A journey to discover the people who change our world.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Educational Alchemist

Three years ago I received an email about a university campus in Johannesburg which was set up by a young man with a vision for the future of South African education. The young man was Taddy Blecher, a financial whiz kid, who had job offers from top international actuarial firms flying at him from all directions. He had chosen one in the States, his bags were packed and he was ready to go.

He was all set to leave South Africa, when suddenly something pressed the pause button. In that pause he realised that he had to stay and be a part of making the new South Africa. And that is exactly what he did, helping to set up and grow a new model of business education, helping to create a generation of people contributing the economic and social growth of the nation, in the form of CIDA City Campus.

Three years ago, I read that email over and over again. I found something remarkably powerful in the story of this young man, who, against the odds, decided to remould his own life for the sake of the lives of others. With solid commitment, and a vision for where he was going, Taddy and the team he built around him grew CIDA into a place where the educational models we currently take as the norm are being reshaped, for the better. Looking back now, it was with that story where some of the seeds for this journey were sown and, as part of my own journey, I knew it would be a fantastic opportunity to meet Taddy, and get a chance to see CIDA in action. Taddy is a remarkably busy man, but I managed to get to meet him and spend an afternoon at CIDA- and what an amazing afternoon it was.

Taddy is enthusiasm in abundance. His energy is palpable. When he walked into the room, he greeted me with a hearty laugh and warm smile. On the afternoon that I visited CIDA foundation campus (a campus on the outskirts of Jo’burg where first year foundation level students are resident) he also had another group of guests visiting, and I got to tag along on the tour.

He walked us down to the new dorm rooms which have just been built for the first year girls. ‘I’m so so excited’, he continued to repeat, ‘ so very excited’. The excitement comes knowing what difference the campus and opportunities are brining to the students. Here are a group of young people with hopes, dreams, ambition and talents, who, through the opportunity to study, are being given the chance to unleash it on the world. I got to flavour just a snippet of that talent when Taddy called the students (about 250 who were resident that day) into the main hall, and asked a few of them to introduce themselves to us. These were no ordinary introductions. There followed about an hour of music, singing, dance, stand-up comedy, poetry and laughter. While these kids may have been short on opportunities growing up, they sure are not short of confidence. One young women, beautiful and brave, stood up and recited the most moving rendition of ‘Phenomenal Woman’ by Maya Angelou that I have ever head. The audience clapped and cheered her on. Then the choir rose, singing and dancing, and raising the roof in turn. These kids know they have talent, and are ready to take the world on.

CIDA’s educational model has many interesting dimensions to it. While the main emphasis is on business skills, the model incorporates a self-management or personal development component, incorporating meditative and reflective practice. All students are required to take part in the management of the campus. They also go out into their communities and teach. In this way, over half a million people have been reached, and the students become community role models. This is ripple effect, tsunami style. ‘Our focus is socio economic transformation’, Taddy explained, ‘you don’t end poverty by giving people money, you end poverty by building people’. ‘We are trying to create a bush fire revolution of people trying to get reengaged with life again. Our approach is about building people and finding their strengths’.

I sat down with Taddy later in the afternoon and talked about his own take on what has sustained him, what has kept CIDA growing. Here are just a few snippets from the conversation.

‘When you find your niche, it is just so addictive. It is just so fulfilling, and meaningful. I often say to people, “being a social entrepreneur is one of the most selfish things you could ever do”, because it is almost like you should have to pay to do it!’

‘Have no illusions. Being a social entrepreneur is unbelievably hard. You have got to me mad, but provided you are mad, and provided that you can accept the hardship, it is just an adrenaline rush. It is the journey of a long distance runner. If you want to be a social entrepreneur, you can’t go through ups and downs. You have always got to have a crystal clear vision of where you are going. It is the long haul and any meaningful change takes time. You learn all the time, you grow all the time’.

‘To me it comes down to individuals. Every individual has to be OK if society is to be OK. If you write off any human being, you have somehow broken the puzzle of life, of what is possible’.

‘I am also a very values driven person. I think that if people can grow up in communities which have values, which are like a family, when people take care of each other, when people learn constructive values, then they end up getting a lot more than if they destroy each other. I think that if people can grow up in those ways, we will have a stable society’.

‘Every day, all around us, there are innumerable ways to make a difference’.

I asked him what it is that sustains him through it all.

‘The fact that it is absolutely possible to change the world. It is like, when I was at school we learned history, and it always seemed that history was something that happened to you. Growing up in South Africa, as a white South African, and with Jewish background, you would meet people and feel so helpless. I think that the minute I made that mind shift- that history isn’t something that just happens to us, that it is something we create, I knew that we could think in a much more enlightened way about how we do everything’.

Thanks to Taddy and the students at CIDA for a day which is lingering.

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