04/24/2013 05:04 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2013

Central Truths, Learned on the Margins

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Out of every 100 freshmen entering high school in the U.S., how many do you suppose drop out before they cross the stage on graduation day -- 5? 10? Maybe even a dozen?

According to the latest study from America's Promise Alliance, the actual number is more like 22, and even that depressing figure masks the full extent of the problem in poor communities of color, where dropout rates approach 29 percent among Hispanics and 33 percent for African-Americans.

If you work in public education, you're already painfully aware of those figures. But when I talk about dropout rates among general audiences at speaking engagements around the country, I often hear an audible gasp.

These audiences are usually well read, socially aware and community minded, yet they have only the vaguest sense of this particular crisis. Dropping out of high school? It's simply not something that we often encounter in middle class America. Everyone we know -- our kids, their friends, our neighbors -- finished high school and probably went on to college after that.

How can a problem be so pervasive and so invisible at the same time?

What I've found over the years is that problems -- and solutions -- often look quite different on the periphery. For those of us at the "center" of society, the problems on the periphery can appear smaller because we are physically or psychologically removed from the fallout. We tend to perceive and prioritize things differently when they don't affect us in a personal way.

That's why I believe that the best solutions often come from those who have experienced problems close-up, where the difficulties loom larger and the stakes are higher. At the margins of society you can find great insights and wisdom that are easy to miss when you're in the middle. This is what I call "the wisdom of the periphery," and it's a recurring theme I'd like to explore in this space from time to time.

If there is any one individual who taught me the wisdom that comes from working on the margins, it would be Tony Dalton. I met Tony after my first year of college, when I moved to the South Bronx to work with the nuns at an outreach center for Dominican and Puerto Rican families. Several nights a week, I'd go to a nearby parish where the most unlikely community organizer I had ever met operated one of the most effective community centers I had ever seen.

Since 1980, Tony Dalton had run his after-school gym out of an unused church space in Mott Haven, a neighborhood widely regarded as one of the worst in the nation. In the middle of this horrifically violent place, Tony had created a refuge where kids could come for boxing, weightlifting, basketball, or just hanging out -- anything, really, to keep them off the streets and out of the gangs that constantly beckoned.

In this tough environment, where the cops patrolled in bulletproof vests, Tony stood out as a strict and loving father figure, if not a local saint. Still, his rough demeanor -- and his failing liver -- betrayed his own past struggles that he rarely talked about.

I learned over time that Tony had once been a union elevator repairman. It was good work for an uneducated child of the South Bronx, though Tony was known to spend a good portion of his income on drinking and carousing. On a whim, he tagged along with a friend who was doing a service project in Haiti, and the needs that he saw there changed his life.

When he returned to the States, he began spending all of his free time at shelters for runaway teens and battered women. Eventually his avocation turned into a vocation. Tony retired from his job, gave away most of his possessions and his pension and moved into a nearby rectory as he built up his after-school center.

At first I didn't grasp Tony's impulse to cut himself off from the economic resources that could have ensured the future of his gym. But as I watched him and talked to him over the course of those months, I began to understand: By ceding his economic power, Tony had structured his life to create greater accountability with those that he served and those whose resources he was stewarding.

In making himself utterly dependent on the community, he fostered greater authenticity and freedom in his relationships with the kids. He never felt entitled to their love, because it wasn't his "stuff" at the youth center; it was given by the community.

In a nonprofit world where scale and impact are often perceived as a kind of Holy Grail, I still believe there is tremendous value in making ourselves truly vulnerable to the communities we serve. That's a lesson I learned from Tony Dalton, a hard-living Irishman who first showed me the hard-won wisdom of the periphery.

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