You Finish the Marathon and Put a Sticker on Your Car

This week on the blog I talk to Chastity Lord, the creator of National Proof Point Day. On May 29, 2015, national leaders, community leaders, and students around the country celebrated the second annual #ProofPointDay. The celebration was an opportunity for folks all around the country to embrace and share their identity as first generation college students, or FGs in the #ProofPointDay parlance. In the first part of our interview, Lord discusses the genesis of this concept and what it means for our country.

Me: Where did this idea come from, and how long have you been thinking about it?

Lord: I can’t remember exactly where the idea came from, but I remember the spirit behind it. Being a person of color, being black, especially in positions of power, as I continued to grow in my career, there were folks who worked for other organizations that I was a part of, at different levels, that would want to be mentored, and would seek me out for advice. There’s only so many coffees, lunches, dinners, and cocktails that I can do. I was like, “there’s more of us out there,” which isn’t just about being brown, but being brown with a nontraditional narrative. If there were more people with power who were being more vocal and visible about this part of their identity, namely being a first generation college student, I realized that magical things would happen. That was the premise.

It started five years ago when I had this idea. I was working for an organization where fundraising was eighty-five percent of my job, so I had a chance to speak with wealthy folks, and I remember talking to them about this. One person said, “I don’t think this has any legs, nobody wants to share that part of their identity.”

Someone else said, “There are more important things than this.”

That sort of shut me down. And then I got nominated and participated in the Aspen Institute through Pahara, and that was a transformative experience. I realized that everyone in that room was talented and successful. We asked ourselves, “What’s keeping you from being great? What are the things that you’ve been hesitant to do?” One of those things we had to tackle in that program is doing a project that has an impact on the world, and I thought, "You know what, I’m going to do this." I just went in. Typically you have two to four years to do your project, but I got mine up in seven months. That’s where it started.

There were a couple of strategic things I decided from the outset. I didn’t want to raise money for it. I wanted it to be organic. I wanted it to be something people make their own. And I had this audacious idea: It’s like Earth Day; it’s Mothers Day. I wanted it to be an important part of the fabric of our country. It’s possible, because it crosses all demographics. It’s all age, race, religion, political affiliation, sexuality, socioeconomic status. It’s rooted in all of these egalitarian things, like the Stafford act and the GI Bill. What if we return to the idea of education as an investment, not an expense?

That was the initial frame. Purposefully organic so it wouldn’t be a fad. The first year was incredible. The White House heard about it, the First Lady jumped on it. The Secretary of Education engaged on social media on it. Eli Broad heard about it. He’s first generation, and he got passionate about it. No matter how much wealth you accumulate, no matter what else happens in your life, being the first in your family is a club. When you don’t have the luxury or social capital that others have, you understand that what you’ve experienced happened independently of anyone you deeply love or are attached to. That changes things. It’s a really interesting kind of club that influences the way you view higher education, and how our country invests in it. It’s something that follows you throughout your life.

It’s the same thing as when you run a marathon. You finish the marathon and put a sticker on your car. Why not? When you’ve done something audacious, you make that a part of your identity. Imagine if folks were much more visible about being first generation, like a marathoner is? Because that’s a very different nuance.

Me: I love the marathon analogy. It's something to take a lot of pride in. Why is the identity part so important?

Lord: It’s hard to dream things that you don’t know exist. If someone was in your peer group, all of a sudden it seems plausible. There aren’t enough plausible proof points that people can look at. One of the articles that was written this year for #ProofPointDay was by folks who have actually been incarcerated, but then went on to graduate from Tulane and Yale Law and are practicing attorneys. They’re powerful proof points for people that made poor decisions, but they prove that even that kind of background doesn't mean that you can't succeed.

In other words, it’s not just about race. Socioeconomic similarity is really powerful. One of the things that I am so inspired by is Howard Schultz’s story. He grew up in a Brooklyn house until his father hurt his back, and then he became "project poor." If you wonder why Starbucks was the frontrunner for health insurance, that’s why. In 2008, when their stock price was going down, health insurance was nonnegotiable. Their board put a ton of pressure on management to cut insurance, but Schultz's experience made that a non starter. When I talk about the first generation being vocal and visible, there are real value propositions for these folks being at the table for decisions. The CEO of Travelers Insurance being first generation brings things to the table. Jay Fishman, who’s the CEO of Travelers, he doesn’t want there to be barriers to entry into his firm for folks who come from state colleges.

To be continued on Wednesday ...