An Interview Special with Greg Forbes Siegman
> 8/14/2006 3:15:36 PM

This past Friday we at The Psychology of Education had the opportunity to speak with noted philanthropist, speaker and milkshake drinker Greg Forbes Siegman. Since 1997 Greg has been bettering his community and spreading his message of determination, diversity and civic engagement, first as the founder of the mentoring program The Brunch Bunch and then as the driving force behind the 11-10-02 Foundation. Greg's story has helped an even broader audience since the release of The First Thirty, a book by Jillip Naysinthe Paxson that shares Greg's message while detailing his own struggles and successes in establishing his own non-profit organization.

TOL: I understand youve been doing a number of speaking engagements. How has it been going? What do you enjoy most about that format?

Greg: I get a lot of nice feedback by e-mail and/or through the website afterwards - so I hope/think they go well. Personally, the part I enjoy most is getting to meet such different people in such diverse parts of the country. The invitations over the last 8 years have ranged - literally - from a company in Montana to a convention for business leaders in California to an event for grandparents in Florida to students at Princeton University to a middle school in Minnesota.

TOL: That's a pretty broad range. Would say that you bring a similar message to each, or are they different? Do Grandparents and business leaders learn the same things? And students, especially?

Greg: I never use a prepared speech when I do an event. So it's definitely not the same speech. And, depending on the event and the people attending it, there is definitely a difference, but there is a consistent running theme throughout them all and it tends to revolve around the notion of 'social good.' So, for instance, the event for business leaders, it was a really neat event to be part of. They had John Sculley, the former CEO of Apple, talk about how to become a global success in business and they had me talk about what you and your company could do to also make a difference along the way. When I speak to college students, the event organizers frequently ask me to speak to them about what students can do to make a difference while they're in college and why they should. So, it's a different context, but a similar theme.

TOL: Do you find some groups, like students for example, more open to the idea, then say business leaders. Are some crowds more jaded to the idea of social change?

Greg: Well, I think there's a difference between social 'change' and social 'good'. When I speak to business leaders or students about community service/philanthropy/making a difference, I really try to emphasize the 'one is better than none' approach: the idea that making a tiny difference (i.e. impacting one life) is better than making no difference. With business leaders - many of who also have families at home - they are sometimes reluctant to tackle projects that might seem to require a huge time commitment. With students, many of them may have the time, but they might not think they're 'old enough' to truly 'change' things that they'd like to improve in society. So, in both cases, for different reasons, I just try to focus on making small differences, which 'feel' to them more like doing social good than social change - and as a result, feel a lot more do-able. And I do this, knowing that many times, the 'ripple effect' of that 'small' act can lead to big things & social change down the road.

TOL: That message certainly comes across in The First Thirty. How have your goals shifted as you've grown and achieved? How has that small difference that started with a couple milkshakes grown?

Greg: Believe it or not, my specific goals have never really changed. The only thing that has really changed is what goals I'm pursuing. So I had a goal to finish college, then a goal to teach, then a goal to do the mentoring program and keep the streak going until a certain event occurred, and then send a student to college, and so on. The goal to do books, etc. I've always had those goals. It was just a case of which ones I focused on. The couple of milkshakes, that was in March 1997. That led to the start of - the mentoring program. That lasted 243 weeks in a row, about 700-750 people were part of it and that had all kind of side effects (like students getting jobs from the people they met at brunch). The support it generated eventually made it possible for me to start The 11-10-02 Foundation and you can go to and see how that has evolved from giving out small grants to local schools to funding college scholarships in different parts of the country. So, in the big picture, it's still a small organization. It's no Red Cross or anything like that. But it has come a long way since a couple milkshakes.

TOL: And that's all part of your message. There's a very natural progression there, an arc I guess. You still work with the foundation, no?

Greg: Yes. It's a labor of love - never taken a salary - but I still volunteer with it all the time. Just had a meeting yesterday, working on the next newsletter this morning.

TOL: One thing I wanted to ask about was our education system. What would you say are some of the problems you see? Is there a way that we could apply the "one before many" idea?

Greg: The education system... the first thing I'd say is that it is hard to apply any one specific idea to improve it - just as it is not a great idea to give the same speech to business leaders in California and college students in New Jersey. I think you really have to take a bunch of things into account when trying to decide how best to improve the system in a particular community. The economics of that community play a factor. Parental involvement or lack thereof plays a factor. The quality of teachers obviously plays a big factor. Do they have enough supplies? Books? All those kinds of things. So the things that might help improve the system in one community might actually be a step back in another. I mean, it's easy to say, if a school had more funding, then the system would be better and in some cases, that's true but I know a particular case, where the teacher is so good that it's frankly not an issue. The teachers in that kind of case - they learn to work around it, to teach the kids well anyway, to make what they have be what they need. And so, in that case, if only one thing could be done to improve the system, even though it appears they need more funding, Id actually - if only one thing was an option - vote for something else to be improved (e.g. more parental involvement or more teachers so class size could be a little smaller). Hope that makes sense?

TOL: Definitely, how do you think students themselves can help? Can they help?

Greg: I think students can definitely help themselves. In reality, more often than not, nobody can help a student more than himself or herself. One of most effective things they can do is just learning - and using - good time management skills. Just this week, there was a student who was supposed to email me something. He didn't do it. When I asked him why, he said he'd been 'too busy'. A minute later, literally, in the same conversation, he was telling me about the episode of his favorite TV show he'd watched the night before. In my experience, usually, it's not a case of being too busy - it's just a case of doing things in a different order. Do them in a different order and you're able to find the time to get done what you need to get done - and that alone improves things for the student.

Its kind of like if you simply stick with the principle that you won't eat dessert until after you've eaten dinner. That alone will improve your diet, because sometimes people have desserts in the middle of the day without any meal. So you're getting rid of those, and if you wait until after your meal, maybe by then you're full and never bother with the dessert. Even if that only happens once a week (that you don't get to the dessert), well, that still helps you move in the right direction. So, I've always felt one thing students could do to help themselves is just changing the order of the things they do.

TOL: That is a highly underrated skill, maybe one that isn't focused enough on at lower levels of education. I also wanted to be sure I asked about your obsession with Rocky?

Greg: Haha. It's not an obsession. It's an appreciation.

TOL: I'm from Philadelphia originally, so I understand

Greg: I just, personally, believe that most things in life can be boiled down to the way Rocky approached it. Same with Forrest Gump. They're very similar, you know. Want an example?

TOL: Definitely.

Greg: Alright, well, first, when Rocky and Forrest went running they didn't wait until they'd convinced people to run with them. They just started running and they did it in a way - either enthusiasm or perseverance - that other people, on their own, said, Hey, I want to run with you. I think that approach is the most likely to succeed over time. It can be a little shaky at first, because you put yourself out there, willing to run by yourself. But if you do inspire people to come out of their house and run with you, I think they're a lot more likely to do it sincerely and enthusiastically and stick with it over time if they chose on their own to do it. It's kind of like the milkshake walk at the end of The First Thirty. I was going for a shake no matter what. Even if it meant making that 'run' by myself...

TOL: There's a lot of power in that kind of message.

Greg: I hoped people would come with me, I wanted them to come with me, I encouraged it. But I didn't base my decision to go on whether they'd be coming with or not. I was going either way.

TOL: I think people draw strength from that resolve. I also wanted to ask about your grandmother. She had a profound impact, how do you continue to remember her?

Greg: She definitely had a profound impact on me. In a literal sense, I have a small picture of her right next to the front light switch in my apartment, so, if nothing else, she literally crosses my mind every time I walk in or out of my place and turn the light on or off. Beyond that, in general, I think about her all the time, think about the things she taught me, the things she said. Sometimes, even now, I catch myself talking about her in present tense and I think that's because I try to be so mindful of what she taught me/what she said to me, that it doesn't feel like she's really gone. That, by the way, is one of my favorite parts about the books and the speeches. I almost always come up with some excuse to mention her in my speeches. And in the book, most people say Grandma is one of their favorite characters.

TOL: I can understand that, it come across in reading. Just one more question, in education, there is talk about "underprivileged" and "below average," can you talk about your feelings about labels?

Greg: Sure. I think, going back to Gump and Rocky, they weren't necessarily seen as 'profound' thinkers, they just did 'what seemed right. So, for instance, Gump sees a young woman drop a book. It seems right to pick it up and give it back to her, so that's what he does. It never really crosses his mind that he is white, she is black and it is a time of great racial tension. I think I take the same approach to those labels.

Take 'underprivileged' - what does it actually mean? Forget ramifications, forget trying to be profound, just think basic, common, simple sense. It doesn't mean a lack of money; it means a lack of privileges. So here are the questions that pop in my mind: (a) what's a privilege? (b) who gets to decide that? (c) less privileges than who?" For instance, if I think it's a privilege to have to work to buy your own car, then Id say a kid who is given a BMW for his 16th birthday is underprivileged. Even if you stick with the idea, that is 'intended' to mean less money than the next guy, if a kid in the housing projects is 'underprivileged,' then what's a kid in Rwanda? 'Under-under-privileged'? 'Underprivileged squared'? The term just, on a simple level, doesn't seem to make sense to me. We hear so many times that part of the problem in society is that we give little or no thought to problems in other countries (like Rwanda). And it seems to me, on just a basic simple level, part of that issue - overlooking them - begins with the fact that we use words and labels that, by definition, seem to suggest those people don't exist. It's hard to say kids in any part of America are 'underprivileged' if you are consciously thinking of kids in Rwanda when you say it.

TOL: Thats a very useful breakdown of a concept that a lot of people write whole books on.

Greg: Sometimes, people say it's 'overly politically correct' - but Im not even getting into the names you use to call a particular group of people. Those are nouns, this is an adjective. And all Im saying is that at the most basic level, forget politically correct, the adjective just isn't 'correct' period. If you feel like saying a group of people in America have less money than their neighbors across the tracks, so be it. But when you say they have fewer privileges, you're imposing your idea of what a 'privilege' is. I think if you're talking about kids, part of the harm of that is a lot of kids will raise or lower themselves to the labels or expectations put upon them. So, if since day one, people are telling you that it is not a privilege to have to work hard for what you want in life, then there's a good chance you'll come to share that view. But if since day one, people in your ear are saying it is a great privilege to work hard for what you want in life, then there's a better chance that they will work hard.

So, quick example: if you face enough setbacks, people start calling you names like 'dumb,' 'reject,' 'failure,' etc. You might buy into that label and give up. In my case, my Grandma, since day one, told me those setbacks were part of the process of becoming a success. I bought into her ideal, so when I got rejected, etc., I was able to see it over time as part of being successful - so I didn't quit.

TOL: Well, thank you so much for your time.

Greg: Sure.

For more information on Greg and The First Thirty, please visit Greg's website here. To find out more about the 11-10-02 Foundation and Shaking up America, to find out how to get involved or to make a donation to an outstanding cause, please visit the Foundation's site here. You can purchase The First Thirty in bookstores around the country, or by using this link.

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