The First Turning

A worldwide climate of positive change and hope for the future.

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Tackling the Student Debt Crisis with a Focus on the Future

In The First Turning, I have a chapter that discusses Millennials—an incredibly dynamic, socially engaged, solution-driven population that, at approximately 80 million strong, also happens to be the biggest age cohort in American history.

With this fact, I don’t think I have to state the obvious but I will anyway: this generation is critical to our success as a nation, both present and future.

Which is why I find the financial landscape of higher education so troubling. Obviously I’m not alone in my feelings—the topic recently has been documented in movies and chronicled in books, it’s been highlighted in every major national news sources and argued in our government. By now it is no secret that young Americans carry more than a trillion dollars in student loan debt, an amount second only to mortgage debt in the U.S. We all know what happened in that arena and, lest we believe that the housing market is in full recovery, we need only to look at how the student loan debt is affecting the ability of 20- and 30-somethings to purchase homes. A recent article in The New York Times references former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers as having said that student loan debt is “taking the life out of the housing recovery.”

The same article cites Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz as saying that this rising debt is “‘an educational crisis’ that is ‘affecting our potential future growth.’” Indeed, how can we expect our nation to grow when we are financially crippling our future leaders and supporters. A report published by Debt & Society titled “Borrowing Against the Future: The Hidden Costs of Financing U.S. Higher Education” explores various phenomena that have contributed to the large-scale issues plaguing our young professionals. The report, which explores issues across three main financial sectors—student loan markets, municipal bond markets, and equity investors—states that the financing costs per currently enrolled student increased by 53 percent in real terms between 2002 and 2012. Tellingly during this time, though, all higher education costs and instructional costs have remained fairly consistent, with the spikes occurring across student loan interest, interest for institutional debts, and, most notably, for-profit college company profits.

As a result of these insidiously staggering costs, students are feeling demoralized and unsure of what to do or where to turn. They’re questioning whether college is worth it but wondering what place they’ll have in the job market if they don’t attend.

How can we call on this generation to be the bearers of promise for our country when we as a nation are leaving them with empty promises? As we look to emerge from this time of crisis, we have to consider what we can do now to empower those who hold our future in their hands.

Earlier this month, President Obama signed an executive order to expand the reach of the cap that allows for student loan payments to be maxed at 10 percent of an individual’s monthly income. An expansion of a 2010 law designed to correlate loan payments to income, this order seeks to make educational costs more manageable for students. Though it’s a small step, it’s a smart one—and it’s one we need to build upon.

The First Turning.


If you’re interested in learning more about this issue, two great and recent resources include Suzanne Mettler’s new book, Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream and the new documentary film “Ivory Tower” by Andrew Rossi.

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A Night to Remember

Last week I attended the 25th Annual Benefit Concert for the Heart Center at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. The co-sponsor was New Albany-Plain Local Schools. Throughout the evening I watched The First Turning in action. 

The theme of the event was “Playing from the Heart.” Musical selections in the form of vocals and strings transformed the world that night, using lyricism to show the audience how compassion and philanthropy can be daily acts, and how they can influence our future. 

The evening reminded me of words spoken by Mahatma Gandhi. He once said, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change toward him. … We need not wait to see what others do.” Though Gandhi is more often attributed with a simpler statement—“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”—I love the depth in the quote above… the idea that even something so small as a tendency can spur a seismic shift in the world’s attitude, and the simple encouragement in his suggestion that we act for change regardless of what others are doing around us.

Though at this particular event, it must be said that it was precisely what others around me were doing that connected me to the hope and desire for change—the very feelings that inspired me to write my book. I was amazed at the impact of the committed organizations sponsoring the event and the inspiring individuals who were honored there. I feel so privileged to have shared an evening with people who are actively changing the future of our children—children who at one time would have faced sure fatality but who are now able to survive and even thrive. I was so completely moved by the outpouring of love and commitment I saw and I will forever carry the melodies of the evening with me.

When I found my way home that night I thought to myself, “There is a movement afoot. Enough good people are doing something. Legs are taking shape and we are making strides.”

While the world rages, while the headlines scream, there are untold numbers of the world’s citizens out there working for a better world. The First Turning. 

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Conferences: Women’s Calling Card

A couple weeks ago I came across the article “Feminism, One Conference at a Time” in The New York Times and I found it fascinating and empowering.

Fascinating because it outlines how the feminist movement has gone on to inform an entire industry—that which is, at its core, built upon social gatherings. Indeed, the role of women in hosting and facilitating events is a long-standing paradigm. But this is something on a whole new scale. According to First Research, which conducted its most recent quarterly update on May 5, 2014, the trade show and event planning industry in the U.S. posts an annual revenue of approximately $12 billion. That’s a far cry from luncheons and cocktail parties of 1950s housewives (after which a more robust feminist movement would emerge).

Of course, that is not to say that this multi-billion dollar industry is built entirely out of historically female roles, nor that it is solely supported by women, nor that it is even explicitly an extension of women’s work. I don’t want to come across as narrow in making an assumed association between the two. If you read the article, though, it’s clear that a “women’s event circuit”—which would seem a natural modern-day iteration of more traditional female activities—is becoming an influential part of the “broader conference industry that labor statistics predict will balloon over the next five years.” Within this same vein, it also is important to note that this multi-billion dollar industry, while social in nature, is about so much more than socializing.

Which brings me to what really amazed me about the piece: empowerment. One of my favorite topics that The First Turning touches on is what I call “The Velvet Armada”—the group of women in Congress who are dispensing with tiresome political machinations and are actively, tirelessly working for change in American legislation. And, in doing so, are redefining leadership for the nation.

Reading this article, I was reminded about how The Velvet Armada is as much a spirit of the times collectively embodied in women everywhere as it is a specific group of women politicians. The good work of women is something that is rippling across the entire world—in entrepreneurship, philanthropy and technology to name but a few of the sectors called out in the article.

I felt empowered by the women coming together at these female-focused events, which are in fact often referred to as “empowerment conferences.” Women aren’t just uniting in the name of some same-sex sentimental need to connect—though the implicit sisterhood certainly is a draw for many women who hold more influential positions in male-dominated fields. (The sense of camaraderie and the positive effects of a shared identity should not be undervalued.) But these events are providing women with outlets and platforms for working toward specific and very real causes. Conference networking, which is something that men have been doing for years, is something women are now taking over and reimaging to be bigger and better than ever before… not unlike what The Velvet Armada has done in the traditional boys’ club of Congress.

What is more amazing, though, is that not only are women empowering each other in these meetings of the minds—finding assurance in their intellects and abilities, building upon their strengths, establishing strategic relationships, becoming leaders—but they are being empowered by companies and organizations in unprecedented ways. The article references the example of Tina Brown, editor of The Daily Beast, and a conference on international women’s rights she launched five years ago. At the time she managed to eke sponsorship from one company, Hewlett-Packard, and held the free event at a small Manhattan theater. Today, the conference takes place over the course of three days at Lincoln Center, filling 2,500 seats and reaching countless more individuals with its international offshoot events.

Though these pioneering women will undoubtedly continue to rely on each other as they engage tough issues and work to achieve their goals, it shows significant strides that they can now rely on a stronger cultural foundation and resources of every kind—that they are being given megaphones through which to amplify their voices.

Gloria Steinhem described the evolution of women’s gatherings in the article as something that was first put together by women alone, then became sponsored by the government, and now is paid for by a corporation. The simple description outlines an incredible trajectory. Though there are some who dislike the commercialization of these events, I think the fact that corporations are investing in them speaks volumes both about their impact and reach and their staying power. As Glynnis MacNicol, co-founder of the women’s networking group, says, “There is such a hunger on the part of smart, accomplished women to be taken seriously. It’s refreshing to see conferences and the zeitgeist reflect that.”

In the article, Brown is quoted as saying, “I think women are looking to be inspired.”

It seems to me, though, that women aren’t the only ones. The world is looking to be inspired—and it’s looking toward women to lead the way.