Chad was the last to speak and when he choked up and began to cry everyone in the room was taken aback – the emotion palpable, out on the conference table for all to feel and see.
"Take your time Chad," one of the Board members said. There was a murmur of support from several others– "Yes. That’s right. It’s okay." Then silence for a long minute or two.
It had been a good day and the Board retreat a success. Perhaps more harmony and sense of common purpose than ever before. Knowledgeworks is a new foundation, born from the sale of a student loan organization, the conversion into a grantmaking foundation had occurred four years ago. The ultimate size, some $200 million in assets, was a surprise to the original board members, some of whom had been involved in the loan business for many years. No one quite realized the asset value but there it was.
Today, Knowledgeworks is the only statewide foundation in Ohio dedicated to education. Since inception, it has functioned as an operating foundation as opposed to being a grantmaker, running programs, and bringing expert staff and technical assistance directly to projects. Everything happened very fast – the growth in assets, creation of an ambitious vision and mission, selection of new nationally prominent Board members, development of a strategic plan with defined areas of focus, and the all-important recruitment of the right staff. Through it all Chad Wick has been the leader– his vision and drive key to everything.
When Knowledgeworks was approached to become an intermediary for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation national small high school initiative, the ante suddenly went way up. The Gates money, added to other national foundation support from the Ford and Carnegie Foundations, gave Knowledgeworks the annual spending capacity of a foundation five times its actual size.
Heady stuff, and a challenge for the Board and the staff to manage. A challenge for everyone to continue to feel comfortable. A challenge to make all these moving parts actually work. The vision is still primarily about improving schools in Ohio but the hope is that the Knowledgeworks experience will become a template for a national model that can be replicated or adapted in other regions of the country. In the few years since the foundation began operating, the economics for public schools have gotten worse as state and local support has diminished. The political situation has also become hotter – support in Ohio for the charter school and voucher movement has dramatically increased. In addition, the Bush administration has been promoting other alternatives to public school systems, including expansion of faith-based schools funded by public dollars. Add it all up, and Knowledgeworks is at bat on one of the most important and complex issues facing the American society.
This day was an especially rich and full day. The COO of the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation, one of the most effective operating foundations in the country, shared its experience in leveraging media outlets like Viacom on the critical issue of the global AIDS pandemic. Tom Van de Ark, the Director of the Gates Foundation education initiative gave a straight from the shoulder analysis of why they are so committed to solving the conundrum of making high schools work better despite the fact that no one, including him, knows what will really work. Van de Ark is tough minded, and very intense. The Board heard him when he stated his unabashed admiration for Chad and the Knowledgeworks team and the potential they represent.
Chad took a deep breath – the whole room waited and wondered what had troubled him so. He apologized for having "lost it" and then said the words that were still a bit stuck in his throat. "It was just thinking about the huge percent of kids in Cincinnati, the ones who will not graduate from high school this year. It is so disturbing – every time I think… – it simply isn’t fair. That is why we do this work, why we have no choice, why we must succeed!"
"Amen" and "right on" and variations thereof echoed around the room as the Board burst into applause.
So ended the Knowledgeworks Foundation retreat.
Tears in the setting of a conference room are not often evident. Emotional outbursts in response to data are rare. The passion around why one does work is absolutely central, drives everything and yet the busyness of process in all of its linear iterations, the difficulty of execution and of measurement is often all consuming. If we allow it, process can remove us from the very reason we are in the room in the first place— from what could be called the meaning of it all. We need to continually touch that bas, and renew it. From deep within, and with some surprise, Chad reminded himself and the others in the room that this work is not about them, or their brilliant analysis and ideas, but all about the students, especially those who are left behind. They are what matters.
I remember many years ago a wise woman at a meeting of the board of a mental health association, in response to a stupid and fractious argument about the actions of the then Commissioner, said, "Hold it everyone – this discussion is bad for our mental health!"
It was an "oh yes" kind of comment and brought the board back down to its roots, to its common ground.
That is where we need to be. Chad’s gift of tears was one way to get there.