Adapted from a TEDxYouth talk by Scott Rechler
Yesterday I had the honor of sharing the stage with LearnServe alums Marwa Eltahir, Robin Peterson, and Omnia Saed, and LearnServe Program Leader Eric Goldstein, at the first-ever TEDxYouth@ColumbiaHeights gathering. Held at the Tivoli Theater in Washington, DC, the event was co-convened by LearnServe partners One World Education and Operation Understanding DC.
I will share the video clips from this session as they become available. But I did want to take a moment now – as we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, a quintessentially family-oriented holiday – to share my remarks from this talk, as they are centered around wisdom I learned from my father.
Wishing you all a meaningful and relaxing Thanksgiving week!
Be Part of the Solution
Delivered on November 17, 2012 at TEDxYouth@Columbia Heights.
Good morning! My name is Scott Rechler, and I am director of LearnServe International. It is a pleasure to be here with all of you this morning!
Now, I consider myself to be a pretty peaceful person. And those of you who know me would probably agree.
But I want to take you back a few years, to when my brother and I were much younger. From time to time we would do that thing that siblings often do: we would fight.
I was bigger and stronger than him at the time, so I could hold him off for a little while. Eventually, inevitably, our dad would come over to separate us.
At which point we did the other things that siblings always do: blame the other person. “He started it!”
Our father would wait patiently for a moment or two, and then ask each of us a very simple question:
“Are you part of the problem, or part of the solution?”
There’s a beauty in that question. There’s no gray space, no maybes, no space to blame it on someone else. You are responsible for your own actions. And you are either part of the problem, or part of the solution.
Which is why that question has stuck with me since then – and why I’d like to share it with you today.
My brother and I have since grown up – and, thankfully, no longer fight.
But that question still matters. There are still problems out there. Big ones. The problems on my mind today may be less immediate, less tangible, than a fight with my brother. But they are still very much there.
Look at the headlines from the past few days. An escalation of fighting between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza. A devastating “Frankenstorm” likely induced by climate change. Lack of support for children, families in this country without homes. Rampant apathy and bullying in schools. Huge disparities in educational opportunities and outcomes right here in our own city. Young people who too often become statistics, part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.
And those are just a few.
These are big challenges. Some of them seem so big, so distant, so hard to solve that I’m tempted to say: “It’s not my fault,” just like my brother and I used to do.
But when I examine these issues, these headlines, through my father’s lens, I realize that’s not an option. Either I’m part of the solution – or I’m part of the problem.
I want to be part of the solution. The question is, where does one start?
And that’s what brings me here today.
As director of LearnServe International, my job is to help high school students think about the problems they see in their own lives – and then help them become part of the solution.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with many of you here today – including many of you in the audience, and several on stage presenting. And others who have come before you, sitting in much the same place you are now.
Students like Yasmine Arrington, whose mother passed away just as she was starting high school, and whose father has been in and out of prison most of her life. She realized that there were no scholarships available for students like her, children of incarcerated parents, so she created ScholarCHIPS. This past summer she awarded the first eight college scholarships to children of incarcerated parents graduating from high schools in the DC area.
Students like Jessica Yang, who loves science, but realized that many of today’s elementary and middle school students didn’t share that same passion. She recruited a team of 50 high school students, designed a hands-on science education curriculum, and began teaching after-school science classes. Today, Kids Are Scientists Too is a registered non-profit organization, operating in four states and about to launch in three more. And Jessica is now in her second year at MIT – where, incidentally, she is also class president.
Students like Yoni Kalin, who was eating at Outback Steakhouse, doodling with the box of kids crayons on his table, when he realized that every box of crayons – used or not – was thrown away at the end of the meal. He spoke with the wait staff and the manager and arranged to set up a plastic collection bucket in the back kitchen area. Once a month, Yoni and his teammates began to collect the crayons, clean them off, and donate them to local day care centers and elementary schools. Color My World now includes teams in nine states; collectively they have gathered and donated more than 40,000 crayons to institutions in need of art supplies.
None of these students set out to single-handedly end world hunger or slow down climate change or eradicate poverty.
They simply saw a problem, and knew that they wanted to be part of the solution.
If you ask each one of them, they’ll tell you that it hasn’t been an easy path. Each one of them can surely count, on both hands, all the setbacks that they’ve faced.
But the important part is that they took that first step – and kept at it.
So as I close I want to leave you with two questions.
The first is the question I always ask my students:
What pisses you off? What are those issues that seem so unfair, so unjust, that you know that someone just has to do something about it? Those moments in your school, your neighborhood, watching the news, where you just think to yourself: that’s not right.
And then, once you’ve figured that out, you can move on to the next question:
How will you be a part of the solution?
~ Scott Rechler