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Dan Cardinali Q&A with America's Promise Alliance

Oct. 21, 2013

Communities In Schools is one of today’s most exciting and effective nonprofits, working tirelessly to deliver comprehensive supports to students nationwide to prevent them from dropping out. President Dan Cardinali is a long-time friend and Trustee of America’s Promise Alliance. Caroline Brachman wanted to learn more about how his past experiences have made him into the dynamic leader he is today. Here’s an excerpt from their interview.

Q: Where do you believe your passion for service came from? Is there any particular person or event that had a large impact on your career path?

A: Clearly for me my passion for service came from my family; there’s no doubt about it. Both of my parents were extremely committed to social justice; they met through the Catholic Worker Movement. So this notion of “solidarity with those that are disenfranchised” was a routine part of my family life growing up. It was just kind of woven into the design of our family life. My mother was also a sociologist, so she made a deep impression on me regarding structural analysis. Her teachings were really a combination of this notion of “being in relationship with people that were disenfranchised” and helping me to see the implications of systems, not just the symptoms of systems on poor people.

Q: Tell me about two important things you learned growing up that are applicable to your job today –one that you learned in the classroom and one that you learned outside of the classroom.

A: In terms of the classroom, I learned early on among the teachers that I had that being smart wasn’t about knowing the answer, but was rather about being able to probe and problem solve. I had no idea at the time what a great gift this was. I started at this Jesuit school in the eighth grade, and the whole pedagogy was around the notion that “problems” are not “failures” but, rather, they present answers that are to be discovered. And that formulating thoughtful questions and then searching for the answers were what it was to be a thoughtful, educated person. This learning has had a profound mark on my life, in a deeply personal way.

Regarding learning outside of the classroom, early on as a young person I had the privilege of meeting a guy who was an elevator repairman who had been a kind of “ne’er-do-well” in his life. He then went to Haiti late in his 40’s and was really moved by the tremendous poverty there, and had this conversion experience. He ended up continuing to work but giving away all of his salary. He lived in a group home in the South Bronx and built an afterschool program. I took a semester off from college and in the evenings, three days a week, I would go work with him. And I was so impressed by his willingness to be completely dependent on others to donate their money and time and equipment to his program. He could have easily pieced it together with his salary, but he gave all his money away to other folks that were dependent on the goodness of donations. The whole thing seemed to me, as a young man, so utterly insane and incongruous. And my observation of him during that time really marked me about this structured interdependence that we all have, and that the extent to which we lean into it is a much more dynamic way to move in the world. Makes you kind of beholden.

Q: You were a community organizer in a “squatter” community of 120,000 people in Mexico. How has your experience impacted you, and are there learnings that you now apply in your role as President of CIS?

A: Yes, lots and lots of stuff. But something that has been central to my work with CIS was seeing the magnitude of 120,000 people living in pervasive and abject poverty, and understanding the demand of being responsive to those needs today. This meant making sure there was safety, that the kids had food, that there was some sense of civil order versus complete chaos… It’s great to think about structures, theory, philosophy—things I adore—but that experience made it very clear to me that the magnitude of the need for us to respond was such that it had to be today, every day. And I got burned out. The magnitude of the problem crushed me. The learning for me is that there’s a painful but incredibly important tension between remaining connected to those that are disenfranchised, while at the same time being able to pull back and work on the structures.

In many ways I see our work at CIS this way. Every day we are responsible for 1.25 million students. Today, they are in dire need, so we need to have a mechanism in place where we are responding quickly so they can continue to move forward… But at the same time we have to be disciplined enough to pull back and work on the structures that will ultimately lead to fundamental shifts in those dynamics that perpetuate poor kids in poverty.

Q: You’ve led CIS for many years now, and have accomplished so much. What are you most proud of achieving, and what’s one thing you’re still working to achieve?

A: At the end of the day, what I just feel so grateful to have been able to be a part of is the collective movement of the network toward embracing the belief that doing good, evidence-based work is the highest moral response to our kids. And the beauty of it is that it’s not about me, or our research and evaluation team, or the national office – it’s rather a deep commitment that our entire network has, where they have this passion to “do right by kids,” and more and more they understand that to mean being deeply steeped in good, evidence-based professionalism. It’s like when you’ve gone to this extraordinary doctor whose humanity and professionalism live in this beautiful tension. So that’s what I’m most proud of, and that’s because it’s been the collective work of the 4,500 professionals we have on staff—it’s just mind-blowing. But I think that work is not yet done. As committed as we are, there is still more we can learn. We have another evaluation underway, and there will be brutal, painful insights that will come out of that and that will require us to question and potentially change things that we’ve been doing… and that’s OK, that’s kind of just how we’re built.

Q: Tell me about your vision of an ideal world, and what role you believe CIS is playing in realizing this vision.

A: My ideal that I think the most about is a collective investment in believing in and funding public education. That from early childhood through pre-career we have a holistic human development and education system that really supports young people, regardless of their background, and that society is fully invested in providing for all of these kids’ needs. From a structural point of view, I just believe that if public education worked for everyone, we’d have long-term solutions to most of our social problems. I think in our world, to be educated is to be human; so to have diminished education is to have, in some sense, a diminished humanity. So it’s not a negotiable. Public education is like food security in a country; we have to have it in order for the country to actually survive. And it goes beyond that… What we also need is really good, sustainable agriculture and food production in order to have a much more robust country… And education is the exact same thing: We have to have a robust and fully available system in order for us to have a vibrant democracy and a trained workforce.

Right now I believe that CIS is acting as a corrective to the public education system. We have introduced an evidence-based and cost-effective element that has historically and certainly systemically been missing in public education. It operates on two levels: One, the integrated student service provision and model… It’s almost like a software patch; it will enable the software to work better. The second piece is that we, among others, raise a fundamental and philosophical question about public education, because it’s not just about service delivery, it’s about community engagement in the service delivery. What we’re really talking about is reframing how public education is seen in terms of our general citizens’ commitment to it, beyond just paying taxes. They are actively involved in public education through some kind of connectedness to schools or pre-k or post-secondary education. In other words—we all have a role in raising our kids.