Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Change.org, and Billionaire Miscellany

Last month, Clay Burell, the Education Editor and Chief Writer for Change.org invited me to be one of his guest-bloggers. After taking some time to figure out what his organization and its website were about, I agreed.

Today I posted my second entry, a substantially revised version of a previous Perimeter Primate post, “The Starvation Diet of One School.”

Please take a look.

Being of an older generation, my understanding about Change.org is still somewhat vague. I think it’s like a Facebook for socially-conscious types. (Clay: please feel free to elaborate.)

Change.org is not to be confused with the Obama campaign’s Change.gov. Here’s the information from their “About Us” page:

Our Vision

Today as citizens of the world, we face a daunting array of social and environmental problems ranging from health care and education to global warming and economic inequality. For each of these issues, whether local or global in scope, there are millions of people who care passionately about working for change but lack the information and opportunities necessary to translate their interest into effective action.

Change.org aims to address this need by serving as the central platform informing and empowering movements for social change around the most important issues of our time.


Change.org is a social entrepreneurship venture based in San Francisco, CA. The company was founded by Ben Rattray in the summer of 2005, and with the support of a friend from Stanford, Mark Dimas, and a founding team of Darren Haas, Rajiv Gupta, and Adam Cheyer, Change.org launched the first version of its site in 2007.

The appearance of the Change.org team reminds me of my 21-year-old daughter and her really smart, energetic, and well-educated friends. Because the birth of this generation coincided with the Digital Revolution and the Information Age, they have a natural facility with computers and the internet which many of my generation do not. I confess I was a total Luddite about computers until about 2002. Even though I have a website, I still struggle with uploading and organizing digital photos. Taking an Excel class is on my list of things to do.

Now, with Bill Gates being the most important figure of this new era, a perfect segue is created for my second topic today: some billionaire miscellany.

I’ve never glommed onto a conspiracy theory before, but sometimes I feel nearly certain that the edu-philanthropist billionaires and millionaires are secretly plotting against the rest of us. It seems actually possible that they are pretending to be interested in our welfare in order to acquire even more power and wealth. On the other hand, just very once in a while, I’ll entertain the idea that, although grossly misdirected, they might actually believe they are trying to be “generous” on our behalf.

A well-known education scholar on the national scene recently gave me some reasonable advice. The correspondence was labeled private, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

This person suggested that one should be careful ascribing motives if they can’t be proven, and of course this sounds exactly right. It was suggested that it might be better to frame one’s views by saying the effect of the billionaires’ activities is to destabilize public schools in order to pave the way for profit-making.

But I’m not a paid journalist or academic, just an independent blogger sitting at a desk in my dining room doing my own thing. This gives me more leeway to insert my emotions into what I write. And since I have no contact with the billionaires and can’t ask them myself, I’ll keep trying to deduce what is really going on based on the bits and pieces of evidence I continually uncover.

So just what are those billionaires trying to do?

These are the powerhouse individuals who are busy pushing charter schools, insulting public school teachers, and name-calling the schools which do their best to teach our nation's most difficult-to-educate children on a less-than-shoestring budget. They particularly like to label those challenged schools and those who work in them as "failures."

  • Bill Gates, ranked #1 with a net worth of $57 billion
  • The four members of the Walton family, ranked billionaires #3,4, 5 & 6, with a total net worth of $93.1 billion
  • Michael Bloomberg, ranked #8, with a net worth of $20 billion (he might donates less because, as the mayor of NYC, he’s already acquired plenty of power)
  • Eli Broad, ranked #48, with a net worth of only $6.7 billion

The listing is really, really quite a force (or more appropriately "farce").

Honestly, are any of these people qualified to know best what schools, who try to serve many poor children, really need? The answer to anyone with a bit of common sense is clearly, “NO.” It doesn’t take a genius to realize these individuals are completely out of touch with the rest of Americans. How could they possibly know best what our communities need? It is a very odd psychology, indeed.

I can’t help but view these people as human beings; even though they are unimaginably wealthy, they aren’t a bit mysterious to me. There was a single moment in my life when I realized deeply within my soul that even powerful people are just people. It was in 1978 when I was working in a hospital as a student nurse, and I was assigned to take the body of an extremely influential federal judge to the morgue.

The Intensive Care Unit was all abuzz about the famous and powerful judge who died that afternoon, and all of the hospital’s big wigs were nervously fluttering around. To an oblivious 22-year-old college student (me), this man’s high status had absolutely no meaning. All I knew was that a large, dead body needed to go downstairs. So I rolled him there, parked the guerney, and shut the cold door. I was alone, and at that very moment I became acutely aware that, whether a person is powerful and famous, or not, the final destination of this man was what “it” is all about.

Juicy and frightening tidbits put everything into perspective.

At the top of the edu-philanthropist billionaire heap is Bill Gates with a net worth of $57,000,000,000 in 2008.

  • 1% of his worth would be $570,000,000.
  • 0.01% of his worth would be $5,700,000.

To compare that with an average American, I’ve been hunting for a figure that would be the average person’s net worth. So far, the closest I’ve come is this 2007 finding, “One-third of American households with a positive net worth have less than $50,000.” It's much less than that at this point, but this figure will have to do.

Let’s compare and contrast.

For a person making $50,000 (a relatively well-off American)

  • 1% of their income would be $500.
  • 0.01% of their income would be $5.

It's time to pay attention now.

Bill Gates is living an existence where $5,700,000 is like $5 to a typical American. The world view of the other billionaires would be almost about the same.

I’m not a professional psychologist, but I'm definitely wise enough to know this side-to-side comparison explains why certain people, even though they don’t have a speck of personal experience or expertise in urban public education, feel perfectly entitled to telling our school districts exactly what they need. Even more regrettable is the fact that these same powerful people don’t seem to have the foggiest idea of what those in the public schools DO need.

1 comment:

Clay Burell said...

I love your distinction between bloggers and journos or academics. It's delicate, but worth asserting.

As for "the vision thing," you've anticipated a little project on my short-list: to interview the higher-ups at change.org and let them expand on the niche they're (we're, I guess) trying to fill, and the future they aim for.

Until then, I'll only say that the Actions feature is fairly unique, and I like it. You can create actions too - and come to think of it, I think you could create some potent ones.

Here's an example: the petition to Thank Lawmakers for Saying No to Creationists.

Petitions aren't the only possibility, but for this one? I'm glad that it was easy to deliver 1400 thank you's to these two Texans for standing up to creationists - and to cc Obama, and the governor, and federal and state legislators of each petitioner.

I've been with Change.org only a few weeks longer than you have, so I'm still getting my head around its potential. But I like the focus on action beyond words, for sure.