Monday, April 7, 2014

“The key to the future is finding the positive stories and getting people to tell them to each other.”

Last week I was in New York to speak at a social entrepreneurship forum that took its name, Go Big or Go Home, from one of the articles I’d written about our No Kid Hungry strategy.  As I was walking toward the event at an NYU auditorium on Washington Square I passed another building, the Judson Memorial Church that had a quote on the wall that caught my eye. It was from Pete Seeger, the folk singer who died earlier this year at the age of 94, and one of my long-time heroes.  It said: “The key to the future is finding the positive stories and getting people to tell them to each other.” 

The nature of songwriting is to take an experience or idea and boil it down to its essence and Seeger’s words did exactly that. I stopped and scribbled them down because his sentiments felt like a wonderful reinforcement of exactly what we’ve been doing: at the NGA summit in Detroit, with our new partner Good Housekeeping, in our videos about school breakfast, in our recruiting for Dine Out at the Restaurant Leadership Conference in Arizona, on our Facebook page and Twitter feed, in the best practices that Community Wealth Partners share with clients, and in so many other ways.

We’re not just finding the positive stories, we’re creating them. But Seeger’s point is that is not enough. People are inspired by learning of positive outcomes, what works, knowing a problem is solvable, and by those who hold themselves accountable for solving it. Small steps forward play as valuable a role as the large. And so we must continue to find ways to not just create or find the positive stories but also be about “getting people to tell them to each other.”

  By the way, Judson Memorial Church is worth checking out whenever you are in NY. It was built in 1892 and financed by John D Rockefeller, designed by legendary architect Stanford White and includes 17 spectacular stained glass windows by the master of that art form, John LaFarge.  It pursues a comprehensive social justice agenda. And it quotes Pete Seeger.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Goose Rocks Beach at First Light on New Year's Day


There’s nothing like watching dawn break over Goose Rocks Beach in Maine.  The first sign of light on the horizon is as thin as the white line you see in the crack under a door. Darkness and desolation yield to the emerging outlines of an ocean teeming with life and alive in its own right, coming into focus like an old TV only our parents would remember. This morning the clouds seem to rise out of the ocean toward the sky: fierce, dark and with the jagged edges of uncombed hair.

 The seals are happy to have the place to themselves. They bob in front of the house, venturing closer than we ever see in summer. 

 We took a walk yesterday during the brief period when the mercury made it to 34 degrees. The sun was out and it was pleasant so long as the wind was at our backs. Rosemary and I were bundled from head to toe.  Nate frolicked as joyfully as the seals, wearing only a t-shirt and relishing the sensation.

 The wrack line of dried seaweed was filled with moon snail shells and we collected half a dozen for the bowl that serves as our dining table’s centerpiece.  

 The moon snail has always fascinated me, for the meticulous manner in which it deposits and protects its eggs, and for the brutality of its predatory behavior, all but invisible above the surface of the sand.  It’s able to wrap its expandable foot around a clam and then use its radula, a kind of biological Swiss army knife, to drill a hole into the bivalve’s shell, and insert a tube to suck out and digest the clam. (To see them in all their grandeur go to @ )

 A nature writer named Barbara Hurd who teaches at the University of Southern Maine writes about the moon snail as an example of how “beauty recedes when hunger intensifies.”  I like this discovery of a new way of thinking for the New Year: the work of Share Our Strength as protecting and preserving nature’s beauty.  Recalling the faces of first graders we’ve seen eating breakfast from Baltimore to Los Angeles, I can’t think of a better way to describe what we do.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A New Year ritual of renewal

It is the season of both ritual and renewal. While our family is not especially observant when it comes to religion we do adhere to ritual:
-          Every Sunday we read aloud and discuss the NY Times wedding of the week

-          Each Thanksgiving Day we watch Planes, Trains and Automobiles with John Candy and Steve Martin

-          At every meal Nate and my niece Sofie try to sneak some ketchup onto whatever I am eating

-          Every December we take Nate to New York for two days of Rockefeller Center, FAO Swartz, art museums, Share Our Strength restaurants, etc.

-          Every December 28 we eat dinner at Rialto on the anniversary of our wedding reception there and every December 29 we drive to Maine for three quiet, cold days at the beach to see in the new year.

There is comfort in ritual.  But to ensure against too much comfort, one of my personal rituals on the cusp of each new year is to re-read a speech that John Gardner delivered to McKinsey and Co in Phoenix, Arizona in November of 1990.  Gardner was Secretary of Health Education and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson, and later a co-founder of Independent Sector as well as Common Cause. He wrote several books on leadership and human potential.

Gardner’s speaks about the need to push oneself beyond the familiar, beyond conventional thinking, and to instead constantly renew.  A few favorite excepts follow below:

-          “Everyone wants to be interesting -- but the vitalizing thing is to be interested. Keep a sense of curiosity. Discover new things. Care. Risk failure. Reach out.”

-          “Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt…You have to build meaning into your life, and you build it through your commitments -- whether to your religion, to an ethical order as you conceive it, to your life's work, to loved ones, to your fellow humans. Your identity is what you've committed yourself to.”

-          “There are men and women who make the world better just by being the kind of people they are --and that too is a kind of commitment. They have the gift of kindness or courage or loyalty or integrity. It matters very little whether they're behind the wheel of a truck or running a country store or bringing up a family.”

-          “Someone defined horse sense as the good judgment horses have that prevents them from betting on people. But we have to bet on people -- and I place my bets more often on high motivation than on any other quality except judgment. There is no perfection of techniques that will substitute for the lift of spirit and heightened performance that comes from strong motivation. The world is moved by highly motivated people, by enthusiasts, by men and women who want something very much or believe very much.”

-          “We … must not suppose that the path will be easy, it's tough. Life is painful, and rain falls on the just, and Mr. Churchill was not being a pessimist when he said "I have nothing to offer, but blood, toil, tears and sweat." He had a great deal more to offer, but as a good leader he was saying it wasn't going to be easy, and he was also saying something that all great leaders say constantly -- that failure is simply a reason to strengthen resolve.”

-          “Nothing is ever finally safe. Every important battle is fought and re-fought. We need to develop a resilient, indomitable morale that enables us to face those realities and still strive with every ounce of energy to prevail. You may wonder if such a struggle -- endless and of uncertain outcome -- isn't more than humans can bear. But all of history suggests that the human spirit is well fitted to cope with just that kind of world.”

-           “I can tell you that for renewal, a tough-minded optimism is best. The future is not shaped by people who don't really believe in the future. Men and women of vitality have always been prepared to bet their futures, even their lives, on ventures of unknown outcome. If they had all looked before they leaped, we would still be crouched in caves sketching animal pictures on the wall.”

I find much in here that resonates personally and much that applies to our No Kid Hungry campaign. You will find the entire speech @  There is obvious paradox in the idea of ritual and renewal, just as there is in the fact that I can’t wait for the holiday break, but also can’t wait to get started again in 2014.  We have an amazing new year ahead of us. Thanks again for the support and generosity that got us here. My best to you and your family for the holidays.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Letter From Zavala County

           Greetings from Zavala County in southwest Texas, “the spinach capital of the world”, replete with an annual spinach festival and two statues of Popeye by the town square. You might expect a place where all children eat healthy and grow strong, but  instead the child poverty rate is close to 50%, more than twice the national average and the L.A. Times reports that “The highest rate of food-insecure children (in the nation) is in Zavala County, Texas, where 83% of youths are in some jeopardy.”   

 Thanks to Chuck and Katie Dooley, and our partners at The Texas Hunger Initiative and the San Antonio Food Bank, I came down a day before a scheduled speech in Austin to visit schools, teachers and social workers. Our agenda was to learn and bear witness, and explore whether we can bring back a larger group of leaders in 2014. We flew into San Antonio, and drove a couple of hours through semi-arid brush land of mesquite trees and cacti, to Crystal City, the county seat.

            Maggie Flores runs school food service for 2000 students in four schools.  She sees hunger through the eyes of “the ladies” who work for her.  They struggle to feed their own kids, taking home only $800 a month after taxes. Many work a second job after their 6:00 a.m. to 2;00 p.m. shift. The raise they are expecting will be their first in seven years. Jobs are scarce and mostly at the Corrections Center, and the Del Monte canning factory paying a low hourly wage. Some find work in new oil fields 12 miles away, where fracking turned Carrizo Springs into a boom town a few years ago.  The result is enormous  wealth for a few far-away corporations, but a higher cost of living for all who actually live here, with rents increasing from $400 a month to the $1200 a month that oil company employees can afford.

            School breakfast participation is low across the county for the usual reasons. Four years ago Flores tried breakfast in the classroom but teachers mishandled the paperwork. That put reimbursement at risk. The experiment was cancelled.

            There is no food bank in town, although the San Antonio Food Bank holds a mobile food distribution once a month. Cars  lined up there as far as we could see. Summer school includes meals for 30 days but otherwise there’s no rec center, Boys and Girls Club, or other facility to serve as a summer meals site. We asked where families turn for help. “They bunk up together”, state rep Tracy King said, “doubling up to save on rent is their only option.”

            On our way to the elementary school cafeteria, Principal Sonia Zyla told us how she’d reversed poor attendance rates, and tried to get the faculty to model behavior of good attendance and punctuality. “My mantra is Honor Our Time whether it’s the time we set for meetings, or the time we have to do this important work together.”

            We learned of the impact of HeadStart cuts, children “strategically failing” so that they could attend summer school for the meals, and one social worker’s lament with regard to obesity and poor nutrition: “I wish they would teach them how to shop.”

            So close to the newly booming oil fields, but so far from benefitting directly or indirectly, Zavala County is but an isolated example of an increasingly dominant aspect of American life: economic growth that benefits a relative few, while the struggle of hard working families persists. This week a new study from UC Berkeley reported that in 2012 the top ten percent of earners took home more than half of the country’s total income – the highest recorded level ever.  The top one percent took more than one-fifth of the income earned by Americans.

There is a price for such inequality, and in the short-term that price gets paid by those most vulnerable, least able to afford it, and least responsible for their plight– children like those  we visited at Zavala Elementary. They pay for it through compromised health, poor literacy, and lack of opportunity. In the long run we all pay –  because we can’t have a strong America with weak kids.

After decades of bearing witness, not much surprises any more, But there was one thing: no one we met asked us for support, grants, or assistance of any kind.  It was as if decades of struggling on their own had conditioned them not to expect it. We saw the hope and determination that always characterizes places we think of as Hinges of Hope.  But imagination in Zavala County has been depleted by the oppressive heat of a scorching sun combined with the cold indifference of America’s new Gilded Age.

            And that’s why we went: to learn, to bear witness, and to make sure they knew that others cared and hoped to help make a difference.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A 50th Anniversary, Both Public and Private, of MLK I Have A Dream Speech

            Wednesday is the much anticipated 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, and for me it marks a related but more personal memory. That occasion in 1963 was the only time in my entire childhood my father spent a night away from home. As such it left an indelible impression.

My father was the district administrative assistant to Pittsburgh Congressman Bill Morehead. It was a demanding job yet he managed to be home by 5:30 for dinner every evening. My mother suffered from depression and while she enjoyed many happy times, the fragility of her mental health was ever-present. The hours my dad was at his office, though just a few minutes away, were especially hard for her.  She spent many afternoons with her fingers between the venetian blinds watching for him to walk down the street from the bus stop. He was careful to never be gone for long.

But 50 years ago today, he boarded a bus filled with civil rights and labor leaders for the long, hot ride from Pittsburgh so that he could be on the National Mall the next afternoon to hear King’s speech.  It meant spending that one night out of town, something he’d never done before or since.

My father was the least preachy man I’ve ever known. When he taught, it was by quiet example. The fact that he’d be away overnight – something routine for many of us in our jobs today – was anything but routine for him and our family.  For 50 years I’ve had this unusually intimate sense of how important King’s speech was, not because of the history books, commentators or monuments to him, but because of what seemed to my mom, sister and me like a monumental journey on my father’s part – an absence that signified his presence to something larger than ourselves, a minutely small sacrifice in the scheme of things that spoke volumes to us about the historic import of the day.

President Obama on Wednesday will stand where Dr King stood and is expected to assert that we’ve come a long way in 50 years but still have a long way to go   I hope he will echo the concern King spoke of for those on “a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

As an eight year old I learned a little something from my father that August day half a century ago about the importance of civil rights, equality and justice. But I also learned about the importance of devotion to work that matters, and doing such work with colleagues whose talent and character you admire. For a career that has offered me both of those privileges I am grateful to him – and to them.

Friday, August 9, 2013

An Unreasonable Man's Triumph of Imagination


“Once you have proven the concept, everything else is engineering. The stakes are so high. A baby dies every 60 seconds from malaria. I can’t imagine that some engineering genius can’t figure these things out. Let’s go for it.”

 The Washington Post today with another great piece on Steve Hoffman’s malaria vaccine breakthrough @  

          Yesterday, the journal Science published the results of Steve Hoffman’s newest clinical trial showing that for the first time ever, 100% of the trial volunteers who received a high dose of his unique vaccine were protected.  In the last 24 hours, CNN, Reuters, U.S. News and World Report and dozens of news outlets around the country ran headlines like: “Sanaria’s Malaria Vaccine Yields Unprecedented Protection in Clinical Trials.” Or “New Malaria Vaccine the First to Offer Complete Protection.”   @   Major foundation funding has quickly begun to return.   The lead researcher for Steve’s principal competitor, the giant pharmaceutical Glaxo Smith Kline was quoted as saying “This is a really important, really exciting proof of concept.”

Nearly three years ago Public Affairs published my book, The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men, about Hoffman’s quest to develop the first completely effective malaria vaccine that could eradicate malaria as one of the world’s leading causes of illness and death for children.  @

            I was drawn to the story specifically because of the parallels to our work – knowing that something was solvable, knowing that existing solutions worked but were hard to scale, and that doing so might seem expensive, unrealistic or unreasonable.  Hoffman’s standard - that good is not good enough – was akin to our view that feeding kids is not good enough but that we need to end childhood hunger. I knew there was much to learn from him.

            The book was published just as Steve was taking his vaccine into clinical trials. His approach, which depended on extracting weakened but live malaria parasites from the dissected salivary glands of mosquitoes, was ridiculed in some quarters as impractical to produce and administer.  The trials went badly. The vaccine, administered by injection failed and the volunteers exposed to malaria contracted it (though they were immediately cured by aggressive medical intervention according to standard protocols.)  The funding for Steve’s work dried up.  He faced some dark days.

            But Steve knew that the weakened parasite triggered immunity to protect against malaria when they entered the body through multiple mosquito bites. So he refused to give up, even as some abandoned their support. Instead he doubled down.  He increased dosage and settled on an approach truly beyond imagination: administering the vaccine through an IV, something entirely impractical across Africa where children need it the most.  But his strategic objective at this stage was not scale, it was “proof of concept.” It's an approach very much at the core of our No Kid Hungry campaign.  Now that proof of concept has been affirmed, new funding will be devoted to additional trials, scale and sustainability. 

The history of malaria suggests no more than cautious optimism is warranted at this point. There is still a long way to go.  But Steve Hoffman’s long journey has been dramatically accelerated by the proof of concept strategy we share.


Saturday, July 20, 2013

The lasting power of bearing witness

I’m just back from Seattle where I gave the keynote at a Gates Foundation conference cross sector collaboration in education.  There were attendees from across the country but with a heavy concentration from three states: Colorado, Louisiana and Kentucky.  They wanted to hear about lessons from the success of the No Kid Hungry campaign that might be applicable to their ambitions for growth and greater impact.

During the Q&A, a woman named stood up, and said:  “My name is Beverly Lawrason. I just have a comment that I feel needs to be made.”  Uh oh. Everyone kind of held their breath. “I’m the Assistant Superintendent for our school district. Five years ago we desperately needed help for the hungriest kids in our community. Almost everyone turned us down. Those of you in this room can’t possibly imagine how bad it was.  Our school district is St Bernard Parish in Louisiana and we were devastated by Hurricane Katrina.  We didn’t know where to turn. Then one day a bus pulled up and all of these people from Share Our Strength got off.   Thanks to them our kids got to eat and go back to school.”  

I shared that David Bradley who owns the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal was one of the people who got off that bus. Jonathan Alter at Newsweek was another. So were Jim and Karen Ansara, numerous donors, and dedicated members of our board. They were there on a Share Our Strength Hinges of Hope trip to bear witness.  And we left more of an impression than I could have ever guessed.