“Kasserian Ingera” is the traditional greeting of the Maasai of east Africa. It means “And how are the children?” A response of “All the children are well” means the tribe is meeting its first responsibility–the next generation.
This was the theme for this years’ NH Charitable Foundation annual meeting. This question resonated with me, so I RSVP’d and made my way to Manchester on June 12th, after a long work day. When a major funding organization asks about youth, I want to be at the table.
The event was enormous, which gave me great hope for the future of NH’s children and adolescents. Nearly 1,000 folks from all walks of life gathered in the Armory at the Manchester Radisson Hotel to engage with this question. There were a number of speakers and presentations that represented good work going on in our state. The mayor of Manchester discussed the importance of bringing arts curriculum back into the schools, and the chancellor of NH’s community college system emphasized the importance of the STEM curriculum (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and of training more young people to fill the many vacant positions available in advanced manufacturing in our state. Three organizations discussed work they’ve been doing on behalf of NH children and youth around substance abuse (one of NH’s most alarming social problems) and early childhood intervention and care.
My two favorite “pep talks” were given by Michael McAfee, Director of the Promise Neighborhoods Institute at PolicyLink, and Richard Ober, President and Chief Executive Officer of the NH Charitable Foundation.
McAfee spoke about leadership. He expressed the importance of defining what kind of leader you want to be, and of doing the “real work” of leadership. In a way too simplistic nutshell, he expressed to us that if we are going to step up to solve social problems in our neighborhoods and states (specifically poverty), that we need to be the kind of leaders that do the hard work of coming together, finding innovative solutions, and working to bring those solutions to fruition, not just manage what exists or float around from place to place with an air of personal importance. That resonated with me. The work of social change is hard. But, like McAfee said, our state is really small, and if we work hard together, it shouldn’t be impossible to solve some of our most pervasive problems (substance abuse and poverty, most poignantly).
Richard Ober’s comments on why the NH Charitable Foundation decided to have this topic be the focus of their annual meeting made me hopeful. He remarked how the litmus test of how our children are doing will determine how NH as a state will be doing in decades to come. It’s an important point that so many folks fail to consider when looking at today’s social problems. Continued underfunding of our school districts, after school programs, mental health programs, food, healthcare and housing support, employment support, etc., and a lack of cohesive agreement to work across sectors to raise up our youth and provide them with equal opportunities to succeed in our state, will result in the worsening of some of NH’s most pervasive social problems. I think it was Ober who mentioned that NH has been a bit high on itself since the 1990s when we were touted as the number one state in the nation to raise a family, and had an amazing influx of folks moving into the state; and that we haven’t yet fully embraced the fact that over the past decade, that reality has shifted significantly, and that our leadership hasn’t been proactive in response to this shift. I think this is a really fine point.
I think it’s easy for a community and its leadership (town/region/state) to have a static image of what it is and what works despite the shifts and currents of change constantly taking place. When things seem to be working, folks continue to do what they’ve always done and expect it to continue to work. Yet, the world changes and communities need to be constantly aware of the subtle shifts that are occurring and that are likely to occur, and prepare for and respond to those shifts. Like a good leader, communities need to be responsive and forward thinking when it comes to their “image”, and to understanding and responding to their “problems”. They need to do the hard work diligently and be dynamic enough to create and recreate their approaches every day with an eye toward a goal that will almost inevitably always be just beyond the horizon.
There is so much good work going on in NH. In almost every region, communities, organizations, institutions and political officials are coming together to solve problems within their communities. They’re recognizing that their work can be enhanced by working with others (even with those who don’t agree with them), and that they must engage in new approaches to bring disparate groups together to effect real social change. I am excited to watch this work grow.
Here’s my goal for NH: Let’s get to a place where, as a state, we are proudly able to answer the Masai greeting with “Very well, thanks to your continued engagement and hard work.”