Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Remembering my turn at in that classic role: summer intern

I’m looking forward to lunch later this week with Share Our Strength's amazing interns. I came to Washington more than 30 years ago as a summer intern for a nonprofit (The National Wildlife Federation) and I’ve never forgot what a formative experience it could be. Our happy band of interns worked long hours, felt underpaid and under-appreciated, were convinced that we knew more than some of those of the staff to whom we reported, (I hope this doesn’t sound too familiar to our interns!) and literally could not imagine how the organization would survive without us. Nevertheless we savored every moment, somehow intuiting that notwithstanding each morning’s Washington Post headline about some clash between political titans, it was actually the countless small and invisible acts of the rest of us that set the stage for genuine progress.

My job at the National Wildlife Federation was to cover Congressional hearings on environmental and energy matters, write reports for their newsletter (there was no internet or web) and attend meetings with my boss about advocacy strategies. My boss was named was not as old as I am right now, but he seemed old enough to be stuffed and on display at the Smithsonian to my young eyes. In the absence of any specific guidance I assumed that my job was to gently elbow him awake in all of the meetings at which he fell asleep. But then I realized this only made him grumpy for the rest of the day, and my role evolved into one of distracting the other people at the meeting from realizing that the boss was asleep.

Meanwhile I was meeting other interns and staff, getting a sense of just how many complex and fascinating public policy issues there were on which to work, and finding myself inspired every time I drove by the White House or the Capitol, or jogged past (yes, I once jogged) the Lincoln Memorial.

The most important thing I learned was that I wanted to come back to Washington to find a job right after I graduated from college at the University of Pennsylvania, and that was what I did, literally the day after commencement. I’ve been here ever since. Along the way I had a second tour as an intern, in the office of Colorado Senator Gary Hart. I’d met Hart’s legislative director through someone that had been at the National Wildlife Federation. And that led to 13 years on Capitol Hill, to presidential politics, and to the founding of Share Our Strength and Community Wealth Ventures.

I’m sure you’ll Share Our Strength's interns will have their own story to look back on years from now and I hope that their time at Share Our Strength plays some part in that emerging narrative. Thanks to each of them for choosing to be here, and for all they’ve done to advance our No Kid Hungry strategy. At the National Wildlife Federation we fantasized that we’d played a huge role in the organization’s success. I’m certain that they have in ours.

Monday, July 18, 2011

A harsh critique of leaders who won't use their post powerful tool: rhetorical suasion

In this week’s New Yorker, staff writer George Packer, who is increasingly becoming that rare journalistic voice for the voiceless, has an excellent commentary juxtaposing the President’s focus on the deficit and debt ceiling, with the lack of any initiative around jobs for the now nearly one in six Americans who are out of work. @ http://www.newyorker.com/talk/comment/2011/07/25/110725taco_talk_packer

Packer writes: “President Obama, responsibly acceding to the reality of divided government, is now the leading champion of fiscal austerity, and his proposals contain very little in the way of job creation. More important, he no longer uses his office’s most powerful tool, rhetorical suasion, to keep the county focused on the continued need for government activism…. What does either side have to offer the tens of millions of Americans who have settled into a semi-permanent state of economic depression? Virtually nothing.”

It’s a harsh critique, but not as harsh as life for those who have been unemployed so long that they’ve stopped looking for work, or for those navigating unemployment for the first time in their lives. Even a few words acknowledging their plight – let alone “rhetorical suasion” – could go a long way.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Letter from Goose Rocks Beach Observing Senators and Seals

When we kayak here we almost always paddle out about 200 yards into the ocean and turn right toward the Batson River which borders our cove, and we then wind our way through the marshes. Recently we turned left instead, headed toward the rocks that jut out at low tide. In the winter they are covered with hundreds of Maine Harbor Seals but by the end of June most of them are gone, inhibited by the boats and noise that summer brings.

Last week there were maybe a dozen seals left: big and lazy, mostly grey or black, although one large redhead joined them sunning in the flat hollows of the rocky jetty. They seemed oblivious to us until we got within about 20 yards and then, as if we’d tripped an invisible alarm, almost all of them slid silently into the safety of the frigid water.

At first we were disappointed to not have a closer view. But when we turned the kayak around to head back, we saw that they had swum under or around us and were bobbing in the water, spread out in a nearly perfect semi-circle, as evenly spaced as charms on a necklace, with only their snout, eyes and top of head visible above the water line. It was a simple and instinctual act of self preservation and they had the energy and determination to stay in the water, and maintain their enhanced vigilance, for as long as necessary. We repeated this a few times over the next few days and the results never varied. Perceived threats to one’s existence motivate even the most complacent.

My 15 years working on Capitol Hill gave me ample opportunity to become attuned to almost identical behaviors, and they remain as observable today as ever. Just look at the robust debate over raising the national debt ceiling compared to the lack of debate over what to do about the jobs crisis in America that has left so many of our citizens suffering.

There’s been a frenzy of activity around the national debt negotiation. For more than three weeks it has dominated the headlines. The so-called Gang of Six (from the House and Senate) has been meeting with Vice President Biden at Blair House, and Speaker of the House John Boehner and President Obama had their own personal secret negotiations at the White House last weekend. Tonight there is a White House “summit” to iron out a compromise. What drives it all, in addition to the looming statutory deadline for increasing the debt ceiling, is fear of the political consequences of not acting to reduce the federal debt. Just like the seals roused from their slumber, except perhaps less gracefully, the Senators and members of Congress slide into action, when they sense an existential threat.

But when it comes to the catastrophe of persistent unemployment, and the poverty into which it has plunged a record number of Americans, our political leaders, fearing no political danger, go back to sunning themselves asleep on the rocks. Today’s NY Times business section has a thoughtful essay on just this issue of why the unemployed in America today, “in the grips of its gravest jobs crisis since Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House” remain politically invisible @ http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/10/business/the-unemployed-somehow-became-invisible.html?_r=1&hp

Let’s hope that at some point policymakers recognize 9.2% unemployment, and 44 million Americans (half of them children) being on food stamps for the threat that it is: to our education system, our health care system, our competitiveness in the global economy. And that there will be White House Summits and secret meetings with the President about jobs and opportunity, and not just lifting the ceiling on the national debt, but putting a ceiling on hunger and poverty.

As Yogi Berra famously once said “you can observe a lot just by watching”. That is true for Senators and for seals. Observing both at close range is a powerful reminder of the need for us to remain vigilant on behalf of the most vulnerable and voiceless. They may not be perceived as the political threat that pushes politicians into action, but to ignore their plight threatens the very promise of America.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

At P.S. 20 in NY to Launch Expansion of Summer Meals

Yesterday we joined New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott at P.S. 20 in Manhattan to launch our comprehensive marketing and organizing effort to increase participation in summer meals. Only 30 percent of the school children in New York City who get a free or reduced price lunch during the school year, participate in the summer meals program when the schools are closed. And while that is almost twice the national average of 16 percent, the public-private partnership represented at yesterday’s press conference believes NY can do much better.

Chancellor Walcott praised Share Our Strength’s leadership and committed to the goal of increasing participation over last year’s level by attracting more children to more strategically selected sites. Our campaign, which includes posters, banners, public service announcements by NY Knicks guard Chauncey Billups, will also include NY’s first ever canvass for summer meals as fan out through targeted neighborhood on July 16 to make more families aware of this opportunity for their children. It is a lot like a political campaign but without the mudslinging and negative ads. Instead there is only one winner: New York City’s children.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Where Freedom Costs The Most

It’s so quiet and peaceful here that bumper stickers boast of the e-mail address GooseRocksBeach.calm. But that may be more true for those of us lucky enough to vacation in Maine, than those born and raised here. As we decorate bikes with red, white and blue streamers for the annual children’s 4th of July parade, and prepare for an afternoon of beach and barbecue, the front page of the Portland Press Herald blares this headline: “MAINE HAS HIGHEST STATE RATE OF CASUALTIES IN AFGHANISTAN.”

According to Department of Defense figures just released, Maine’s casualty rate of 1.52 deaths per 100,000 residents is the highest in the country. Maine ranked third behind only Alabama and Nevada in the number of military recruits in 2009 with 213 per 100,000 young men and women. Economic factors such as lack of jobs play a role for many of those joining and staying with military service.

Maine’s tourist industry is significant which makes it a necessarily hospitable place. But while some of us who enjoy that hospitality hear only gentle waves lapping against the rocky shore, some of those extending that hospitality have family members hearing the terrifying blasts of improvised explosive devises and car bombs.

At a nearby store where we buy our pizza, slurpies and sun screen, the clerk tells me her 24 year old son has just returned from his second tour of duty in Iraq. “He came back once and was fine, but he came back this time and he’s not the same. Something’s wrong but he won’t talk about it.”

Maine is emblematic of the two societies into which America has so starkly divided. One that serves and sacrifices, another that benefits and almost obliviously goes about both its business and pleasure. Those of us, in service to community through nonprofit organizations like Share Our Strength, are fortunate to do work that bridges that divide.

The Fourth of July is always a much anticipated celebration of American independence and the blessings of liberty that go with it. In an America at war, and in an America with record numbers of citizens unemployed and hungry, it is also an opportunity to ask just what we do with that freedom, to what purpose do we freely choose to devote ourselves? Here in Maine, where freedom extracts a higher price than any other state, that question burns as bright as the fireworks we enjoy. The answer - service to others – shines even brighter.

Best wishes to all for the holiday!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Tribute to Triumph of Imagination That Lives on at The Barnes Foundation

Many hoped this day would never come but today the Barnes Foundation in Merion, PA, will permanently close the unique galleries whose breathtaking collections of post-Impressionist and early modern art are a testament to “the imagination of an unreasonable man”. Although the collection will be relocated to Philadelphia, it will not ever again be seen exactly as Dr. Albert Barnes intended it to be seen.

My family made our first (and unfortunately last) visit to the Barnes Foundation last week: 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezanne’s 46 Picasso’s, 56 Matisse’s as well as Monet, Degas, Van Gogh and Modigliani, among others great works. The entire story, and images of the art, can be found @ http://www.barnesfoundation.org/

That one man could pull together such a collection during the early decades of the 20th century, guided by a vision not shared at the time by the traditional art establishment, is an inspiring example of how most failures are failure of imagination, and how the courage to take leaps of imagination can achieve outcomes that endure for all time. That was one of the most valuable things I learned in writing my most recent book, The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men.

Notwithstanding it being a completely separate field, I can’t help thinking of the similarities with Dr. Steve Hoffman, whose work is featured so prominently in that book. Hoffman has devoted his life to developing a vaccine for malaria. The disease infects nearly 300 million people a year and kills close to a million children, mostly very poor children in Africa. There has never been a vaccine for malaria or any parasitic disease for that matter, and the notion of eradicating the disease was considered so unrealistic that for many years eradication was referred to as “the E word”. You can just imagine the legion of naysayers that greeted Hoffman’s determination to confront conventional wisdom and pursue a course aimed at eliminating malaria once and for all.

Today Hoffman is in clinical trials with a vaccine that may prove more effective than any than any that have come before. Others, like GlaxoSmithKline are also advancing potential solutions.  The UN Malaria Envoy Ray Chambers, whose long and impressive philanthopic track record includes revitalizing Newark and creating America's Promise to deliver more services to children, predicts a future with zero deaths from malaria.  And Bill and Melinda Gates have also embodied “the imagination of the unreasonable” in using unprecedented amounts of funding to inspire new possibilities.

Like Dr. Barnes outside of Philadelphia, Hoffman also took on the establishment, traveled an unconventional and therefore lonely path, was dismissed at first and then won the grudging respect of competitors. Like Barnes he had a singular vision, one intended to represent the interests of those not typically represented. That always creates push-back. In Barnes case, the pushback was so strong that it resulted in today’s closing of the gallery in Merion, and a move of the art to Philadelphia, some would say against his literal will. In Hoffman’s case, it’s all documented in The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men @ http://www.amazon.com/Imaginations-Unreasonable-Men-Inspiration-Purpose/dp/1586487647/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1303909402&sr=1-1

If you like rooting for the underdog, learn more about Steve Hoffman and Albert Barnes. You’re sure to be inspired along the way.