Jeff Edmondson: Early life lessons on lasting social change

By Jeff Edmondson, Managing Director, Ballmer Group

I’ve had the unique opportunity to work with dedicated and committed leaders on community-based, community-led social change for most of the last two decades, most recently as founding director of StriveTogether and now leading the philanthropic arm of Ballmer Group. While I am fortunate to learn about promising new strategies and approaches to economic mobility every day, I trace my fundamental beliefs about positive, lasting change for kids and families to three lessons I learned much earlier in my life:

Single Interventions Are Rarely Enough

As a high school student in the Pennsylvania mining town where my family lived, I volunteered at the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity that my parents co-directed. As we worked alongside the families who would reside in the homes we were refurbishing, I saw how anchoring the concept of home was: a stabilizing base from which to build lives and dreams. It was powerful to see, as was the pride these families took in the finished product: a place to call their own. Even so, it was clear that these new neighbors we worked alongside faced many challenges that a home alone would not solve: unemployment or low wages, mental or physical health problems, and lack of education or access to quality schools, to name a few. Stable housing was key step toward stable lives. But it was clear they’d need more comprehensive and coordinated supports working in concert to reach their full potential.

Listen to Those You Hope to Serve (they’re the experts on their challenges!)

Immediately after completing college, I served in the Peace Corps in Gabon, Central Africa. I was motivated by the mission of improving nutrition outcomes and embraced my charge to help build fish ponds with families in and around the village of Ebando where I lived. It was satisfying work, but it was obvious that it would not actually help improve nutrition at scale. I learned that a Peace Corps administrator had determined fish farming was the right solution because it was effective in neighboring Congo where fish are hard to come by. But in Gabon, all you had to do was put a trap in the local creek or river to harvest fish — ponds were simply unnecessary. What the Gabonese wanted to learn was how to raise farm animals. So we worked to change the program to something the community actually wanted, which also provided a much more steady source of nutrition. We listened to those we were hoping to serve and that led us to a much more impactful solution.

Never Underestimate the Scope of the Challenge

Upon returning to the States, I worked at the largest public high school in DC — Woodrow Wilson Senior High School — coordinating community partners to advance our mission of improving graduation rates. I believed I had a grasp of the host of challenges students faced inside and outside the school walls. An experience during my first week on the job showed me I did not: the captain of the football team and the captain of the cheerleading squad were shot and killed after a basketball game. Twenty years later, it remains seared into my consciousness and my memory. What I came to realize in talking with students afterwards was that this was a stark example of the enormous pitfalls and threats along the journey to better lives every single day. You simply can’t underestimate the profound impact this has on young people and their families as they navigate their journeys toward self-sufficiency.

These experiences formed a core set of beliefs on how to approach social change generally and economic mobility specifically. We must respect — and embrace — the scope of the challenge and complexity of addressing it. The voice of those working to overcome obstacles — as well as those in communities working arm-in-arm with them — need to be front and center in developing solutions. And, to sustain progress, no one intervention will be enough. Taken together, they add up to a singular insight, the one that guides our work at Ballmer Group: Unlocking opportunity means putting all the pieces of the puzzle together.

Each individual piece of the puzzle is critical for kids to thrive and realize their potential — strong schools, stable homes, safe communities — and the absence of any one of these pieces can diminish the chances of a young person rising beyond the circumstances they were born into. Yet millions of kids who have critical pieces of that opportunity puzzle missing have almost no shot of improving their circumstances. To build a launch pad for propelling kids out of poverty, communities must come together very intentionally to put the puzzle pieces in place, building a more cohesive system of supports to achieve measurable, durable change. I believe that we have to support communities that commit to putting together the interlocking puzzle pieces of opportunity that ensure low-income kids and families a real shot at the American Dream

In 2005, I had the unique opportunity to try to figure out how to make this happen across an entire region when we launched StrivePartnership in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. That work spread to communities across the country, and I am thankful to all the partners — from Cincinnati to Memphis to Dallas to San Diego — for working together over many years to find creative ways to overcome the countless barriers that inevitably emerge. They make this daunting mission — to increase economic mobility for those disproportionately likely to remain in poverty here in the United States — increasingly within reach.

We have a long way to go. No doubt. But I believe it is achievable, and it’s why I am so excited to lead Ballmer Group’s support for sustained, long-term efforts in communities and across the social sector to help solve the puzzle and create opportunity. The LA Clippers, the NBA team owned by my boss and Ballmer Group co-founder Steve Ballmer, often rally under the motto “It Takes Everything.” What I know from experience and lessons from courageous leaders of this complex work is that to create lasting social change, it takes all of us.