Episode 10: Michael Edwards

Michael Edwards being interviewed by Eric Gurna on the Please Speak Freely Podcast

“I’m very worried that the move towards the business is best approach, right throughout society, is eroding older traditions of solidarity and working together, and cooperation and community in the public spirit, which are the things we are going to need to get us out of the mess that we’re in.” – Michael Edwards

I can’t remember how I first came across Michael Edwards’ book, Small Change, Why Business Won’t Save the World, but it was a rarely engrossing experience for me. I love to read, but I often skim the non-fiction stuff, and I was surprised to find myself highlighting passages, dog-earing pages and reading lines aloud to whoever happened to be nearby. I even bought a stack of them and started giving them away – to me the book is somewhat of a manifesto, and I wanted others to share my fascination. Small Change is a thin paperback that packs a punch – it’s a critique of the current culture and system of philanthropy, and more than that it’s a sharp analysis of where we are as a culture in general. 

I had a great conversation with Mr. Edwards at his home in Swan Lake, NY. We talked about how the current definition of education reform – a package of policies that all amount to a move towards privatization and a reliance on “market forces” – is part of a larger agenda that puts more value on efficiencies than values, and makes false assumptions about the power of business-like practices. I hope you enjoy the talk, along with a guest blog by Jakada Imani, Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights (and also my best friend since seventh grade).

Transcription Available

Michael Edwards and Eric Gurna on the Please Speak Freely Podcast (Transcription)

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Eric Gurna: So I’m here in Swan Lake, in upstate New York, Sullivan county, with Michael Edwards, who is a writer and activist affiliated with the think tank Demos in New York and he’s also formerly Director of the Ford Foundation’s Governance and Civil Society Program, he’s worked for World Bank, Oxfam, Save the Children, and lots of other esteemed organizations. So, thank you for doing this, and welcome to Please Speak Freely.

Michael Edwards: My pleasure, thanks a lot.

Eric: So, what drew me to you is this book that I hold in my hand right now, “Small Change: Why Business Won’t Save The World”, I want to talk a little bit about what the book’s about, but maybe you could summarize a little bit about what your work is about, and in particular why you wrote this book.

Michael: Well I’ve spent, what, now 35 years, really the whole of my career, trying to find ways to support people who are doing work in communities and schools and non-profits in different parts of the world, to do their work as well as they can, to do it in a way which really empowers people, and doesn’t make them dependent, and which is as democratic as it can be.  Because I think all good work tries to be democratic and liberating and empowering, in that way, and what I’ve found is how difficult it is for a funding agency, particularly a large funding agency, whether it’s a foundation or a bank or a corporate or a government, to be really useful who are doing their work, and so often we get in their way, we do the wrong thing, we tie them up in knots, we put all sorts of restrictions, we have strings attached to the money that we give.  And, not surprisingly, it doesn’t work very well, and so all my life I’ve been trying to find ways to do that very simple job, if you’d like, more effectively.  If you have money, what’s the best way of putting it at the service of the people doing the work on the ground, so that they can do what they need to do as effectively as they can.  Sounds mind numbingly simple but it’s actually really difficult, and the reason I wrote the book was because I thought my world of donor agencies and funders and so on was going in the wrong direction.  Rather then reforming itself, so that it could be more effective, it was becoming more and more distant from communities, more and more technical and technocratic, it was becoming less and less, I think, something that was genuinely supportive of people on the ground, and more and more a sort of control system where people in bureaucracies hundreds of miles away, were making decisions which were not informed by realities on the ground, and yet were very important in determining what people could do.  So, the point of the book is to try to challenge the direction of philanthropy and say “this isn’t working, we need to do better.”

Eric: And the subtitle is “Why Business Won’t Save The World”, but the book is mostly about philanthropy.  Can you talk a little bit about why that’s the message there, why business won’t save the world, as opposed to “Why Funders Who Sit Up In Their Ivory Tower Won’t Save The World.”

Michael: Well the reason is pretty simple, it’s because over the last few years philanthropy has effectively been, I would say, taken over by business.  It used to be very separate, they used to be almost totally opposite actually.  You remember the original meaning of philanthropy was simply “love of humankind”, and nothing to do with money, it was about working together to achieve something.  But, over the years it became largely about giving money, and increasingly about giving very large amounts of money, from very rich, very wealthy individuals or from large corporations.  And, more then that there’s been the tendency to try and make philanthropy work like business, if you like, to make sure it earns a return on its investment, if you see it in those terms, to surround it with very detailed metrics and data requirements, which are supposed to prove that something is happening, and push resources to the organizations that are performing most effectively, in that narrow sense.  And, I think, more and more, philanthropy is becoming the playground of the business world, which is sort of an odd conclusion but that’s where we are.  And, so it’s very important, I think, to have a conversation about what’s happening as a result, is this a good thing, is a bad thing, is it somewhere in between, and what should we do about it.  I think the book tries to paint a sort of canvas of those strengths and weaknesses so that people who may not be aware of what’s happening in this field know that something important is going on that may affect them in a real sense, further down the line.

Eric: And, that was a fairly objective way to describe the perspectives that you describe in the book, but I feel like reading it you get a pretty good sense of where you end up when you take that examination yourself.  So, I guess I’ll sort of prod a little more and ask, most people I feel like take the idea that government and non-profit can benefit from a  businesslike perspective, and that if non-profits and government and philanthropy were more like business that they would be more efficient, they would be more innovative, and they would have better success, and you’re not so sure.

Michael: Exactly, and it’s partly because people mean very different things when they say “behave like a business” or “work like a business” or be “businesslike.”  If its only being organized, if its being professional, dedicated about what we do, doing the best we can, and so on, then no-ones going to argue against that, and I’m not arguing against that.  I think any institution, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a business, a government,  a ???, a public agency, a non-profit, has to be serious and disciplined about what its doing, otherwise it won’t do anything.  That to me is not being “businesslike” and that probably because many business, lets face it, don’t have any of those characteristics, they’re irresponsible, inefficient, incompetent, costly, wasteful, and damaging, and you could say that right across the board, the principles that underlie good practice are pretty much the same.  You have to have a clear idea of what you’re doing, you have to have very good accountability relationships with the people you’re working with, you have to build a team, and work collectively, and collegially, and so on.  You have to be sensitive to the environment which surrounds you, and we can reel off that list.  None of those things are the possessions of one set of institutions in society, it’s not being “like a business”.  What “business like” really means, and I think this is why this movement is so important, is something much more narrow, might tighter, much more formal, if you like, and that means that we should see philanthropy as a form of investment, in other words no longer giving grants that people don’t have to pay back, but that we should really seek to make both a financial and a measurable social return on the money that we give.  And, inevitably, that means your going to have to have much more, much fiercer data requirements to measure whether that’s happening or not.  You’re going to have to spend a lot more time gathering that information and analyzing and processing and so on, and you’re going to see, if you like, social change as an exercise in supply chain management, about inputs and outputs, about the most cost efficient use of resources, and that’s going to drive you , I think, away from your mission for social changes, towards doing things that  are more easy, that are less costly, that are less controversial, that don’t take so much time. And, inevitably non-profits are going to move down the slippery slope as they follow that path. And, so the paradox is that the more businesslike you become in that sense, the less effective you may become in the social sense, the social and political sense, and that’s why I’m concerned.

Eric: And have you thought at all about how that trend in philanthropy, and it even goes outside of philanthropy, because even government funding agencies have really taken a similar approach, with the contracting they do with non-profit agencies, and even schools.  Have you given much thoughts to how that plays out in the world of public education, or non-profit agencies that work with schools?

Michael: Sure, well I’m not an expert in education, but I do try to follow the debate, and the debate is really heating up, and I understand it, and is becoming, I would say, almost a textbook example of the debate that we’re talking about, the difficulties we’re talking about. Because you do have a very powerful, well resourced school reform movement which is very business oriented, very businesslike, and which sees schools as business units almost, and wants to maximize their cost-efficiency and their productivity, which you can only do as I said by reducing education to something easily measurable, which means standardized tests.  It means that you start to introduce market principles into the educational system, which usually increases inequality, and so on.  So, this is a great example of what actually happens when very well-meaning philanthropists and other decide to introduce these principles into their work, and I think one of the things that’s interesting is that it’s the education field where this conversation is the most heated, and I think that’s because everyone cares about education, everyone cares about their kids.  So, you’re having a full blow public conversation about the pros and cons of this movement and people are beginning to speak up I think, and to give voice to their anxieties about what’s happening, and not just the teachers unions, who some people say will be biased anyway, but independent intellectuals and policy makers and thinkers, people who have decades of experience in education, I think, are worried that by following a market reform process in education, we might achieve some small cost-efficiencies in the system somewhere, but we’ll never generate the kind of education our children need, in the broadest and deepest sense of that word, so we may be sacrificing some very important long term goals in order to satisfy the demands of business oriented philanthropy.

Eric: You said that introducing market forces often increases inequality, could you say a little more about that?

Michael: Well, markets don’t work on the principles of fairness, or human rights, or equality, they work on supply and demand, and so therefore they naturally privilege people who have more resources, who can purchase more in the marketplace, who have more influence with producers, who are more powerful consumers, if you like, and therefore markets will simply push resources to the places where demand is greatest, not where need is greatest. They will  reward those with the most resources, not those with the most deserving cause.  They don’t particularly care about eh quality of what’s done or the cost involved, the job of markets is simply to get things done in the most cost efficient way.  So markets are great at doing some things, but not in any human endeavor, where most things are intangible, and where we really care about who’s benefiting and who’s left out of the process, about the quality of what’s happening and not just the quantity, about the hidden costs that are involved, and not just the superficial provision of a good or a services, which is what you would find in the market, so although people in the business world would say that markets can work in education, markets can work in healthcare, markets can even work in governments, in the media, as you said this is a very general process. What you find when you analyze the actual results of introducing the market into those areas of life, is rising inequalities, lots of people left out of the process, who can’t afford to take part as effectively, and you may find very effective services delivered to a small number of people at the top of the tree, and everyone else losing out.  That tends to be what happens when you apply the market to human issues of health and education.

Eric: To try and play devils advocate, to try and sort of imagine what some others might say in response, what comes to mind for me is and example like Harlem Children’s Zone, are you familiar with Geoff Canada and Harlem Children’s Zone and that movement?

Michael: Yes

Eric: Geoff Canada, the president and CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone has been able to bring together a huge amount of financial and other resources to concentrate on providing schools and other services for young people and families in a particular geographic zone of high economic need, and all of that, in upper Manhattan, in Harlem.  So, I think that some might say “doesn’t it depend on what you set as the outcomes you’re reaching for?” and “who benefits from the resources that are brought together?”  So, in a certain sense what is happening in Harlem Children’s Zone is, as you said, costing a lot of money, and in a certain sense it’s very businesslike in terms of looking to be as effective as possible and reaching their goals.  But, if their goals are helping every young person in within the geographic zone graduate from high school and graduate from college, and achieve a successful career, and if they are successful in reaching those goals, or making great progress towards those goals, wouldn’t it be good to be as efficient and effective as possible, and use the resources that are coming in from private philanthropy, from government sources, and others for the benefit of those most in need?

Michael: Well, Harlem Children’s Zone is an interesting model but far from proven, and extremely costly, as you say, at a level which is virtually impossible to replicate on a large scale.  So, you could approach it in a number of ways, you could say well, if that’s the case, why are we doing it in the first place, because it will simply be an island of success, in an ocean of poverty.  And, if there really is no possibility of replicating something because it is so expensive, then maybe we should rethink why it’s so expensive and do something differently.  The second set of issues are that you could approach the goals of the Harlem Children’s Zone in a different way, in a way that’s been done many times before, (unknown) rather then starting very expensive, very good integrated programs, why don’t we build the capacity of local institutions and local communities and people to do things for themselves, so that they can solve their problems over the longer term.  It’s actually much cheaper that way, it’s more sustainable, but of course it doesn’t generate the short-term results that you’re talking about, as very high-profile, which are valued by the donors of something like the Harlem Children’s Zone.  There are lots of ways you can slice the cake in terms of how you achieve the same goals that you might want to achieve, and Jeffery Canada is doing it one way, and has a very high profile, they’re doing that and deservedly so.  But, it doesn’t mean that he’s right, it doesn’t mean that is the best way in the long term, and it certainly doesn’t mean that everyone else has to copy him.  I think if this conversation was more open and more genuinely a way of everyone sharing in different ways of approaching the problems that we face, and less about convincing that you have to do it this way, we would actually get somewhere much more quickly because you can’t replicate what’s happening in Harlem in Mississippi, or California, even if you could afford it, because the politics are different and the culture is different and the history is different and the needs are different.  So, what we need to be doing, if we are serious about attacking the problems of education, for example, is building everyone’s capacity to get together and solve the problems in their own ways which are appropriate to their context.  If we did that, then we would get results, but they may not be the results you want, or I want, in years 2, 3 or 4.  But we have to accept that, that’s not what we’re going to do.  Hat’s off to Geoffrey Canada, but I don’t consider the Harlem Children’s Zone as a great or sustainable model for reform in the rest of the country.

Eric: And what you just talked about makes me think about other issues that we’re looking at in education reform, because there’s a lot of talk about creating and finding models that work, and then the phrase is always, and I think this is outside of education as well, “taking it to scale,” how do we take it to scale.  We’ve addressed this issue a little bit in other conversations on Please Speak Freely, some would say that the notion of taking a model to scale is not the right way to think about it.  But, it’s a very attractive, if you can find a school that’s had some success, however you’re defining success, and certainly that’s a whole conversation in and of itself, but if you find a school that’s achieved success, you want to find out what they’re doing, and then, lets even say adapt it to the local context, because no-one says “we should replicate this, do this exactly the same way” somewhere else.  Usually that’s someone criticizing the notion who says that someone else is saying that, but I believe that the people who are advocating for replication or growth of a particular set of charter schools or other sort of school or program, is saying, “we need to take the practices they have in place and adapt them to other local settings, but we can find efficiencies by utilizing the same model elsewhere.”  But that seems to be to me a particular world view.  Is that reflective of the larger culture that you’re addressing?

Michael: Very much, in my world it will be replication and scaling up will be the most common currency, and it really partly depends on what you’re trying to do.  If you wanted to try and make the banking system accessible to low income families, right across America, actually you probably would use the market and you would find out which model works, because that’s a problem that’s very, I think, susceptible to those sorts of models.  People need access to credit, it has to be provided by an institution, the institution has certain rules and regulations and assessment requirements, so I think there’s something that will be relatively easy to scale up, and of course we have large scale micro-credit and micro-finance programs to point to now, which seem to work pretty well.  But, that’s a very distinctive kind of problem.  If, on the other hand, you’re doing something which is much more complicated and involved very different views even of what the goal should be, what is a good education, never mind how should it be provided, never mind provided most cost-effectively, and it’s much more difficult to take that route because you’re not dealing with what you might call a standard product, which can be doled out in millions and millions, you’re dealing with something which has to be tailored and even if you, as you say, are very aware of the context and are very sensitive and so on, it may be that you simply have to sit down with people and agree the most basic characteristics of the kind of schooling they want for their children before you start looking at any models.  And then, I guess, my advice is always to people, find as you can that’s useful to you, learn as much as you possibly can form wherever you can find it, bring in and enrich information bases as much as your can.  But, at the end of the day, you have to make a set of decisions about what’s relevant and appropriate for you, in a context where people may not agree with each other about eh answers to any of those questions.  Therefore, the idea of replicating or scaling something in that context makes no sense, unless you simply impose something, which is going to steamroll all of those differences and debates and conversations, which is a little bit what’s happening in the education reform debate, I think.  So, it’s “horses for courses”, as we would say in England.  It simply means you use the right tool for the right task.  No one would ever have a toolkit which only contained hammers or screwdrivers, you would have  a whole range of things.  So, if you goal is to dole out millions of low cost grants or mortgages and so on, you might well find one model of standardized delivery, but when we’re dealing with any human endeavor, which is intensely political and embedded in the locale and the culture and where people disagree with each other, you simply can’t go that way, and that’s very frustrating because it means that you’re going to have get your feet dirty and spend quite a lot of time simply fostering a conversation about what needs to happen.

Eric: I think the other expression it brings to mind is if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, right?

Michael: Yep.

Eric: You mentioned something about, essentially what I think of as a factory model, or the business model works when you are looking to actually produce the same thing wherever you go.  The other side of that to me, is that it also sort of assumes that you have the same input wherever you go, so whether it’s students, or something else in some other context, that students are students, essentially, and what I’ve found is that there is a distinction made in the education reform movement that’s unsaid, which is that poorer students are poorer students and they need something in particular, they need specific strategies and approaches, and we don’t really need to think that much about wealthier students and families in the same way, we need too think about them, but not in the same way.  It seems to me that much of your arguments are about what are effective and sound practices for accomplishing goals, but there’s another sort of underlying thread in all of this, which is more a moral argument, it seems to me, and I’m not sure if moral is the right word, but that not only does it not make sense because all students are different, but that there’s also unseemly and inhuman about treating all students as if though they were the same.

Michael: I think there are multiple levels of moral and ethics arguments because all these things eventually devolve down to values, what do we value most in our own lives, what do we value for other people, and that drives what we do in the real word, whether it’s in terms of funding or decision making or policy making, or even research, and I think what we have to do is find a way putting the values back into a central place in the conversation, rather then hiding them away and pretending they don’t matter, because I think a lot of this debate is presented as though it were neutral, value-free, who could possibly disagree, but of course it’s just skating  over the surface because we disagree wildly actually on the answers to even the most basic questions of life.  And the secret of all democracy and therefore progress is to be honest about that a put them on the table and work your way through them in a way which doesn’t marginalize anyone and doesn’t privilege anyone, and I think one of the big ethical dilemmas we face now, shown very well in the education movement, is who decides, who decides the answers to these questions, who has the right to intervene, does money talk, should it talk, what do we do about people who have billions and billions of dollars and very strong opinions about how they should be spent.  We don’t want to say no to those resources, but we don’t want to simply follow orders, from someone sitting in San Francisco or Silicon Valley, or New York, who may not have any direct experience and certainly has no right, just because they are wealthy, to do what they like in the education system of a country.  So there are huge dilemmas of democracy and accountability and decision making, one the one hand, in addition to the dilemmas you raised about the values we want our education to be based on, do we want really, education, schools, to produce people qualified for certain jobs?  Is that it?  Because that’s basically the way it’s going I think.  Or, do we see it as a process of creating whole and rounded citizens who can be responsible and active in the world, who think about their role, who have much more creativity, and who become people who can change the world, in radical ways, if that’s what we want.  That’s a very different kind of education, and they have very different consequences for the kind of education that’s provided and even how it’s financed.  So, we’re rather afraid of having conversations about values because we’ll get stuck maybe, we’ll never agree, it’s divisive, it’s political, I hear that a lot, but unless you’re prepared to put them on the table and work through them, then they’ll simply come back and bite you in the end.  And that means the programs you create will be erected on very flimsy foundations, and will eventually fall apart, because you haven’t done the most important, basic work of being honest with each other about what you’re trying to do here.

Eric: I recently saw a televised debate between Geoff Canada and Diane Ravitch and I don’t know if you caught that or not?

Michael:  No, but I know both of them are two interesting personalities.

Eric: Yea, sure, and you can see it online, if you’re interested, it was part of Education Nation, I think it was NBC that did that, and Diane Ravitch, I know I’ve mentioned her in previous episodes, and many people involved in the conversation know who Diane Ravitch is, she worked in the Department of Education under Bush I, and was one of the architects of the current movement of high-stakes, accountability, standardized testing, and all of that, and really pushed that for a long time, and in more recent years has taken a fresh look at that and seen sort of how it actually played out, and wrote a book called “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” that essentially says “I was wrong” and “we were wrong” and we were misguided and we went down a path we shouldn’t have gone down, and here’s why.  It was an incredibly brave book and inspiring to me to be able to take that and have that public of a conversation about being reflective about our own perspectives and just the idea that we can grow that much, is inspiring to me.  But, getting to the story and the debate, you just mentioned, it’s important to look at who decides these things, and it’s amazing to me how subtle the assumptions, how subtlety the assumptions are made, and how hard it is to question them, and she is incredibly adroit at doing that, and the debate with Canada, I can’t remember who the moderator was, but he Dianne Ravich was talking about how much financial resources have been invested in Harlem Children’s Zone and how that’s a huge investment that, as you were saying, may be hard to repeat somewhere else, and that the moderator said “so you’re saying that what we need is a huge investment of private money into the entire education system,” and she caught it and said “no, I’m saying we need a huge investment of public money into the education system,” and I didn’t even catch that he had sort of slanted the question that way, all I heard was “do we need a lot of money into the system,” but that one word, private or public, that’s a huge difference in figuring out who decides, because when it’s private money, who decides is essentially, you can count them on one hand.  And, when it’s public money, there’s obviously a whole democratic process in place, at least theoretically.

Michael: Yeah, well yeah, you say at least theoretically, which of course is an important point, one can’t be too, sort of, romantic about the ability of democracy or the public to respond to everyone’s needs effectively, because we know that doesn’t happen, but it’s much better then the alternative, which is no access, as you say, people deciding in closed rooms miles and miles away, which no-one ever has access to.  I think the public is very important because it means something that belongs to all of us, something which we have some say, we have some root to make demands and to hold people accountable, and to try and make systems representative of a broader sense of where we want to go, and all successful societies have a strong sense of that, they have some sense of direction, and people feel, I think, that they have a stake and a share in success, that they can, however imperfectly, play some role, that they’re not just robots or puppets or pieces to be moved around in the jigsaw puzzle, that they have views of their own which have to be listened to, they have ideas which are important, and they may not be right, and other people may not agree with them, and so and so forth, but they have a role to play and it’s their right, and their duty, their responsibility, to step up to the plate and do that, that’s how you build communities and how you get effective institutions and have societies as a whole prosper, per our history.  So, it’s very worrying that those things are being eroded by the trends we’re talking about, and people I think feel more and more distant from most institutions in society, whether they’re public or private, they feel more and more disempowered, they feel more and more that things are happening around them they have no control over, and once you, I think, fall into that trap, something very fundamental has changed in society because it means that no longer can the public direct society and push it in the direction that they want, they become much more passive I think, and therefore you lose a lot of the drive and potential that societies have to be creative, and to move forwards, in some sense togetherness and solidarity, and we haven’t talked about this but I think a very important part of the reason I keep writing and speaking about this is because I’m very worried that the move towards the “business is best” approach, if we put it that way, right throughout society, is eroding older traditions of solidarity and working together and cooperation and community and the public spirit, which are things we’re going to need to get us out of the mess that we’re in, and once we lose those characteristics, then we have even less potential to solve problems in the future.

Eric: Two things come to mind, the first one, and I’m repeating something that I said on the last episode but, I was at a conference recently where one of the speakers said that there’s going, there’s soon going to be 7 billion people on the planet, and we need to prepare our children to complete with every one of them.

Michael: Right, while good luck, if that’s the message, total warfare, sort of somewhere down the road.

Eric: But, on a more hopefully not, I definitely identify with what you’re saying as a general trend, the recent Occupy Wall Street movement and all around the world, I think, maybe is the pendulum swinging the other way a little bit around people coming together, hearing different voices, and that kind of solidarity.  I’ve been travelling a lot lately and I’ve been able to visit a few of them, which has been kind of cool, because everywhere you go you can check out the local Occupy, there’s one nearby in Poughkeepsie, I visited the Seattle one, I was in Boston just earlier in the week, and visited Occupy Boston, and it’s both the messages and the fact that they’re coming together and protesting and staying there, but it’s also the spirit in which they’re doing it, I think, that is sort of pushing back on what you’re saying, as the, not only the business approach of do things effectively and efficiently, but the hierarchical, top-down, find a strong leader and follow what they say, and this movement, so far at least, has been very strict about remaining democratic within their own processes, even if it takes meeting twice a day, even if it takes long long drawn out conversations, and that it’s not even about the old sort of approach of finding consensus as a group and then standing behind what the group says, it’s about that we all are going to be working on different things at the same time and that there’s room for that.

Michael: Yeah, I think that’s true, and as I understand it yesterday they were trying to work out whether they want to move to sort of formal representative system or process, at least in the New York Occupy, and also should movements do that, they start in a very formless and they try over time to preserve their power, but also to become a little more organized, because that’s usually what you have to do to remain effective.  I think the real test though, obviously, lies ahead, and it’s whether it can broaden it’s appeal, much more out into ordinary communities, if that’s not a silly way of saying it, across the country, because there’s always a vanguard of people who are very highly motivated about something and get out into the streets and so on.  But, they’re only the tip of the iceberg, and the iceberg has to grow behind them, which is hundreds of thousands of people who may not be so confident about coming out on the streets, but are very worried about the direction of American society, and they have to get motivated, they have to get involved, and I think what one can hope there that the problem is always in times of great economic insecurity, the kind of times we’re living through now, where most people are really struggling to make ends meet, they tend to be more risk-averse, and they tend to want to sort of circle the wagons around them and protect what they have, and they may be less, actually, surprisingly, maybe given the problems that confront them, less interested in taking part in that sort of broad based mobilization.  So, you always have a problem, when you really need people to get out on the streets in large numbers, it’s actually more difficult to persuade them, and when things are slightly easier, often they feel more confident and secure about doing that, so we’re trying to organize at a time of great stress I think for most families, which is not ideal in terms of building a social movement.

Eric: Right.  I want to switch gears a little bit because there’s something that’s in the book “Small Change” that I want to draw out, and ask you to talk about a little bit.  Unfortunately, the copy that I actually read and highlighted and dog-eared the pages, I couldn’t find it, so I had another copy, so I have that and so flipping through it I couldn’t quite find the exact part that I was looking for, but there’s this notion that when we focus on data driven decision making, trying to be as efficient and effective as possible, in tackling social problems in particular, that the hardest problems get ignored, aren’t tackled, because there is no cost effective way to do it, and even within the problems that we do tackle, we essentially, it becomes most efficient to not address the harder areas.  To put it in the context of school and youth development, I work with a lot of afterschool programs who work with communities that are economically poorer, these are communities that are in need of services, certainly in need of child care, in need of supports for young people, enrichment, recreation, etc.  And so, most of the programs, they go around and they say “well, we work with at risk kids” or “we work with the kids that are most in need,” and in a general sense,  that may be true, but within each of those communities the kids who are truly most as-risk of making bad choices or falling into bad dangerous behavior or dangerous situations are not generally coming to the programs, because they don’t have enough stability in their life to have a parent or other authority figure that’s bringing them, or they don’t choose to go because of the setting they’re in, and I feel like there’s a real parallel to that for other problems, I was going to say larger problems, but they’re not larger they’re just more macro, in other fields, and I wonder if you could talk about that a little bit.

Michael:  Well it’s certainly a general problem, there are lots of examples in the book from workforce development, social services, international development programs, community organizing, and so on.  Traditionally non-profits, I think, had a philosophy that said “we’ll do whatever it takes to support people in this community or this process, to do what needs to be done, and then we will find ways to do it, and find ways to pay for it, if we need to pay for it; but, we’re not going to be making our decisions on the basis of selecting what we can afford to do or what someone tells us is more cost effective to do, because then we know we’re only address one part of the pictures.”  And so, non-profits traditionally have worked on the basis of universals, human rights, or values, that everyone should be served equally, regardless of how much it costs, and I think that’s a very important difference.  As soon you enter the market model, as soon as you apply business principles, whatever field you’re in, you’re bound to start to select because you know you can’t do everything, or you know you shouldn’t do everything because there are some things that are not going to make a return on the investment that you demand, or are not going to satisfy the demands that you have for short-term measurable indicators of success or something like that.  So, you’re bound to start excluding, so this is a very important ethical question, on what basis do we establish our national education system, or our national health system, is it the basis of universal rights and access, every child, wherever they are should have the same quality of education as anyone else, and the health system in the countries I come from, in the UK for example, we’re lucky enough to have a national health system, which is free at the point of entry, so everyone gets the same health care, regardless of who you are.  That’s a totally different philosophical and practical set of principles to applying the logic of the market, and therefore this is partly about what should drive institution in society, what should drive politics and political decisions in the future, is it a market view, which is inevitable going to be selective, or is it a view based around certain sets of universal values and rights and principles which says “this is what we’re going to do, then we’ll find a way of doing it, and if we have to pay more we’ll raise more, and if we have to find more we’ll find more, and if it doesn’t prove to be the most cost-efficient, that’s OK, we’re still going to do it because we think this is what’s important.”  So it’s a very sort of philosophical and ultimately a very personal question of what we want, what motivates us, and how we see these huge questions of health and education and social services and poverty and so on.  Do we see it through the market, or do we see it through human rights?

Eric: Really interesting, it’s so complicated, because I’m thinking about, this all plays out in the details of how funding works, a lot of times, so, the way the RFP, the request for proposals is written, and I’ve been around tables where people are talking about, that it’s often on a cost per child for the services, but how much it costs to provide the services might be the same, but how much it costs to do the outreach required to get the kids who you really want to reach there might be vastly different, depending on the “populations” you’re working with, just who the people are who you’re trying to support, and within that market system, one response to that could be, well, create a separate funding stream for those kids who are “harder to reach,” and you would have high cost per child to account for the outreach, but the problem with that is that then you’re separating people into these categories of foster kids, or homeless youth, or formerly homeless, or whatever it is, and so even the response, because I think there is a market response to the problem, but the market response has these other outcomes that are, seem to me to be really detrimental to the way that people think about other people.

Michael: Yeah, I think that’s probably true, I think there are some cases where under no circumstances could you apply a market approach because there is no money, people can’t pay anything, there is no revenue in the system, so you just have to accept that I think; it drives me crazy when people try and pretend that everyone everywhere and every problem can be subject to the same approach, when we know that isn’t true, it’s never been true, but you’re right, the ways in which you can manipulate markets and pricing and everything else, but of course it becomes very complicated, and that introduces it’s own costs and bureaucracies and so on, you have to develop a huge infrastructure basically to generate all the data that you need to make these decisions and so you generate a huge bureaucracy when in fact you could simply say “we’re not going to go down that route, everything needs to be accessible to everyone in the same way, we’ll fund it publically through public money,” which is Diane Ravirch’s argument, so we don’t need any of this other stuff, and if, as the market would tell you, that means you’re going to experience some costs and inefficiencies somewhere in your system, the response is to say “yeah we know that, but we think it’s worth it because we think we’ll get a better system in the end and that’s what’s important to us.”  So, you can you develop a sophisticated segmented market approach, as you like, but it’s not going to be an effective substitute for what we should be doing, which is declaring, if you like, certain parts of society as a market-free zone.  The way in which we educate our children, the way in which we care for each other, the way in which everyone has access to basic healthcare and social security, have a job above the minimum wage, these are things that should be guaranteed by us and our government, because that’s part of the social contract that we have with each other, and if we can use markets and so on in certain points in this, that’s fine, we’ll do that, that’s a pragmatic argument, but the argument of principle is that these are and should remain public systems accessible to everyone.

Eric: You mentioned earlier that the conversation about values is an important one to have, but a difficult one to have, that people often resist having, I think you said it was because you’re afraid you’re going to get sort of stuck and you’re not going to be able to agree.  I feel like there’s something even more intangible than that in our culture which is that it’s difficult to talk about matters that are deemed too moral or two spiritual, to even use the word spiritual, I think raises a lot of eyebrows, when you’re having conversations around public policy and services, social services and educational.  But, reading your book and listening to you talk, it really strikes me that there is something just underlying the whole conversation, which is that we should be able to  talk about what’s right and what’s wrong, and the right way to treat people.  It’s interesting because it’s very gratifying to me, because I’m often finding myself not quite sure where to pin it down why something makes me feel so bad.  Recently I was reading an article and it was talking about the, it was advocating for youth services in a particular city, and saying there was a particular program that helps kids stay with their family rather then get taken away from their family and put in foster care, so it’s probably counseling services, and other sorts of services that are provided to the family to help young people stay with their families rather then get put in foster care, and that that, eventually, will save the city hundreds of thousands or million of dollars because foster care is so expensive, and statistically kids who are in foster care are more likely to commit crimes, and more likely to end up needing other social services, at a cost to the state, and that was the argument.  Of course, I support the program, and I support the public funding of the program to help families stay together, but the fact that we have to make the argument on a cost balance, a cost benefit ratio, instead of saying this program is important, not at all costs, but if at all possible, people should be able to stay with their family and get the services and support that they need for that family to be a loving, stable place to be.  But, that’s an unseemly argument to make, in our culture.

Michael: It’s true, and in a sense it shows how far we’ve gone down his path towards marketization, in a sense it’s colonized even our imagination, so we can no longer think outside the box of costs and benefits, and of course once that happens you inevitable are directly more and more to only certain programs and only certain kinds of activities which qualify under that sort of cost-benefit analysis.  So, you will actually do some things and not others and select some populations and no with others, that’s inevitable, so there has to be some process of liberating ourselves, consciously, intellectually, spiritually, from the box we’ve placed ourselves in, because only then do other alternatives become possible, in the real sense.  There was a time in the 1960’s, I’ve been reading a lot about the  civil rights movement, when people talked about these issues all the time, it was the centerpiece of public debate, was all about building a world of love and compassion and community, and getting rid of discrimination and realizing people for what they were, human beings of full and equal potential, when no one was embarrassed about talking about love and compassion, in the public sphere.  And yet, now you’d be considered a mental case if you started talking about love, but I actually do it a lot, because I do want people to start thinking much more about the kind of society they’re trying to build, and ultimately it has to be built on those inequalities of love and compassion and solidarity, if it isn’t it’s not going anywhere.  And Martin Luther King had wonderful phrase to describe this when he said that “life’s mission, as human beings, is to translate love into justice structures,” by which he meant to take those inequalities of love and compassion which define who we really are and see them as a sort of positive virus that goes into schools, corporations, public agencies, non-profits, foundations, hospitals, prisons, and so on, so that they become transformed, if you like, in that same spirit, and they become nurturing, think of this, as a really revolutionary, nurturing of compassion in themselves.  Could you have a loving corporation, a loving government department, so you can, yes you can, but you would look and work very differently to what we have at the moment, but that remains the challenge, we’ve buried that away beneath layers and layers of bureaucracy and markets and influence and so now, it seems a crazy conversation to have, but I wish we could get back to doing that because it makes lots of things possible, lots of different things possible, and you can start to think about the task of building new institutions which essentially what we’re all doing, we’re trying to build institutions that work, in a way which is much more empowering and liberating and transformative than tinkering around the edges of the school, in terms of the salary structure, or trying to make hospitals slightly more cost-effective, in terms of their patients, these are not un-important things, but they’re such the tip of the iceberg that they’re never going to get us very far in producing the kind of society we can be proud of.  So, bringing these morals, these ethics, this talk of love and compassion back into the center of public debate is vital and I think you simply have to move through it.  You’re going to get criticized, people will raise their eyebrows at you, they’re you’re crazy, but my advice is persevere, because that’s the secret of something really important.

Eric: Thank you, thank you for that, and I think that’s a great note for us to wrap up on.  So, Michael Edwards, thank you very much for being on Please Speak Freely and thank you for the work that you do.

Michael: Absolutely, thanks a lot.

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Please Speak Freely

On Please Speak Freely, Eric Gurna, founder of Development Without Limits interviews leading thinkers, artists and others to shed light on key issues and explore different perspectives about youth development and education. The idea is to get past the platitudes and institutional positions, and have honest, nuanced conversations about things that really matter to young people and communities. Please Speak Freely guests include:

  • Raffi, Children’s Troubadour and Founder of the Centre for Child Honouring
  • Alfie Kohn, Author of several books including Punished By Rewards and The Schools Our Children Deserve
  • Dr. Pedro Noguera, Professor of Education at New York University
  • Karen Pittman, President & CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment
  • Tony Smith, Former Superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District
  • Lenore Skenazy, “America’s Worst Mom” and Author of Free-Range Kids

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