In 1989, Wendy Kopp, just out of college founded Teach for America, which has put about 66,000 “corps members” into the nation’s public schools for two-year stints, of whom almost two-thirds are in education. In 2007 she co-founded Teach for All, which has sixty-one partners around the globe with the model of providing mostly young teachers into schools where they are needed.
Paul Farmer in 1987 was co-founder of Partners-in-Health, his effort to develop the best possible – and sustainable – health systems in the poorest countries in the world, including Haiti and Rwanda.
Muhammad Yunus was an economist in Bangladesh when it was considered a global “basket case.” In 1976, he gave a group of women the equivalent of $27 each as a “microloan” to establish a business. The concept, which is now worldwide under the banner of Grameen, Yunus’s founding organization, has made microlending an accepted approach to alleviating poverty. Yunus and Grameen were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.
Brian Lamb was the founder in 1979 of C-SPAN (the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network) with the concept of broadcasting the activities of government, starting with cameras in the House of Representatives and, later, the United States Senate. The three C-SPAN networks, along with a radio and web presence, also provide history and book coverage.
Supported by the cable industry, C-SPAN has reached as many as 100 million homes, a number that has declined as people have become less attached to cable. C-SPAN’s robust internet presence is designed to maintain its reach.
The only thing I know these four people have in common is that they published books with PublicAffairs, which is how I came to know them. Over time, I have reflected at how they were all able to establish enterprises that devised new ways of doing vital things and developed the strategies that gave them lasting impact.
These are all non-profits. As founders they all provided the vision, leadership, and the access to funding. Their reward would never be great wealth, as might have been the case in the private sector. Their compensation is something less tangible but to me at least as important: improving conditions in our societies, so often vexed.
When I learned that Kopp would be delivering this year’s commencement address as her alma mater, Princeton, I decided to catch up with her after many years. The origin story of Teach for America is legendary: Based on her senior thesis, Kopp sent out thirty letters looking for financial support to establish the organization. She had seven meetings and executives from Mobil Oil and Union Carbine agreed to help.
On a sunny spring day in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of New York, where Kopp and I both live, we had lunch and a conversation. The topic was not really the two TFAs, but how she thinks she was able to make them happen.
Clearly, Kopp has passion (although she is notably reserved in person), focus, ingenuity, luck, fortitude, and doubtless other qualities. Her husband is Richard Barth, president of the KIPP foundation, which has established charter schools nationwide. They have four children.
Kopp believed that education was an essential aspect of life and that college students would be prepared to spend two years as teachers, before they embarked on their longer-term career paths. I don’t know if John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps was a direct model, but as a person of the 1960s myself, I think it probably was.
Searching for an explanation of how Kopp could take on the challenge she did, I settled on the notion of oblivious confidence, an unquestioned sense that her vision and its objectives could succeed, despite the fact that she was establishing something new and did not possess the experience or pedigree that others might have considered necessary to do so.
In their own ways, this oblivious confidence is a personality characteristic that must also have been the case with Farmer, Yunus, and Lamb.
As far back as middle school, Kopp told me, she felt that she could make things happen. She had a job in a craft shop in Houston owned by two elderly women. The shop was a mess, she recalled, and she was able to turn it around. In high school, she led the debate team and the school paper. Where her spirit came from, she cannot really explain. It was just there.
And that is also a trait she shares with Farmer, Yunus, and Lamb.
At Farmer’s memorial – he died suddenly and recently at age sixty-two – Dr. Anthony Fauci, the now-celebrated long-time director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), recalled that he met Farmer as a medical student decades ago and knew immediately that there was something about him that was destined to go beyond the practice of medicine. The classic account of Farmer’s activities is Tracy Kidder’s book Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr.Paul Farmer, a Man Who would Cure the World, published in 2008.
Yunus understood that unless people were empowered to support themselves financially, their poverty would be intractable. More recently, Yunus devised the concept of “social business” companies that would recycle their profits into their enterprises rather than merely extract them.
Lamb, whom I know best of these people (and who will probably be embarrassed by these encomiums) tackled the incredibly complex world of media with a civic purpose, no advertising, and no government funding. It was the cable industry that provided the funds – led by the late Robert Rosencrans, a cable entrepreneur whom Lamb considers his co-founder.
The closer you consider these four people the more it seems that their ambition is instinctive, ineffable qualities they have, along with the willingness to absorb the difficulties they inevitably will face and move ahead toward their goals.
They have all been respected and honored by the broader society for their work and success. Their greatest satisfaction, however, should be what they have done for the world.
Here are the books mentioned above:
ONE DAY, ALL CHILDREN: The Unlikely Triumph Of Teach For America And What I Learned Along The Way by Wendy Kopp
HAITI AFTER THE EARTHQUAKE by Paul Farmer. His last book was Fevers, Feuds and Diamonds: Ebola and the Ravages of History (Picador Paper, 2021)
BANKER TO THE POOR: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty by Muhammad Yunus
BOOKNOTES: STORIES FROM AMERICAN HISTORY: Leading Historians on the Events That Shaped Our Country by Brian Lamb and C-SPAN
BOOKNOTES ON AMERICAN CHARACTER: People, Politics, and Conflict in American History by Brian Lamb and C-SPAN
SUNDAYS AT EIGHT: 25 Years of Stories from C-SPAN’S Q&A and Booknotes by Brian Lamb and C-SPAN
ABRAHAM LINCOLN: Great American Historians on Our Sixteenth President by Brian Lamb and C-SPAN
THE SUPREME COURT: A C-SPAN Book Featuring the Justices in their Own Words by Brian Lamb and C-SPAN
THE PRESIDENTS: Noted Historians Rank America's Best--and Worst--Chief Executives by Brian Lamb and C-SPAN