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Education Emergency? Hallelujah!

A TNKR student who visited our office a few days ago heaped so much praise on TNKR that even I blushed a little. She mentioned the urgency she had felt to learn English. She had studied with other organizations and institutes, but it wasn't until TNKR that she really learned English. We used to collect testimonials, but they got to be so numerous that we stopped. Who, besides Eben Appleton, would read them all?

* * *

Talking and working directly with North Korean refugee learners gives us a sense of urgency. There probably aren't many co-founders of organizations who interview every student joining them, but that's what we do at TNKR! I talked to some of our students who have studied in other programs, in many cases they weren't even sure who was the leader of the organization or institute. But in TNKR? They would have met us first for an individual interview, then an orientation led by TNKR co-founder Eunkoo Lee, then at the Matching session, then we do our best to stay in contact with them.

If more organization leaders spent more time with the people who have come to them, then they might also feel a sense of urgency!

* * *

I remember back in the day when I was on the Young Executive Board of the Washington Scholarship Fund, from 1999 to 2004. The organization provided scholarships for low-income children in Washington, D.C. I wasn't as close to those parents as I am to the students in TNKR, but even then, I felt a sense of urgency!

One of the moments I looked forward to was calling the families to inform them that a child had been awarded a scholarship. The responses were usually screams and shouts of "Hallelujah!" "Praise the Lord!" And various expletives used to express joy.

One father who I would see at outreach events answered the phone, he threatened to kick my ass if I was kidding with him about his child receiving a scholarship. His nickname for me was "Mr. TV Man" because I was occasionally on TV discussing education issues, but when he found out his daughter would be receiving a scholarship, he was all serious.

This was no free ride, by the way. The parents were expected to raise funds on their own or to find a school willing to cover the rest of the tuition that the scholarship didn't cover.

The parents (or guardians or grandparents or aunts or uncles) couldn't believe they had won even those partial scholarships from us. It wasn't all joy for us, sometimes we could not locate family members when they had been chosen. Those we did connect with would tell us they had never won anything and couldn't really believe they had a chance. They believed or hoped this would give their children the chance to go to a good (or, at least, safe) school.

Many of the experts in their think tanks or university offices would question if the kids were better off, treating this as another research battle. Dealing with the families on the ground level, I could see that those parents thought they were better off! And even if the kids wouldn't do better, such as going from potential valedictorian of a lousy school to becoming the worst student in a great school, the parents would tell us that they wanted their children in safer schools and to get a better education than what the schools in their neighborhoods were providing. And fewer ass-whippings from others not as motivated to learn.

So many of those parents expressed urgency about their children getting a better education. I was working as a policy analyst at the Cato Institute as my full-time job, and but also on the Board of Directors with the Black Alliance for Educational Options, on the Young Executive Board of the Washington Scholarship Fund, and volunteer with DC Parents for School Choice, and on the board of directors of two different charter schools.

Working with those different organizations, I constantly felt a sense of urgency.

However, as I dealt with people inside the school system, it was clear they didn’t feel urgency.

A friend of mine hit the nail on the head years later, explaining after he went to the emergency room one day: "They call it an emergency room, but it is only an emergency to you." He noted that the doctors and nurses didn't treat his case like an emergency. That seemed to be true of the parents and the school system. It was an emergency for the families, they hoped to get their children into better situations, but it wasn’t an emergency for the people in charge.

I could see that school insiders were quite content to debate the issues forever. An active parent would be cleared out of the system within a few years. The school administrators saw school choice advocates as a threat. I remember when we were having an information session for parents at one school, that the vice-president welcomed us but then she asked me directly: "Are you hear to steal our kids?" 

I responded: "Only the ones that want to be stolen!"

I was there to reach out to the kids who urgently wanted options to find the best possible education for themselves. If no one had been interested, then I would have moved on to a different cause.

When I gave speeches, I began including a photo of myself when I was young (thanks for the suggestion Eliot!). My point: The kids won’t remain kids forever, there needs to be more of a sense of urgency.

In 2002, I remember meeting Fannie Lewis, a city councilwoman from Cleveland who said she had gotten tired of waiting for the schools to improve, that she had heard so many promises over the decades. She had started her work in 1951. That's right, for 51 years, she had tried to work with school leaders. I asked her about it, she admitted that she had been patient for too long! 

Most of the photos in the collage at the top of this post are from a rally for school choice in 2009. President Obama was the bad guy that day, he was trying to defund the scholarship program that had been approved 5 years before. Many of the parents at the rally had voted for Obama, and they were shocked he was determined to destroy the program that was helping their children. It is kind of like North Korean refugees who voted for Moon Jae-In, and now they see his administration targeting them, reducing funding for their organizations and activities, and now even de-listing some organizations.

But I digress!

I was one of the rally captains at the school choice rally in 2009, calling on the 44th president not to defund the program.

There were numerous distinguished speakers, but the one I loved the most was MARION BARRY!!!

I talked with former Mayor Barry about his reversal on the issue. Years before, he had been a leading school choice opponent, leading the campaign against a tuition tax credit referendum in 1981. When I asked him why he had reversed (just a few years before he had told me that he couldn't support the program), he said, "I didn't change!" 

He then explained that we had gone with a different approach in contrast to previous advocates. "In 1981, didn't nobody give us no money." I couldn't figure out if that was a triple-negative or quadruple-negative, but I understood what he meant! Instead of coming in demanding that the school system adapt, we had proposed that public, private and charter schools all could receive additional funding. That, he said, was something that school leaders could support.

He said that he was a "situationist." The situation had changed, so he had changed.

* * *

I enjoyed seeing the parents again on that day, hearing about how valuable the program had been for their children. School officials had fought the proposal for the establishment of a school voucher program for low-income children in D.C. Some had even begun to target me.

A top official supposedly even told parent activists at a meeting that he wanted to punch me in the nose. (I called his office to inform him of my office address and official working hours). One of the parent leaders had told parents that I was “dangerous man” and advised parents not to talk to me. The next time I saw her, I asked if she would be willing to publicly call me a dangerous man. I had also been warned by a school insider that I had to be careful because school officials were looking for "dirt" to destroy or discredit me.

I asked her why they would target an education policy at a think tank who wasn’t even prominent. She said that they weren't afraid of other researchers or professors who had advocated for choice or reported on the system's failings. Her point: They know you are working directly with parents, have credentials as a researcher, graduated from Harvard, and you have a lot of energy.

Yes! Urgency! I told her about my visit to one of the schools on parent night by one of the parents, that they had been using me as a bogeyman who would check the school budget, the school insider told me, "See, that's what I'm talking about. They know those think tank people, professors and others crunching numbers won't go into the neighborhoods. They can dismiss activists as being opportunists, but it is harder for them to dismiss you, that's why they are targeting you."

It seems that if you have a good idea, then take it directly to the people who allegedly will benefit. When I see an eloquent person on TV debating this or that, I wonder: Why don't you take your idea to people who could benefit and do something rather than just talking about it? It would be like a chef extolling his recipes, but never letting anyone try his food.

I had a sense of déjà vu when I began to engage North Korean refugees directly in South Korea. I was not surprised when conspiracy theorist attacks dogs in South Korea began barking about me.

I work directly with refugees, not just talk about or research them. I heard about a Korean-American sympathizer of North Korea who vowed she would "destroy" me. Others were spreading lies. Six years later, where are they? They may be barking at some other cause, or they may have realized that we have really been building a learner-centered organization, and not engaging in the elaborate conspiracy theories they were cooking up in brain-damaged minds.

When people ask me if I think the North Korean government is targeting or watching me, my response is: It is more likely that the South Korean government is, to quote President Trump, "tapping my wires."

I felt a sense of urgency with the work I did in DC, and now with the work I am doing in Seoul. It even feels like an emergency at times, which is why I have many "emergency" orientation sessions. Our emergency orientation sessions are now starting to feel like a business having endless “going-out-of-business” sales, so much so they should have a permanent sign warning of their demise. I know that it is not an emergency to most other people, most are not even aware of who we are or what we are doing. I have noticed that many volunteers have applied to join us because they heard there was an "emergency."

A few days ago, another North Korean refugee studying in our program spoke about the urgency she feels to learn English. Some of her friends studied with us, she could see how much they had improved their English, so now she is burning to learn English. It is an emergency to her, it is urgent for us (including some donors, fundraisers and volunteers), but for most people it is not an emergency (yes, they may have their own emergencies unrelated to North Korean refugees, so I am not blaming them).

Working in education at various times has provided seeming contradictions for me. There is urgency about education, but getting educated is a long-term process. Street theater, taking to the streets, holding rallies and fights can be exhilarating, but getting educated is a long-term process required many years of solitary study.

I constantly feel that urgency to do something, to avoid paralysis from analysis, but also recognize that some planning and long-term patience are needed.

As a young man, I recall reading about Martin Luther King Jr's efforts to organize people to fight the Jim Crow system (yes, back then we had to read about it, not click around YouTube). Black people were tired of racism long before Rev. King showed up on the scene, so it wasn’t that black people suddenly got tired. Rev. King had a way of making black people feel that "now is the time!" He even wrote a book, "Why we can't wait." He was a slow, deliberate speaker, planned his activities, and yet, there was a sense of urgency about his work.

Of course, I am nowhere near his level, but I do feel that sense of urgency today when a North Korean refugee contacts us, asking if he or she can study with us. Yesterday two more students visited the TNKR office, eager to join a different program within TNKR. This week, I think we had six students visit us. They had all found us and couldn't believe such a program existed.

* * *

These days, I am most urgent about a Matching Donation Challenge. I have tried to remain patient, knowing that most people won't regard it as an emergency. Then I got the word two days ago that our Matching Donor might be ready to end it.

Thursday night and Friday morning, I sent Facebook invitations to 4,500 people. Sent an email to 1,200 people. Directly tagged 100 people on Facebook. Posted on SNS about it and will continue to do so. Others who don't feel the urgency may wonder about it.

Let's Meet Alabama's Challenge

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