/towards-a-practical-and-scalable-solution-for-saving-our-most-precious-and-vulnerable-community-systems/ we identified key points of fragility within school systems that can be tightened through  self-study or guided evaluation. They include internal organizational integrity, co-evolution of the system with its environment, and the vision toward which the system is moving. While these areas can be tweaked independently, the complexity of their interactions demands a highly strategic approach that addresses the system in its entirety, identifying key levers of change that can be manipulated toward greater functionality and optimization of outputs.

If we examine the education system, and more specifically our most challenged school districts through the lens of complex adaptive systems, we can begin to appreciate the urgent need for calibration. While urban districts are vastly complex, they are also dangerously out of alignment with their key facets (internal organization; co-evolution; and vision) functioning at cross-purposes, and little comprehensive control or oversight. Accordingly, even when the system tries to pivot or refocus on some new mandate or external expectation, there is no effective mechanism for doing so, with even the most well intentioned efforts throwing the system into greater misalignment and instability.

With that said, it is entirely possible to recalibrate our education systems, but it is clearly a design challenge. In doing so, we need to view individual components through the lens of the greater system and place them within their respective places. Teacher unions and contracts, state mandates and assessments, school-level operations and policies, these are all components or variables that are critical to the ultimate performance of our school systems. But none of them, individually, should be drivers, determining the functionality or vision of the entire system. When given disproportionate weight or power, any of these components can begin to lead, causing further misalignment and fragility, not to mention compromised performance, ultimately threatening the viability of the systems themselves. Put simply, our most challenged school districts have become so complex, fragile, and misaligned, that they are no longer viable or sustainable.

If we are serious about fixing our education system, and more specifically our failing school districts, we must begin to view leadership through the lens of calibration. Ultimately, our school boards are responsible for setting the vision and overseeing progress. And yet few boards fully accept this responsibility and have the competencies or support necessary for doing the work. Clearly, boards can not to do it alone. Consultants and accrediting bodies, along with community foundations and consortiums, should provide the frameworks and strategic support needed to guide them through the complex and important processes, helping them clarify the necessary steps and roles that need to be filled. Only when this design work is done effectively can superintendents and leadership staff be hired based on their ability to lead and execute the identified plans.  Only then can we begin to recalibrate our systems and achieve the results we seek not by chance, but by design.

Towards a Practical and Scalable Solution for Saving our Most Precious and Vulnerable Community Systems

If we accept the premise that non-profits are both highly precious and vulnerable, then the obvious question becomes how to save them. Based on responses to my last post, https://marabhuber.com/2015/01/11/why-stability-isnt-always-a-good-thing-nonprofits-as-complex-dynamic-systems/, the complex adaptive systems approach appears to be a useful paradigm that resonates for both the modeling and theoretical community, and those in the trenches involved directly with board governance.

Towards the goal of pushing this notion further, I offer a general analysis with recommendations that are both highly practical and scalable. And although this process should apply to any non-profit system, I will focus primarily on public education since it is particularly complex and urgent with regard to community health and sustainability.

Step 1: Identify the major points of system fragility that require our focused attention and support. A review of “A Mathematical Theory of Sustainability and Sustainable Development” by Ricardo Alvira (2014) suggests that the following might be particularly salient:

  1. Organization of the system– the interacting parts that distinguish the system from its environment

With regard to non-profits this refers to the organization’s programs, structures, and processes that together comprise its unique identity. Alvira notes that adaptive systems move toward dissolution over time, and while there is a need to adapt and change to respond to changes in the environment, systems must maintain some internal stability in order to evolve. How non-profits “hang together” in terms of their various components represents a particular area of concern since they tend to become increasingly complex and rigid over time, due largely to diversification of funding sources and associated expectations.

  1. Co-evolution with the environment. Since environments are also systems that change over time, interactions between the system and its ambient environment can have significant effects on efficacy and sustainability

For non-profits, changes in the environment have significant implications for the work that is done. With regard to education, mandates and programs required or incentivized by state and federal agencies and/or funding sources can have major effects on the operations of school districts and the associated student experiences. In fact, if powerful enough, such mandates can result in entire school systems reorganizing to respond to their changing expectations. How these systems interact and influence one another is a major source of fragility and concern.

  1. Directionality- Adaptive systems move toward some desired state

Although non-profits are influenced by changes in the environment to which they must respond, they are ultimately steered by some aspirational vision set by their leadership. On paper, boards are often responsible for setting the vision and stewarding movement toward the desired state. And yet many boards abdicate this responsibility and control to executive directors or other paid leaders. The relationship between the vision setting and implementation for non-profits is another critical point of fragility to consider and address.

Because these three components interact in complex and unpredictable ways, any meaningful support must address all aspects simultaneously, helping the system move toward an optimal state through which it can achieve stability, nimbleness, and directionality in the face of ongoing uncertainty and change.

Step 2: Identify existing frameworks and/or processes that can offer support related to these specified structural focus areas. Because complex adaptive systems are found across so many domains of study and application, and because we have developed specialized toolkits and frameworks within these individual fields https://marabhuber.com/2015/01/03/unstuck/, it stands to reason that usable framework already exist and can be adapted and brought to scale for our current purposes.

Based on my own experiences in higher education, I would suggest that self-study frameworks associated with program accreditation offer the type of support that we are seeking. Specifically, I would suggest that the original TEAC (Teacher Education Accrediting Council) framework represents a particularly robust and useful paradigm to be explored.

In general, self-study involves a comprehensive examination of system components to evaluate and improve overall efficacy and sustainability. While different professional programs and associated accrediting bodies call for specific learning standards and competencies, they all guide organizations in the self-study process, setting standards for evidence of programmatic efficacy and quality, and offering related support and assurances.

I am particularly drawn to the TEAC framework as it emphasizes the very aspects of complex adaptive systems that we have identified through our analysis. Although these relate specifically to education related programs (associated with teacher education and educational leadership), they seem to hold for non-profits in general and certainly the public education systems that we are addressing. Specifically, the framework examines:

  • Program rationale- how the program “hangs together” with regard to their various components, processes, and assessments. Programs are asked to provide a comprehensive cross-walk connecting all components both conceptually and statistically to demonstrate cohesion, stability, and relevance with regard to environmental contexts. In order to do this successfully, systems must make sense of their respective complexity, unifying programs around common philosophies, themes, and constructs toward greater clarity and stability.
  • Institutional capacity- whether there is sufficient institutional buy-in and support to sustain the program. TEAC auditors meet with institutional leaders to ensure that the vision and mission of the program is supported, and those who are responsible for stewarding and implementing the program have capacity to do so even in the face of ongoing uncertainty and change. This aspect of the process gets at the “directionality” of non-profit functioning, and could address whether boards have sufficient understanding and capacity to effectively steward these complex adaptive systems.
  • Quality control systems- TEAC requires that all programs have functioning quality control systems that allow them to ensure a high level of quality and consistency while effectively addressing any challenges or exceptions that should arise. A required audit forces programs to check the clarity and fidelity of their systems, identifying any issues and making appropriate changes. In the end, the quality control process cuts across all aspects of complexity that we have identified. Unless the system can consistently produce the outputs that it is designed to produce, regardless of the degree or type of variations that might occur, the system cannot ensure fidelity, efficacy, or sustainability.

As someone who has participated in the TEAC process at multiple levels, including co-leading an institutional self-study, participating in a program audit, and serving on the accreditation review process, I have witnessed the impact of the process on the organizations themselves. By simply going through the process, organizations change and tighten their programs and related functions. They become more cohesive, nimble, and effective and better positioned to select the right leaders and staff. If the process is clear with appropriate support mechanisms and staff, virtually any program or system can work through it with minimal cost and disruption, making it a highly practical solution for strengthening and ultimately saving our most complex and vulnerable non-profits.

Step 3: Identify mechanisms for bringing solution to scale.

Even if I could convince people of the value of guided self-study with regard to the stewardship of non-profits, the ultimate challenge is how to bring such frameworks to scale. To be honest, the primary (and perhaps only) reason higher education embraces these processes, is because they are mandated to do so in order to remain accredited or receive important designations that are tied to enrollments or growth. We would be delusional to think that non-profits will voluntarily embrace accreditation or self-study as a means of self-improvement. Nor should we look to regulatory bodies to mandate such processes, hoping that they will get it right and/or utilize these frameworks in an appropriate or idealized fashion.

Instead I recommend that we begin by making these frameworks available to those who naturally see the value, working with foundations that support board governance and community development and who understand the complexity and fragility associated with these areas of focus. By starting as a pilot, we can begin to study the impact of such frameworks on the efficacy of non-profits and the communities they serve.

When we are ready to bring participation to scale we can encourage the active endorsement by key funders, employers, and governmental agencies that offer resources and support on which the non-profits rely. Just as complex dynamic systems inherently re-organize to address changing environmental constraints and opportunities, so too will our community organizations as expectations for internal cohesion, nimbleness, and capacity for stewardship begin to increase.

Ultimately, we as communities and a collective society set the directionality and expectations for our non-profits. Only when we understand the inherent complexity and fragility of their work, and the preciousness of the communities they serve, can we begin to truly support and steward their potential through solutions that are both practical and scalable.

Why Stability Isn’t Always a Good Thing: Nonprofits as Complex Dynamic Systems

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When it comes to the future of our communities, nonprofits should be of considerable interest and concern. Since we rely heavily on their associated outputs, especially for our most vulnerable communities and social sectors, we have a responsibility to ensure their continued viability and efficacy.

Our primary mechanism for monitoring and optimizing nonprofits is through board governance. Whether via boards of directors, trustees, school boards, or advisory committees, we expect these groups of highly qualified individuals (however measured) to ensure the continued effectiveness, efficiency, and sustainability of organizations, making necessary decisions, adjustments, and investments while monitoring the nonprofit’s health via ongoing assessment and evaluation.

By assembling what we perceive to be highly competent boards comprised of well-educated and/or respected individuals, we believe that our organizations are in good hands. And when it comes to assessing and monitoring their effectiveness, we assume that their efficacy is reflected largely by their ability to obtain funding and sustain their respective work. Since grants and direct contributions are the primary sources of funding for community organizations and nonprofits, they must continually make a case for their viability, complying with funder expectations and demonstrating the quality and need for their work via programmatic outputs and impacts. Accordingly, if an organization is able to thrive and continue to support its respective efforts, then it must be a doing a good job, and should be viewed as an important community asset worthy of ongoing support.

This thinking is both circular and dangerous, given the prominent role that nonprofits play in our communities and larger society. Clearly, fiscal stability is often an important indicator of organizational success. Yet when it comes to the world of nonprofits and social needs, organizational stability, in its traditional manifestations, can actually inhibit optimization of impact.

In order to explore this assertion, we must step into the fascinating world of complex dynamic systems, a field of inquiry that draws on insights from diverse fields of study including biological systems, computers, AI, cognitive science, and other domains towards the goal of understanding and modeling approaches that yield optimal performance and efficacy.

If you think of nonprofits as systems, with inputs, outputs, and internal programmatic functions, you might assume that they are largely self-regulating. If the organization is doing a good job and fulfills its purpose and mission, then it should thrive and remain relevant and robust. Conversely, if its mission and work are no longer effective or in alignment with the needs of the community, then its ability to sustain itself should be compromised, favoring emergent states of adaptation and nimbleness through sensitivity to both internal and external factors, and an ability to flex and pivot as needed.

However, rather than programmatic pivoting, organizations have a tendency to layer themselves in complexity. Even though they may start with a clear and simple mission, they tend to become increasingly complex over time. Because of their inherent need for self-funding, which is largely tied to specified programming, their ability to grow or sustain themselves often leads to new layers of programmatic and staffing complexity.

On a systems level, we rarely see parameter setting for the number or diversity of concurrent programs. In other words, the notion that adding new programs inherently necessitates the cessation of existing programs is rare at the policy or leadership levels. Instead, the assumption is that existing programs are important and necessary, and should be maintained if at all possible. Accordingly, the need to self-sustain and grow becomes the functional focus of the system, with leaders and boards selected and maintained based on their ability to meet this expectation.

By definition, as organizations become more complex from an infrastructure and programmatic standpoint, they become more opaque and less sensitive to internal and external changes. This in turn can make them more rigid and unable to adapt. Although when viewed through the lens of community needs, this tendency should trigger concern and a sense of vulnerability, it is not necessarily perceived or treated as such. Because we have not developed sensitivities to these types of metrics or systems-level fragilities, notions of stability and fiscal health remain our proxies for efficacy. As long as our systems are able to feed and sustain themselves, we can enjoy a false sense of security associated with this notion of stability.

In the end, organizational leaders and the boards that sustain and steward them are ultimately responsible for the future of our community organizations and nonprofits. Perhaps by adopting new levels of programmatic discipline and restraint we can force our organizations to be more nimble and responsive, and less susceptible to the dangers of layered complexity.

So You Want to Change the World?…..

I know you’re out there, even though I cannot see you.

Maybe we have already met. Or perhaps our paths are yet to cross in some interesting or circuitous way. That’s how it usually happens, some chance encounter or a connection through a friend. Or sometimes just a radiant energy that leads to further conversation. Although your stories are all unique, a distinct pattern has begun to weave itself. Perhaps the following profile resonates…

Although people are naturally drawn to you, you often feel alone, fundamentally different from those around you, like an outsider peering in.

Although you experience joy, you would not describe yourself as fun in the usual sense. Your happiness has a serious and reflective quality, a kind of gratitude rather than youthful abandon.

Although you are an achiever, you seldom take pride or satisfaction in your accomplishments. Instead, you refocus on the work ahead, yearning to use your gifts and talents toward the greatest impact.

You are at your best when serving others, and although you feel blessed with a strong sense of purpose and mission, sometimes these gifts feel like heavy burdens that are yours alone to bear.

Perhaps I know you because I am of your kind, and I seem to have developed a heightened sensitivity to your energy- like an airy layer of possibility floating above the negativity and fear that protect the status quo.

The great news is that our number is growing, and those who radiate the strongest are young and brilliant, determined to use their talents to make significant and lasting change. They seem to know instinctively that our systems are broken, and they are ready to serve and lead, understanding that the two are inexorably linked. And perhaps most importantly, they are not afraid.

But they desperately need our help. Their power can only be activated through opportunities to mobilize and leverage their gifts. When the spaces (or jobs) are too tight or restrictive, or the goals too narrowly defined, their potential fails to be realized, with only the most local benefits and impacts.

In order to increase their numbers, we must actively cultivate the talents, passion, and sense of purpose that lie latent within all children and adults. But for these young professionals, the Super Stars who are ready and eager to make their mark on the world, we must put their talents to use recognizing that they are special and finding ways to connect them with the communities they long to serve.

For those of us lucky enough to meet these individuals, we must serve as their mentors and sponsors, helping organizations utilize their talents either through existing or customized opportunities. And when necessary, we must help them create new models and paradigms, connecting them with resources and support, nurturing their efforts and helping them take root.  This clearly calls for a deepened level of engagement and commitment.  However, once we contemplate the implications, we will realize that the true burden- and possibilities- are collectively ours to bear.

Flipping the Success Pipeline

Our society loves Super Stars, those select individuals who possess exceptional beauty, talent, and dispositions that propel them to places of privilege and honor. Their lives and successes serve as the premise for our aspirations, entertainment, and the massive industries that sell access to their worlds. With our collective adoration in mind it’s not surprising that we seek out early indications of stardom and compete for opportunities to nurture and support success, fast-tracking those with the most promise with elite education, scholarships, positions, and opportunities. This is the pipeline that is most direct and efficient, and the one that most artfully perpetuates the status quo.

Don’t get me wrong, many who obtain positions of success and privilege do great things with their resources, serving on boards, establishing foundations, and subsidizing our most needed services. The undeniable fact is that without successful individuals who are philanthropically and civically minded, many of our communities would be stripped of the very assets and resources that we have come to rely on for our quality of life. Rightly so, we admire these individuals and appreciate their generosity, recognizing that they are special in going beyond the expectations that accompany the attainment of success.

But if we were to flip the pipeline and view stardom entirely through the lens of community development, would we select the same individuals to lavish with resources and support? While financial success would remain a viable pathway for making contributions, we would see it as at best indirect and inefficient. Simply waiting for and hoping that individuals will give back to their respective communities in ways that are significant and meaningful, and that these efforts in turn will translate into growth, is like waiting for Godot.

If we were serious about strengthening our communities our scouting for potential stars would look much different. We would seek out individuals who are closest to the challenges and problems, those who recognize the assets and capacities that could be leveraged and mobilized to make positive change. We would search for natural leaders from among our most challenged and underdeveloped communities and neighborhoods, those with a sense of urgency who spend their time and energies dreaming up solutions and developing their own capacity to catalyze change.

We would recognize that these are the people who are especially poised for success, and we would fall over ourselves for chances to cultivate and support their ideas, arming them with tools – leadership development, strategic planning, asset mapping, grant writing, mediation…. any strategies or paradigms that could aid their efforts and support our collective goal of making our communities stronger and our society healthier.  And once we prepared these individuals, organizations and systems would compete for them, offering signing bonuses and perks, recognizing their value in terms of furthering their respective missions and cultivating new and better opportunities associated with enhanced human capital and a more fully developed workforce.

What would happen then? Well, once these individuals achieved the success and notoriety that we have come to adore, they would start to become the premise for our aspirations, entertainment, and the industries that sell access to their worlds….

My Second Epiphany

My first epiphany came several years ago when I realized that I could maximize my impact by helping others fulfill their potential. For much of my life I had carried a sense of heaviness, searching for ways to satisfy my mission and civic responsibility. Although I found pleasure in developing community programs and collaborations, I knew that my efforts were inherently limited and that knowledge left me frustrated and sad. So when I finally discovered that I could amplify and leverage my own talents by helping others navigate their journeys toward success, I was both relieved and anxious to offer my support to the greatest scale.

 My eagerness resulted in an open door policy. I tried to help anyone who came my way, offering my connections, strategies, and even a temporary home for students in need of support or guidance. As I came to recognize the importance of professional development, I worked to synthesize my experiences into processes and frameworks, offering workshops, articles, and even a TEDx talk, all in an effort to help others become unstuck and actualize their talents toward the greater good.

 Although well intentioned, my logic behind this approach was fundamentally flawed. I was working from a false assumption that because all individuals possess talents, which I know to be true, they represent equally good investments in terms of my time and resources. I now know that this is not the case- my second epiphany- and that in reality, individuals vary considerably with regard to their respective return on investment potential.

 To be clear, I still believe that everyone has something to contribute and that we cannot see or appreciate the long-term impacts of our individual actions and relationships. But when it comes to making meaningful and timely change within our most challenged communities and neighborhoods, certain individuals are clearly more poised to be agents of change. These are individuals who are intimately close to the problems and potential solutions, have a sense of mission and urgency, and are already adding value, yearning to do more and better through their own success and leadership.

 I now understand that these are the people I am most interested in supporting. And I believe, at least I think, that they definitely need support. Being from challenged and impoverished communities, their own success is not assured. Instead, navigating the education system and the various obstacles that block and limit opportunities can consume their energies and resources. But layering the additional intricacies of understanding and impacting the systems and structures affecting their communities calls for knowledge, competencies, and connections that can take a lifetime to develop.

 But imagine the rewards if we fast-track the rising stars within our most challenged communities, nurturing and supporting them with all the riches we already bestow on those deemed worthy through traditional leadership and mentoring programs.  In what exciting and unexpected ways will our communities grow, and what will we look and feel like as a healthy, vibrant culture that not only embraces diversity but seeds and nurtures it from within?

I can’t wait to find out.