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David Bley - Rotary District 5030

May 1, 2009
Prepared remarks by David Bley, Director, Pacific Northwest Initiative

Thank you for that generous introduction. It is a privilege to be here with you tonight in beautiful Victoria, British Columbia. I learned so much from this afternoon’s session; it’s even caused me to modify some of what I had intended to talk with you about tonight. You have so much to proud of in district 5030.

I felt a need to rethink some of my comments because I don’t want to cover some of the ground we heard this afternoon. And, so much of what on my mind feels as if I may be preaching to the choir.

We share so much in common.  Simply put: the work of the Gates Foundation, like that of Rotary, starts from the heart. As Rotarians, you place service above self. For the Gates family and the foundation, it was the constant reminder from Bill’s mom, Mary Gates, who reminded them “that to whom much is given, much is expected.”

Frankly, I find it humbling to stand in front of you. You are a part of an organization that has changed the world. The breadth of the local community work of the 55 rotary clubs in this district is breathtaking, for so long. That is the quiet, unceasing work that changes the world one life at a time. Thank you.

Of course, it is also hard not to notice the global reach of Rotary International, especially the phenomenal success of your two-decades of leadership on polio eradication.

Given you heard directly from Bill Gates on this topic via video this afternoon – it behooves me to say that I certainly couldn’t have said it any better myself!

While I would guess many of you know as much about the polio eradication effort as I do, I do want to offer a couple of observations. It is important because the decade’s long effort tells us so much about Rotary, about the Gates Foundation and what it will take to solve intractable problems here at home and around the world.

The polio eradication story resonates with me on two levels.

Personally, I was born in the mid-1950’s during what is sometimes referred to as the nation’s “polio hysteria.” And there is no better example of how our own personal fate depends so much on circumstances over which we have no control.

Yes, that year 1954 – as we heard this afternoon from Dick – seems to have been a particularly fateful year for Rotary, polio, and me!

By accident of birth, my good luck, I was born in the year that Jonas Salk discovered the first polio vaccine. I happened to be born in America. It was my generation that was the first to benefit from this scientific advance.  Unlike my own uncle who lived with polio, my generation would soon forget the iron lung and the leg braces that dominated his life and the lives of hundreds of thousands of other Americans at that time.

But the truly instructive part of this story really is this:  it was Rotary that stepped forward, selflessly, two decades after Salk’s discovery and took a bold stance: that it was wrong that the developed world had largely eradicated this disease, but billions of people in the developing world were still at risk even though a solution existed. And Rotary acted on that belief in 1985.

In the context of my foundation, that belief has been articulated in one of our guiding principles – “Every life has equal value, no matter where it is lived.”

That’s not where the similarities between Rotary and the Gates Foundation end. We are both audaciously optimistic that we can solve what so many people believe are intractable problems that plague humankind. We know that when compassion is combined with intelligent action, that the possibilities are limitless.

Just think about your work on polio, for example. Within one generation, we are poised to end this crippling disease. How much more audaciously optimistic could you be? Most of the world didn’t believe this would be possible.

And the impact of this work is so real and immediate:  worldwide, just 1,618 children contracted the disease last year. Consider that 20 years ago – in the year 1988 – over 350,000 individuals contracted polio in that year alone.

As Rotary and Bill Gates have both declared, we will put an end to polio. It’s that simple. And, while Rotary demonstrated the leadership and the steadfastness to get the ball rolling and keep it rolling, this story highlights another lesson. There is an African proverb very popular within our foundation.  It says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Rotary moved the world and leveraged hundreds of millions of dollars from across the globe against what was once thought of as an intractable problem.

And I can’t think of a better example of going farther together than that! These are incredible numbers – so I extend my congratulations to you and all your fellow Rotarians! 

Our organizations have a long history together, predating our collaboration on polio eradication. As most of you know, Bill Gates’ father – Bill Sr. – also connects us. Bill Sr. has been a member of Rotary for many, many years and recently helped the Seattle Rotary celebrate their 100th anniversary.  Bill is an honorary member, but I am told that he remains more active than the average active member. He is a hero to many of us at the foundation.

Just this week Bill Sr.’s personal memoirs were published. He devotes a chapter to Rotary entitled “There’s No Problem Bigger Than We Are.” In it he describes your work on polio eradication and I just love how he sums up what the world has learned from your work: “The Rotary has revolutionized our thinking about the possibilities that exist for ordinary people to significantly change the world.”

Again, thank you for your leadership.

Like many of us here today, Bill and Melinda realize that they have been given many opportunities in life—like attending top-notch schools and having access to computers and good healthcare—that helped them get to where they are today.

Of course, geography—and a fair amount of luck—played important roles in shaping our futures. Would Bill Gates have become the Bill Gates we know if he was born to a family who lived in Ethiopia or India instead of Seattle? It’s tough to say, but the odds would have been stacked against him.

I too have had opportunities presented to me, not because I was more deserving than others, but because I was fortunate enough to grow up in an affluent suburb of Chicago.

I had loving parents and a wealth of positive life and educational options to choose from, all of which led me here today representing the Gates Foundation.

I’d like to think that I got to this place in my career because of hard work and diligence alone. But it’s possible that my life would turned out quite differently if was born to a family living in an inner-city ghetto in Chicago.

If that were the case, my life may not have turned out as it has.

And that’s just not right.

So it is the opportunity to support people in achieving their dreams and living successful lives regardless of their place of birth or circumstances is what drives our work every day at the foundation.

As my colleague Lisa discussed this afternoon, most people think of the Gates Foundation and think of our work overseas; and in fact that is where the bulk of our resources go.

But Bill and Melinda’s hearts also remain here at home in the Northwest., which holds a special place in the foundation’s heart. It’s where generations of the Gates family have raised families. As Lisa discussed, it will remain our world headquarters.

I want to devote the rest of my remarks to that commitment to our home state. I hope to explain why, what and how we do our work.

Washington state is also the only place in the United States where all aspects of the Gates Foundation’s domestic giving are actively investing and working together.

Over just a little more than one decade, the foundation has invested more than $3 billion in organizations located in Washington. Half of that was focused in five areas where we feel that we can have the most impact on reducing inequities and increasing opportunities for Washington’s families, youth and children.

  • Preventing and ending homelessness among families with children;
  • Ensuring all children have access to high-quality early learning opportunities, starting at birth;
  • Responding to emerging community needs and strengthening one key community institution, your local public library;
  • Getting young people ready to succeed in college; and
  • Helping young adults complete college and earn a degree.

In addition, we invested across a diverse set of civic institutions – universities and colleges, arts and culture, United Ways and community foundations.

Needless to say, not even the world’s largest foundation is unaffected by the global economic crisis. Washington state is home to some of the most innovative businesses in the world like Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks, and Amazon.com. Like many other communities across the country, the economic crisis has profoundly setback most of our local businesses and the families these employers support.

Yet even when the economy was thriving, there was great inequity in our state. Now, as the recession continues, the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is even harder for people to ignore.

Right now, about one in four children live in families struggling to pay for everyday basics like rent, food, and utilities. Children suffer the highest rate of poverty of any age group in the United States. I think that’s just shameful and my guess is that you feel that way too.

What’s worse is that children in such unstable and unsuitable conditions face a bleak future. We know that only about 15% of these children will earn a college degree; we know that about a third of them won’t graduate from high school at all.

Now, here at Rotary, I know that you have been accustomed to how most people view these kinds of difficult social challenges facing our home communities – they frequently are described by many as “intractable.” Does that sound familiar?

•And others wonder, especially when government is running huge deficits and so many of us are feeling vulnerable and less fortunate ourselves in this economic crisis – is this really the time to worry about the problems of other people – people we don’t even know -- since we’ve got problems of our own to worry about? Does that also sound familiar to you?

There are always reasons to turn away from these really hard, intractable problems – to decide to defer solutions to a different time.

Rotary – like most of the world did – could have made that decision in 1985 – to turn a blind eye to a crippling disease, polio. After all it wasn’t our problem here at home; we didn’t even personally know those children in the developing world at risk of a disease that would kill and cripple whole generations of children and the economies and futures of entire developing nations.

But Rotarians made a different choice in 1985 about polio; Rotarians have always made different decisions for a hundred years in this region. The harder the problem, the harder we must work to solve it. Once again, it’s that audacious sense of optimism.

After all, today’s children in Washington state did nothing -- nothing at all -- that caused them to be born into a life of deprivation. By accident of birth they have been thrust into circumstances that threaten to cripple them and our community for generations to come.

At the Gates Foundation – like Rotary – we are not embarrassed to act from a moral point of view. This inequity, suffering and lost human potential is just plain wrong. We also choose to act because we believe it is avoidable – like polio, there are solutions for the kids and their parents who live among us. Ruthann Howell, Family Services, and dozens of other frontline providers have shown us we do have solutions to these problems

And finally, like logical and self-interested people, we act because the price of inaction is too high.

For example, this generation of vulnerable children is falling short in school. We know that in Washington state alone, the low high school graduation rates mean that our employers won’t have the skilled talent for good jobs. We know that these ill-prepared young people face a life of deadening, low-skill and low wage work – the 28,000 young people who dropped out of Washington’s high schools in 2008, as a group, will suffer an aggregate loss of $7.3 billion in lost lifetime earnings.

We also know that it is not inevitable that these children must remain mired in poverty. At the Gates Foundation, we believe that when people have the opportunity to develop their talents, our communities thrive. Our mission is to create opportunity.

That belief guides our work, especially in Washington state. While we are the largest foundation in the world, not even this foundation has the resources to tackle every problem. Thus we focus on a few select issues that we believe can have the greatest impact.

Thus, we selectively invest into some key solutions, like early learning so that kids are ready to learn when they get to kindergarten and on a path of lifelong learning.

And we focus on high school completion so that young adults are ready for college.

And we focus on college completion so that young adults are prepared to contribute to the community and qualify for high skill jobs that pay enough to raise the next healthy generation of children.

And we certainly cannot tackle any problem on our own. Like Rotary, we know our limitations and the need to work with partners, especially offering solutions to the public sector to make the best use of the public’s money.

One of my personal passions going back three decades are kids and their parents that live in our midst and have no home at all. We’ve labeled them homeless. And that is a very loaded word that conjures up a whole set of images – once again, some hear the word “homeless” and attach that darn adjective – “intractable.” Others load the word homeless with moral judgments – unworthy, shiftless and undeserving.

And, indeed, it is a complex web of issues. A tough issue. Thus, an issue that Bill and Melinda could not ignore.

For a long time, family homelessness was really an invisible issue. That is, until the economy unraveled and thousands of people lost their jobs. Now it seems like every day I see another story about a family losing their home, living with their children in cars or motels, or doubled up with relatives in too-close-for-comfort quarters. Even President Obama brought up family homelessness in some detail during a recent speech.

The issue seems to be everywhere now—and it’s almost as if families with children weren’t homeless before the recession. Unfortunately, that’s not true.

The Gates Foundation began working on this issue almost 10 years ago. During a meeting, Melinda challenged the foundation staff to identify the most intractable problems in Washington that were preventing children and families from achieving their full potential in life. She really wanted to know where the foundation could lend its resources to make the biggest difference in the lives of children and families with the bleakest futures.

Their answer: help solve family homelessness.

The foundation discovered that on any given night, nearly half of the people without a safe place to sleep are children and their parents. Nationwide, experts estimate that there are more than 1 million children experiencing homelessness in any given year.

And many, many more children are being added to these ranks as collateral damage from the ongoing economic crisis. One economist estimates that, as the national joblessness rate hits 9%, which will mean one million more children and their parents who will experience homelessness in America.

Homelessness has an indelible impact on children and their families. It’s no wonder that children who experience homelessness experience significant trauma that affects their ability to succeed in school and contribute positively to society later on in life. Homeless kids not only lack an address but they typically move through several schools during the school year. And each time they shift schools, educators believe they fall another two to three months behind.

There is a growing body of scientific research that this kind of trauma in a child’s life may impair brain functioning – chronic stress appears to adversely affect working memory and cognitive development – the ability to develop vocabulary, and retain and process information necessary for learning.

Their parents are isolated and they are struggling to make ends meet. They’re caught between a job that pays too little, or increasingly no job at all, and housing that costs way too much. Even more troubling, these parents are at risk of losing their children because they have no stability and too few opportunities.

It’s impossible to hold a job or succeed in school when you have no place to call home – you’re hungry – and you’re alone.
The terribly ironic thing we know many solutions exist but, like polio eradication, it requires that do work together differently.

For example, we know that it is much more efficient and cost-effective to prevent family homelessness than to shelter families after they have lost their homes. Yet, in Washington, we estimate only 3% of public funds are aimed at prevention.

With so many barriers to success, it’s no surprise then that many of today’s homeless children go on to become tomorrow’s homeless adults, many of whom raise their own children without permanent homes. Researchers have tried hard to identify what factors are most likely to cause an individual to become homeless – and one of the few conclusions has been that prior homelessness is the most powerful predictor of future homelessness.

So, in response to the need and to Melinda’s challenge, the foundation launched the Sound Families initiative in 2000. The $40 million project was the largest of its kind in the United States and helped to demonstrate the impact supportive housing—pairing onsite family supports with affordable housing—can have on breaking the cycle of family homelessness.

Through this work we could collect data to understand this problem better. Evaluate what works and what doesn’t work. Use our brains to devise more effective approaches. And use our voice to partner with others, like Rotary, to move public will and to help government adopt more effective approaches.

3 out of 4 families we touched—including more than 2,700 children—were successfully stabilized in affordable housing. More importantly, these families experienced even wider success:

  • The employment rate among parents doubled;
  • 89 percent of families successfully completing the program were able to secure permanent housing after exit; 90 percent of them were able to maintain this permanent housing over time; and
  • Prior to entering the program, 53 percent of the children attended two or more schools during the school year because their parents had no stable address; after our program, only 17 percent of these children moved to more than one school in a school year.

Sound Families ended in 2007 and, in partnership with state and local governments and dozens of nonprofit and community partners, we helped triple the number of homes with family supports in the Puget Sound Region and housed more than 1,500 families.

The early successes of Sound Families also helped inspire the creation of a one-of-a-kind public-private Washington Families Fund, which has raised more than $18 million to provide long-term funding for programs that serve families emerging out of homelessness across Washington state. 20 different private foundations matched an equal amount of funds from state government to make this a reality.

We’re proud of what Sound Families accomplished but we knew that more had to be done. And more could be done, especially if we worked together with others. We closely examined family homelessness efforts in Washington state and noted that despite these gains, we had not solved the problem – there were still children and parents without stable homes.

The best estimate is that about 24,000 Washingtonians experience homelessness on any given night, and about half of them are living in families. And, with the recession, there are indications that the problem is worsening.

We also learned from other successful communities nationwide whose innovative approaches helped to significantly reduce family homelessness in their regions. We used all this data to create a blueprint for a new strategy to cut the rate of family homelessness by half in the next 10 years across Washington state.

This goal may seem ambitious given the current state of the economy, but we’re very optimistic. There is some data that indicates there may have been a decline in homelessness between 2005 and 2007 in Washington state, which means we and our partners were doing something right.

And what we did right was work in partnership with others. By recognizing that no single entity can end family homelessness on its own, and harnessing the power of public will, encouraging progress was made against homelessness in Washington state. We can do this work differently so that agencies, like Ruthann’s, and the families she serves don’t spend their time navigating through system and set of programs that can be made to work so much more effectively.

So, based on evidence and results, the Gates Foundation has more than doubled its original $40 million commitment – going forward we have committed up to another $60 million to expand the work of the Washington Families Fund in three pilot communities in the Seattle metropolitan area.

We are convinced that the solution is in front of us; it requires that we tackle this problem differently – not solely throw more money at it.

This gets to my colleague Lisa’s point earlier today – Gates money is valuable because it can fund innovation and catalyze changes, but is just a speck compared to the funds flowing through government.

Five critical, proven principles will guide new investments made by our public and private partners:

  • Coordinated access to determine exactly what support each family requires to stabilize themselves
  • Early intervention and prevention before people lose their housing
  • Programs tailored to meet the unique needs of individual families
  • Rapid re-housing into permanent homes, not temporary shelter
  • Increased economic opportunity to help parents reduce the gap between income and rent

We’ll use what we learn in the three pilot communities to begin to demonstrate how to work together better, and to test out innovative new practices that have proven to reduce family homelessness in a variety of places across America.

We truly believe that this set of solutions will be very powerful. If we are successful—this work will have significant implications to the state and the nation, especially as we begin to emerge from the shadow of the economic recession.

So, in response to Ralph’s question at the end of the afternoon session: What can Rotary do?

First, you are already leading by example – your work with Family Services is right on target.

Second, you can continue to use your voice to raise public awareness and public will.

Third, you can continue to mobilize thousands of people to help these families help themselves.

Fourth, you can ask more from government – not just prioritization of these issues, but expecting them to generate better data to understand the nature of this problem and measure progress, and adopt best practices that have worked in other states and communities.

Before I close, I also want to provide a fuller but very brief picture of how the foundation has responded to the economic emergency.

While family homelessness is one our top priorities in Washington state, along with our initiative in early learning, the Gates Foundation has invested nearly $500 million in programs operated by nonprofits through our Community Grants program. Many of these nonprofits from across Washington and the Portland, Oregon area help provide the family and community resilience that helps tens of thousands of vulnerable children and families cope with economic adversity.

Throughout its history, the Community Grants program has listened, learned and responded to a wide variety of requests from our local communities. We remain responsive, but we felt compelled this year to sharpen our focus very specifically on a narrow set of emergent needs in a time of economic crisis.

Communities across the Pacific Northwest nowfeel the impact of the ongoing global economic crisis. We asked ourselves: given our limited resources, where can our Community Grants program have the most meaningful impact on lives today? And so, after much soul-searching and research, we made the decision to refocus our efforts into four key areas for 2009:

  • Fight hunger;
  • Increasing low-income families’ access to existing public benefits and supports – people don’t fully use food, health care, income assistance;
  • Help preventing and reducing violence in our communities that is likely to increase under the economic stress and joblessness; and
  • Supporting community-led efforts – neighbors helping neighbors as we see through organizations like Rotary.

Families survive through times like these through mutual support – people don’t wait, can’t afford to wait, for government to solve all of their problems. Rotary is a classic example of peer support – families helping families, neighbors helping neighbors. This kind of activity is based on a basic human impulse – to be of use, living your values or, as Bill Gates Sr. puts it, “making your life the message.” It’s that kind of activity we seek to encourage with our grant making to our community partners.

We are optimistic—again, optimism, that important driver in all our work—that by refocusing our efforts to these three areas, that we will have a significant impact on the lives of people with the greatest needs and fewest resources.

Earlier in my remarks, I talked about the common values of our organizations—working from the heart, partnering with others, a deep-seated optimism, using your voice, and encouraging government to business differently if better solutions are known.

I had intended to close this speech with yet another story of a family triumphing against all odds in the face of destitution and homelessness.

And I choose not to do that now. First, frankly it is very hard to add anything we haven’t heard this afternoon – whether it be Ruthann’s story of her work in Seattle or the stories we heard from Ethiopia.

There are thousands of stories of extraordinary moms and kids – too infrequently dads – who, against all odds, triumph.

If there is one message I can leave with you is that our fundamental job is to change those odds. Homeless moms and kids should not have to navigate through and against systems that don’t work as well as they should. Family Services, and the other heroes on the front lines should not be expected to be heroic – they should expect that we will choose to inconvenience our selves so that – much sooner rather than later -- we don’t have to tell stories about homeless families.

Everybody in this room knows that our work is not easy. It can certainly be frustrating at times. But extraordinary things can happen when we work together toward a common goal.

As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote last May, “pessimists are usually right, optimists are usually wrong, but most great changes were made by optimists.”

I think all optimists are dreamers and that we share a vision of a world where every person is empowered to achieve his or her own personal dream.

On behalf of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I want to thank you for showing the rest of us what it means to get off the sidelines, take on the seemingly intractable problems of this world, and demonstrate what is possible when we decide we are all in this together. Thank you.

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