I am typically wary of being a conference attendee. Most of the time, the organizers' end goal is so transparent that I can pretty much guess what each speaker will say. Rarely am I surprised by new ideas that provoke and inspire me to think differently and work harder.
That is why the Clinton Global Initiative America (CGI) meeting in Denver last week was a refreshing break from the staid conference circuit. The Clinton family hosted a variety of plenaries and selected speakers who added unexpected insights to the salient topics of today--and especially of tomorrow. For me, with my acute focus on children--especially our youngest, poorest and most vulnerable children, their families, and communities--CGI America was a feast of robust perspectives, smart, amazing people and bold, inclusive, collaborative thinking.
The spirit of CGI was anchored by the hope and promise of extending opportunity to a range of communities. As someone who is increasingly impatient about defending Head Start against the zombie idea that Head Start does not work--despite so much evidence from research and from the tens of millions of lives touched by it--I rejoiced when Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, received applause when he shared that he had been a Head Start child. As I tweeted this factoid, Head Start "babies", as many alumni of Head Start call themselves, tweeted back and added that their mothers had read to them. Yes, you zombie idea propagators, Head Start works!
Darren was not alone as a valuable Head Start alum contributor to the many great discussions. Denise Juneau, the superintendent of Education in Montana was on a panel on assessments, and Jennifer Ng'andu in my Working Group on Early Childhood Education is working on obesity prevention for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The roar of applause when Darren announced he had been a Head Start child makes me think there were a number of Head Start babies in the distinguished audience. And those are just a few of the living, breathing testaments of Head Start's efficacy. We have so many more. The zombie ideas should just leave it alone!
Something else that made CGI really different is the requirement that attendees make a public Commitment to Action, a distinct, innovative, and measurable approach to addressing a specific issue. There were hundreds of new commitments made last week and reports on previous commitments demonstrating that many things we assume cannot be done are being done using all kinds of new partnerships. Commitments to Action have goals as diverse as closing the word gap that stands at the bottom of all gaps - school readiness, achievement, salary and mobility gaps - and actions to open pathways to careers in science and engineering to Head Start children. I am proud that the National Head Start Association announced two significant commitments to parent/child engagement and early STEM education.
My son, after shaking President Clinton's hand a few years ago, told me that he felt the President spoke to him personally and directly. Last week at the riveting closing session, President Clinton remarked that the hardest human condition is believing there is no hope that the next day will be different, no promise that things will get better. I knew that he spoke personally and directly to all Head Start children and families - past, present and future. And in CGI America's intensely hopeful atmosphere of commitment making, I felt that Bill Clinton gave voice to our community's belief that Head Start - this nation's commitment to giving each child, regardless of circumstances at birth, an opportunity to achieve the American Dream--is a commitment that the nation must keep.