Friday, October 26, 2007

An Order of Magnitude

[Also in the Atlanta Journal Constitution 26 October issue under the heading, Assessing the Magnitude of Our Skewed Priorities.]

During the last year, I have spent a considerable amount of time in Atlanta high schools. These visits occurred under a public outcry concerning the absence of young black male teachers in public schools. The outcry is tied to the idea that black youth generally are wanting for male guidance, discipline and posturing. That is a consequence of the claim that somewhere in the neighborhood of 70% of all black children in the United States live in households without their fathers. As a result of all that, on several occasions I was offered the opportunity to teach. In one instance the starting salary would have been $41,000.

An order of magnitude is a multiple of 10. In this case, an order of magnitude more than $41,000 is $410,000. Ten people working at $41K earn as much as one working at $410K. Alternatively, one person working for ten years at $41K earns what another working at $410K earns in one.

I recently was at a meeting at Harvard and visited some students in the business school there. One of the students told me of a potential job offer with a private equity firm where the starting compensation package was approximately $410,000. It was pure coincidence that the offer was exactly an order of magnitude more than the one I had been offered to teach. In the face of the magnitude all I could say was, “wow!”.

I wonder about the implications of such a difference, about an order of magnitude difference between financial management and teaching young people. In the most simple comparison, if two people at these respective salaries work for five years, one will have amassed nearly $2.5 million and the other just shy of $250,000. Let me write those numbers: two million four hundred sixty thousand dollars versus two hundred forty six thousand dollars over five years.

What is really happening that can create such an enormous difference? Since when is financial planning and the buying and selling of companies so astronomically more important than everything else? If we dig beneath the standard arguments in support of the free market and its aggressive promotion of individualism, what does this order of magnitude really say about our collective instincts? In many ways the occupations dealing with social justice and education and the laying of hands on people are so devalued monetarily that they appear almost trivial, a wasteland for the less talented. Why must wanting to make an immediate difference in someone’s life require an almost cherubic sacrifice in your own?

A teacher holds on to a young person, looks at them in their eyes and battles with them day in and day out to ensure that they learn, that they grow, that they can comprehend the system into which they are born. In many ways they serve as guards protecting young people from the darkness of ignorance. How do we really say that that activity is on par, in terms of money, with picking up garbage? Indeed, that it is ten times less valuable than a financial modeler? Ten times?

Clearly I am biased on the side of social justice, education and personal contact. Having said that, I do not underestimate the significance of a viable business class and sound financial markets. I am baffled though, by a whole order of magnitude.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Morpheus, Neo and Believing

Several years ago I was invited by one of the Associate Vice Chancellors of the University System of Georgia to address a group of graduating college seniors who were interested in attending graduate school. I spoke about the discipline involved in succeeding in graduate school, but more importantly the need that the country and the world have for talented people. Human suffering at the moment is so rampant that it will require an extraordinary collection of skills to help alleviate it.

The Associate thought that my message was fantastic and that it was important for the students to listen to it from the voice and mind of a young man. He embraced me long and hard and said that he had every faith that I would become a significant force for good and an important public intellectual. I took that in stride and appreciated his kind words. Since then, whenever we reconnect he says the same thing. He says it so much and with such conviction that at times I say to myself, “C’mon man, ease up.”

Recently, I have been battling through a crisis of confidence – a fractured belief in my ability to matter, to influence people and things that I care deeply about. At the bottom of the valley of that crisis, an almost divine combination of opportunities presented themselves to speak publicly on the very issues about which I was struggling. Part of the serendipity of those opportunities, is that they resulted in another meeting with the Associate.

He is a short, hard edged black man, former college president and generally high ranking academic official. I explained to him what had been happening. He looked at me so hard that it hurt. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Kamau, you are it. You have the combination of vision, the analytical skills, the honesty and a remarkable ability to communicate with people.” He was speaking in a soft gruff voice, and it seemed that he was willing me to believe in myself. I blinked as the emotions surged. I felt like Neo must have felt in the face of Morpheus’ all consuming faith in him.

I have always believed that mentorship and cheerleading are important. When I can, I try to serve in those capacities just because it is my way and I generally believe in the capacity of people. It is clearer to me now, however, that in order to really be Morpheus, I have to be Neo. The experience of having a relative stranger believe in you so fiercely is incredible. The Associate said that he owes me because I’ve helped him to keep hoping and to keep believing. His belief in me is somehow loosely tied to his belief in himself and his mission. Listening to him and grappling with how what he said made me feel was an awesome experience. The timing and the setting created the drama, but it helped me better appreciate the tremendous significance of playing his role – of holding a young person, believing in them, telling them that you do and making them understand the force of your belief.


Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Brother Malcolm, We Need You



Monday, October 1, 2007

Rasta and Cinderella

This weekend Cinderella stormed our household like a Chechen terrorist. I took my daughter to a birthday party for a friend of hers, another little girl. One of the party favors was a little purple plastic watch. The party was at one of those jumping warehouses where children disappear into big inflatable tents with slides and bumpers and emerge yelling and giggling and tired. My little girl disappeared and somewhere along the line arranged for someone to put this purple watch on her wrist. She came running out, “Daddy, Daddy look at my watch!!” Then, with all the cutsie of an already cute 3 year old she cocked her head with her chin on her shoulder and slyly asked, “Do yooooou know what time it is?”

My heart was bursting the way only parents’ hearts burst. I said, “Nooooo, what time is it?” Then she ran up and said, look, its seventeen o’clock.” When I looked, Cinderalla jumped off the watch face and slapped me in my eye. I felt like a conservative middle aged white woman must feel if Rza from the Wu-Tang Clan suddenly jumped in her window while she was eating dinner. I smiled – deflated. “Nice, but I think it is 12:30.”

I cannot stand the blistering intensity with which the images of these white princesses are pushed upon everyone. Seeing Cinderella on my girl’s wrist was like poison. I call my daughter Rasta. “Rasta, who loves you?” “Daddy does,” she answers. Behind that, in my mind, are the images of strength and beauty and grace and femininity that are embodied by Rastafarian women in particular and black women in general. There could be nothing more antithetical to that image and my image of my little girl than Cinderella and her crew. More broadly, it really upsets me and simply hurts that the images of white girls, royalty and beauty are all inextricably bound together and injected into all little girls heads. My wife and I feel like guards protecting the clean and impressionable space in her psyche from that biased and exclusive imagery. For the little while that it lasted, it burned me that Cinderella was marching around on my girl’s wrist.

Needless to say, the watch came off at the first opportunity where I could do it peacefully. “You can’t bathe with the watch on ole girl.” At every conceivable opportunity after that, she asked if she could put it on. At every opportunity I said no and then had to withstand a slew of why’s. I just kept saying because I don’t like it. She pleaded, “but Daddy she’s not wearing pink.” Herein lies the challenge. I don’t want to address the issue directly because I’m not sure you can explain these reasons to a three year old. I also do not want her to develop, as my wife said, a chip on her shoulder. It isn’t that we fail to see the beauty in white dolls, little white girls or Cinderella for that matter. We simply want her to develop an appreciation for beauty that is as nuanced, various and personal as beauty itself is. The Cinderella cocktail is an expanding poison that sucks out the space for alternative images of beauty -for all little girls. Whenever do you see a little white girl wearing a t-shirt with a black girl on it thinking that the girl on her shirt is beautiful?

The onslaught has backed us into a corner. It has forced me to resist these images in ways that I find uncomfortable. I don’t want to deny my little girl party favors – that is almost cruel. The intensity of the siege, however, has dictated the intensity of our resistance. To the extent that we can provide a variety of images of beauty we will. That variety will include Cinderella and her ilk, but they will be just one of a number of images of beauty and of royalty and of femininity. Even then, while her development is still delicate, my Rasta will never wear Cinderella.