In my role at The San Diego Foundation, I attend many nonprofit events and programs featuring incredible leaders from government, business and the social sector. Many of these gatherings are so helpful to me as I learn more about the needs and opportunities throughout San Diego County. At a few of the more recent events, a speaker said something that made me think, “Wow, I really need to remember that.” I always keep a pen and business card nearby to capture those special comments. I thought I would share three of those with you and why these words are worth remembering.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African proverb

Last month, Outdoor Outreach gave its top organizational award to The San Diego Foundation for its efforts to extend the reach of this nonprofit. Their mission is quite simple: get kids who need support or have lost their way, into nature and, with support, help them find a path forward.

Mark Stuart accepted the Outdoor Outreach 2019 Lead the Way award on behalf of The San Diego Foundation.

Mark Stuart (right) accepted the Outdoor Outreach 2019 Lead the Way award on behalf of The San Diego Foundation.

While I talked about The Foundation’s long-time commitment to Parks for All, Opening the Outdoors, and the powerful role nature can play in youth development, the young people who benefited from the program stole the show and caused many eyes to tear up. Kids who had no support at home, were homeless at some point, may have had drug or alcohol addictions, and other adversities of childhood experience, all spoke about the life-saving value of “OO” or Outdoor Outreach. Through rock-climbing, long hikes, camping and so much more, these young men and women made friends, developed support groups, and found their resiliency. Les Duncan, OO’s director of programs shared this proverb in his remarks.

I have repeated those wise words more than a dozen times since their gala. It rings so true in all that we do and hope to do at The Foundation. Going together is at the very foundation of what a community foundation can and should be.

“A college education is the only pathway out of poverty.” – Mary Daly

Robert Gleason is San Diego’s only representative on the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s Los Angeles branch board. Our Fed district is huge, encompassing more than 36% of the U.S. land mass and almost 20% of the nation’s population. Robert hosted our Federal Reserve Board Governor, Mary Daly, and his colleagues for a multi-day tour of our bi-national region. I attended a lunch at the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation that featured a Q&A-style conversation between Robert and Mary. She has an incredible life story that includes a period of homelessness before securing her GED and eventually a Ph.D. in economics.

scholarshipsMary shared that if a person is born into the lowest quintile of annual income (i.e. poverty) in the U.S., they will most likely live their life and eventually die in that lowest quintile. She added that the only factor that provides an average chance of getting out of poverty is a college education. Nothing else evens the playing field for those who wish to end their family’s generational economic struggles.

For The San Diego Foundation, we are very proud of our Community Scholarship Program and Community Scholars Initiative with the College Futures Foundation. We are the largest provider of need-based scholarships in this County (after institutions of higher learning) and this initiative works with local partners to provide wrap-around services to assure our awardees not only get to college but persist and graduate. Growing this program and changing the trajectory of young lives will always be a priority for The Foundation.

“Sometimes, free is not the solution.” – Bennett Peji

I am blessed to have a great senior staff. We have established a schedule of quarterly, day-long retreats to grapple with bigger issues facing The Foundation today and in the future. We’ve decided to hold these retreats at nonprofits throughout the County to learn more about what they do.

This week, we headed to Southeast San Diego and the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation. In addition to our work plan, we spent almost two hours with Bennett Peji, the Jacobs Center Vice President for Impact and Partnerships. Bennett described the history, current challenges and future promise for one of the region’s most socioeconomically-challenged areas. We toured the Center, visited the nation’s only graffiti arts center, the Market Street Plaza shopping center and community amphitheater, as well as learned about the Jacobs Center programs.

Leadership team members standing in front of a graffiti art mural.

The San Diego Foundation Leadership Team visits the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation.

Bennett stunned us when he described one educational program in which they pay students to participate. We all gave a questioning look that must have signaled, “Isn’t free good enough?” Bennett shared that with all of the financial struggles facing those in poverty, making a commitment to a free resource is out of consideration for many young people. No matter how they made money (legally or not), those dollars kept the family going. Paying young people to complete educational programs was a win for all—participants, their families, and the community.

Bennett’s words reinforce the power of design thinking that is so critical for innovation. The Jacobs Center placed the end users at the center of the question and focused specifically on that user’s needs and perspectives. For my colleagues and me, it confirmed that a solution for one part of our County or group of people may not work for another. While we might believe we know the answers and what to do, engaging communities with empathy and understanding their point of view is always the first step to making a difference.

All of these words of wisdom are influencing my thoughts on The Foundation’s path forward. I hope you find meaning in them as well as you think about what you can do to make our County a place where everyone can thrive, prosper, and feel like they belong.