Leadership in the Park

Unable to sleep yesterday morning, I was reading my friends’ FB status updates. It was 4 a.m. and one stood out immediately. “Occupy Wall Street!” That was all it said. That was all it needed to say. I hopped out of bed, pulled on my hooded sweatshirt, fleece vest and baseball cap and made my way downtown. I didn’t know what I could I do, but if there was anything that needed doing, it wouldn’t get done from bed – that much I knew.  So began my day yesterday.

The eviction of the Occupy Wall Street Protesters from Zuccotti Park was not unexpected. I was there the last time the police had attempted to “clean the park.” It was a rallying cry to many of us—a call to action that required we sort through our own convictions and figure out why the heck it was so important that this presence in the park remain.

On any given day walking through Zuccotti, I had seen a dozen signs highlighting things I would like to see change: education reform, term limits, lobbying regulations, campaign reform.  But tackling those issues didn’t require a presence in the heart of our financial center. So what was so important about that park?

My conclusion? Very simple.

It’s a symbol.

But of what?

There’s the rub. Symbols mean different things to different people.  To some, the people in the park symbolized filth and laziness. To the managers of the local restaurants, it symbolizes the decline in their business.  To me, Occupy Wall Street symbolizes a call to action that is long overdue. And it’s a call that was heard specifically because it was made in the backyard of an industry that knowingly poisoned the lives and security of millions of people through overleveraging, derivatives, and toxic loans. It’s a battle cry that says the guy who goes into a bank with a gun to rob it is no worse than the banker who robs people of their homes and pensions; it’s a bold assertion that bankers—who have inflicted such financial devastation and stress that people have lost their ability to breathe—should be held to the same level of criminal accountability as the stranger who chokes a person in the darkness of an alley at night.

Just as you might cringe at someone burning an American flag, I cringed yesterday at the NYPD taking knives to the tents many called home. Listen, I can’t speak for the tent-owners, but I can surmise (reasonably, I believe) that the people living in those tents were not superpsyched about those accomodations. Two weeks ago, they were living outside in a flippin’ snowstorm, for Christ’s sake. Braving the elements, not having reliable access to a clean bathroom or shower, sacrificing any semblance of privacy, relying on jerry-rigged grey water filtration—this doesn’t sound like something a normal person would gleefully sign on to do.  But protesting life and death issues isn’t neat. It is dirty and uncomfortable and often left to those far, far, far, far hardier than we.  Because someone has to man the flag, so to speak.

I know it doesn’t make sense to a lot of people. I suspect it didn’t make sense to those comfy cozy inside on Dec 16th a few years back when 100 men endured freezing cold temperatures to dump a bunch of tea off a ship either.  But some things just have to get done.

Because even when they’re messy, symbols matter.

So, what does all this have to do with “Educating Leaders”?

Well, one of the best parts about Twitter and FB and blogging is that they have become virtual classrooms, places to exchange ideas on how we guide our children. Here’s an idea someone shared a short while back on Facebook:

“To my dear 4 children, If you ever sit your dirty butt in a park, refusing to allow people to clean up their property, while professing a sense of entitlement to something you have not earned, and screaming about how something “isn’t fair”, I will have failed as a mother. Now go run and play, study hard, swim fast and if you don’t have what your friends have, find a way to earn it. Love, Mom”

In the spirit of education, I would like to suggest an alternate response:

“To My Students and Future Children: If you are innovative and knowledgable and passionate… and then choose to trample the rights of others, create products that harm others, design fictitious financial schemes to exploit the trust of those who count on you, participate in the creation of political systems that intentionally disenfranchise the majority of those who live in your community along side you, I will have failed.

Love, Mom, a.k.a. Miss Sarja

P.S. If, however, you ever find yourself in a park working too hard to protect others to worry much about clean clothes, call me and I’ll happily come help with the laundry.”

Caring Shouldn’t Be Cute

Five years ago, on a warm summer day in Pasadena, California, I took a group of my elementary students to the Chamber of Commerce’s monthly breakfast meeting. We were selling books written and illustrated by kids in order to raise money for water wells in Ethiopia, and this breakfast allowed every attendee to get up to a microphone for twenty seconds to “pitch” a product or service. Students decided for themselves what they would say and scattered throughout the room so they could engage the other attendees in conversation about the clean water crisis.

One by one, the kids went to the microphone and gave their pitch. For some it was a quick sound bite about the need for global access to clean water. For others it was a background statement about the organization and what they were trying to accomplish. All together a coherent picture evolved about kids writing books and selling them to raise awareness about and money for girls who had to walk miles to get water for their families. Packed with more than a hundred coffee-sloshing, business-oriented adults, the room lit up with the vibrancy of youthful idealism and hope.

Then it was Ronald’s turn. Ronald was an eight, maybe nine-year-old, diminutive black kid with a smile that could charm the Grim Reaper. He approached the microphone lugging a big chair to boost his sightline just over the podium.

“My name is Ronald and I go to YouthInkwell and I’m changing the world. What are YOUR kids doing?”

And just like that, he climbed down and dragged his chair back to the table.

The room erupted in laughter. It really was cute. Adorable even. The sass. The precocious energy of a child who thinks he can truly change the world. Come on. We love that stuff.

There is something about watching our kids put their hearts on the line to fight for what they think is right. Lemonade stands for tsunami victims. Selling bracelets for Darfur. In our jaded adult minds we know these efforts will likely have little impact, but we encourage them anyway because… well, because they’re sweet. And as a society we convince ourselves that we want our kids to care, that compassion is a positive quality.

Yet, as an educator, I know that the 20-second proclamation of leadership, the Sunday afternoon lemonade stand, the $5 bracelet—none of these efforts alone can create compassionate leaders. The act of caring must be rooted into daily life. And so, if we really want to create compassionate leaders, it’s time to ask some tough questions.

How do we create an educational environment that seriously addresses social justice? How do we follow-up “sweet,” meaningful acts of caring with opportunities for critical thinking and discussion of issues? How do we create problem solvers who do more than just talk about the problems or throw money at them? How do we raise our kids not just to care, but to care well?

It has to start with us.

At the end of the Chamber meeting that day there was a series of raffles. A local realtor had donated some bottles of wine for the occasion. All participants’ names were put into the hat, and sure enough, Ronald’s was chosen. The room erupted in laughter for a second time when it was announced, for obvious reasons, that another name would have to be selected. Hearing only that he would not receive a prize, Ronald exploded into tears and locked himself in the restaurant’s broom closet. In the mingling after the meeting, I became aware of the collective consensus that the only thing cuter than Ronald’s speech was his response to the seemingly grave injustice he’d suffered.

To some adults, even injustice can be cute.

Perhaps that’s part of the problem.