Thanksgiving Remarks at Georgetown Day School

November 23, 2010 | 11:00 a.m.
Thanksgiving Assembly | Georgetown Day School | Washington, DC

It’s a real honor for me to be back here at one of my favorite GDS assemblies. Thanksgiving is an especially important time of the year for me as it is one in which we give thanks and think about how we can use our lives to make the world a better place in the broadest sense.

Thank you to the many teachers and staff that I’ve had the privilege of learning from and also to those whom I haven’t met, but I know are inspiring students daily and fostering the values that make this school so special and so important. To the students, you may not realize it, but you are the reason why we’re all here today. Thank for your commitment to a lifetime of learning and to using your talents to serve the common good. You’re never too young to make a difference, so I’d like to tell you how I got started.

As everyone here knows, community service is a vital part of the GDS curriculum and mission. When it came time for me to start my weekly community service trips in 8th grade, I knew a little bit about cooking so I signed up for D.C. Central Kitchen. Some of you may continue to be serving there so you know what I mean when I describe the place as simply inspirational. The Kitchen is living proof that we can tackle some of the world’s most complicated problems simply by changing the ways we think about existing resources. It shows us that (as its mission says): “waste is wrong, be it related to food, money, or the potential for productive lives.”

Who knew that we could help solve hunger, homelessness, and unemployment without soup kitchens or homeless shelters? That isn’t an empty question either for the answer is Robert Egger, the person who founded D.C. Central Kitchen on Inauguration Day 1989. Along with other staff, trainees, and volunteers at the Kitchen, Robert helped open my eyes to some of the most pressing injustices of our own city and also showed me some of the innovative solutions that are helping solve them on a daily basis.

There’s something inherently wrong about having people go hungry while thousands of pounds of perfectly good food are simply thrown away. Today, the Kitchen helps recover 3,000 pounds of fresh food daily and turns it into over 4,500 meals, not to mention the hundreds of people it trains to be professional chefs in the process. The world produces more than 110% of the food needed to feed every single person. If only we had more D.C. Central Kitchens, we could help turn that waste into something productive along with the lives of people society casts away.

There’s something else I learned at GDS and D.C. Central Kitchen and that’s why a commitment to the common good is personal—even selfish. It’s neither a chore, nor a choice for it’s about treating the world as you want to be treated, and in that sense, commitment to the common good means more than community service. In that sense, the pursuit of a better world is a selfish aim for the very simple reason that improving the world for others means that we live in an improved world ourselves.

As we change our communities for the better, there can be no opposition between yourself and the so-called “others,” those whom you are serving. For in reality, they are helping you just as much as you are helping them. All interactions are two-way so as you prepare meals for those who don’t have enough to eat, you’re also learning about teamwork, how to cook, and the spirit of humanity. Don’t forget to have fun at the same time!

Without the time I spent volunteering at D.C. Central Kitchen, I would not be where I am today. I would not have known how to run a food recovery program and wouldn’t have known enough about commercial kitchens to work in restaurants—and I was one of the few people on the line in restaurants who didn’t have formal training at a culinary school. Imagine telling someone that graduated from the Culinary Institute of America that you learned how to cook from someone who didn’t have a job. Without my experience as director of Food Forward at Bowdoin College, a program based on the Kitchen’s example, I wouldn’t have been hired as the Executive Director of Mano en Mano, a Latino and farmworker advocacy nonprofit in Downeast Maine.

It all comes back to that one day when I walked into the kitchen, washed my hands, and was ready to simply help and learn.

It might sound ironic, but one of the things I’m most thankful for is the opportunity to serve. Teachers here believed in me and encouraged me to take risks, do what I thought was right, make mistakes, and learn new things. My beliefs are constantly evolving, but the values I learned in this room and others stay constant for their elegant simplicity: treat people, community, and the world with respect, trust, and care.

There’s another word that’s almost as important as those values that I want to share with you today and it’s bregar. Spanish for “struggle,” it means so much in Puerto Rican vocabulary that philosophers have written entire books on it. Like luchar in Cuba, it’s a word that can simultaneously mean everything and nothing at all. Bregar lies somewhere in between reflection and action and serves to bring together two opposing forces: the realities of life with the hopes of theory and ideas.

To become successful leaders, hay que bregar, you have to struggle. You have to understand regulations and follow them (to a point), you have to study things you don’t want to study, and you have form relationships with people you can’t stand. When it comes time to change the world, we have to decide when to fight and when to conform—understanding that conformity can be an act of subversion.

In this struggle, we’ll have to work past some wrongs in order to work towards the common good. While we do that however, we can’t forget about our values and ideals. There are some things with which we can’t bregar and that’s one of the difficulties of leadership: deciding when to struggle and when not to; when to bargain and when to hold your ground. In both cases, we have to have a vision of the future defined not by reality, but by ideals. That being said, we also have to be prepared to accept reality, to work within the system, and in doing so, to work towards that very vision we started out with in the beginning.

Think about the world and what you would like it to be. If there’s one thing that GDS teaches you, it is to combine your passions and talents with an unwavering commitment to doing what you think is right. At graduation, the president of Bowdoin College, Barry Mills reminded my class of two additional qualities of leaders: a sense of humor and a sense of humility. You will need both as you continue your studies at GDS and pursue new opportunities.

I worked full-time for the first time when I was 14, was on the Board of Directors of a multi-million dollar nonprofit when I was 18, and Executive Director of a social justice organization when I was 23. Don’t think for a second that you are too young to make a difference or to take a leadership role in bringing your ideal world you just thought about closer in line with today’s world.

Now that I’m one of the last things standing between you and vacation, I’d like to wish everyone a wonderful Thanksgiving. Use some of that time off to think about ways of strengthening your commitment to the Common Good and your leadership ability in community change efforts. Most importantly, take a few moments to relax and recharge. I look forward to hearing about many of your successes—and even some of your mistakes—as you continue on that endeavor. Thank you.

GDS Students Make a World of Difference

Published by Georgetown Day School and also available online.

Ian Yaffe ’05 Makes His Mark on Maine

Ian Yaffe credits GDS with inspiring him to “shape my place in the world.” Ian said, “When I think about my time at GDS, I really consider it to be the foundation for the rest of my life.”

He can directly connect GDS to his position as Executive Director of Mano en Mano | Hand in Hand, a community-non-profit in Maine that advocates for social justice and helps diverse populations with educational services, healthcare access and affordable housing. Ian explained, “It all started one day in seventh grade when I was assigned to volunteer at DC Central Kitchen. I felt an immediate connection with the place and continued volunteering throughout my time at GDS.”

Ian took his experience to Bowdoin College where he started the student organization Food Forward that delivered un-served dining hall food to a food bank. He also opened and became Executive Chef of the non-profit restaurant Taste for Change. Ian remarked, “These experiences, combined with the intellectual foundation and character that GDS helped me establish, led me to where I am today.”

Further, Ian believes that GDS taught him the importance of respect, trust and care. He said, “[The GDS values] shaped my views of the Common Good and what working towards that goal actually means in practice. . . . It’s about treating people as you want to be treated.”

HS GDS Horn of Africa Program (HOAP) Encourages International Exchange

“GDS is all about social understanding . . . . The Horn of Africa trip taught me how to communicate with different people from completely different backgrounds from my own. The program encourages students to share as well as to take in as much as they can from the experience.”
— HOAP 2010 participant

“From the earliest grades, our students are encouraged to become active community members working to improve the lives of others.”
— Elsa Newmyer, L/MS Coordinator of Community Service

Code 5-5-5-5: Honoring 105 Fallen Firefighters

I’m going to take a break from topics related to my work at Mano en Mano to talk about another non-profit that I’m involved with: the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.  Today, we honored 105 firefighters from across the United States who made the ultimate sacrifice.  In honoring them at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Emmitsburg, Maryland, we commit to celebrating the heroic lives they lived, providing support for the families they’ve left behind, and remembering their sacrifice by doing everything we can to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

In a press release, the Foundation stated that: “Thirty-two states experienced line-of-duty deaths in 2009. Deaths resulted from vehicle accidents while en route to or returning from emergency calls, training incidents, building collapses, natural disaster response, being struck by objects (vehicles, trees, and gunshot wounds) at the incident scene, falls, heart attacks, helicopter/air tanker crashes, electrocution, and burns/smoke inhalation. Six multiple fatality incidents accounted for 13 deaths. Three multiple fatality incidents occurred at structural fires; two incidents resulted from an apparatus crash and an airtanker crash during a wildland fire, and one involved falls from an aerial device. New York had the Nation’s greatest number of line-of-duty firefighter deaths in 2009 with 8, followed by Pennsylvania with 6; and North Carolina and Texas both had 5.”

I’d like to pay particular respects to Firefighter/Paramedic Debra Cole of the South Portland Fire Department in Maine and Firefighter Paul Roberts of the Beverly Fire Department in Massachusetts.

This year was my fourth as a Family Escort which entails supporting the family of a fallen firefighter from the moment they arrive on the campus of the National Fire Academy to the moment they depart to return home and through two very special ceremonies: the Candlelight Vigil and the National Memorial Service where they receive a flag on behalf of a grateful nation.  It was my honor and privilege to serve as the escort for the family of Firefighter Roberts and I am humbled when thinking about the tremendous giving person he was and how much of him lives on through his family.

We all hope that next year we won’t have to hold a memorial service, but to date, 70 firefighters have already lost their lives in service to their communities so I know that I will be back next year, again, to support their families and honor their sacrifice.  At the same time, I’m encouraged to see that our numbers have been decreasing as firefighters constantly train to be as safe as we can be.  There’s one simple goal in mind: Everyone Goes Home.

Finally, I’ll explain the meaning of the title of this post: Code 5-5-5-5.  The fire service is rich in tradition and before telephones, computers, and 911, fire alarms were transmitted to a dispatch center via telegram from a fire alarm box and then relayed to firehouses using the same technology.  Depending on the type of situation, a bell in the firehouse would ring a certain number of times and firefighters would then have an idea of where they needed to go and what for.  While those days are gone (as are, at least by recommendation, the days of 10-codes), one code is still widely known throughout the fire service: 5-5-5-5.  The four 5s (a bell struck in four intervals of 5 rings each) signifies the last alarm of a firefighter; that he or she has returned to a higher station.  With that in mind, I’ll leave you with that signal for the 105 firefighters we honored today.

5-5-5-5

Bregar, Leadership, and Social Change

After spending the summer traveling around the state, moonlighting as a ferryboat captain, and hiring 4 full-time/seasonal teachers for the blueberry harvest, I’m finally ready for my favorite season: fall.

In the middle of this, I’ve had time to do some reflecting and after facilitating a leadership development workshop, I got thinking about a word I spent much of Fall 2008 thinking about: bregar (Spanish for “struggle”).  This single verb is so important to Puerto Rican vocabulary that Arcadio Díaz Quiñones has written an entire book about it (El arte de bregar).  Like luchar in Cuba, it’s become a word that can simultaneously mean everything and nothing at all.

Quiñones discusses multiple meanings of the word in his series of essays, but the one I want to focus on here is the third: “una línea de conducta muy práctica que hace posible sobrevivir con cierta dignidad, aun cuando sea simulando teatralmente que se ha resuelto algo” (32).  For those of you out there who don’t speak Spanish, he’s talking about a “practical line of conduct that makes it possible to survive with a certain dignity…”  Using the metaphor of colonization, Quiñones discusses this form of bregar not as “the subversion of the colonial order, but rather its acceptance, but with the condition that this order become more open and incorporate new sectors, promote more social equality, and that the state mediate the social classes” (84).  This Bregar lies in between reflection and action – that is, a form of Paolo Freire’s praxis – which serves to unify theory with the realities of life and the realities of life with the hopes of theory.

To become successful leaders, hay que bregar, you have to struggle.  You have to understand societal norms and follow them (to a point), you have to study things you don’t want to study, and you have to form relationships with people that have power dynamics attached to them.  When it comes time to change the world, we have to decide when to fight and when to conform – understanding that conformity can be subversive.  In this struggle, we’ll have to work past some wrongs in order to work towards the common good.  While we do that however, we can’t forget our values and ideals.  There are some things with which we can’t bregar and that’s one of the difficulties of leadership, deciding when to struggle and when not to; when to bargain and when to hold your ground.  In both cases, we have to have a vision of the future defined not by reality, but by ideals.  That being said, we also have to be prepared to accept reality, to work within the system and in doing so, to work towards that vision we started out with in beginning.

So that’s my two cents for the day.  If you haven’t been to Maine in the fall, now’s the time to come check this state out… soon enough winter will come followed by mud season and eventually this brief and perpetually late season I’ve heard is called spring.  More soon and stay in touch!

Source: Arcadio Díaz Quiñones, El arte de bregar (San Juan: Ediciones Callejon, 2000).  Translations are my own.

Big Ideas at the Philanthropy Partners Conference

May is going to be an incredibly busy month at Mano en Mano and even though we’re only about a week into it, there are many big ideas floating around right now.

Last week I gathered in Northport, Maine with 400 other professionals from the nonprofit and foundation world.  Together, we represented nearly every agency and foundation that does work in the state!  We met to discuss changing times and new opportunities and figure out ways to do our work more effectively and more efficiently.  Over the past thirty years, the number of nonprofits in the U.S. has doubled to 1.5 million.  According to Diana Aviv, our keynote speaker, nonprofits today must collaborate with and beyond the sector, make better use of technology, and constantly demonstrate the positive difference and results of our work.

I also attended a workshop about mission investing and social enterprise.  The idea is still relatively new in Maine, but there’s now legislation on the table to create a new type of business license: the L3C or low-profit, limited liability company.  Plenty of other states, including Vermont have this license on the books which allows for-profit enterprises to receive grants just like a nonprofit would.  Maine’s Own Organic Milk Company or MOO Milk Co. is a great example of this type of operation.  They make money, but they invest the majority back into preserving Maine’s dairy farms.  In fact, 90% of their profits are earmarked for that purpose!  Coastal Enterprises, Inc. is another example of the merger between the non-profit and for-profit sectors.  CEI operates a number of programs, but the one that caught my eye is CEI Investment Notes, a way for individuals to invest money into the community and make money doing it.  The operation most closely resembles a CD from a bank except that it is used to promote socially responsible developments in Maine and is not guaranteed by the FDIC.  You can also earmark your investment into a particular field like sustainable agriculture or immigrant and refugee business development.  The minimum investment is $5,000 and the interest rate is higher than available at banks!

Finally, I met a number of other young nonprofit professionals and am exploring the idea of starting a chapter of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network here in Maine.  According to their website, “A 2004 study conducted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation revealed that 72.5% of all nonprofit leaders were in their 40s and 50s, with 55% over the age of 50. 65% of the organizations surveyed said they are likely to go through a leadership transition by 2009 and 57% of organizations have experienced a transition within the last 10 years. These findings confirm similar studies conducted over the last few years illustrating the looming leadership deficit the nonprofit sector will face as soon as 2007. It is reported that by 2007 between 61% and 78% of executive directors will retire or leave their organizations. This impending leadership deficit could be the greatest challenge nonprofits face over the next ten years.”

Now check out this number from Maine Association of Nonprofits: “In 2005, reporting Maine nonprofits contributed $7 billion to the Maine economy through wages paid, retail and wholesale sales, and professional services contracted. This accounts for almost 15% of the State’s gross product, which is the same percentage as the manufacturing and construction industries combined.”  For more information, check out this report: “Partners in Prosperity” (pdf).

It’s time to recognize the economic impact of the nonprofit sector in Maine and around the country and the crucial role young people are already playing in it.