This Movement Is Personal—and That's Why It's Bigger Than Any One Person

This year’s Summit theme, Make the Success of Every Child Personal, applies to many dimensions of our work at LEAP Innovations. Looking over the different, moving responses that so many of you shared on the Wall of Reflection yesterday (all answering the question, How will you make the success of every child personal?), it’s incredible how many different directions you all took—a testament to the theme’s strength.

An emphasis on individuality—on recognizing and tapping into the unique lenses, passions and strengths each person brings to the table—undergirds all aspects of our work. That said, the dimension of the theme that has most resonated with me is the idea that this work is personal for those of us working to transform education in that we invest in it with the energy and care we do with things that directly impact our own lives. Because that is certainly how it feels for me.

Education has always been very personal to me and my family, and has been for generations. Amaziah Pleasant Smith, my great-grandfather who was born a slave, ultimately opened the Smith School in Georgia, which gave former slaves a path through learning to realize their freedom. My parents were both Chicago Public Schools educators, as were many others in my family. They all ingrained in me the vital importance of education at a young age, and I stand on their shoulders today.

It’s also personal to me when I see the neighborhoods where I grew up, like Chatham. For me, Chatham was a place that meant opportunity—it was where friends and family showed me what I needed to know, and put me on the path that’s brought me to where I am today. Today, unemployment there is nearly 20 percent, and 40 percent of households are living below the poverty line. I take that personally. In Englewood, where I went to high school and where my grandparents lived, nearly 30 percent of people don’t have a high school diploma, and nearly 60 percent of households are living below the poverty line. I take that personally, too.

We all need to take it personally when we consider that 65 percent of students are projected to hold jobs that don’t yet exist, and 40 percent of current U.S. jobs are at risk of replacement by automation. This stands to exacerbate an already growing wealth gap in our country, in which the richest five percent of Americans hold two-thirds of the wealth. Black and Latino families are twice as likely to have zero or negative wealth as compared to White families.

What makes this movement of ours so beautiful—and what has never struck me like it did at yesterday’s InnovatED Summit—is that such an amazing sense of larger purpose has emerged from people taking this work so personally.

We heard from Jaime Casap, a first-generation minority whose experiences in the corporate world made him determined to make sure kids like him get access to learning that inspires and prepares them. We heard from Chris Emdin, a vital force in this movement who experienced firsthand the way that classrooms can squash children’s imaginations and stifle their identities—but who also experienced the incredible power that one educator can have to change a life. These people are working to change the system because their personal stories, like those of so many others, have shown them that education makes an unfathomable difference in the arcs of people’s lives, and that we need to deliver real, systemic change. These personal experiences propel us to break from convention; to lean into innovations; to empathize with those whom the system is currently
leaving behind.

Ultimately, the foundational truth lies at the heart of all the different dimensions of this year’s Summit theme is this: Whether we are talking about a classroom or a career, about a project or a personal relationship, the discovery of meaning, purpose and opportunity in our lives starts with personal connection.

And of course, it’s what the best movements start with, too.