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What’s wrong with this picture? HONY and the man from Detroit

Nothing but love for this story. Vidal, his principal Ms. Lopez, and the President.

Nothing but love for this story. Vidal, his principal Ms. Lopez, and the President.

Let me begin by saying that I ADORE the Humans of New York (aka HONY) blog and Facebook page. You should definitely check them out. I love the recent story about the young boy at the Brooklyn school who praised his principal, which set up a snowball effect of raising gobs of money for the school and a meeting with the president. Love the whole damn thing.

I also love the story of the man from Detroit, James Robertson, who was profiled for his ridiculously difficult commute, and then received several hundred thousand dollars in donations and a new car. Totally awesome.

Except that these stories won’t end like a Disney movies and that’s the tricky part. I recently finished reading the terrific book, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, about an extraordinarily gifted young man from a tough Newark, NJ neighborhood, who makes it to Yale on a combination of his gifts, determination, and the kind of no-strings-attached generosity that is demonstrated by the two stories above. And as you may have surmised from the title, Robert’s story ends tragically when he is killed in a confrontation with some other drug dealers. Yes, I said other drug dealers- Robert, despite all of his gifts and education, was unable to break free of the complex bonds and relationships that tied him to his neighborhood and family- in a word, he was a dealer too.

I have always found marionettes unsettling. Perhaps because the strings reveal so much about human nature.

I have always found marionettes unsettling. Perhaps because the strings reveal so much about human nature.

And that’s the problem I have with these two recent stories. Money is not enough. Even education, as much as it is the great equalizer, is not enough. Helping to lift an individual out of poverty is not about that individual alone. It must be about the entire community. Humans are like marionettes, they have strings attached- to children, parents, extended family, girlfriends, boyfriends, classmates, bosses, neighbors, creditors- the list goes on. The bonds across all of these relationships are incredibly interdependent, complex, and have many of the same properties that we use to describe bonds in chemistry. They may be flexible but strong, rigid but weak, fragile but critical- and no one knows the properties and complexity of these relationships except for that person at the center of all of them.

What I fear for Mr. Robertson, and Vidal and his classmates, is that we are fickle benefactors. There is a sense that, having donated or even just commented on their struggles, somehow gives us entrée into their lives, and when they make a mistake- and they will, many will tsk knowingly or shake their heads disapprovingly, with an “I told you so” air. These individuals, the students, the teachers, and staff from Vidal’s school- they will make mistakes, they will fight over money- in short, they will not live up to the standard that has been set by these snapshots of their lives.

None of us would live up to the expectations set by these two-dimensional portraits. Because we are human. Because we are fallible. Because making mistakes is how we all learn. Because sometimes the marionette strings that entangle us are too much for even the most gifted among us to break free from.

As good as it feels to be generous when we want to, when we feel someone “deserves” it- it is vital that we do not feel that this is enough. The education system that allows kids from low-income neighborhoods in New York City to be so incredibly disadvantaged relative to wealthier peers in better neighborhoods is broken. The infrastructure in Detroit that is so crippled that people can spend half their days commuting to low-wage jobs is broken. All of the individuals affected by these failings deserve help. Not just the ones that through luck or fate make it to the top of your Facebook feed.

In the charity world, it’s well known that making an appeal on behalf of a specific individual is far more effective than an appeal on behalf of a group of individuals. Show the world one starving kid and you’ll have a far greater return than if you show them an entire community. This is a not a criticism of this practice, just the reality. People make empathic connections on a 1:1 ratio. It’s hard to feel a personal connection to 10,000 kids or a million kids. Your mind starts to stack-rank them and without realizing it, you want to connect with the worst-off kid, even if the next 50 or 50,000 have negligibly better circumstances.

I fervently hope that the money raised for Mott Hall Bridges Academy, and for Mr. Robertson, and for the next person judged tragic-yet-worthy!, helps them surmount the challenges that surround them. I hope that the notoriety affords them sufficient freedom to chart their own course. But I am a realist. I know stories and endings like Robert Peace’s are heart-achingly commonplace. I know that breaking free from the burdens that poverty places upon you is a herculean struggle that few are able to do.

My ask is this- if, or when, James Robertson dents his car, or sells it, or quits his job and runs off with an old girlfriend- or whatever; don’t judge him harshly. The same goes for Vidal and Ms. Lopez, for that matter. None of us know what is written in the book of their lives, even if you have read the outline of it. Do not harden your heart against generosity because you feel it was wasted effort. Do not let the narrative of “charity breeds dependence” take root in your mind.

Rather, push yourself to think more broadly about the causes and effects of long-term poverty. The systemic challenges and barriers that we must work to eliminate. Whether it’s city infrastructure, failing schools, lack of childcare, lack of health care, adult education, violence, addiction, unemployment- you know the list. You are probably zoning out already, based on the magnitude of the challenge. Look, I donated $100 bucks to that guy- don’t kill my buzz. I get it. I feel the same way. I get overwhelmed and discouraged all the time, thinking about it. And yet we cannot give up.

Sure, he's in the zoo. But what if we are too? Maybe that's not a bad thing.

Sure, he’s in the zoo. But what if we are too? Maybe that’s not a bad thing.

When we help an individual, it is not like we pluck them from the wild and put them in a controlled environment like a zoo. That person still lives in their very real world, with all its attendant risks and dangers. Ironically perhaps, the zoo metaphor may be especially apt for the affluent. The more advantages you are born with, the more your environment is already controlled, adapted, and regulated for you. Do animals born in the zoo long for the wilds? Do they even see the bars of their enclosures? Do they thank the gods that put them there? Do we? It starts to feel a little uncomfortable when we examine our own lives through this lens.

So what’s wrong with this picture? What’s wrong with the snapshot we are seeing of Vidal or James Robertson? Are we looking out at them or are they looking in at us? Our great challenge is eliminating the barriers between us and recognizing our shared humanity and journey.

Thanks so much for reading and sharing!

Captain Bill and the Innovation Bullet Train

After my last post discussing the incredible power and social good that technologies like Facebook and Twitter are generating today, I got to thinking about how interesting it is that Microsoft hasn’t been a participant in this most recent round of platform-level innovation. In fact, in a way that was oddly similar to Microsoft’s reluctance to embrace the power of the internet, until Bill Gate’s watershed memo, when the whole company pivoted to bear-hug the Internet “tidal wave” (should have more accurately said tsunami…), Microsoft was also reluctant to embrace or leverage Twitter or Facebook. Perhaps another instance of “Not Invented Here Syndrome” that the company seems to suffer from? Anyway, then I got to thinking about the previous technology revolution, that Microsoft dominated, desktop computing.

Bill launching Windows 95

Bill launching Windows 95

Although my children will never know the world before the age of easy, accessible computers, the Windows operating system was practically a single-product global revolution that changed the world and created vast wealth for Bill and many others, as Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat (shudder) are doing today for their young (mostly male, *sigh*) leaders.

So that line of thought brought me to another question- Bill is in a unique position, he has been the most prominent and influential figure in a technology revolution that brought amazing change to how our global citizenry communicates and works, and created tremendous wealth in the system and for himself. Then in 2000, rather than continuing to drive the engine of innovation and product development that he created- he boarded a new train: direct community investment.

Let’s unpack why this is such an interesting change. What Microsoft did through the 80’s and 90’s was ground-breaking and transformative and without a doubt, incredibly good from a social welfare perspective. The creation and expansion of affordable computing power leveled the playing field for invention, learning, development, communication, and made it possible for nearly *everyone* to participate and use computers for a myriad of purposes. There would be no Zuckerberg without Gates.

I’ll sidebar on Bill for a minute- I have never had an opportunity to meet him, but feel like

Bill's reading list is ALWAYS worth reading!

Bill’s reading list is ALWAYS worth reading!

I have a good measure of him based on his actions and writings over the years. (I am a devotee of his reading list!) He is a deeply thoughtful, highly intelligent, driven man who is passionate and committed to doing something meaningful with the power that his wealth has afforded him. I can only imagine the hours of reflection and thought that went into stepping away from Microsoft to lead the Foundation with Melinda.

One question that must have come up constantly as he wrestled with his departure from the company is, “Will I do more good via direct investment through the Foundation than I would do as the leader of Microsoft?”

It’s not an easy question to answer, though history tells us that he decided in favor of the Foundation, for which I applaud him and hope that he will serve as a model to other young leaders who also amass great fortunes.

I am a huge fan of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and one of the things that stands out to me is the recognition that even with the incredible financial resources at its disposal, the organization doesn’t try to directly assault any of the problems that fall within its charter (perhaps with the exception of eradicating Polio)- and indeed alleviating global poverty, improving global health and education are too vast to be simply solved through the liberal application of money. The underlying conditions and systems that cause and perpetuate these realities are too complex to be solved through money alone.

Rather, the Foundation has developed the concept of multiple focused, concentrated investments being made or seeded, with the aim of continuing to fund and grow those that take root and flourish. This model has roots in Biology and can be seen even at play in the free market system. The Foundation has great material on its mission and values- I highly recommend reading its Annual Reports.

I have little doubt that the Foundation’s impact and legacy, and thus Bill & Melinda’s, will be one of the highlights of the 21st Century, just as the computing revolution ushered us out of the 20th Century on a high note.

We are on a bullet train. Remember to take in the view!

We are on a bullet train. Remember to take in the view!

So what’s the moral of this little journey? In part, it’s a reflection on the rapidly changing world that we live in. When observed from a distant vantage point, innovation is like a bullet train and we are its lucky passengers, watching the world whiz by, a view that we can become numb to, if we don’t take the time to really *look* at the transformation happening before our very eyes. And yes, there are some very special people who participate in driving and fueling that train. Bill Gates is undoubtedly one of the best and most remarkable among them.

Above all- I’d love to get Bill’s thoughts on this question, anyone have his number?

As always, I appreciate you reading and sharing my blog! It’s fun to sit alone and ruminate on these questions, but I far prefer conversation- so please share your comments and thoughts!

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