Carol Larson Delivers Speech at John W. Gardner Award at the Encore.org Conference

Carol Larson, President and CEO of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, delivered a speech at the John W. Gardner Award at the Encore.org Conference on October 29, 2014. Below is the text of the speech, entitled From Insoluble Problems to Breathtaking Opportunities: The Living Legacy of John Gardner, as prepared for delivery.

I am so honored to be asked by Marc and Encore to give this seventh John Gardner talk.

John Gardner’s legacy is a LIVING one—he continues to influence us today.

At 61, I identify with John when he said, “I am more conscious than ever of the passage of time.” I am glad to take up Marc’s invitation to think about my own encore.

But, most of all, I am honored to take some time with you this morning to remember the words and example of John Gardner. His is a truly LIVING legacy.

In re-reading much of his work to prepare for this lecture, I realized again how much he inspired me.

For me, and I think for the millions of others who felt changed in some way by his words, his power came because he spoke to us not only as a society, but to us as individuals.

He challenged us as individuals to learn, to refresh and to renew. And he challenged our society to do the same. Indeed, his most prominent book on self-renewal focused on both personal and societal vitality. He saw them as inextricably related. “The source of creativity of society is in the person. Renewal springs from the freshness and vitality of individual men and women. Unless we foster versatile, innovative and self-renewing men and women, all the ingenious social arrangements in the world will not help us.”

I also think we were moved and inspired by John, as individuals and as a society, because he spoke from both mind and heart.

He described himself as a “tough-minded optimist.”

Tough-minded—clear eyed about facts and problems—a good Mind.

An Optimist—rooted in hope, seeing possibilities—the Heart.

Indeed, in the midst of his tenure as Secretary of HEW, in the turmoil of battles for civil rights and the war on poverty, he combined mind and heart in one of his most famous and inspirational observations: “What we have before us are some breathtaking opportunities disguised as insoluble problems.”

He applied this tough-minded optimism to analysis of big social issues. He saw the problems clearly, but he urged us to action with hope.

And, in applying both his mind and heart, he appealed to our minds and hearts.

That combination of mind and heart, of tough-minded optimism, spoke to me in 1997 when the phone rang and it was John Gardner. We had met briefly at a conference, and in my role as a grantmaker at the Packard Foundation, he wanted me to know about one of the efforts he was most excited about—Experience Corps.

He talked to me about the demographic bulge of the baby boom generation and how they would be reaching their 60s. At the time, there were 30 million Americans over 65. He talked about the imbalance that could occur if this growing population felt disengaged from community and families and shaped the politics and policy of the country from that disengagement. He talked about the needs of youth and the problems faced in the educational system. Yes, he saw the problems.

But he also talked to me about the opportunity—the opportunity to tap into the time and experience of these older adults to engage with youth. He talked about the Experience Corps program which he had first thought about while HEW Secretary and how it was a win-win for the youth and the older adults. When older people have the chance to play the “active and honored role that they deserve and the nation needs,” children and their families are enriched.

He saw the problems, but he saw them as not insoluble but rather as providing us breathtaking opportunities.

In essence, he was saying to me:

We know the problems of aging and of an aging society, but what if we tapped into this rich reservoir of talent, experience and commitment and deployed it on behalf of the kids of this country.

At the time I received his call in 1997, I was 44, I was not CEO, but had just become director of programs. I was the mother of two young children, working full time and juggling a lot. But John’s vision for Experience Corps spoke to my heart.  I had been driven all my life by the belief that every child in this country deserves a good start. It’s why I went to law school, it’s why I worked for a nonprofit after law school and it’s why I left a partnership in a private law practice to become a program officer at the Packard Foundation. And when John talked about putting older people to work on behalf of kids, he spoke from mind and heart and moved both my mind and my heart.

And that call led me on this exciting journey, meeting Marc, and having many conversations with him and John.

John had reason to be optimistic about Experience Corps. Look what happened. In 1997, Experience Corps was in about ten cities. Today, it’s in over 20 cities, serving over 27,000 kids per year.

And the great resource of older Americans has grown. From the 30 million in 1997, it has grown by 50% to 46 million (65 or older) today.

Over these same 17 years, much has happened to me as an individual.

I’m no longer 44!

And, at 61, like so many of you, there are many transitions in life. They are all around me. Just in the last two months, I celebrated big transitions in the lives of my closest family members:

  • In August, I dropped my youngest daughter off at college.
  • Two weeks ago, I helped my oldest daughter find her first apartment in San Francisco and she began her first real job after college.
  • Just three weeks ago, I celebrated with my Dad his 90th.

And all of these transitions have made me very aware of my own transitions. Don’t get me wrong, I am still fully engaged in my job, now in my tenth year as president, but as John says, “I am more conscious than ever of the passage of time.” And I am thinking of my own transitions (and I certainly don’t want Marc to worry too much about me)!

Indeed, these transitions are a fact of life—and a joyous fact at that.

John’s words speak to me:

“Life is an endless unfolding, and if we wish it to be, an endless process of self-discovery, an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our potentialities and the life situations in which we find ourselves. By potentialities I mean not just intellectual gifts but the full range of one’s capacities for learning, sensing, wondering, understanding, loving and aspiring.”

I am grateful that in these same 17 years, Encore has shown the way and developed wonderful resources for all who are on the threshold of defining their encore.

I am looking forward to the journey.

Indeed, as I stand here today, I am reminded of a story John would tell about his mother, who must have been quite a woman:

When John was in his early 60s and had just left Common Cause, he called his mother—who was in her late 80s. He said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do next year.” And she said, “Johnny, you need to have a 20 year plan.”

As he lived to the age of 89, he often said his mother gave pretty good advice.

Let’s take it!

I need a twenty year plan. Each of us does. In devising these, we need to deploy both mind and heart: to be clear eyed and tough minded but also rooted in hope and optimism.

As John would remind us though, it is not only individuals who need plans and freshening and renewal. It is also for organizations and communities and societies.

And the idea behind Experience Corps—deploying the rich reservoir of talent, experience and commitment of older people to the benefit and nurturing of our children and youth—was just the beginning.

In 1997, John saw the problem clearly, and asked “what if.”

We need to ask that anew. What if we truly deployed the rich reservoir of talent and experience of older people to the benefit of our children and youth?

The Packard Foundation focuses on children birth to five. We know there are many problems, and many opportunities.

  • We know that the first three years of life are critical ones for brain development and children need rich, engaged interactions during these years. And yet millions don’t have that and enter school having heard 30 million fewer words than other children. What if we led hundreds of thousands of people from our generation to work alongside parents to talk, read, and sing to all children, to close that gap, and to give children a sense of community.
  • We know that healthy development in those early years sets the foundation for long-term physical and mental health. And yet, even in my state of California, seven in ten children don’t receive developmental screenings. What if we led hundreds of thousands of people from our generation to become allies to the parents and the pediatricians to make those connections and follow up to make sure those screenings get done.
  • We know that in those early years, home visiting and assistance can be effective and welcome, especially to parents who don’t have the resources or knowledge to support and nurture their child. And yet, the vast majority of parents with babies don’t receive such assistance. What if we led hundreds of thousands of us to be trained to help provide home visits and to be allies to new parents.
  • We know that child care settings and preschools are very important places for kids where teachers are doing their best. And yet there are often too few of them or they are under-resourced to do their jobs. What if we led hundreds of thousands from our generation to be trained to serve as aides to help those teachers or to be certified to become one of them.
  • We know that kids who enter school without a strong start fall behind and sadly stay behind, with almost 7 in 10 low income children not reading proficiently by third grade. What if we led hundreds of thousands from our generation to work with families and teachers to help those children read.

Problems persist.

But they are not insoluble.

And they present breathtaking opportunities. And these are just some of the opportunities in a child’s first five years. Opportunities exist at every age of childhood and adolescence.

Fundamentally, from a 50,000 foot level, there are rich human capital resources among older people, and deep human capital needs among our children and their parents and teachers.

From that same 50,000 foot level, we see bright spots around our country where programs connect the resources of older adults with the needs of our children. But we need so much more.

We need matchmakers. We need connectors and on ramps. We need systems not just programs.

And we are just at the beginning of that, as was clear in a conference Encore, the Packard Foundation and Stanford’s Longevity Center hosted this year.

It won’t be easy, and we will need to experiment and provide lots of flexibility and choice.

The beauty of it all is that this is not a forced connection.

Older people are especially skilled for making the human connections that children especially need.

As Erik Erikson’s work discussed, the focus of older adults turns to generativity—to nurturing the next generation and leaving a legacy. Stanford’s Laura Carstensen’s research documents it further, aging is associated with more positive and balanced emotional experience, with seeing the good more than the bad. Older people have a tendency to live in the present, just as children tend to do. Older people put a high priority on emotionally satisfying experiences and focusing on the people they love and wanting to make a difference in other peoples’ lives.

Children are waiting for just this. They crave and thrive with rich one-to-one interactions. Their parents and teachers can use allies who are focused on nurturing the next generation rather than worried about preparing themselves for their next career steps.

So ours is not a manufactured optimism, but a tough-minded one.

Solution is in plain sight.

Last week I was honored to meet with Secretary Duncan and a group of California leaders to discuss early childhood education.

We all cited important facts and figures.

Then a rabbi described his hope that synagogues and churches would work together to improve early childhood experience in their local communities.

And he reminded us that this work is rooted not only in evidence and research, but in the heart.

“In our tradition we say the prayer V’ahata twice daily – and in it we are instructed to teach our children – with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our being.   We see our commitment to early childhood education as a pathway to live out our values, with heart, soul and being.”

Indeed, the breathtaking opportunity is to engage and connect with children, from heart, soul and being.

Let’s get started.  Let’s ask anew:

“What if?”