February 18, 2008


Please imagine the following scenario. You have been invited to give the after dinner speech to a large convention in Mexico City. The topic is one you know well and are considered an expert in. The organizing committee has paid all of your expenses, including the five star accommodations and luxury rental car, for an extra day. You give the speech to a standing ovation and are thanked effusively by many well wishers at the podium. Nothing left to do but jump into the sparkling convertible in the underground garage and head to your hotel and plan the sightseeing trips for tomorrow, before flying back to the snow and ice of home.

You exit the convention center into the oncoming darkness, turn left and drive two blocks into a neighbourhood that you know is not on the itinerary. Abandoned streets, lights flickering, garbage swirling in the wind and all of a sudden you feel and hear at the same time, the thump, thump, thump of the front tire going flat. Your stomach jumps into your throat as you ease the car to the curb and realize that your cellphone is back at the hotel - do they even have a 911 system, you wonder. You look around the darkened street, open the door and realize that the brightest thing for 100 yards is your interior light. You step out to survey the flat tire and open the trunk to try and find a jack when you hear more thump, thump, thumping. Looking up the street to the corner with the broken traffic light, you see a group of youths, walking four abreast, boombox on a shoulder and coming toward you past the boarded up store fronts. You can sense the predatory grins cross their mouths as they spy the car and then you. The fear etched on your brow drawing them closer, like blood draws sharks. The statistics of poverty and illiteracy have no meaning now as you realize that no one knows you are here - no one is coming to save you.

The United Nations estimates that 850,000,000 people lack basic literacy skills. One out of every 7 human beings cannot read or write. Two-thirds of this number are women and the effect on their families is devastating as they are typically responsible for raising the children of the next generation. Who showed you your first picture book and read to you. Over 100 million children of primary-school age are not registered in school. Here's how this affects you and me. The first thing the Taliban did as they filled the vacuum left when the Russians abandoned Afganistan, was to close the schools and kill 90% of the teachers. If someone wore glasses and even looked like an academic, it was enough to get them killed. What the Taliban knew, like every conquering totalitarian force in history knew, is that education is the single biggest threat to their survival. Stopping access to information and offering their own religion/philosophy of hatred has spawned terrorism, jihad and a mindless march to martyrdom that shows increasing evidence on our own shores.

The one guaranteed solution to poverty, hatred, drug abuse, sexual abuse, unemployment, starvation, disease, terrorism and economic disparity, is education. The basic skills of reading, writing, adding and subtracting, combined with access to books, libraries and the computer will change their world and ours, if not in this generation, then in the next, or the next. Yes, you and I, by the very nature of our existence, have a responsibilty to help this effort. I also know that no one reading this, is unable to do something that will make a difference. The "Room to Read" program offers an opportunity to change our world. The cost of reading this blog, is to take five minutes to link to Room to Read (found on the upper right of this page) and then do something today. You might consider buying the book "Leaving Microsoft to Change the World" by the program's founder, John Wood and passing it to someone you know, as a starter. Do it now, you owe it to the world for your own good fortune.

Now, back to the Mexico City scenario from paragraph 2. Suppose this same incident occurred to you on the campus of the University of Mexico and along with the boombox, the four youths were carrying some textbooks down a well lit sidewalk and laughing and talking about a class they had just left. Would your world change.

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