From Pebble Beach to East Flatbush

A few weeks ago, I spent Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday at a luxurious hotel located on the Pebble Beach Golf Course near Monterrey, California. My mornings comprised of runs along ocean-side cliffs with stunning vistas, and my days consisted of vigorous intellectual conversations about the lack of constituency voice in social entrepreneurial ventures, and the impact of race on in the broader social change sector.  I learned a lot, and made helpful connections.


On Thursday night, I took a red eye to New York City, and immediately took a cab to the High School for Public Service in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, passing my luggage through metal detectors into a school in which 76% of its students are on free or reduced lunch.  At a school breakfast, I spoke with students who, partially through Generation Citizen, were demonstrating immense leadership potential, but whose broader educational aspirations seemed cut short, largely due to the lack of effective resources at their school, including no college guidance staff. My staff and I left the breakfast feeling inspired by the students, but frustrated by the lack of resources that they, and their school, were receiving.


The contrast in settings, from five-star hotel to urban district school, was jarring.  Contrasts like these, however, are not particularly uncommon to my schedule, or in the broader education sector.  The work we do focuses on the poorest section of the population, but the way we fund that work is by interacting with some of the most affluent.  Can we actually make long-lasting change in society if we constantly have to straddle these two worlds?  Is it okay for me to spend the first part of my week at a resort, and the last part at a low-income school?


This type of dynamic gets criticized often, usually with detractors pointing to extravagant summits at Aspen and Davos that focus on alleviating poverty as the prime examples of potential hypocrisy.  But this criticism seems tired and suffers from a lack of nuance.  Sure, it is a little strange when the elite of the elite are having intellectual conversations about helping those less fortunate from mountaintop resorts.  Yet those conversations are not the problem- the poor are not poor because of Aspen or Davos.


The main problem with the “two worlds” dynamic is the fact that they rarely interact with each other.  I feel fortunate to be able to go to conferences at Pebble Beach, but as long as I use that conference to have productive conversations, I do not think it is inherently wrong.  What might be wrong is if I spent all my time at high-end conferences, and none of my time on the ground.  And this “out of touchness” is becoming more prevalent throughout the country.


Robert Putnam makes this point in his new book, “Our Kids”, which uses poignant stories interspersed with concrete statistics to demonstrate how the quintessential American dream of social mobility no longer exists, stating, “Because of growing class segregation in America, fewer and fewer successful people (and even fewer of our children) have much idea how the other half lives.  So we are less emphatic than we should be to the plight of less privileged kids.”


This is problematic because, Putnam asserts, of how differently the other half lives now than it did just decades ago.  The potential for social mobility, largely because of extensive support from effective public and private institutions alike, used to exist.  But all it takes is a visit to a metal-detector filled school with a lack of effective resources for its entirely minority student body to recognize that this is no longer the case.


The challenge, thus, in running an organization like Generation Citizen is figuring out how to blend these worlds.  We want to keep working with the poorest section of our population- our mission is predicated upon it.  But our organization will not be as effective as it can, or should be, if we segment our activities- working with the poor on one hand, and catering to the rich on the other.


There aren’t silver bullets here, but I do think that nonprofits and donors having this conversation is a necessary start.  From GC’s perspective, I want to ensure that all of our donors and board members are visiting classrooms and talking to our students- they need to understand the crux of our work.   I also want our Board of Directors to have representation from individuals who fundamentally understand the situation that our students face every day- a government they feel does not care about their rights and responsibilities.  These activities are not, in any way, sufficient.  These issues are challenging, and I, as a white male, do not pretend to have all, or any, of the solutions.


The opportunity gap, and the disappearance of the American dream, is probably the most urgent domestic issue that our country faces today.  There are many potential policy solutions, all of which we need to explore.   But we also need to figure out how to make sure that we are not creating two completely separate worlds- of the haves, and the have nots.  Nonprofits dedicated to ameliorating this gap have a big role to play in closing this gap.  So I won’t apologize for enjoying my time in Pebble Beach.  But I do commit to making sure that more of my time is in the classrooms where we serve, and ensuring that more of our supporters do the same.  It’s not everything.  But it’s a start.

– Scott Warren

Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.