The education of John Legend

For someone who was home-schooled for a number of years, it’s interesting that singer and six-time Grammy award winner John Legend spends what spare time he has reforming America’s public schools. He is especially devoted to Deborah Kenny’s Harlem Village Academies, a group of three charter schools in Harlem, New York.

Like many celebrities these days, Legend wants to — and does — leverage his success for a worthwhile cause. His introduction to education reform came from retired Giants running back Tiki Barber, who is a Harlem Village Academy board member. Ever since Legend met Kenny and visited one her schools, he was hooked.

“I was inspired by the success,” Legend says. “It’s very attractive to deal with schools that are defying the odds and succeeding, and I wanted to see what I could do to create an environment where more of this can happen.”

Legend now co-chairs the school’s board with News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch who made a surprise donation of $5.5 million to the school last year. While Legend’s and Murdoch’s beliefs might fall on different ends of the political spectrum, their co-chairing shows that educational issues can extend beyond politics and that education shouldn’t be a political matter.

Both Legend and Kenny believe that the way to break the cycle of poverty is through a quality education — and access to it. Kenny’s schools, which educate more than 700 children, focus on teaching and teachers. Kenny thinks teachers are the key to school reform and developing successful students.

Leila Janah on Samasource

By Leila Janah, the founder of Samasource.

Over one billion people live in extreme poverty, subsisting on $1.25 a day or less. Among the Millennium Development Goals determined by world leaders in 2000 is a target to achieve “full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people.” Despite up to 90% literacy rates and increasing levels of per capita income being spent on higher education in developing countries, employment opportunities remain scarce, even in urban areas.

Samasource connects 900 marginalized people, from Kenyan youth to women in rural Pakistan, with dignified work opportunities via the Internet. Using the business process outsourcing model, we secure contracts from global organizations to provide digital services such as data entry, book digitization, Internet-based research, business listings verification, audio transcription, and video captioning.

The project is broken down into smaller tasks called “microwork” and then allocated to our Service Partners, for- and non-profit organizations currently in Haiti, India, Kenya, Pakistan, South Africa, and Uganda. The work is completed by women, youth, and refugees using an Internet connection provided by our Service Partners, and sent back to Samasource for quality assurance and delivery to the client.

Making it right in New Orleans

PopTech speaker Tom Darden is the executive director of the Make It Right Foundation, the organization started by Brad Pitt to rebuild affordable, green homes in New Orleans’ lower ninth ward. Make It Right has already built 50 homes and are in the midst of construction for another 30. Their initial goal is to build a total of 150.

So far, Darden has helped raise $36 million for the foundation. In 2009, Darden was named Louisiana’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year by the Small Business Administration. After being in New Orleans for four years now and having worked with the foundation since 2007, Darden explains why his work is so essential and how these types of homes can transform a family’s quality of life:

More from Tom Darden:

Make It Right partnered with award-winning architects who worked pro bono to design homes based around the needs of lower ninth ward residents. Design features such as covered porches and wide front stairs allow residents to maintain social connections to their neighborhood, preserving the “culture of engagement” that characterized the neighborhood prior to Hurricane Katrina.

The invisible gorilla in the room

How well do we pay attention, asks psychology professor at Union College and co-author of “The Invisible Gorilla” Christopher Chabris.

In answering that query, Chabris, who investigates the illusions of our mind, also finds out how well we think we pay attention, which, in an era of short attention spans, is critical to know and understand.

In particular, Chabris focuses on the illusions of attention and confidence and everyday illusions.

David de Rothschild rethinks plastic

Plastic is everywhere. It is a pervasive part of our everyday lives. It’s a huge source of waste and most of it is not even biodegradable. Worst of all, much of the plastic we throw out is designed to be used only once. So what can we do about a product that we use just one time and then never goes away?

Eco-explorer David de Rothschild, the founder of Adventure Ecology, believes we need to change the way we think about plastic. In addition to using and creating less of it, de Rothschild thinks we need to start recognizing used plastic as a resource.

“Maybe plastic is not to blame,” de Rothschild says. “Maybe we are just not using it correctly.”

A ‘frozen mouth’ finds a voice in the jungle

As a child, Alan Rabinowitz had a severe stutter. So severe that he doesn’t remember speaking his first sentence until he was 19 years old. He tried everything to get rid of what he called his “frozen mouth,” including shock therapy at one point. Although he struggled to communicate with humans, Alan felt a poignant connection with big, wild cats.

His stutter, he says, turned out to be his greatest blessing: “Stutters can do a couple things right. One of them is to speak to animals.” And so Alan has spent his life dedicated to preserving and protecting these big cats who provided him comfort and a sense of belonging as child.

Growing up in New York City the only place to find these big cats was the Bronx Zoo, where Rabinowitz wound up working for 30 years. Although Alan still resides in New York, he left the city jungle to spend some time in the real ones in order to create wildlife preserves and sanctuaries for jaguars, tigers, and various kinds of leopard cats. “I loved being away from people in the jungle,” Alan recalls. In Belize, he created the world’s only Jaguar reserve. In Burma, he created the world’s largest tiger reserve. But this wasn’t enough.

A new technology to monitor water

A new technology is being unveiled today that monitors water quality. FLOW, as it is known, is the brainchild of Ned Breslin, the CEO of Water For People, a non-profit dedicated to improving the quality of water and sanitation in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

The first technology of its kind, FLOW (Field Level Operations Watch) is an Android mobile phone app that captures data on water points and sanitation projects in 11 different countries. The data is automatically uploaded to Google Earth so it is free and available for anyone to see and use.

The two big gamebreakers for FLOW, Breslin says, is that it compiles the data collected and it tracks information — anyone with a phone can upload data to it.

Does our economy make us happy?


By Lisa Gansky

The opinions expressed are her own.

Does our economy make us happy?

The crash-and-burn of the financial system, a prolonged recession, and high unemployment obviously cause us enormous distress. We are forced to ask ourselves, “What can we afford now?”

The collapse has also made many of us rethink what we care about. We’re finally asking, “Are all these things we’ve been buying (and probably still making payments on) truly making us happy?”

I started asking myself related questions long ago. Where do we look to derive value? What’s the source? As I talked with people, did research, and listened more intrusively to my own internal voice, I realized that in the process of choosing and buying we are actually being engulfed (essentially consumed), by the stuff in our lives.