Why Good Programs Fail: Missed Connections

I didn’t know we were dating until he tried to kiss me. I had worked there for about five years coordinating programs and teaching basic skills classes. He cared a lot about renewable energy and was hoping to install solar panels on the property he’d purchased with his step-father. At first, he’d asked for connections in the industry because we provided environmental remediation training, and I was on staff. Although I didn’t have any connections, and wasn’t generally knowledgeable of the field, he invited me out to see the building and to get my opinion of the space.
He was on a mission to encourage other property owners to pursue more eco-friendly practices, and he wanted the community to get involved. He was frustrated with the food deserts, the crime, and the general apathy police held for his neighborhood. His family was from El-Salvador originally, but he grew up with his Mexican-American step-father who had immigrated to the states in the late 1980s.
We had never socialized outside of work before, but he was excited about his project and wanted to share. I had planned to meet him at the building, walk around the neighborhood for a bit, and then head home. He called later to say that he wasn’t far from me and could swing by to pick me up. At the property, he showed me everything that had been renovated and what was left to complete. He described the work in technical terms, showed me tools, and gave demonstrations for completing certain steps in the process. Before parting ways, we picked up some tortas and then grabbed sweet bread from the Mexican bakery downstairs.
The next few times we met, he wanted to cheer up his friend who was going through a divorce. The couple had had a new toddler, and his friend was in a state of depression. He’d wanted to cheer him up, so he asked if I could meet up for awhile to keep him company and entertain the guests.
I had never really dated anyone before. I’d never been kissed. I’d never had to consider how I felt about dating interracially because I’d never really dated. I just found myself pulling away from him, being embarrassed that I was pulling away from him, but not having the words to clarify or to apologize.
Programs fail for the same reasons that relationships do.
1. We fail to communicate. It’s not always easy to talk to people. We don’t always trust the people who make important decisions; we don’t always even like them. We don’t always have the resources and time to execute projects the way we’d like. We don’t always agree with the metrics used to evaluate and assess our programs. Sometimes we’re intimidated by the size of the project or the people who manage us. Sometimes we don’t know what our role is or who defines it. Miscommunication is easy, but we have to be intentional so that programs can be effective.
2. We don’t pay attention. For most of my life I’ve worked for nonprofits that rely on state and federal funding. This typically has resulted in job instability and has contributed to staff members’ frustration and stress. At times I’ve been responsible for large projects but haven’t always had sufficient staff to oversee these projects. I work long hours. I miss family functions. I don’t always get enough sleep. I care about doing a good job, but I don’t always feel like I have time to pay attention. I understand that this can and will create problems later, but if there’s more work than time, what’s a girl to do?
3. We don’t acknowledge what’s working well. We don’t acknowledge good people. No matter how many jobs I’ve worked, I’ve always had one co-worker who was the rock of the organization, but who no one in senior leadership fully appreciated. Let’s call her Linda.
Linda usually makes $13 an hour or less. She usually works overtime, but she doesn’t always clock it. When you give her an unreasonable deadline, she’ll miss lunch, dinner, and will work on the weekends (for free) to complete it. She is committed because she’s a principled person, and she knows that the little things matter. When Mike’s grandmother passes away, she brings him flowers. She buys birthday cakes and hosts holiday parties. She has a system for everything. When irate members come to the office, she chooses to crisis manage the situation. She never gets a raise because she only completed high school. She is brilliant. She is absolutely irreplaceable, but draws no attention to herself. She reaps no rewards. When there’s no coffee, people act as if she’s not doing her job, even though it has never been her responsibility to make it.
As a manager, whenever I find Linda’s, I do whatever I can to show them they are appreciated; they are essential; they are irreplaceable. (In dating, I haven’t quite figured this out.)
I’m a “lifer” as they say in the nonprofit world. For better or for worse, I have to be connected to something mission-driven. I don’t want good programs to fail, period. I especially don’t want good programs to fail for trivial reasons. For the benefit of those we serve, we cannot.

What So Proudly We Hailed: Deeply Rooted

I’ve always hated my skin. At first it was the color. I wanted to be more of my mother’s complexion (not because she was lighter-skinned, but because I wanted to look like her).
Then it was how delicate it seemed. I was a rough and tumble kid. I was a tomboy. I wanted to be a stunt double or a dancer. I was going to win the Olympic gold in the floor exercises. Bruises, scratches, and scrapes were all part of the territory. Everyone I knew said I should take better care of my skin. “Men don’t like bruises and scrapes.” Didn’t I want to be married one day? Didn’t I want to be beautiful?
Then it was my acne that came in high school and never completely left. I tried every scrub and cream I could afford (which usually made matters worse). I read books on skin care and nutrition. Nothing helped. I hated when people touched my skin. I hated when people got too close to my face; I hated taking pictures and being in the spotlight. I hated dating. My skin has always made me feel ugly.
America is much like this.
First, we have a superficial but deeply rooted bias towards our mother. There is no escaping our European influence. Education, architecture, government, television— remnants exist everywhere. We are an unapologetically Eurocentric nation (at times to the exclusion of everyone else).
There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to look like your mother, but in a nation of immigrants this means that the rest of us (and those whose ancestors were forced here against their own volition) are excluded. Worst still, perhaps there are things we shouldn’t embody. Perhaps we would be better off having an identity that is distinctly and completely our own.
Second, we misunderstand America’s purpose and function. We set goals that we don’t act upon. We’re thin-skinned and overly concerned with others’ perceptions of us. We consider ourselves unique and we aspire for notoriety, but when faced with criticism (or confronted with evidence of past failures), we pass blame.
Today, November 20, 2016, our foundation seems fragile. I hesitate to see a return to Jim Crow.

  • Steven Bannon was selected as Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor. He has been endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party.
  • Reince Priebus was appointed Chief of Staff.
  • Michael Flynn was appointed National Security Adviser.
  • Mike Pompeo is slated to be the new Director of the CIA.
  • Jeff Sessions was picked for Attorney General.
Third, somewhere right below the surface, we hate a part of ourselves. We do what we can to make peace with it. We try to get rid of it (i.e. police violence against communities of color), and we try to downplay our feelings towards it (i.e. “it’s a post-racial society after all, right?”). It isn’t sexy to be insecure. We aren’t supposed to say aloud that people of color have no place in our society. We know that it’s taboo to say we hate a part of ourselves— a part of our heritage. It’s easier to just wear make-up. Just hide what’s ugly.
It brings me no joy to say these things. I’m not vindicated or validated in my belief that America isn’t kind to people who look like me. I’ve had enough racialized experiences to know where I stand in the social hierarchy. I’ve read enough books, talked to enough strangers, consoled enough friends, and traveled to enough places. In the aftermath of Trump’s victory:
  1. Hijab-wearing Muslims have been assaulted.
  2. The North Carolina chapter of the Ku Klux Klan is planning a victory parade to celebrate his election. Former KKK leader David Duke claimed election night was one of the most exciting nights of his life.
  3. A swastika was painted on a light pole in Capitol Hill and at Adam Yauch Park in New York City.
  4. Nazi-related graffiti was found in South Philly.
  5. During a high school volleyball game, teenagers at Fort Hancock Independent School District in Texas chanted “build that wall” at Hispanic and Latino/a attendees.
  6. At Stone High School in Wiggins, Mississippi, a group of white high schoolers put a noose around a black student’s neck and yanked backwards. The NAACP is working to have this incident investigated as a hate crime.
  7. Trump’s “leadership team” is discussing plans for a Muslim registration system.
  8. A teacher was caught on tape telling her students that Trump should deport their parents.
  9. Over 700 incidents of harassment and intimidation have been reported since Election Day, and about 300 white nationalists gathered in D.C. this weekend.
  10. Shares in arms companies reportedly surged to a record high, while shares in renewable energy companies have plummeted.

…And Sarah Palin is rumored to be up for a position in the Cabinet.

I don’t know where we go from here. I don’t know what we do now.
Perhaps there’s only up.

What So Proudly We Hailed: Love is a Battlefield

My sister has always been beautiful. On top of that, she’s always been popular, always been a natural leader, and always been talented. To add insult to injury she’s always been tall, always been compassionate, and always been able to sacrifice her own happiness for the good of the mission—whatever the mission may be. She is kind, and she legitimately cares about other people.
While I’ve always been judgmental and elitist (help me, y’all!), she’s always been open-minded and welcoming. When I’ve found myself impatient, she’s always taken things one step at a time, and one day at a time. She can endure. She can delay gratification. She can maintain stability.
I move. I quit. I abandon. I throw the baby out with the bath water, time and time again.
When we were younger, it was hard for us to understand each other. Although we were civil, we were emotionally distant. We genuinely believed that our perspectives and our worldviews were irreconcilable. She was Beyonce—beautiful, revered, and iconic. I was Beyonce’s little sister (before Cranes in the Sky).
Our divided nation is much like this.
Although we Americans are a family, we are made up of distinct people groups. Some of us are resentful because we feel overlooked. Some of us are resentful because we feel that we work hard, but our work isn’t rewarded or appreciated. Sometimes we feel as if we aren’t treated as well by others, through no fault of our own. Some of us deny that we are a family. Instead, we compete. We degrade. We criticize. We look for faults and exploit them.
If we are overcome with self-interest, we are malicious and cause harm. We feel threatened when we are held accountable for these feelings. We feel confronted when we are challenged to a higher standard.
Part of the issue is denial and an outright rejection of history.
America was founded on genocide and conquest. For the sake of creating what is now the United States, millions of indigenous people were slaughtered. This land wasn’t ours. In the aftermath, suicide rates are highest among indigenous groups. Substance abuse rates are also greater than among other racial/ethnic groups. Native Americans weren’t granted the right to free speech and jury protection until 1968 with the passage of the Indian Civil Rights Act. This was 48 years ago.
During the Transatlantic slave trade, more than 12.5 million Africans were shipped to what is now the Americas. They were separated from their husbands, wives, and children. Their mothers, sisters, and daughters were raped by white slavemasters. On the ship, they were made to sleep in their own bile and feces. Some who were perceived as weak were thrown overboard in chains, and drowned. Some suffocated on others’ feces and died in their sleep. Others were beaten to death. They were stripped down naked and traded like livestock.
Slavery was officially abolished in 1865. This means there are African-Americans living and breathing among us whose grandmothers and grandfathers were slaves.
Women got the right to vote in 1920. In 1865, the Ku Klux Klan was founded. Some KKK members still march and organize today.
In order to make America great again, we have to deny this history. We have to willfully reject these facts. Part of the issue is power and privilege.
It’s a hard thing to admit that power and privilege exist. It’s harder still to admit that we have it, especially if we feel trapped or if we feel unfulfilled in subtle or not so subtle ways. I empathize, but my knowledge of history (and my acceptance of it) requires me to hold myself accountable.
I expect the same of everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity. I expect more from those who belong to the dominant racial group. By denying these truths, we are complicit.
Part of the issue is that we are fearful.
It doesn’t always feel like there is enough to go around. Instead of focusing our attention on public and private greed, we focus on people who are in similar situations (although perhaps, we don’t realize it). We blame them for taking something that belongs to us. We blame them for having the potential to take something that we want. We think of it as self-preservation, despite whatever harm may follow.
To be fair, the analogy of my affection for my sister is banal and overly simplistic when juxtaposed against our current social and political climate. I’ve always loved and respected her, no matter our different viewpoints. I’ve always wanted the best for her and everyone she loves. America has not always loved and respected many of us. America has not always wanted the best for us.
My sister would go out of her way to protect and support me, as I would for her. America has a history of disenfranchising groups, of creating systemic policies that impact said groups for generations, and of undermining progress and reform previously made. America has not always protected and supported us.
Not all of us have the benefit of time, waiting for America to self-correct and to self-heal. I have no doubt (although I am simultaneously fearful) that some of us will be martyred in the process. I have no doubt (although I am afraid) that there will be more violence.
I’m still grieving, but I’m hopeful. We are better than this. Reconciliation is still possible.
Heartache to heartache, we stand.

How Should We Finance Education?

Is education a constitutional right? How should we fund education?

The issue of school financing has been heavily debated.

At the heart of the issue is one central theme: what is the purpose of education?

Public schools are funded through a combination of local property taxes and state and federal funds. School districts levy taxes on local properties to fund neighboring public schools.

State funds come from sales taxes, gasoline and franchise taxes, lottery taxes, etc. Federal funds help support programs such as free and reduced lunch programs, technology programs, bilingual programs, and special education.

Nevertheless, there is considerable variation from district to district regarding the actual dollar amount schools and students receive.

Federal funds make up less than ten percent of school financing nationally. Districts use these funds to support staff, supply materials and supplies, and maintain buildings and infrastructure.

The federal government provides grants and reimbursements primarily through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (which funds the school’s food programs) and the U.S. Department of Education.

Most federal funding is directed towards students from low-income households. In the United States public school budgets are primarily the responsibility of local and state government. Less than 10% of funds are contributed at the federal level.

History of School Finance Reform

Wave One 
The history of school finance reform is described in three waves. The first wave dates back to the early 1970s and focuses on the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

In the case of Serrano v. Priest (1971), the California Supreme Court held that wealth was a suspect classification and that education was a fundamental right under the Constitution.

The public school financing system that relied heavily on local property taxes was a violation of the U.S. and California Constitutions. Two years later, Serrano was overturned in San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez.

Here, the Court upheld that wealth was not a suspect class and that education is not a fundamental right under the Constitution (because this right is not explicitly or implicitly guaranteed in the text).

The courts suggested that plaintiffs might find more relief in state courts; thus the second wave of reform was born.

Wave Two: Education Funding Challenges Under Claims of Equity
Under the second wave, plaintiffs began filing claims in state courts. This wave began in 1973 with Robinson v. Cahill in which the New Jersey Supreme Court held that the state’s education clause mandate was violated because it failed to provide a “thorough and efficient” system of schools.

During this wave, cases were brought forth that appealed to issues of equity for all school children. Plaintiffs argued that local funding did not provide efficient and adequate education (which violated the states’ constitutional responsibility, i.e. the equal protection clause).

Wave Three: Education Funding Challenges Under Claims of Adequacy
The third wave of finance reform began in 1989 and focused primarily on education clauses in state constitutions. State courts began to consider how adequately schools were addressing students’ needs.

The court claimed that a “thorough and efficient system of schools” is one that develops every child’s oral and written communication skills, mathematical ability, knowledge of social, political, and economic systems, understanding of the processes of government, mental and physical wellness, knowledge of the arts, and vocational skills.

In this wave, courts often held that funding schemes denied students a “basic” or “adequate” education.

What is the purpose of education?

My graduate school professor argued that education must be a) adequate, b) effective, c) efficient, and d) equitable.

The challenge of course is that these four aims are often in direct conflict with each other. An effective school—one that focuses on the needs of the whole child and treats each child as an individual- is not the most efficient model.

A school that adequately meets the needs of most students fails to address issues of equity. While an efficient school could contribute to its effectiveness, it might work against educational equity.

What school financing models exist that best meet our children’s needs?

What is the true purpose of education?

To read more about compulsory education and compulsory attendance laws, click here.
To read more about South Korea, Japan, and Singapore, click here

To read more about dropout prevention, click here.
To read more about special education, click here


All magic comes with a price.

I wanted to be a stunt double.

Everyone I knew was so afraid of danger, but danger was everywhere. I reasoned that it didn’t make sense to be afraid. The only way ‘round was through.

At recess we’d take turns climbing the highest jungle gym, then jump off. We’d only have a few minutes before the teachers would swarm, so we’d negotiate at lunch and then execute our plan upon arrival.

It was Michael’s turn today, and we couldn’t wait!

He was a clumsy kid, but fearless.

He’d accept any dare without hesitation or debate. You couldn’t win if you didn’t stick the landing, but he was free-falling.

We watched him tumble clumsily over the rail, and then, a faint crack like the sound of dishes clanging.

In aftercare I’d spend my time rocking back and forth in my favorite oblong chair. I’d let it fall forward long and fast enough to almost send me crashing forward, head first into the table. Right before I could fall, I would slip my hands out from underneath and catch myself. It was a game I could always win.

My change was gradual, but Mike’s fall was the trigger.

The second came a few months later when I finally lost my game. The chair rocked back and forth in a rhythm that was too fast, too strange.

I crashed teeth first into the table, loosening my two front teeth and falling dramatically on the tile floor.

The pain was surreal, and the blood was devastating. It was a fall I’d remember for a lifetime.

When my mother picked me up she was furious (Being a stunt double is expensive). There would be more hospital bills, dentist bills; more monthly payments.

It was all completely unnecessary.

I’d never thought much about falling. It was something you could always avoid if you paid enough attention. Weeks passed, and I found myself venturing to other ends of the playground.

The jungle gym had lost its grip over me. Much to my surprise, I’d developed an overwhelming fear of heights– one that stays with me still.

It came upon me slowly, like the faint whisper of a secret. But it was pronounced and clear: consequences.

If there was never a day before then that I learned, I understood now.


Everything we do has a consequence: if not now, then later.

If not for us, then for those we love.