As part of the show-and-tell of working in grant funded projects taking care of very poor kids in very devastated cities. I got to meet CEO's, sit in boardrooms, greet national politicians--I even got to spend a couple of days in the White House sitting on some sub-committee of some sub-committee.
A few things I learned:
- Powerful people don't pay for coffee--it's just always there.
- Powerful people have pretty fingernails. (I get bored easily at meetings.)
- Poor kids of color with bright smiles on their faces loosen checkbooks.
- Nobody really wants to hear the truth.
- It's easy, real easy, to be seduced to join the other side.
On one such bad day, someone got shot close to our clinic. He died, his blood on my clothes. A few hours later I was sitting with the number two person of a large, local non-profit, an agency that does good work, trying to develop a grant.
I grumbled about something, and the meeting deteriorated.
So I learned to stop grumbling. I learned to stop screaming. I learned to behave civilly. I learned how to do "that smile." And I kept reminding myself why, so I could glom money to keep us in business, caring for children few people cared about.
Our project got the money, the pols and corporations got the pretty press, and I got a lesson in prostitution.
I got a few minutes of face to face time with Al Gore, with just 3 others in the room, back when he was running for VP in 1990. He was bright, knowledgeable, and very different from the man who gave a speech just minutes later, when he was hustled out by his people.
I went home confused--how can someone separate themselves like that?
In 2000 he flat gave up the election. Maybe he was tired, maybe someone had something on him, or maybe he wanted to be that private Al Gore, the one I got to meet when he wasn't on camera.
Bill Gates. Eli Broad. Arne Duncan. Barack Obama.
None of these men spend any time listening to anyone who has not been filtered through boardrooms and golf courses, anyone who has not perfect the wile and smile needed to gain access to power.
Oh, they'll pose for the photo ops. They'll hand out the checks. They'll do all things possible to get their way.
On Thursday, Mr. Duncan will give a speech on the "quiet revolution" moving through schools. Powerful folks like "quiet." I know that. I kept quiet too many times when jumping on the corporate table screaming out the truth would ended my work, because I liked doing what I did.
And looking back, I'm not sure I changed a thing.