Nick Kristof + Silver Buckshot

I went to a Commonwealth Club talk with Nicholas Kristof last month. I went into the evening curious what kind of tone he would have as a speaker, and I left inspired. Here are two stories that he shared that I really needed to hear:

1. Hope in the face of complex issues

A woman stands at the mic and tells Kristof that his book inspired her friends to start a dine + donate club. They choose an issue and make contributions each month. They’ve been looking at human trafficking, and she wants his advice on where to focus their energy — the rescue piece? the prevention and education of young girls piece? the law enforcement piece?

He says: “Everyone is looking for a silver bullet. There is no silver bullet…But there is silver buckshot.”

The project I’m working on with schools in the South is ostensibly about improving students’ academic performance, so they can get good educations, so they can be successful and thrive. But that really means helping them be more ready to learn. Which means attending to their emotional needs + focus skills + motivation. Which means fostering resilience in the face of trauma + toxic stress. Which stems from growing up in poverty and surrounded by violence. Which is merely a symptom of all sorts of nasty complex challenges, not the least of which is intergenerational disenfranchisement stemming from overt + subtle racism. (And we can only ever openly talk about the first third of that iceberg.)

Our approach favors small evidence-based kernels that empower teachers over big programmatic changes that can feel prescriptive. But that means we are starting with 1-to-3 very small, very tiny, seemingly microscopic things this spring. Laughably tiny.

And some days, the gremlins come around and say WTF WTF WTF.

And on those days, my mantra has become Silver Buckshot Silver Buckshot Silver Buckshot.

2. Believing in the value of drops-in-the-bucket

Kristof shared this story of a successful NAACP lawyer who was a troubled youth in his younger days. He was one of the tough kids, cutting class, always in trouble, never around. He’s walking through the school library one day after detention, and this sultry cover catches his attention out of the corner of his eye. It’s a book by Ali Neil. He’s intrigued. But he’s one of the tough kids, he can’t be checking out books. He checks to make sure the librarian Mrs. Grady isn’t watching and walks out of the library with the book under his jacket.

He reads the book at home and loves it. He returns the next week to see if there are any other books by the same author. There’s another one on the shelf. So he steals that one, too.

And he comes back and steals a third one. And a fourth one. And those books were his gateway drug back into reading, and starting to show up to English class again, and eventually graduating high school, going to college, going on to become a lawyer with the NAACP and becoming influential during the civil rights movement.

And at his high school reunion, he’s one of the success stories, one of the heroes. He finds Mrs. Grady to tell her how he stole all those Ali Neil books back in the day and to thank her. And she tells him that she knew he was doing it all along.

She had seen him, and at first she had been so mad. She had been about to stop him from walking out of the library. Why would you steal a book when you could just as easily check one out? But in a flash of insight, she knew it wasn’t that easy for him; his reputation meant he couldn’t be caught checking out a book. She went to see which book it was and then drove 45 minutes to the nearest bookstore in Nashville to see if she could find any more Ali Neil books. They didn’t have any, so she drove to another bookstore and another one and another one until she found a different book by the same author. She bought them and put them on that same shelf on the off-chance that this one kid might come back.

Helping is hard, but sometimes that risk pays off.

We are all interconnected, and yet we are all stuck in our own little ego’d bodies and brains, working from our own little circles of concern and attending to our own selfish needs. And still, you never know how what you say or do–even things you may not even be aware of–will affect another person or peoples or the world.