On April 25th, I was asked to provide a keynote address at an Honors Assembly at the William Penn Charter School, a Friends school in Philadelphia. Below are my remarks, adapted slightly for UnSectored. The tensions I discussed are realities for adults as much as they are for the adolescents I addressed on that day.
The Cum Laude Society, which honors scholastic achievement, espouses the virtues of Arete, Dike, and Time – Excellence, Justice, and Honor. It’s my hope to discuss the most important of the words highlighted in that motto. Not excellence. Not honor…Not justice. And. I want to focus on the word and – on the tensions that exist between these words and the balance you’ll be forced to find in your lives.
In school, there are rules. There is a scale on which you are judged. This doesn’t mean that we have come to consensus on what matters – on what you should aim to get from your high school experience. But, you do generally know what is required to get an A. To get into college. To be excellent. Honor, at school, simply means not cheating. And justice is what you try to address through service.
When you leave school, holding these three ideals simultaneously becomes more difficult. What if the rules for excellence require you to forfeit your allegiances to Honor and Justice? I think immediately of Prosecutors who are judged solely on conviction rates, without regard for guilt or innocence. Or leaders in the financial industry who secured record short-term earnings for shareholders at great cost to both individuals and the health of our economy. In life, measures of excellence become less clear.
Before I get run out of town for my liberal bent, let me also mention the historical failures of my own field, the nonprofit industry. For generations, we have dismissed talk of data and evaluation – using Honor and Justice as our shields. Good intentions alone do not bring us toward better outcomes. We must seek excellence. But what does that mean? And who gets to define excellent? How can you aspire to Excellence, Honor, and, Justice? How can you seek to balance all three?
As with all of us, it’s easiest for me to talk about these tensions through the lens of my own experience.
After graduating from college, I worked at CA Dillon – North Carolina’s maximum security facility for juveniles charged with violent and sexual offenses. I found myself working each day with rapists and murderers. It was at CA Dillon that I met JC.
JC had stabbed another teenage boy, twice, during a gang altercation in Charlotte. He stabbed this victim in front of the boy’s own home. When the victim’s mother saw her son being attacked from her window, she ran out to intervene. JC shoved her to the ground and stabbed her son again. He then started running as sirens. Seeing his victim’s mother on the ground, he turned back. He helped her up and apologized, saying, “I’m sorry. You weren’t meant to be here. Are you okay?” Because he turned back, he got caught.
My first boss didn’t see any good in JC. I was JC’s therapist, so my supervisor asked me to create an evaluative report – he strongly suggested that I label JC a violent sociopath. I couldn’t. He wasn’t. According to my boss’ evaluation of me, this made me worse at my job. I wasn’t a team player. I was stubborn. According to him, this made me far from excellent. Some might agree.
Sometimes, you can’t simultaneously pursue professional excellence, honor, and justice. You make intentional sacrifices of one to pursue another. You try to find the right balance. Sometimes, the right choices are even less clear.
Tee was sixteen years old when I met him. I had moved to Washington DC to work as a social worker for adolescents in the foster care system. My clients were specifically those with severe behavioral and emotional problems. Tee had lost both parents. His aunt had thrown him out. He had already been arrested twice. And he spent much of his time living on the streets – an unsafe place for any teenager. We were trying to get him in a stable home, but – unsurprisingly – he trusted no one. The beginning of our relationship was slow. But, eventually, he would be willing to ride around in my car for a bit. We started small. But, there was a concern. Tee always carried a gun.
What is the honorable thing to do? The just thing? When a scared child is carrying a gun. And you know it. And he’s sitting one foot from you in your car. Should I have turned him in? Kicked him out? What was the best way to help Tee get to a better future? In my estimation, he needed to trust someone.
We moved slowly. First, he carried. Then, after a couple weeks, I told him it made me uncomfortable. So, we agreed that it would stay on my side of the car. Safety on. Under my seat. Eventually, it would go in the trunk while we drove around town. I did everything I could to honor the light in Tee. Everything. Today, he sits in a cell in Louisiana. I wasn’t excellent enough. To this day, I’m not sure whether the approach I took was the right one. There were no real rules for the situation.
While I regularly tried to be excellent, honorable, and just in my work as an individual, I am now trying to do it on an organizational level. In 2009, I founded Reach Incorporated. Reach facilitates improvement in reading, across ages, by hiring and training struggling adolescent readers to tutor in DC elementary schools. In my city, 85% of kids enter 9th grade reading below grade level. 85%. We have failed them in incredible, incredible proportions. So, how do we honor them? How do we seek justice while respecting the realities of the world? We can’t just make them feel good. We have to prepare them. We have to seek justice and honor, but we must also succeed in giving them the tools to be excellent. They don’t always make it easy. After years of failure, many of my kids lack self-confidence. Society dismisses them, and my kids sometimes don’t offer much of a counter-argument.
We know kids only improve in school when they practice at – or just above – their current reading level. Most of my 9th grade tutors come to me reading somewhere between a 3rd and a 6th grade level. We also know that the older a kid gets, the more engagement and motivation matter. Teens need school to be both engaging and relevant. Where in the high school curriculum were my students to find a way to practice reading at an elementary school level in a way that was engaging and relevant? Where was their path to a better future? Such a program didn’t exist.
I regularly hear that those students can’t handle that responsibility. People don’t consider my kids trustworthy.
I have 9th grade tutors who have previously been expelled for bringing guns to school. Have spent time in jail. Have been raped. Have been beaten. Some move regularly due to poverty and homelessness. Some have family members in jail. Failure is an expectation. If we don’t provide an excellent program for these kids, I know what I would hear. “The hill was just too big.” “There’s only so much you can do.”
But we don’t accept the possibility of failure. And when our program works, it’s beautiful. Our tutors have shown GPA improvement – in a single year – up to 125%. They’re more than doubling their GPAs. Our elementary school students are progressing more quickly than the students who choose not to participate in our program – our tutors are producing better results than programs run by adults. Our tutors stand straighter, believe in themselves, and learn to be in charge. When I try to step in to help, I often hear, “Mark, I got this.” And, in a city where 50% of minority students drop out of school – and half of those drop outs occur in 9th grade – not one of our tutors has ever left school. Not one.
My kids regularly defy the expectations society places on their shoulders. They’ve shed sometimes-difficult pasts for the possibility of a better future. They’re readers. They’re leaders. And they’re changing the world.
To pursue excellence, honor, and justice – to define ourselves by societal improvement rather than personal gain – extends the definition of excellence beyond ourselves as individuals. It requires that individuals have a public purpose. This is no easy task.
A man named Bryan Stevenson gave a TED Talk this year. Mr. Stevenson is the head of the Equal Justice Initiative – an organization that works to reform our criminal justice system.
The Equal Justice Initiative is trying to address some pretty significant issues of injustice in the US:
- This country is the only one in the world where a 13 year old can be sentenced to die in prison.
- In this country, a convicted murderer who is Black is 11 times more likely to get the death penalty than a convicted murderer who is White.
- In the US, there is one death row inmate exonerated for every nine executed. Would you fly if airplanes had a 10% failure rate?
- And, in America today, we incarcerate more African-American people than were enslaved in our country in 1850.
So, to say the least, Mr. Stevenson deals with some heavy stuff.
He once had the opportunity to meet Rosa Parks, and he talked a bit about his work.
When he talked to Mrs. Parks about the Equal Justice Initiative, she said, “That’s gonna make you tired, tired, tired.” Her friend chimed in to say, “That’s why you need to be brave, brave, brave.”
Let’s take today to consider the path we’ll walk. For those of you who will be graduating soon, these decisions may arrive sooner than you might imagine. Be purposeful in how you live your life. Simultaneously aspire to Excellence, Honor, and Justice. Have a public purpose. Respect the most important word, AND.
You’ll succeed, but you’ll also fail many times. All of you. The status quo is easy and it’s poweful – but, I hope for each of you, that you find courage to pursue exceptional.
And, when it gets hard, be Brave. Brave. Brave.
Photo credit: Ampersanden
Sometimes, you can’t simultaneously pursue professional excellence, honor, and justice.
The status quo is easy and it’s poweful – but, I hope for each of you, that you find courage to pursue exceptional.