Huffpost Healthy Living
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Jim Luce Headshot

Addressing Phi Theta Kappa on Social Responsibility

Posted: Updated:

I was recently asked to give the keynote address of the New England Regional Convention of the international honor society Phi Theta Kappa.

Founded in 1918, this society has more than 1,200 chapters in the United States, recognizing over 100,000 exceptional students each year for their scholastic accomplishments.

We gather this weekend at the New England Regional Convention outside Hartford to review the four worthy hallmarks of Phi Theta Kappa: scholarship, leadership, fellowship, and service.

Every two years the international headquarters of Phi Theta Kappa selects an honor's study topic for discussion. This year the topic chosen is: "The Paradox of Affluence: Challenges, Choices, and Consequences."

A paradox is seemingly contradictory, or opposed to common sense, and yet is perhaps true. Life is full of paradox, as well as paradigm. My own life -- my journey down the river -- has been no exception.

I am honored to come before you to share my life's journey. I turn 50 soon, with 30 years of learning just finished, and 30 years of doing -- application -- now to begin.

2009-03-30-PhiThetaKappa1.jpg

With Brooke Bohannon, Phi Theta Kappa Regional President.

My family comes from distinguished New England roots, which as we say in New York City -- along with a Metro Card -- will get me far on the subway.

My father's side of the family were ship captains off Martha's Vineyard. One went on to found the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. Distant cousins founded Time-Life.

My mother's side came over on the Mayflower on one line, and on another were sent over by the King to keep the Pilgrim rabble in check. The King's side of the family -- Thomas Dudley -- co-founded Harvard.

My father inherited this New England legacy and went on to study at Andover, Dartmouth, and Yale. He was hall mates with George Bush, Sr.

The first paradigm in my life was that I was born in Ohio, far away from these New England roots. Far away from this hall today. Why?

My father, Stanford Luce, decided that the East Coast Establishment was intrinsically evil and responsible for our nation's military-industrial complex. He wanted to move his family far away, in the 1950's Ohio was far away. He accepted a position teaching French at Miami University in Ohio.

My father went so far to impose his values on his children that we were not allowed to go to school outside of Ohio. So I declared Japanese Studies at the College of Wooster and spent two years studying in Tokyo.

I moved from Japan to New York and worked as the first American Manager of Daiwa Bank on Wall Street.

Already, Paradox was everywhere: The Ohio Kid made it to the East Coast against his father's will, but had to speak Japanese to do so.

Wall Street in the Eighties was flush with cash. Eventually, I moved to Merrill Lynch, where I could earn even more.

About this time, I ended up by coincidence in Indonesia, where I coincidentally visited an orphanage. I had been drawn to orphanages over the years, and had also visited them in Colombia and Mexico.

Standing there in what was once called the Celebes Islands, I asked if I could pick up this one baby - a little boy standing in his crib, full of life in a huge room full of decrepit cribs where most babies lay quietly, sadly.

This little boy sent a surge of energy into me as I held him -- ten months old -- and I fell madly in love. It is a long and complicated story, but the upshot was that by getting married I was able to bring him home as my son.

My family is Episcopalian -- "Anglo-Catholic" -- for thirteen generations in North America. Traditionally, my family does not marry outside of the church. Traditionally, we do not have babies that do not look like us.

But suddenly, I married a Baptist, and had an adopted Asian son. My parents were suddenly grandparents to a Chinese-Indonesian boy and had an Indonesian in-law. They did not even know where Indonesia was.

My mother was fond of saying then that when her son had decided to break the family mold, he had done it with a vengeance.

As happy as I was with my son -- named Mathew -- I was traumatized by the children I had left behind. My mother asked me to do something about it. She paraphrased the words of Mother Jones, "don't mourn, organize!"

Month after month I did mourn the many kids left behind in such horrible conditions. What would become of them? My mom, a child psychologist who graduated from Wheelock, got increasingly angry with me for caring so much but doing so little.

To humor her, I agreed to write the Initial Report on how orphanages could be better than Dickensian warehouses full of children -- no better than in the days of Oliver Twist.

This feasibility study grew to be 350 pages, and my mom edited each one. I had a great idea. It was even on paper. I learned then that the world is full of great ideas, many of them on paper.

Shortly after my paper was finished, my mother passed away. Unknown to me, she left my portion of her will to implement the project. I was stuck.

So ten years ago, in 1999, I began Orphans International Worldwide. I tried to run it as a hobby for the first few years, at nights and on weekends, opening homes in Indonesia and Haiti. But after the Tsunami struck five years ago, I realized I had to do it full time.

The money became too big. Prince Albert of Monaco came on board as the head of our Global Advisory Board. The De Rothschild family began to give us stock.

So I left Wall Street. I was tired of making money. The children I was encountering, foraging for food in the garbage dumps of Jakarta or Port-au-Prince, often had more dignity I thought the super-rich I dealt with on Wall Street.

I decided to leave the world of finance and give back. I felt I had a social obligation to repair the world. I agreed to work for room and board, and I began to run Orphans International full-time.

The next paradox I encountered as I gave away all of my assets to build my dream -- my retirement plan, my savings, an inheritance from my brother -- was that I was meeting wealthy heads of state and royalty from around the world who wanted to help.

Two years ago, Orphans International was accredited by the United Nations. Last year, we had over 100 people working with us, in 18 countries, with projects open in four, including Tanzania and Sri Lanka.

Then, last fall, the economy tanked. Our contributors were originally from my yuppie friends in Manhattan: lawyers, bankers, doctors. The economy destroyed many of their careers, and they stopped giving.

As of last fall, we ran out of money to pay my rent. Or feed my hungry kid, now a teenager. I took a look at my life and realized that, with my skill-set, being homeless was a bad option. I put word out that I was willing to take a "day job" once again.

I received many offers, but chose one that excited me the most. I chose a for-profit company begun as a copy center to law firms, which has grown into a technology firm offering scanning, imaging, and electronic discovery work to law firms, accounting firms - even multi-national corporations.

I joined as a partner on the condition that the company would give 1% of its profits to orphans in the developing world. Since I joined, the firm has embraced the motto, "Technology with a Conscience." It now offers services at cost to pro bono projects and not-for-profit organizations.

Another paradox is that this document-processing company is owned by West African immigrants to the United States, primarily from French-speaking Togo. I am the white, English-speaking minority of a "minority-owned" firm in New York City.

Along my journey down the river, I decided to take a Vow of Poverty. I could own an expensive watch, a car, and fancy suits. But I decided I did not want to.

Holding a child who is dying of starvation -- or AIDS -- can do things to your mind. To your heart. I wanted to do 100% of what I could do, and I did not need an expensive watch to do so. In fact, my watch is from Chinatown and cost $10.

Another paradox is that I only need enough to cover my own room and board. Of course, to be taken seriously in this society, I need to wear a suit when I am speaking. But I don't wear a suit at home, I wear this sarong. Perhaps I subconsciously chose it because it is blue with pinstripes.

2009-03-30-PhiThetaKappa2.jpg

Tongue-in-check, I unveiled my blue pin-stripe sarong, but wore a suit.

To be taken seriously, you need to be part of the dominant culture. Yet if you are too much a part of the culture, you will never be able to make a strong impact on the world. You will become too complacent. Again, a paradox, a fine line.

I quickly learned that being a partner of an international technology company pays more than I needed. More than room and board for me and my kid. So another paradox is that I had to create a foundation to roll the extra money into a foundation dedicated to carrying for those who care for orphans.

Now, of course, there is the existentialist argument that one person alone cannot save the world. There are 18 million AIDS orphans in sub-Saharan Africa. But I became comfortable with the idea that if I did 100% of what I was capable of, that was enough.

You know the story of two men walking down the beach as one man diligently tossed stranded starfish back into the water. The first man scoffed, and ridiculed the second, saying there were too many and it did not matter. He replied, "It matters to the ones I save!"

Ask my son Mathew if one person has made a difference in his life. Ask our orphans -- Jean Kirby in Haiti, or Junior Jeiner in Indonesia -- if one person has made a difference in their lives.

One person can make a difference. You can make a difference.

In the children's book, The Learning Tree, Shel Silverstein portrays a tree that gave its shade, its branches, its fruit, and eventually its trunk - until it was nothing more than a stump. Of course, it then gave an old man its stump to rest on.

The paradox of giving is that you can give so much away that you become useless. You have, and are, nothing. During my life voyage I have coined the term, "Jim's Rule."

"Mathew's Rule," named after my adopted son, states that Orphans International cares for each of our children globally the way we would care for our own.

"Jim's Rule" states that we should give only what we can without hurting ourselves. It is, again, a fine line. But I do not want to impose my value system on my son the way my father did on me.

The world, of course, is not black-and-white. It is full of gray. There is much that seems contrary to common sense, but is perhaps true. Then, there is much that appears true that could be an illusion.

I have spent 30 years learning - from ages 20 to 50. Now I intend to spend the next 30 years doing - from 50 to 80. The first 20 years of my life I had no power. I anticipate I will have little strength from 80 to 100. My grandmother lived to be 102.

The life lessons I have learned I want to share. I have been tentatively approached by a literary agency in Boston to co-write the "Jim Luce Story" - with a reporter from the New York Times. Fun!

I have an active presence on FaceBook and Twitter - look me up. Check out my world in The Huffington Post and New York Times.

So, what exactly is The Paradox of Affluence in America today? It is this: We have wealth -- the most wealth in the entire world.

We can be sad that perhaps our parents had greater wealth, or that it is harder to make it now than it used to be. Or, we can decide that now -- in this economy -- is the perfect moment to give back.

But how best to give back? One life lesson I have learned is that maybe you do not want to start your own organization. You do not have to re-invent the wheel.

There is a group today for almost every cause imaginable. Work with others. Cooperate. Partner. A team venture is far stronger than a solo venture.

The Challenges are formidable. You need to be able to provide for yourselves - and someday your families. You need to be in a position of power to offer the most help.

The Choices are vast. Here in New England, the homeless, the hungry, the elderly. Globally, there is the environment, health issues -- including AIDS and breast cancer -- orphan care. From Hartford to Haiti, the world needs you.

The Consequences are endless. You can become a better person if you give of yourself, but you can also do yourself harm if you give too much. You can impact many by your sacrifice, or you can have little effect. You can live a life feeling fulfilled -- or wasted.

The way you navigate downstream must be uniquely your own.

As members of Phi Theta Kappa, you are among the elite of our world. With your four hallmarks, scholarship, leadership, fellowship, and service, you understand that you have a societal obligation to do something to give back.

What can you do over the course of your lives to make the greatest impact? That only you know, or will soon learn.

Luckily, you are each gifted enough to figure it out. I have enormous faith that the world will be a better place because of you.

Edited by Karen F. Davis

From Our Partners