George Will , Columnist, Journalist, and Author
"Ideas matter," George F. Will told Upper School students and faculty on May 6, 2008. The Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and author said that this Presidential election, like all Presidential elections, is about ideas, and specifically about the two competing ideas of freedom and equality. According to Mr. Will, liberals place a higher value on equality, while conservatives are willing to accept more inequality in return for greater freedom. The tension between these values is at the heart of every political debate in this country.
To illustrate his point, Mr. Will offered his perspective on many of the central issues in this year's election including education, the environment, Medicare and Medicaid. After the speech, the discussion spilled over into the halls of Potomac as students clustered in small groups, offering their own ideas on issues from affirmative action to global warming.
In his candid talk, Mr. Will said that the debate has shifted from whether to provide social security or Medicare to how to provide it. Noting that, “No one washes a rental car,” he advocated giving people more ownership or control over a portion of these funds. He also argued that governments in power sometimes encourage crises – such as oil shortages or global warming – in order to justify expanding their power.
In response to a question, he said that education was the primary cause of the increasing economic disparity in the United States. He said that this inequality takes root in grades K-12, but 40 years of experience has taught that simply increasing funding for public schools will not solve the problem. Mr. Will said that he struggles most with issues of foreign policy and urged greater humility regarding America’s ability to export its democracy to other parts of the world.
George F. Will’s commentary has been at the center of American political debate for over thirty years. His newspaper column was syndicated by The Washington Post in 1974. It now appears in 500 newspapers in the United States and Europe. Since 1976, Mr. Will has also served as a contributing editor of Newsweek magazine, and in 1981 he became a founding panel member on ABC television’s “This Week.” Mr. Will received a Pulitzer Prize in 1977 for commentary in his newspaper columns. He has published three books on political theory, seven collections of his Newsweek and Washington Post columns, and two books on baseball. June will be a banner month for Mr. Will: in addition to publishing the eighth collection of his columns, One Man’s America: The Pleasures and Provocations of Our Singular Nation, he will appear as a guest on the “Colbert Report.”
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Environmental Attorney
Long-term environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. spoke to the Intermediate and Upper Schools April 10 as part of the Distinguished Speakers Series. He serves as senior attorney for the National Resources Defense Council, chief prosecuting attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper and chairman of Waterkeeper Alliance.
He spoke about citizen action in the 1980s to restore the Hudson River and its fishing stocks and the decision of the Hudson River Association to work within the legal system to pursue polluters. Using creative legal strategies, the citizen group, now called Hudson Riverkeeper, sued polluters and ultimately cleaned up the waterway and restored fish stocks. Kennedy said the Riverkeeper system of public responsibility for the health of waterways is now active throughout the U.S. and in many countries around the world.
Kennedy regaled students with tales of his arrest in Vieques Island and subsequent 34 days in jail. He emphasized that civil disobedience should be the last resort in environmental disputes.
Kennedy was named one of Time magazine's "Heroes for the Planet" for his success helping Riverkeeper restore the Hudson River. He has published several books, including TheNew York Times bestseller Crimes against Nature.
Rye Barcott, U.S. Marine and Founder of Kenyan NGO
Rye Barcott, founder and president of Carolina for Kibera, spoke with Upper School students March 7, 2008 about his experience starting a non-governmental organization in Kibera, Kenya, one of the poorest places in the world. As a college ROTC student at the University of North Carolina, Rye sought an opportunity to go to Africa before heading off to active duty with the Marines in Iraq. His efforts have resulted in a thriving sports and youth center, a young women's center, and a health clinic that serves 25,000 each year. Kibera community members give back with their labor in order to participate in the soccer and other programs.
Rye advised students to figure out what they want to do, what they can do, and find a mentor. "Find mentors and cultivate them, they won't find you." Working with fellow student Kimberly Chapman Page, Rye convinced the University of North Carolina to support Kenyan Salim Mohamed, who was directing a soccer organization in Kibera. The Carolina students saw that initiatives headed by Kenyans offered the best possibilities for success and they followed that model. “We are rooted in the conviction that solutions to problems involving poverty are possible only if those affected by it drive development,” said Rye. The organization has grown to include the health clinic and women’s center, all directed by Kenyans.
The Red Rose School, which Potomac students have supported and assisted, is also located in Kibera, near by the Carolina for Kibera organization. Potomac students and teachers, led by Ken Okoth, are working on initiatives to continue their assistance to Red Rose and a boys and girls high school, also in Kibera.
Sarita Gupta, Spokeswoman for Workers’ Rights
Guest speaker for the second Vanessa Pean Memorial Lecture February 27, 2008, Sarita Gupta, Executive Director of Jobs with Justice, addressed workers’ rights in a global economy. Through this annual event, The Potomac School community remembers Vanessa's devotion to global international human rights.
Jobs with Justice brings together leaders and activists from all over the United States to consider such issues as minimum wage, voter registration, environmental risks, immigration, and health care. As workers’ rights domestically are inextricably linked to international economic activity and the respect for workers’ rights abroad, Jobs with Justice works with organizations and leaders around the world to fight for fairness in the global economy.
Ms. Gupta spoke about the many young people in developing countries who work long hours in sweatshops, often for a non-living wage. She said the majority of these workers are between the ages of 16 and 25, and 90 percent are women and girls.
Emphasizing themes of hope and justice, Ms. Gupta said Jobs with Justice does not oppose the global economy, but believes we can have a global economy that respects human rights. Rather than suggesting easy answers, she highlighted the complicated and interconnected nature of the issues surrounding workers’ rights.
For example, as U.S. employers move jobs overseas in search of cheaper labor and fewer regulations, whole communities in the U.S. are devastated. At the same time, the jobs that are exported to other countries do not pay a living wage. Ms. Gupta argued that as workers are forced to migrate in search of better-paying jobs, many come to the U.S. seeking work that pays them enough to live.
Mrs. Gupta urged students to ask questions about where their clothes and other consumer goods come from, who makes them, and under what conditions. “You have the power to make change in the world.”
Chris Ayer, Singer-Songwriter
This was the place indeed! Potomac alum and singer-songwriter Chris Ayer, the 2006 Lennon Award Winner in folk music, treated Potomac School students to a special performance on Wednesday, January 30. Chris was a "lifer" at Potomac, graduating in 2000. He learned how to play the guitar for his Potomac senior project!
While at Potomac, he participated in the school's musicals and was a member of the Madrigals singing group. Chris went on to Stanford University, graduating with a double major in music and philosophy. He released his first full-length album, This is the Place, in 2006.
Chris started his day at Potomac with a 45-minute performance for the Upper School and the eighth graders in the Englehard Auditorium. He entertained questions from the students inquiring about his musical influences, his high school aspirations, and other questions about his professional and personal journey. Chris received a standing ovation, and graciously played an encore for the very enthusiastic and inspired group.
Later in the morning Lower School students were treated to a special assembly with Chris who performed music from his recent CD and chatted with the children about his childhood memories of Potomac. He recalled his day as a monkey in the Kindergarten Circus!
Chris is about to begin a tour of the United Kingdom. Visit his Web site and listen to his highly praised and uniquely expressive songs!
Come Walk in My Shoes
Put simply, "we got in the way," relates Georgia Congressman John R. Lewis in the new documentary Come Walk in My Shoes. An edited version of the film created by Emmy-award winning filmmaker, writer, and director Robin Smith was shown to Upper School students January 16, 2008. Come Walk in My Shoes follows Congressman Lewis on the Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage to sacred sites of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama.
The film depicts the struggle for civil rights throughout Alabama culminating in the successful passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Come Walk in My Shoes brings the movement to life through the Congressman’s personal experiences as well as through historic film and music. Much of the archival news footage has not been shown before. The courage of the students who participated in the non-violent protests was moving and inspirational.
At the conclusion of the screening, Ms. Smith asked the students to consider whether each of them would have had the courage to participate as Congressman Lewis and so many others did in the Civil Rights Movement. She also entertained a broad array of questions, discussing the motivation for the film as well as the students' perspectives on the ability of a generation to affect change.
Come Walk in My Shoes has been an official selection in eight film festivals including the Charlotte Film Festival, where it won the Audience Choice Award for Best Documentary, and the Columbus Film Festival, where it received the Chris Statuette for Best in Humanities. The documentary will be aired on public television in the Washington area in February.
Mike Allen, Chief Political Writer for The Politico
Mike Allen, chief political writer for The Politico, a new political online and print publication, offered his insights on the Presidential primaries and caucuses to Upper School students, faculty, and guests on December 12. With the Iowa and New Hampshire contests just weeks away, Mr. Allen told his audience that the upcoming primaries are starting to feel like the last two minutes of an NBA basketball game with the outcome up for grabs.
Mr. Allen provided a brief description of each of the major Democratic and Republican candidates and their perceived strengths and weaknesses. In response to a barrage of questions from students, he spoke about the effects of scheduling primaries so early in the year, which candidates had done the best job of attracting young voters, and when we might expect to have clear nominees emerge. When asked about the importance of money in this election, Mr. Allen said that this has been one of the biggest surprises. Although all of the political pundits had expected that money would be a major factor in the primaries, this has turned out to be wrong. Mike Huckabee has relatively little money, but is doing very well in many states.
Mike Allen is one of the most respected political reporters in Washington, D.C. His column, "Playbook" on Politico.com is required reading for candidates, staffers, and political junkies alike. Before moving to the Internet, Mr. Allen wrote for the Washington Post for six years, covering Capitol Hill, President Bush’s first term, and the Bush, Gore, and Bradley Presidential Campaigns in 2000. He then served as White House Correspondent for Time Magazine. Mr. Allen also has experience covering state and local politics. He covered Virginia elections and politicians, including Doug Wilder, Chuck Robb, and Oliver North, for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Prior to moving to Virginia, Mr. Allen wrote for the New York Times, covering Mayor Giuliani and the politics of the Connecticut statehouse.
Christopher Buckley, Political Satirist and Author
Celebrated author Christopher Buckley spoke to Upper School students, faculty and guests on December 6. After rejecting a number of weighty topics, Mr. Buckley chose to speak about how to have fun, advising students; "You can actually do this in life and make a living at it." For the next hour, Mr. Buckley, the winner of the ninth annual Thurber Prize for American Humor, regaled students with tales about his life as a writer. If the laughter in the Langstaff Auditorium was any indication, everyone who heard Mr. Buckley speak had fun.
After spending the year after college in the merchant marines, Mr. Buckley began his career as a writer for Esquire Magazine. He then moved to Washington to serve as chief speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush. He has written for numerous newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair, and he is the Editor-in-Chief of Forbes FYI.
At age 29, Mr. Buckley published his first best-selling book, Steaming to Bamboola. He has since written eleven other books, and is at work on his 13th. One of his novels, Thank You For Smoking, was made into a movie in 2006. In addition to the Thurber Prize, Mr. Buckley received the Washington Irving Medal for Literary Excellence in 2002.
Mr. Buckley’s stories ranged from his high school years in a boarding school run by Benedictine monks, to training by the Secret Service for what to do in the event of an assassination attempt, to his brushes with Hollywood fame. In the course of his talk, he noted that “Satire in America is hard because you’re in competition with USA Today.” He told students that writing books does not get any easier. Laughing, he explained, “They’re like your kids – and in time, like kids, you grow to hate them.” On a serious note, he told the audience, “Writing is hard. It is not for the faint of heart. But if you burn for it, do it.”
Jonah Sachs, Social Advocacy Pioneer
Jonah Sachs, President and Co-Founder of Free Range Studios, screened his new film, "The Story of Stuff" for Upper School students, faculty and guests, November 7, 2007. Potomac students were the first high school students to see the film, and Mr. Sachs was eager to hear their feedback. The film features commentary by Annie Leonard, an advocate for sustainable production and consumption who has spent more than a decade examining our culture of consumption.
The film takes a hard, sometimes humorous, look at where all of our stuff comes from, how it is made, why we consume so much of it, and how we dispose of it. According to the film, the level of happiness reported by Americans has been decreasing for the past 50 years, as our consumption mania has increased.
Potomac students, in turn, took a hard, sometimes humorous look at the film. In a question and answer session following the screening, they offered insights into which parts of the film’s message were most persuasive and where they wished for more information. They also raised questions about some of the film’s assertions and asked about the economic consequences of reconfiguring our culture of consumption. Mr. Sachs said that the purpose of the film was to take a bird’s eye view of the problem and encourage people to get involved in making changes at all levels. The good news, according to Mr. Sachs, is that in today’s world “a good idea can spread across the globe in 30 seconds.”
Mr. Sachs founded Free Range Studios to provide advertising, graphic design, and communication services for a wide range of non-profit and socially responsible organizations and companies. He has been widely recognized for his innovative use of the Internet to spread the political and social messages of his clients. In recognition of his pioneering communications work, Shift Magazine named Mr. Sachs one of the “Thirty People Cleaning Up the Earth” in 2001. His 2003 film, The Meatrix, was the most successful flash advocacy movie in the history of the Web and brought attention to the issues surrounding factory farming. Beyond the Fire, a flash documentary produced by Free Range Studios, was featured at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005.
Alex Mundt, Head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees
The Distinguished Speakers Series welcomed its first speaker for the academic year, Alex Mundt, Head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) field office in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Mr. Mundt spoke to a mesmerized audience of Upper School Students, faculty, staff, and parents on Wednesday, October 24. He told compelling stories of his experiences helping refugees return to their native Afghanistan after as long as two decades in Pakistan, where they had taken refuge from first the Soviets and later the Taliban.
His presentation included a video illustrating the challenges refugees face in Afghanistan, Darfur, and southern Sudan. Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, narrated the segment on Afghanistan, relating the compelling stories of individuals as well as the broader challenges of providing a sustainable environment for refugees in the differing geopolitical contexts. Mr. Mundt presented a dramatic portrait of the tragedies and suffering of the millions of refugees in Afghanistan and Africa. He noted that 8 million people in southern Sudan alone had to flee their country during the more than 20 years of war in that country.
Mr. Mundt lived for months at a time in a 6 by 8 foot cube with two others. He has welcomed Anjelina Jolie to the camps and said she has worked tirelessly and generously to improve the lot of refugees in Africa and Asia. He also noted that approximately 16,000 refugees are housed in American prisons waiting for their asylum claims to be heard. Mr. Mundt challenged the students to consider whether their country's response to the crisis faced by refugees could better protect their human rights.
The students were clearly moved by his stories and the challenges of the refugee populations to learn how to become self-sufficient in new environments.