May 17, 2009

Where did you get your real education?

For me, it was partially at University, but it wasn't in class. John Philip Jones, head of the Advertising Department at The Newhouse School and one of the most important mentors in my life, took me aside prior to a summer break, and told me that to really expand my intellect, I should read Nabokov over the summer. Lolita, especially.

My next true education occurred at Horizon Health Center, in Jersey City, NJ. Horizon is a health and social service provider, and I started working there during the height of the AIDS and the crack epidemics. Jersey City was the most diverse city in the nation, with over 130 languages spoken by the high school population alone. First, I volunteered in the abortion clinic. Then, I joined the Board. Two years later, I stepped down from the Board and served as Public Affairs Director. During my time there, we added primary care services, including
mental health and dental, and became a Federally Qualified Health Center; we were the first clinic in NJ to implement Medicaid Managed Care; we started anger management and substance abuse prevention programs in the jail; we fought off violent anti-choice protesters; we went to the NJ Supreme Court and obtained a buffer zone; we went to the US Supreme Court as plaintiffs in Rust v. Sullivan; and we opened a full service restaurant with a job training program for teens - long before the term "social entrepreneurship" was popular.

My colleagues included people vastly different from me, and from each other.
Race, religion, age, socio-economic status, family make up. Mostly, we took the time to really listen and learn from each other. Everyone knew things I would probably never have had a chance to learn about unless they told me, and they were respectfully sharing their knowledge and their stories. Each day, I learned something from a coworker, a client, a colleague, a journalist, a policymaker, an advocate, a donor, and a volunteer.

I don't want to aggrandize my experience - there were certainly many challenges and annoyances - but that's where I got my real education. Where did you get yours? What did you learn that influences your professional work and personal relationships? Where, or from whom, are you now getting truly educated?

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