Team Rubicon Coronavirus Response: How Jake Wood and the Greyshirts Are Taking Action

10 years ago, Team Rubicon CEO Jake Wood co-founded his organization to mobilize veterans in times of great emergency, harnessing their unique skillsets and experiences towards helping victims of sudden crises.
Today, the people of our world find ourselves amid one such crisis: the Coronavirus pandemic, which by some estimates is expected to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans, hospitalize or infect millions more and debilitate our economy.
NationSwell spoke to Wood, a Council member, about how Team Rubicon’s #NeighborsHelpingNeighbors initiative has sprung into action to lead and assist aid efforts across the country, mobilizing its volunteer corps of “Greyshirts” towards the frontlines of the communities that need the most aid. We also had the chance to speak about his forthcoming book, “Once a Warrior: How One Veteran Found a New Mission Closer to Home.”
NationSwell: At time of publication, the Team Rubicon blog mentions at least 49 relief operations that are already in progress, and 44 more that are in progress. Can you speak to what those efforts look like, and what you’ve been able to accomplish so far?
Team Rubicon CEO Jake Wood: We have a medical capability that we really only deploy internationally. We’ve pivoted here to focus domestically. We have never gotten into issues like food security, food, transportation, logistics — things like that. But this is a pandemic that is crippling some of our governmental and non-governmental infrastructure. And I think we have an organization that can flex into the fight. And so that’s exactly what we’re doing. We have pivoted our entire organization into this fight.
On one end of the spectrum, we’ve been asked by various agencies, federal, state and local to help establish federal medical stations. We’re doing that in California. We’re now currently establishing, and we’ll begin operating, a 250 bed hospital in Northern California to help decompress the health care system there. We have similar requests for similar field medical hospitals in the states and cities that you can imagine. I don’t want to name them yet because none of those are for certain. We’ve been asked by some major metropolitan areas to oversee the command and coordination of quarantine shelters for homeless populations.
And then, on another end of the spectrum, we’re partnering with major national food security networks like Feeding America and Meals on Wheels. And I think that we’ll probably be assisting with operations and logistics at easily a hundred food banks by the end of this week. And then we developed guidance and protocols for how any one of our 112,000 volunteers could identify the vulnerable people in their neighborhood and assist them with their quarantine and shelter in place mandate. So if they have an elderly person on their street that may have difficulty in this time getting prescriptions or groceries, whatever. How can you safely assist that person or the single mother that suddenly just got furloughed and has two kids that she’s now the educator of at home? How do you assist that woman with walking, something as simple as walking their dog? Because she can’t do it with the two kids who need to be learning.

“Leaders should embrace the brutal reality of the situation, acknowledging the gaps that we have — but then inspire people to believe that we’re going to get through this.” — Jake Wood, Team Rubicon CEO

We’ve had over a thousand acts of service logged since we launched that. 30,000 people have gone to the website so we’re confident that we have many, many thousands of unlogged acts of service. We call it #NeighborsHelpingNeighbors.
NationSwell: How can our audience help you all with your efforts?
Wood: We’d love to have #NeighborsHelpingNeighbors amplified. We don’t want this to be a campaign that just… if it stays within just the bounds of Team Rubicon, then we failed. From the beginning, one of the objectives was, how do we inspire people to action in a way that is safe? Right? So that they’re not contributing to the spread, but rather contributing to the effective social distancing that’s actually necessary to inhibit the spread of this. So we’d love to see that get amplified. Obviously we are partnering with organizations in ways that we never would have imagined. We just signed an agreement with one of the largest healthcare systems on the East Coast to help start staffing their testing clinics. And, so for those members who have a unique organizational capacity to partner with us in this, or unique expertise or they’re retired doctor that wants to get back in the fight — we need people.
NationSwell: How can leaders of all stripes step up at a time like this? What qualities mark a good leader in a time of crisis?
Wood: It’s very rare that a leader in a moment like this is going to have the necessary competencies to be the expert, right? And so what you need to see in leaders is a certain level of humility. You need them to say, “Listen, I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t know when things are going to get better. I don’t know this, that and this. What I do know is, here’s what we’ve got to do. Here’s what the experts are saying. Here’s what we can control. Here are the things that we can’t.”
Leaders should embrace the brutal reality of the situation, acknowledging the gaps that we have — but then inspire people to believe that we’re going to get through this. I think one of the challenges thus far has been convincing people that this isn’t about them, right? This is about the whole. And you have a lot of people right now who are really concerned about the social distancing and the shelter in place orders, because it impacts them personally. And we need leaders who can inspire people to think beyond the four walls of their home and think about the community at large.
I think we’ve gotten that in some places. I don’t think we’ve gotten it throughout all levels of leadership right now. It’s just — f*ck man, just shut your mouth and push somebody else up to the podium who’s actually an expert, right? And let that person have the spotlight, and you lead from behind. That’s kind of a lost art.
NationSwell: Tell us about “Once a Warrior.” What’s it about? And where did you get the idea to write it?
Wood: “Once a Warrior” is a project that I’ve been working on for over a decade. I started writing pretty extensively when I was deployed overseas with the Marine Corps in Iraq and Afghanistan. And at first I wrote to keep my family and loved ones updated on what was happening. I was in Iraq during the surge in 2007 with a Marine rifle platoon. And then I was a sniper in Afghanistan in 2008. So that was when I first started writing. And then when I got back from the war, I started writing as a way of making sense of what happened and for a kind of catharsis.
And so, I’ve been writing ever since, and have at times throughout the 10 years of Team Rubicon written about moments that have happened. And I got to this point where at the conclusion of Hurricane Harvey and in our efforts there, there was… a bunch of things that just kind of came full circle for me, and I decided that I wanted to write this story of going to war and coming home.
It’s part memoir in that it’s the story of the last 15 years of my life, but it’s really intended to be bigger than that. It’s a story of about service. It’s a story about what happens to young men and women in war, and what happens when they come home and what is the role of service — continued service? Where’s the role of purpose in the lives of those young men and women as they come back into our community? So, I tell that latter part kind of through the lens of starting in building Team Rubicon and losing my best friend to suicide shortly thereafter. And watching how Team Rubicon has impacted the lives of tens of thousands of volunteers who’ve picked up a new mission and put on a new uniform over that time.
NationSwell: Your book’s publication will coincide with the 10 year anniversary of Team Rubicon. What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned in those 10 years? 
Wood: The first lesson would be that purpose is a powerful healing force, this powerful driving force for any human. Any human being on earth needs purpose. But I think for those who have served in the military, who have fought overseas, who’ve come home to a community that doesn’t always understand them and doesn’t always care about their service, that the lack of purpose that some people can find when they transition back to civilian life can be really detrimental to their ability to lead long and fulfilling lives.
And it’s really actually pretty easy to rediscover purpose. You give somebody a mission, you give them responsibility or you give them a challenge and they can find that purpose again. I think that the other thing that I’ve seen time and time again after hundreds and hundreds of disasters that Team Rubicon has responded to is that Americans truly do become the best version of themselves in crisis. I think we’re seeing a lot of that now play out with Covid-19. You see people having empathy for communities that they didn’t previously have an empathy for.
You see people reaching their hands out across the aisle in politics to find solutions to challenging problems. You see people crossing over to help a neighbor that they wouldn’t have even spoken to a week prior. And that’s always inspiring to see. And I think that what’s always disappointing is just how quickly we revert back to the former version of ourselves, and forget those lessons of empathy and compassion and service in community and camaraderie that it took a tornado to place at our feet.
NationSwell: You’ve stayed connected to the work over the course of a decade. How do you keep from reverting?
Wood: I mean, I guess I’ve never had in 10 years the opportunity to take a pause. My wife jokes that I never really left the military — I just kind of changed uniforms. And I think there’s some element of truth to that. But I’ve spent the last decade of my life running from crisis to crisis. I just always get re-inspired by what’s possible. Because I see these changes in people and in communities on a weekly basis and I always set myself up for disappointment. I always think the next one is going to be the one that sticks, the one where people finally learn the lesson. And maybe I’m just kind of a hopelessly optimistic about that.
NationSwell: What are you hoping that readers will take away from the book?
Wood: The book is really in three parts. The first part is my wartime experience. And what I really wanted, the stories I told from Iraq and Afghanistan to be was a more authentic and maybe vulnerable retelling of life in combat. I didn’t want to just add to the genre of guys who were thumping their chest and talking about body counts or fierce battles. I want people to know what’s really going through a young man’s mind the first time they get shot at. What are some of the those moments that people may not think about where… you start to explore what’s happening to people mentally and emotionally. How are people processing? I spend a lot of time talking about moments where I found myself losing kind of a grasp of who I was and who I wanted to be. Whether that was sensing that I was beginning to lose that empathy and compassion that I’d kind of had my entire life. Those moments where suddenly, war was becoming too familiar, too easy.
And I think those are the questions that I want people to walk away from the book wondering. What is the true cost of war for the young people we send to fight it? I think one of the things I tried to accomplish in the middle part of the book was an authenticity around my own challenges transitioning home. I think a lot of people look at me and, as a veteran with a fairly high profile, they think, “Man, the guy had it easy. He came home and he started a nonprofit that’s grown and done amazing things.” And the reality is I came home, I lost just as many friends to suicide as I lost to combat, including my best friend. I had to fold the flag and hand it to the mother of that best friend and tell her I was sorry I wasn’t there for her son. And then figure out how to pick up the pieces after that.
And I think that that last part of the book is really just about what happens when you ignite the purpose of an entire generation of veterans and challenged them to serve their community in a new way. And that’s really the story of Team Rubicon And I try to tell that story through the lens of as many of the amazing volunteers I’ve met over the years, who have this diversity of experience and backgrounds that is so compelling, but who have so much more in common than they ever have had different now or at any time in their past. And I think that’s the really powerful thing is this unifying power of that purpose and that service.
I mean, I’m excited for it. My mom thinks it’s really good.
NationSwell: It sounds like your ideal reader or readers for the book isn’t just veterans and service members, right? Who do you see as someone who can potentially take a lot away from it?
Wood: There was a big debate with the publisher and me about the timing for the release of this book. They were cautioning me from releasing it in the lead up to the election, or too close to the election itself. And I kept saying, “No. I want this to cut through the divisiveness and the vitriol that we’re undoubtedly going to hear in 2020. I want this to serve as a break that Americans can pick up this book and read something that re-inspires them about what America should be and can be.” I think the audience is anybody that is sick of hearing about how fucked up this country is. And believes that there’s a better version of this country that we can achieve. I’m hopeful that this can serve to re-inspire that sentiment among some people.
This interview was lightly edited for clarity. For more information on the NationSwell Council, please visit our splash page. You can pre-order Wood’s book, “Once a Warrior,” here.

Celebrating NSC Impact: NSC Members Mobilize to Close Education Opportunity Gap

When Madeline Kerner, CEO of Matriculate, looked to the NationSwell Council community, she found practical advice, meaningful connections, new board members and financial support for her organization. All of this meant more well-deserving teens could apply to the college that best matched their talent.
We spoke to Kerner over the phone to talk about how we’ve been able to support her in her mission. Here’s what she had to say.
NationSwell: We’re so excited to chat with you, Madeline! Tell us about your work at Matriculate. 
Matriculate’s Madeline Kerner: Our mission is to empower high-achieving, low income high school students to make the leap to our nation’s best colleges. There are many students — up to 35,000 every year across the nation — who have done everything that anyone could ever ask a high school student in spite of incredibly challenging circumstances, all while maintaining high GPAs and standardized test scores.
We know that talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not.
NS: There are so many students who might benefit from this work. How has your NationSwell Council membership supported you in pursuing this mission? 
MK: There are many ways!

We held a Strategic Advisory Group that brought together smart and knowledgeable Council member who shared their expertise and helped us think through some core challenges. Their advise was so valuable, and the generous investment of their time has really paid off. One member in attendance had expertise on how we can share our message, and he’s really gone to work for us: He made some meaningful introductions to other advisors and funders, persuaded me to attend a conference and offered to pitch a story on us.

Separately, I met a fellow Council member at the NationSwell Summit who has since joined our Board of Directors and been able to support our work. She’s been an incredible advocate. Another Council member joined our Advisory Board after my community manager made an introduction, and has been a real shaper and influencer of the organization as we think about our strategic plan and our future direction. There’s absolutely no way I would have met them without NationSwell.

My membership has also helped build our network, and get to know other folks who have solutions that are driving change so that I can learn from them, network in their communities and get access to different perspectives. Because of my membership, I’ve learned how other organizations have built their brand and spread the word in their own communities.

As a small organization focused on impact, we have kept our heads down to just do the work well — but I’ve valued from watching other Council members tell their stories and having the opportunity to tell mine and get feedback.

“We know that talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not.” – Madeline Kerner

I also wanted to note that I’m excited about the NationSwell Next initiative. I’m sending one of Matriculate’s head advising fellows to NationSwell’s Summit West. She’s at Berkeley and is a real youth leader and a powerful voice for equity and access in higher education. And she’ll be having the opportunity to meet the community. I appreciate the ways NationSwell is helping young people to plug in and build their communities and networks as they envision the change they want to have.
NS: What’s next for you and Matriculate, and how do you anticipate NationSwell working in service of your future goals?
We are five years into our work and currently have a community of more than one thousand undergraduates supporting nearly 5,000 high school students across the nation. We are launching a three year-plan with three areas of focus:

  1. Refining our model to maximize impact
  2. Deepening our continuous learning practices, including with a focus on social capital transfer and our students’ sense of belonging
  3. Strengthening the organization to sustain long-term impact.

As we embark on this next phase, we plan to draw wisdom from the NationSwell community, and hope to expand our network in service of these goals.
This emphasis on continuous learning with a focus on social capital comes in part from a qualitative study by Dr. Katie Lynk Wartman to better understand our near-peer relationship model. Wartman found that undergraduate Advising Fellows build authentic and trusting relationships with their high school students, making them uniquely positioned to influence high school students’ college application and enrollment decisions. Dr. Wartman found that through this relationship, college students transfer social capital to their high school students.
NationSwell is always trying to learn more about how we’ve supported our Council members in their efforts to make the world a better place. If we helped you, we’d love to hear more about it. Let us know.

Celebrating NSC Impact: A $500,000 Investment to Close the Child Literacy Gap

It all started with an email.
When the NationSwell Council weekly newsletter spotlighted Alejandro Gac-Artigas‘s work leading Springboard Collaborative, an organization dedicated to closing the child literacy gap, fellow Council member Sue Schwartzman knew she had to meet him. She suspected he might be in attendance at an upcoming NationSwell Council (NSC) event for solutions in education, and sure enough, there he was.
Sue was so impressed and intrigued by Alejandro’s work that she shared it with her philanthropy clients for Schwartzman Advising, the consulting firm she leads. The pitch worked; her clients invested $500,000 in Springboard to help close the child literacy gap in under-resourced communities.
NationSwell spoke to Alejandro and Sue to learn more about this amazing moment of impact, and to discover what’s possible thanks to the investment.
NationSwell: Thank you for chatting with us, Sue and Alejandro! And congrats on this amazing news. Alejandro, Springboard Collaborative is doing important work to close the child literacy gap in under-resourced communities. Can you share what inspired you to start it, and what’s innovative about the model? 
Alejandro Gac-Artigas: I’m half Chilean and half Puerto Rican. My parents emigrated to the US to escape political prosecution, and so that my sister and I could have better educational opportunities. Growing up in a home with little money but lots of love taught me that parents’ love for their children is the single greatest and most underutilized natural resource in education. I took that perspective with me to Harvard, and when I graduated, I joined Teach for America and became a first grade teacher in North [Philadelphia].
Teaching in a Puerto Rican neighborhood, I saw myself in my students. I saw my parents in their parents. I realized that students were only in my classroom for 25% of their waking hours. If I didn’t find a way to bring parents into the instructional process, I was never going to close the achievement gap, let alone the opportunity gap. So I founded Springboard Collective eight years ago with the vision of closing the literacy gap by bridging the gap between home and school. We do that by coaching teachers and low income parents to help their kids read on grade level.
NS: And how did you get involved in this organization, Sue? 
Sue Schwartzman: I help people who are new to the world of philanthropy understand who they are, what they care about and what they want to do about it. One of my clients last year focused in on literacy, and I was doing a deep-dive into the field to help him best invest his philanthropic dollars. I’m also a former teacher, and I’ve done a landscape survey of what’s out there in literacy. The fact that this is new is amazing to me, but Alejandro has hit on something that no one else has. Parents are an untapped resource — and he knows how to get to them.
AGA: I appreciate that. When people look at Springboard, they say parent engagement is innovative — but parents’ love for their children is biological, not innovative. That parents care for their children is just a product of millions of years of evolution, and the fact that we’re not drawing from that bottomless well is a real missed opportunity.
SS: It’s also important to note that I couldn’t have introduced Alejandro and his work to my client if he didn’t have the traction and data that clients are now hoping for. This model is working, he can show it and it’s amazing!
NationSwell: How did NationSwell help support this partnership and impact? 
SS: I would not have learned about Alejandro’s work if it were not for NationSwell. You keep me on the cutting edge of what’s new and innovative in the social impact field.  I am always seeking cutting edge information and ideas to challenge and share with my clients in a wide array of philanthropic interest areas and the NationSwell Council has been a connector to big thinkers and creators in many of the spaces my clients have interest in. I am grateful for this curated network!
AGA: Were it not for NationSwell, I would not have been able to connect directly with Sue and certainly not with her clients. As a young entrepreneur of color, access can be a real barrier — access to resources, social networks, professional networks — and having a group that can serve as an intermediary and open doors that otherwise don’t necessarily open on their own is tremendously valuable. There’s something different about being a member of a shared community. It’s beyond transactional and creates a different kind of a dialogue. You get further faster if you have this community there for you.
NationSwell: Wonderful! What’s next for Springboard? How might this $500,000 support the future of the organization?
AGA: Last year we decided to set a goal that is deliberately unachievable with our current program model in order to force ourselves to innovate and find more scalable ways of doing our work. That goal is to help 100,000 kids reach reading goals and 30,000 students read on grade level by December 31, 2022. These new resources will help us bring that to life in five ways.

  1. To help support our existing summer and after-school programs, which have already doubled students’ annual reading progress.
  2. To launch a franchising model where we train others to use our playbook, and run programs independently and affordably.
  3. To build a roadmap that helps districts best engage parents in literacy all year round — in the school day, the school year, the school culture — and not just in the summer and after school.
  4. To create an a la carte menu of our products and services which have the greatest potential to drive impact, like licensing our workshop curriculum or launching an app to help families develop healthy reading habits at home.
  5. To popularize our methodology in an unbranded way, to catalyze a culture shift and make parent engagement the new normal.

NationSwell is always trying to learn more about how we’ve supported our Council members in their efforts to make the world a better place. If we helped you, we’d love to hear more about it. Let us know.

Summit West 2020: Why DeNora Getachew Leads With Purpose

Ahead of Summit West 2020, NationSwell is profiling leaders and luminaries from a diverse array of fields to discover how they lead with purpose — and inspire others to do the same.
For DeNora Getachew, the professional is personal. As the New York Executive Director for Generation Citizen, she’s leading the charge to help young people to see their own civic stake in our democracy and empower them take action on behalf of themselves and their communities. NationSwell spoke with Getachew about what fuels her commitment to acting with purpose in her professional life. She shared with us a pivotal moment from her teen years that showed her how powerful results can be achieved when advocating for action.
NationSwell: Tell us about a moment from your personal or professional life when you acted with purpose, and how acting with purpose made a difference.
DeNora Getachew: For me, my professional purpose is a direct result of my own personal purpose. I found my own civic voice as a pregnant teen at a high school in Harlem, and at the time didn’t realize what it meant to be civically engaged and to advocate for oneself. And when I was encouraged to transfer to an alternative high school for pregnant girls because my pregnancy was a distraction to the community — they were worried it was something that could be caught in the water — I decided to launch an advocacy campaign to stay at my school and graduate on time with my peers.
That was two decades ago, and I didn’t realize at the time that that was what I was doing, but it’s been powerful to think about how that moment as a self-interested young person sparked my own civic journey. About how that has manifested itself and the work that I do, how it helps me be more mission driven.

“Every once in a while you should write your own personal mission statement.” — DeNora Getachew

NS: What’s your advice to others on how we can all better act with a sense of purpose?
Getachew: We live in a fast-paced world, and I think that’s more true than it ever has been. I think many of us don’t take the time to reflect on what it is [we’re doing] and why we’re doing it, reflecting on our own mission statement and why it is we’re called on to do the things we do, and whether we’re doing it in the most impactful way possible. Every once in a while you should write your own personal mission statement, and write why it is you’re doing what it is you’re doing and whether you’re using all the tools in the toolbox to advocate for that and harness that. I think if we were all more conscientious about doing that it might be more visually impactful, and seeing it will make a difference.
NS: Who are the other leaders and luminaries who inspire you to keep acting with purpose in mind?
Getachew: I am inspired by so many leaders, but especially leaders who don’t take no for an answer and, like me, are “ninjas” for what they believe in. I recently joined the board of Higher Heights for America, an organization committed to building the political power and leadership of Black women from the voting booth to elected office. I call myself a democracy ninja because I use all of the tools in my toolbox to advocate for an inclusive and reflective democracy. I am most inspired by leaders like Shirley Chisholm, who paved the way for me and my peers; young leaders like Yara Shahidi, who is a tireless advocate for young people participating in democracy and registering to vote; and Michelle Obama, who is an all around #BlackWomenLead.

At a time of extreme tension and uncertainty, people are losing confidence in traditional institutions’ ability to solve bigger problems facing our communities and environment. To fill the vid, leaders and organizations are expected to make a commitment to a purpose that benefits all stakeholders.
NationSwell’s Summit West will bring together a diverse group of impactful leaders and organizations. Together, we will learn from the people practicing purpose every day.
DeNora Getachew is a member of the NationSwell Council. To find out more about the NationSwell Council, visit our digital hub. And to learn more about Summit West 2020, visit our event splash page

Leading With Purpose: Insights from AiLun Ku, Opportunity Network President and CEO

Ahead of Summit West 2020, NationSwell is profiling leaders and luminaries from a diverse array of fields to discover how they lead with purpose and inspire others to do the same.
For 15 years, the Opportunity Network has empowered students from historically underrepresented communities by providing them with the support needed to succeed in college and thrive in evolving workplaces. NationSwell spoke with Opportunity Network President and CEO AiLun Ku, a Council member, about how she’s been able to lead by putting purpose into action throughout her entire life.
NationSwell: Thanks for speaking with us, AiLun. How does your current role position you to lead with purpose?
AK: As the president and CEO of  the Opportunity Network, I have the privilege to lead with purpose every day. As an immigrant to the United States from Taiwan at a young age, it was quite tough navigating the American education system and finding a place of belonging. And in my self-discovery journey, I learned that I am good at building and growing community-driven organizations, and given my lived experience, I care deeply about work that sits at the intersection of social justice and education, which OppNet provides me the opportunity to do. My vision is that not only will first-generation students and young people of color influence the future of work and learning, but we will be represented at every level and in every space leading those conversations. And that’s pretty much sums up my job description and the work we do at OppNet!
NS: Can you tell us about a specific time in your professional or personal life that you made a difference by putting purpose into action?
AK: In high school, I worked as an interpreter for a social worker whose job was to check in on the sponsoring families of individuals coming to the United States seeking asylum. Mandarin is my native language, so at 16, I was responsible for giving voice and information to Chinese children and families that have gone through unimaginable hardship in their pursuit of safety.
This job was an early and formative contradiction to how I was treated in the school system. My family and I moved from Taiwan to New Jersey when I was 10. We all had to learn English. In school, with Mandarin as my first language and English as my second language, my first language was deemed a deficit in the American education system instead of an asset.
So, being an interpreter at a young age really helped me transform a part of my identity into purposeful action.
NS: What advice do you have for others on how they can better act with a clear sense of purpose?
AK: While I think striving for clarity is important, I also think doing purposeful work with a little bit of fuzziness around your own vision is okay, too, because self-discovery takes time.
I think self-discovery is such an important practice that takes time, patience, mistakes, generosity and a lot of grace to perpetually make happen. I believe that self-discovery builds the foundation for one to identify and hone strengths and skills that can then be applied to something that gives those strengths and skills meaning — which, to me, is purpose.
One way to consider striving for more clarity in one’s own journey of self-discovery is the practice of inquiry. I am a big fan of asking questions and charging myself to finding the answers. For everything you do or want to do, ask questions, investigate, take action and harness those insights found; check in with yourself, and then do it again.
The next time, though, ask tougher and more complex questions, investigate broader and deeper, take bolder actions based on you insights and challenge yourself to act with more clarity, even if it means stepping back from something.
NS: Who are others leaders or luminaries who inspire you to act and lead with purpose, and why?
AK: There are so many! Alaa Murabit, a medical doctor, Canadian Meritorious Service Cross recipient, one of 17 Global Sustainable Development Goal Advocates appointed by the UN Secretary General and a UN High-Level Commissioner on Health Employment & Economic Growth. She is someone who lives her purpose and speaks truth to power thoroughly and deliberately. She is one of the most steadfast advocates for women and children’s rights and security at the global scale. I learn from her every time I listen to her or talk to her.
Amanda Nguyen, Founder and CEO of Rise, an organization that “organizes and empowers citizens to pen their own rights into existence.” She was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her work in organizing to pass numerous state-level Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights and also the United Nation’s Universal Survivors’ Bill of Rights. She is one of the kindest, most fashionable, smartest and fun people I’ve had the chance to meet. She is someone who personifies leading with purpose.
Ai-jen Poo, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Domestic Workers Alliance. I learned about Ai-jen when I was very early in discovering the alignment between my strengths and purpose. It has been enlightening to watch her organize, stay true to her values and partner with incredible social justice activists who also lead with purpose, like Alicia Garza, Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter and Principal of the Black Futures Lab, and Cecile Richards, former president, Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund to co-found Supermajority, “a new home for women’s activism, training and mobilizing a multiracial, intergenerational community that will fight for gender equity together.” She is always about the collective “us.”
I think it is important to note that there are also leaders across our organizations that lead with purpose at every level. We not only should look outside of our organization for examples of leadership, but also from within and deep inside our own communities and spaces.

AiLun Ku is a member of the NationSwell Council. To find out more about the NationSwell Council, visit our digital hub. And to learn more about Summit West 2020, visit our event splash page

Putting the Power of Positivity Into Focus

It was 2012 when Nicole Riggs decided to seriously reevaluate her life. The year before, her mother passed away. So did her mother-in-law, a friend’s young daughter and the family dog. As 2012 got under way, Riggs’ fifth-grade son fell victim to school bullies, her stepson’s mother succumbed to ovarian cancer and Riggs’ marriage ended in divorce.
A renovation consultant at the time, Riggs began questioning her career choice, realizing that she no longer cared so much what color toilet someone wanted in their bathroom. “I saw no value in what I was doing. It wasn’t helping people who needed help,” says the New York City-based Riggs, who is also a NationSwell Council member. “It wasn’t offering a shining light to me, my sons or anyone else in the world dealing with loss or trauma.”
Riggs had always made time to volunteer with various nonprofits, including producing events for Team Rubicon, an organization that encourages veterans to serve on emergency teams that respond to natural disasters. But she found herself drawn to the idea of making documentary films ― specifically, she says, “issue-based films that do more than entertain.”
In 2015, Riggs founded Make It Happen, a transmedia production company committed to creating films that educate, engage and build solutions to social challenges. Inspired by her volunteer work with Team Rubicon, Riggs chose to center her first project ― a social campaign featuring 10 short films ― on the mental health of veterans. After hiring a videographer, she traveled the country, conducting interviews with each service member herself.
Instead of spotlighting the many difficulties facing soldiers as they transition back to civilian life, “we focused on their futures,” explains Riggs. “I wanted people to see positive role models they could emulate.”
The campaign, called Empower Our Vets, launched on Veteran’s Day in 2015. The first film profiled a retired Army sergeant who had struggled with survivor’s guilt after a grueling tour of duty in Iraq’s “Triangle of Death.” The turning point, he admitted, was finally talking to a therapist.
Soon after the three-and-a-half minute film was posted on Facebook, another veteran left a comment: “I’m getting ahold of the VA finally in the morning,” he wrote. “Seeing this made it sink in … I can only thank you.”
“That’s my proudest achievement as well as my greatest hope,” Riggs says. “If I saved one young man, maybe he’ll help somebody else.”

Cinematographer and editor Codi Barbini on the Greek set of My Intention Was Not to Leave.

Make It Happen’s most recent film, “My Intention Was Not to Leave,” tells the stories of three adolescent refugees ― one teenage boy from Iraq and two more from West Africa ― and their harrowing journey as unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in Europe. Riggs and her film crew spent five days in Athens last summer, listening to the boys talk about their experiences with child slavery, brutal violence and ethnic cleansing. Despite the solemn subject matter, the film strikes an optimistic tone.
“It’s true I don’t have all the money and resources to succeed,” one of the boys acknowledges in the film. “But I have all the people I need to succeed.”
Riggs has a similar mission for Make It Happen.
“These films are vehicles to start conversations,” she says. “We want to engage regular audiences, policymakers and fund-raisers.”
Currently, Riggs is working with the nonprofit Concordia, which promotes public-private partnerships that drive social change, to screen the film in several cities across the globe, beginning with New York in late January. She’s also in talks with other organizations about not only sharing her films, but helping viewers understand how to take action.
“How can we teach adolescent refugees skills? How can they get an education? How can we engage communities to help?” asks Riggs. “I’m a big-picture person.”
Each of her films, she says, “offers hope that even in the face of something awful, there is the potential to overcome. It’s just a matter of hearing something positive.”
Nicole Riggs is a NationSwell Council member and the founder of Make It Happen, a transmedia production company that aims to inspire large-scale social change.

Teetering on the Digital Divide

At Jameira Miller’s high school in Lansdowne, Pa., using technology means punching buttons on a calculator. To use a computer, the soft-spoken senior has to give up lunch to wait in line at the media center, which only has a few desktops. Yet five miles away, students at a different school enjoy courses in computer-aided drafting design, engineering and robotics.
Welcome to the “digital divide,” the alarming technology gap in our nation’s public schools that threatens to leave children in disadvantaged districts behind. It’s the focus of Academy Award-nominated director Rory Kennedy’s new documentary, “Without a Net: The Digital Divide in America.
The one-hour film, narrated by actor Jamie Foxx, profiles schools, teachers and students, including Miller, who are hurt by a lack of technology access. The hardware shortage is just the start. Approximately 6.5 million U.S. students still lack connectivity to the Internet. Half our country’s teachers lack the support to incorporate technology into their lessons.
The digital divide cuts across small rural towns and big cities alike. The only common denominator: a lack of federal, state and local funding. Live in the “wrong” zip code and not only will your child’s ability to learn be affected, but her odds of thriving in the future will also be impacted, explains Rose Stuckey Kirk, president of the Verizon Foundation, which produced “Without a Net.
“There isn’t a single industry that hasn’t been touched by the innovation of technology,” Kirk points out. “How can we not give kids the skills and tools they need to succeed as adults?”
The argument, “Well, I didn’t have technology when I went to school,” isn’t valid, she says.
“When people ask, ‘Is it really necessary?’ my answer is yes,” says Kirk. “And then I ask them, ‘Who are you hiring today who can’t type on a computer?’”

UP TO SPEED: The Digital Divide in America

Through the Verizon Innovative Learning initiative, the company has committed $160 million in free technology devices, connectivity, teacher training and hands-on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning for kids in need. So far, the program has helped 300,000 students in 1,900 schools and clubs. After measuring its impact, Kirk says, Verizon knew it was on to something big: 64 percent of kids who participated were more eager to go to college. And 53 percent decided to pursue STEM careers.
Still, “the answer to the digital divide isn’t as simple as ‘let’s give away technology to everyone,’” Kirk notes.
That’s where “Without a Net” comes in.
“We wanted to tell a story,” Kirk says. “Not about Verizon, but about the bigger issue. We wanted to take a closer look at the ecosystem [of the digital divide] — the students, parents, teachers, schools, government, curriculum, zip codes — and shine a light on what our opportunities could be.”
Kennedy was the perfect filmmaker to take on that challenge. “Giving back is in Rory’s DNA,” says Kirk, a NationSwell Council member. “She has incredible compassion for the underserved.”
The film’s narrative, and Kennedy’s focus, remains firmly on those teetering closest to the digital divide. A sixth grader in New York shows how she types out school assignments on her mom’s phone. (“A 10-minute assignment can take her an hour,” her teacher worries.) A frustrated principal in rural Pennsylvania shows off a storage room filled with brand new Chromebooks — which can’t be used since his school can’t afford Wi-Fi.
In Coachella, Calif., one of the poorest school districts in the state, teenagers spend their weekends sitting inside parked school buses outfitted with Wi-Fi routers. Since their families can’t afford Internet access at home, these buses are their only chance to go online and finish homework.

As president of the Verizon Foundation, Rose Stuckey Kirk believes that giving children access to technology puts them on a path to success, both in school and in life.

Kirk knows putting an end to tech inequality requires many factors, including reliable connectivity at schools and homes, mobile digital devices, immersive teacher training, tech-ed focused curriculum — and plenty of visionary leaders. (Those Coachella buses tricked out with Wi-Fi? They were the brainchild of a principal who saw his students struggling.)
That’s why Verizon is committed to continue handing out tablets, training teachers and offering free tech labs to kids who need them the most. And it’ll continue giving a voice to the issue with its campaign, #weneedmore.
When Kirk saw the final cut of “Without a Net,” “I cried,” she admits. The scene that touched a nerve: When Miller learns all those lunches she missed for the opportunity to use a computer were worth it — because she’s been accepted to college.
“Without a Net” recently premiered on National Geographic and is a selection at the New York Film Festival. Watch the film now at
This post was paid for by Verizon.

What Are ‘Political Entrepreneurs?’ This Guy Believes They’re the Heroes Who Will Disrupt Washington’s Gridlock

“Political entrepreneur” is a phrase NationSwell Council member Kahlil Byrd uses to describe nonprofit leaders and techies who are tackling America’s biggest problems “in a completely innovative, nontraditional, and entrepreneurial way.” And without a dose of partisanship.  

“Their bias is to create a tool, an idea or a process that will cut through the challenge,” Byrd wrote earlier this year in Forbes.

Byrd, a Republican, has been dedicated to cross-partisan policy reform for more than a decade. He’s worked with Massachusetts’ former governor Deval Patrick and Michelle Rhee, both Democrats. And during the 2012 presidential primary he ran Americans Elect, a startup that worked to get a bipartisan presidential ticket on all 50 state ballots. More recently, in the wake of the 2016 election, he’s noticed a new league of people across the political spectrum determined to reform American policy.

As he wrote in a December 2016 LinkedIn post, political entrepreneurs are “tackling the biggest issues that directly affect citizens’ lives [and] they refuse to accept the failure, division, and deadlock that dominates our politics.”

But as an investor with deep ties to the nonprofit and tech sectors, he knows firsthand the challenges his beloved “political entrepreneurs” face in getting the financing they need to transform their civic innovations into nonpartisan policies.  

“Even the best ideas — making it easier to vote, using data to connect citizens to Congress or deploying new talent into undervalued sectors like child welfare — have profound trouble finding the capital needed to scale,” the New York City–based Byrd says.

Taking action, Byrd co-founded the Invest America Fund, an advisory firm and seed fund that supports political entrepreneurs and matches them to what he says are “the business leaders, philanthropists and others who have already succeeded and want to spend their time and capital.”

Byrd and his co-founder, Kellen Arno, believe they are among the few investors focused on creating a financing pipeline for these types of policy innovators.

One organization they back is Foster America, a startup devoted to child welfare reform founded by Sherry Lachman, a foster child herself who later went on to serve as a policy adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden. The nonprofit’s fellowship program recruits talent from the business, education, technology and health fields, and supports them in their efforts to transform child welfare policy.

Early success has led Foster America to double its impact, expanding from eight fellows in 2016 to 16 this year. By 2020, Foster America plans to have 50 fellows working with 25 child welfare agencies nationwide.

“We are trying to bring together two groups on opposite ends of the success curve: Political entrepreneurs on one end, and on the other, successful and creative funders who can provide growth financing,” says Byrd. “Entrepreneurs are still trying to prove worth — both their own and of their ideas. Funders have sustained success and know how to build value from the ground up. Both care deeply about the country.

Kahlil Byrd is a NationSwell Council member and the founder of Invest America Fund, which provides seed money to entrepreneurs working on bipartisan policy reform.

Meet the Privacy Expert on a Mission to Protect Your Digital Footprint

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a new breed of nationalism took root that trained its attention on the foreigners among us. In response, the federal government adopted a set of strict policies and legislation that tracked immigrants in general and Muslim communities in particular.
“I felt like the whole country was in turmoil and at risk of abandoning its values for a false sense of security,” says Tim Sparapani, an expert in digital privacy and a NationSwell Council member. “I was always taught at moments like that you don’t look away; you get involved.”
So Sparapani did, finding his passion for social impact and public service within those tumultuous days. He joined the American Civil Liberties Union as senior legislative counsel and later helped establish Facebook’s presence in Washington as its first director of public policy. These days, the D.C.-based Sparapani leads SPQR Strategies, which he founded in 2011 as a consulting firm focused on online and digital data privacy.
It was at the ACLU that Sparapani gained his reputation as a fierce advocate for individual privacy, becoming a protector against what he says was unconstitutional policies. That included the Real ID Act of 2005, a significant piece of 9/11 legislation introduced and championed by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), which required people who applied for a driver’s license or a government ID to produce five types of identification to prove their identity, such as a social security number, birth certificate, proof of citizenship and home address, and a mortgage statement or utility bill.
Democrats and the ACLU, along with moderate Republicans and a handful of libertarian organizations like the CATO Institute, thought the statute was “deeply unconstitutional,” says Sparapani. “Once you pulled back the layers, you saw it was based on nativism and ugly xenophobia.”
After the bill passed, Sparapani and his team at the ACLU spearheaded a campaign that urged states to resist the federal regulations. They made their push to the public by highlighting how the new driver’s licenses mandated under the bill — which would have electronic chips that stored a person’s name, address, birth date and social security number — were prone to identity theft, could be used to track individuals’ travel, and would cost taxpayers billions of dollars.
“We were able to get dozens of states to independently enact legislation resisting the federal statute. That hasn’t happened since the Civil War,” Sparapani says. “It was our strategy to have state-by-state resistance to something that was tremendous overreach.”
Though the Real ID Act is still enshrined in federal law and, starting next year, will bar certain state IDs from being used to fly or gain access to federal buildings, Sparapani credits the campaign as his “a-ha moment,” when he realized there was a need to protect all U.S. residents’ privacy, especially from a government that he saw as wielding too much power.
“There was this new opportunity in the computer-database era for the government to exercise control over people in all sorts of nefarious ways by using technology for ill,” Sparapani says, adding that he’d like to see more people take up the cause for privacy rights online. “It’s kind of up to all of us to decide the rules for how we use technology as a society and put limits on it that are aligned with our constitutional values.”


Tim Sparapani is a NationSwell Council member and the founder of SPQR Strategies, a consulting firm that works with startups, established companies, and consumer and privacy advocates on the policy challenges raised by emerging technologies.

Profile: Hadi Partovi

As the son of a college professor who helped establish Iran’s Sharif University of Technology, Hadi Partovi has always had a deep-seated appreciation for teachers.
“Passionate teachers have been my biggest inspirations,” he says, noting that while he was always trying to pave his own path, he’s now doing something very similar to his father.
Partovi’s nonprofit,, provides computer science curriculum to tens of thousands of educators, empowering them to teach coding in their classrooms. The organization reports that more than half of all students participating in high school courses are African American or Hispanic and 37 percent are female.
Through the years, Partovi’s appreciation of the impact teachers can have on their students — and the world — has only grown. He illustrates this point with a story he recently heard about a junior high school teacher in Auburn, Wash., that he doesn’t even know.
According to Partovi, this teacher noticed that one of his students regularly missed school two or three days each week. Concerned, the teacher reached out to the child’s family to inquire about having him attend computer science classes (which were introduced into the school’s curriculum with the help of, Partovi’s organization).
The student started having regular attendance, and his father called the teacher to report that his son liked school, thanking him for recognizing the need for his son to be exposed to new subjects, like computer science.
“The student went from almost dropping out to learning code,” Partovi says. “That, to me, is the strongest example of a change in somebody’s future — because of the teacher.”
Hadi Partovi is a NationSwell Council member. In addition to co-founding, he is also a tech entrepreneur and investor.