CHANGING THE CONVERSATION
By ChamBria J. Henderson
Years ago, I was leading a team of volunteers at a weekend event that featured former President Ronald Reagan and Zig Ziglar as guest speakers. The long hours and physical labor was tough duty but the dividends were huge. Saturday night, after the crowds had cleared the coliseum and most of the volunteers had gone back to their rooms, the leaders of each volunteer team were called backstage.
I was ushered behind closed curtains to stage left where Mr. Ziglar was sitting on one of the props casually speaking with the other 8-10 volunteer leaders. He told us he enjoyed staying after events to speak to the volunteers because he saw in us people who were willing to do whatever it takes to make a difference, people who lived their lives for the greater good and with passion, and he was energized by our attitudes.
He asked each of us in turn why we had volunteered and what we were passionate about. He listened intently, asked specific questions and gave encouragement. The setting was so intimate that when he spoke to us specifically, we felt as if we were the only person in the room and yet, we were privileged to eavesdrop on every conversation.
When he addressed me, I confessed I volunteered because I couldn’t afford the event ticket but the line-up of speakers was manna to my soul. Having to work hard and dirty and invisible for that privilege was irrelevant. When he asked about my passion, I told him I was born to make a difference behind the scenes as a work-horse that would allow strong leaders to emerge powerfully with their visions of a better community. From an early age, I had a knack and track record for connecting people to causes bigger than themselves. Personally, I knew I wanted to affect K-12 education and felt my then-current job of being a fundraiser in the political arena was foundational to developing a rapport of trust with decision-makers.
When I finished speaking, Mr. Zigler spoke with gravity, “Promise me. Say it out loud. Promise yourself. Promise those you have and haven’t met yet who need your talents and passion to get themselves to the next level. Promise the children who haven’t been born yet, that you will do something every day of your life that will bring about a better education for them than what is available today.” He didn’t let me just nod my head in agreement. He didn’t move on until I had passionately voiced an unbreakable vow that I would do whatever it took, no matter the cost, and without excuses, to further the work of bringing educational excellence to America’s children. It was a promise I’ve kept.
Now, to back up just a bit, lest anyone think I’m sanguine by nature and enjoy hobnobbing among the rich and powerful for the sake of the poor and powerless. Let me assure you, getting beyond my own social awkwardness was the demon I had to confront daily. I can’t count the number of times, in the early years, when I purposely showed up late to meetings hoping to walk in unnoticed, or worse, just turned around and went home without ever going inside, or how many times I fled networking events or how many podiums I walked away from, because I was shaking so hard I couldn’t see my notes or remember my speech, or how many times I passed out due to fear.
Forcing myself to tame the beast within, relentlessly demanding my silence, became my over-riding goal. “Whatever it takes, no matter the cost, without excuse. . .” became my mantra. Slowly, painfully, I began to realize the message was more important than remaining invisible and cowering to my fears. I recognized I was cheating the masses out of a new and different future. I was playing too small to make a big difference. I knew if I were to make a difference that would be felt for generations I had to “speak in spite of my voice shaking.”
Although being a political fundraiser challenged me to my core, as I warmed up to it, it became a great game to play. Every candidate needed money to run their campaign. Their campaigns lived, died, or thrived based on their fundraising skills. The newbies usually had breath-taking passion and promises but felt uncomfortable asking for money. They needed someone with expertise to work and grow their small circles of influence. On the other end of the spectrum, the seasoned politicians needed experienced workhorses and new energy on their teams to get re-elected. They appreciated being able to show up at events and rally the troops without having to do all of the event planning and fundraising legwork on their own.
Business was good, but more important than the money and the resume was the personal contacts I was making. Having worked on campaigns for almost every office, from precinct committeeman and school boards to city, state, congressional, and presidential campaigns, the contacts were my ultimate capital. I respected and valued every relationship, whether or not I agreed with the ideology. Every contact opened new doors and new possibilities either for me or for someone I worked with. Finding common ground on both sides of the aisle opened opportunities that had previously seemed to be riddled with impenetrable roadblocks. I learned to genuinely listen without prejudice, judgement, or opinion for the sake of the greater good.
One day, one of my candidates asked what I would do if I could affect any area of public policy. My response was immediate, “Create a tax credit that would allow any child in Arizona to attend the school of their parents’ choosing.” He said it was an idea whose time had come and asked what I had done toward making it a reality. I told him that although I was a political fundraiser, I didn’t know enough about the political process, per se, to have done anything about it. He told me that if he lost his election (which he did), he would work tirelessly with me to bring my vision to fruition through the legislative process.
That simple conversation led to a three-year legislative battle to introduce a concept that was the first of its kind in the Nation. From the Arizona legislature to the U.S. Supreme Court, the law made its way through the system by the narrowest of margins. Today, twenty years later, some form of that original concept is ensconced in the law books of fifteen states and directly affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of federal poverty and state working poor K-12 students and their families annually.
Watching the vision that started at my kitchen table, spreading across the Nation giving families a hope in their future and a way out of the poverty they have known for generations is humbling, exciting, gut-wrenching and inspiring.
I read thousands of letters every year from members of the community and grateful parents whose children are getting a personalized education they could never afford otherwise. The education mirrors the values being taught in the home and encompasses the three “R’s” plus character development, life skills, and community involvement. Students are pro-actively being taught to seek out and give back the best life has to offer.
Now, after having raised almost $60M and awarding tuition assistance to over 20,000 K-12 students in Arizona, the final phase of my vision is calling to me. It’s time to move forward once again. This time, however, I will be taking the first step in being the change I want to see happen and hoping others will follow my lead.
My journey over the past twenty plus years has shown people are passionate about education. Some have only opinions to offer. Others, the real champions in the education arena, have hands-on time, expertise, and/or financial assistance to offer. The moms and dads, extended families, teachers, coaches, community members, innovators, local organizations, and businesses, all with skin in the game and willing to give of their time, talents, and resources, are the real deal. They are the ones on whose shoulders our children will stand. It’s time to begin pro-actively shifting the national education conversation away from the negativity that abounds and begin engaging the pace-setters and innovators who have a track record of successful, specific, measurable results. It’s time to showcase what is working in our K-12 public and private schools and calling on our decision-makers to take action accordingly.
But here’s the problem and a partial solution: The 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, succinctly summarized major problems within the American public education system. The report, right or wrong, was seen as a clarion call-to- action and spurred reform efforts on all levels. During the past 35 years, we have seen numerous innovations in the K-12 education arena and extraordinary opposition to all of it. Each follow-up report shows the same thing; not enough has been done in some areas and too much has been done in other areas. At every turn, we hear how awful and burdensome our education system is and how it is failing our children and how American students don’t measure up to their global peers AND we hear how horrible and damaging every new idea is or will be that has been presented, that could or has changed the system.
Because many of the new ideas are considered “disruptive innovations,” both the opposition and the support of them are intense and ongoing. Those who wish to maintain the status quo in K-12 education fiercely oppose the innovations and accompanying body of laws surrounding them while those who wish to encourage innovation are pushing forward with dogged determination. The tipping point hasn’t occurred yet, but the push and pull toward it is gaining momentum.
The problems are real and need to be addressed; however, when the national conversation focuses on only the problems, there isn’t room for solutions. The negativity distracts from and then over-powers and silences any common-ground solutions that may be presented. In the meantime, our children continue to grow up, moving through a broken system that seems, at best, to have stalled out when it comes to real reform, and at its worst, leaves us with more of what we already have that we don’t like.
Yet, in both our K-12 public and private schools (and their many variations), we have pockets of success across the Nation where positive change is occurring among our most vulnerable children. In some schools, we see our poor and minority children graduating from high school and going on to college at a higher rate than their neighboring schools. In other areas, we see our elementary students’ math and reading skills improve by double digits over their similar peer groups. Across the county we hear of principals, teachers, community leaders, and even celebrities taking a personal interest in the students they have a heart for, and having a profound impact on their lives. These pockets of success are the seeds of change.
We have all heard the mantra “change your words, change your world.” The next phase of systemic change requires a shifting of our national conversation away from what won’t or isn’t working toward what is working and then building upon it.
Currently, our Extra Credit Show podcasts are exploring educational innovations with the innovators themselves. We’re seeking to discover the foundations and driving forces behind the innovations and exploring the implementation and evolution of their ideas. We’re seeking to understand issues surrounding their work and challenging methods of accountability. We’re also sharing the stories that have been lost to the masses; stories of defeat and devastation that have ultimately turned to triumph for our children. We believe if we are authentically listening and searching for common ground, we will change the national conversation, resulting in being able to build a future together that empowers our children. We will do whatever it takes, . . . no matter the cost, and without excuse.
ChamBria Henderson is passionate about making a difference in other peoples’ lives. From her earliest days of being “the big sister” in a large multi-racial, USAF family that was always filled with foster kids, to her first neighborhood fundraiser at the age of 9, she has always looked out for the lost and lonely and under-privileged in society. She loves few things more than listening to others until they get done talking, and encouraging them to find their best self and chase their dreams.
Being a military brat, she experienced first-hand the disparity in education in classrooms across the United States. Often attending several schools in a year, she found herself either at the top or bottom of the new class on a regular basis. Frustrated with one of her 5 th grade teachers, she demanded and was appalled to learn from the principal that school choice was not a legal option. She informed him that someday it would be. The upside to that situation was that she learned the power of, and has enjoyed self-educating since then, always competing against herself to master the unknown. Graduating in the top 3% of her high school class and still feeling unprepared for the adult world, she realized systemic change in K-12 education needed to happen and she wanted to be a part of the transition.
Through the years, ChamBria has been fortunate to connect with the founders and leaders in the education reform and school choice movements. She has also connected with strong leaders and innovators in our traditional education system. She finds value in every educational setting and believes that whatever the setting, education is the key to our success as a nation, a community, and as individuals.
The Extra Credit Show is not a show espousing a particular ideology or opinion. As a nation, we have become polarized to such an extent that we can no longer accept ideas unless they are spoken by the people we approve of as being likeminded, and therefore, legitimate. Instead, in her podcasts, ChamBria is reaching out to those who are making a difference in our children’s lives. She is interviewing the people, from both sides of the aisle, who have impacted education with a track record of successful and meaningful results. She is bringing authentic, active listening into the American conversation about education and what is best for our children.
You can connect with her at: email@example.com
The Extra Credit Show can be found at http://ChamBriaHenderson.com