Robin Hood Gets a Knight
One in five people In New York City live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census. Growing up in the South Bronx in the 1980s, Wes Moore was one of them.
His mother was a widow with three kids who moved to the neighborhood from Baltimore to join his grandparents after his father died suddenly. His grandparents were immigrants with limited means, his grandfather a minister who had come from Jamaica and his grandmother a schoolteacher born in Cuba.
The family struggled in a depressed neighborhood. Moore was getting into serious trouble before he’d even entered middle school. But, ultimately, his environment didn’t hold him back. In an effort to set him right, Moore’s mother sent him to military school, where he did so well that he later attended Johns Hopkins University and University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, earning a master’s in international relations in 2004. He pursued a career as an investment banker with the International Trade and Finance Division at Deutsche Bank, then enlisted in the U.S. Army. After the Army, he became a White House Fellow before returning to finance at Citigroup.
Still, Moore’s journey from a life of poverty to a life of promise didn’t distance him from his experiences in the South Bronx. In 2010, Moore authored The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, a book about another man named Wes Moore who headed off to prison as the author was headed to Oxford. He has written books for young adults on the message in his life story and another book, The Work, about how to achieve a life of purpose. He served as the executive producer and host of PBS’s Coming Back with Wes Moore, which focuses on the reintegration of veterans, and hosted Beyond Belief, a show about inspirational people and stories aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
Moore (right) participating in a panel discussion about Coming Back with Wes Moore at the PBS portion of the 2014 Winter Television Critics Association tour in 2014 in Pasadena, Calif. Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Moore realized his purpose in helping others follow the path he found out of poverty. In 2014, he launched BridgeEdU, which provides high-tech help for students looking to navigate college and later find jobs. And in April, he became CEO of Robin Hood, the largest poverty-fighting organization in New York. Since its inception, it has raised $2.5 billion, enabling the foundation to fund 200-plus nonprofits annually. Robin Hood brings together philanthropists, government, experts, community leaders and others to create long-term solutions to poverty and works to help build organizations with similar objectives. Robin Hood also funds or operates services that educate, feed, counsel, house or assist people living in poverty. It is noted for the efficiency of its giving: Because the board underwrites all operating costs, 100 percent of donations go to its mission.
Robin Hood brings Moore’s life full circle, back to the city where he first experienced poverty and began to understand how to break its grip. I spoke with him about his remarkable journey.
Tell me about where you grew up and some of the issues that you had to deal with.
When I was about 4 years old, my dad died [from a rare virus] in front of me and my family. Immediately and unexpectedly, my mom, in her late 20s, became a widow with three children. She was like, “I need help. I’m just trying to figure out where to turn.” And the first place she thought to turn to was her parents, my grandparents. When my mom called and said that she needed help, they gave her the answer she was hoping for: “Bring the kids up here, and we can help.” That was how I began my journey to New York to live with my grandparents.
It was the Bronx in the 1980s. It wasn’t just the poverty that existed there; it was everything else that accompanied the poverty. I very quickly found myself getting caught up in that to the point that by the time I was 9 years old I was already on academic and disciplinary probation from one school, and by the time I was 11, I felt handcuffs on my wrists. My mother had been threatening to send me away to a military school for a while. She ended up doing it when I was 13.
What I realized from that experience and throughout my childhood is the chronic and the stifling nature of poverty and what it means to communities, what it means to families. I very much felt, even at a young age, that we were living in communities that were being chronically and cynically neglected. Now, I attack this fight against poverty from a place of knowing just how damaging to the human soul it is.
Often when people think about poverty, they don’t think about it in a holistic way. But poverty has an impact on every part of your life.
Yes. And people say, “So what’s the thing that we can do to address poverty?” That’s almost naïve in its framework, right? Because poverty is so multifaceted. Poverty is so chronic that you’re never going to solve a holistic problem unless you’re willing to do holistic solutions.
When we talk about things that are happening within neighborhoods, this is not just about, “OK, we have to increase access to food and we have to increase access to good-quality transportation, and we have to make sure that housing and housing conditions are better and that children are not growing up in homes that have lead-based paint.” It is all of the above. Because this is not simply about what it means in terms of the physical structuring of people as they live in chronic poverty. It’s also the psychological damage that poverty inflicts and the level of disillusionment it creates.
Where did you study? and what did you do once you got out of school?
I got my associate’s degree from a community college, and then I got into Johns Hopkins University. I was excited, but I was like, “OK, now what’s my plan B?” Because I knew there was no way I could actually afford to go to school there. But the head of financial aid at Hopkins called me in and said, “Let’s spend a little bit of time and go over what we think we can get you.” And then she said, “OK, the Army is going to pay for this” because she knew I’d joined the Army. “Hopkins can give you this for merit. You’re going to get this for need.” I slowly watched that number go down to the point that I walked out of the meeting saying, “I can afford this.” Choosing that place helped change the entire trajectory of my life.
I founded an organization called BridgeEdU. It’s a platform where we use technology to support students as they’re entering higher education because about 34 percent of all students that start college every single year will not make it to their sophomore year. And if you look at students who are under-resourced—first in families, first generation, students of color, military veterans—that number hovers around 50 percent. That means you have students who are walking around with debt and no degree.
BridgeEdU was exclusively about how you create pathways and support for students who might not have come up in households where they were talking about what college you were going to go to in first grade. But these are students who we need to win; we need them to succeed. And that means coming up with a holistic group of services, whether it is helping students with coping mechanisms, financial aid resources, onboarding or experiential learning. It means identifying the big-bucket items that students are facing as they are entering higher education and then saying, “You’re not alone,” particularly for students who are attending schools that are either open-access or noncompetitive. Because generally those schools are the ones having some of the deepest problems.
The first person I brought on to help me build that platform was my financial aid advisor at Johns Hopkins, Dr. Ellen Frishberg. I said to her, “What you did for me, we now need to do for tens and hundreds of thousands.”
You had a career in finance, you were in the military, you were a White House Fellow. At what point did you know you wanted to work with nonprofits?
Even when I was working—I was a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division, and I worked in finance for about six years—I always knew that my calling was going to be with something else. My calling was going to be around these issues of economic inclusion and mobility and being able to hold truer the sense of what this country really is about.
The way I first got to know of you was through The Other Wes Moore. What made you want to write that book?
I had gotten to know Wes way back in 2002. The day after I received the Rhodes Scholarship, the Baltimore Sun wrote an article about how this local kid had just received this award and talked about my childhood and my background. At the same time, they were writing a whole series of articles about four guys who one day walked into a jewelry store and in the process of robbing it, killed an off-duty police officer.
As I was getting ready to head off to England on this scholarship, the other Wes was getting ready to spend the rest of his life in prison. The basis for this story was how quickly, as a large society, we were willing to either congratulate or castigate without going into any details at all about how either one of them got there.
Instead of just saying, “Here’s the final conclusion: One person is now in grad school, and the other person is in prison,” I wanted to take readers on a journey and show them what it was like for these two kids as they were coming up in these neighborhoods and what were the things that either were or were not in place in order to help shape the kind of men that they became.
In many ways, that helped to set a baseline and an understanding about how I wanted to view this work at Robin Hood. There needs to be a way we can shift the narrative. That has to exist. Often when people talk about those in poverty, the conversation is about, “How do we help them?” And so already we’re coming at it from a deficit perspective. We have to be able to approach it from an asset perspective. These people are assets waiting to be unleashed. If you talk about the basics of resilience, if you talk about the basics of empowerment, we’re talking about people who have had everything thrown at them and they get up every morning and they keep pushing forward. We’re talking about people who have grown up and know what it’s like to be hungry and know what it’s like to be sick and know what it’s like to be one policy decision away from going in one direction or going in a different direction, and they continue to get up and they continue to fight forward.
Decade after decade, we keep trying to tackle poverty, and I don’t know that we’ve done a very good job of it. What makes you think that you can do it?
Currently, in New York City there are close to 1.8 million people in poverty. So no one is walking into this saying, “Oh yeah, we just have to do X, and then we can fix this problem.” This is a hard and challenging problem. But we can make an impact.
I think about the work of Robin Hood over 29 years, and I look at the impact of things that we have done, which include a math K–5 curriculum that’s now being used by 1.5 million teachers and students. Or the Immigrant Justice Corps, which was started with federal judge Robert Katzmann and is now the largest expansion of legal services for immigrants in New York City history and the national model. I think about the work we did around veterans and veterans’ homelessness.
Philanthropy alone cannot fix what policies have forged. We have policies in place that are putting people in poverty and keeping people in poverty. But philanthropy can be a powerful convener. Philanthropy can be a powerful controller. Philanthropy can be a pain in the neck when it comes to pushing people to support their better angels in the policies that we put together dealing with transportation, housing, food insecurity, education.
Philanthropy can be a powerful convener.
Philanthropy can be a powerful controller.
What’s unique about the work that Robin Hood does in New York?
Poverty does not have geographic boundaries. Robin Hood has the unique ability to serve as a tremendous importer and exporter of good ideas and good concepts. If it’s working elsewhere, then we work to bring it to New York, and if it’s working in New York, then we work to bring it elsewhere.
What’s going to be your approach at Robin Hood?
I want to continue doing work around health issues and making sure that both mental and physical health considerations are made when we’re having these bigger, broader conversations about community inclusion. I also want to be very clear that immigrants are having a specifically difficult time right now and that we don’t have the luxury of sitting on the sidelines. So Robin Hood, as it has done before, will continue to make sure that those voices are being heard.
The other big thing that we want to explore is the interconnecting nature of policy and poverty. You cannot unpack one unless you can involve the other. No organization alone is going to fix this. We want to bring together a collection of allies to make sure that the solution set and the policy set are aligned.
What do you like about New York? What do you think is promising about the city?
I think the most powerful thing about New York is its diversity and its inclusion. New York was a city that welcomed my grandparents when they came here a little over 60 years ago, and they were looking to be a part of a larger American story, a larger American dream. This was a city that welcomed my mom after her husband died in front of her. No matter where you are coming from, you can feel welcome here.
—With Rose Arce