Solving the “Unsolvable” Problems

By Dave Steele, Director of School Partnerships

My plane tickets are booked and my hotel room is reserved. I’m going back to Guatemala this November for the third time, this time for my cousin’s wedding. It’s a chance to reconnect with my family and my father’s home country, a place of incredible beauty.

Guatemala is rich with diverse cultures and amazing natural scenery, but it’s hard for me to visit without a heavy heart. One of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere, Guatemala suffers from conditions all too common in developing countries. Perhaps most vexing is that things do not have to be this way. The people of Guatemala have reason to hope for the future, but currently many of those hopes remain unrealized.

Donating money to organizations that provide food or health care is helpful, but is it a lasting solution? Could I write a check that would give Guatemala a fair justice system, root out corruption, or build a civil society of its own? Global poverty is so complex is seems unsolvable. It has many root causes and no easily identifiable solutions. There is not one single program or solution that can fix it.

For nearly the past decade I have devoted my energies to another “unsolvable” problem: the education of children who live in pervasive poverty in Milwaukee. I wouldn’t compare the suffering of the developing world with the suffering of my fellow Milwaukeeans, but similarities do exist. The problems of global poverty and under-performing urban education in the United States both have multiple underlying causes and no singular, easily identifiable solution. Both have been addressed through multiple means and approaches by many different organizations. And both, unfortunately, lead many to a sense of hopelessness. It has taken generations for these problems to develop and at first glance they may seem unsolvable.Solving Unsolvable Problems in Milwaukee

But, I believe progress can be made with the focused actions of individuals working together toward a common vision. For instance, we know that one of the root causes of poverty in developing countries is a high illiteracy rate, especially among women. Accordingly, efforts have arisen all over the world to educate women in developing countries. Will improving the illiteracy rate among women, on its own, lift countries out of poverty? No. But efforts to educate women, in concert with other initiatives that address the many different root causes of poverty, will make a positive impact and help provide conditions that support lifting a nation out of poverty.

We must take a similar approach to addressing our seemingly unsolvable problems here in our own communities in the United States. There is not one cause, nor is there one solution.

Most importantly, the solutions to the problem of under-performing K-12 education, like the solutions to global poverty, must come from the communities themselves. School by school, community by community, we need to take ownership, set high expectations, and demand quality. PAVE’s approach is to work closely with school communities to articulate a vision for success and equip them with the resources to drive that change. There isn’t a magic formula we can apply to all of our Partner Schools that will remove their challenges and launch them to greatness. Each school community we support is unique, and 55 schools require 55 different approaches.

Not one American city has solved the problem of under-performing K-12 schools. But, several have made significant progress by leveraging partnerships among schools and supporting organizations, broad-based community buy-in, and a common vision. I have no doubt that Milwaukee, like Guatemala, can and will tap into its deep well of resources and will take the necessary steps to solve a problem that seems unsolvable. It will take all of us — school leaders, board members, volunteers, and concerned citizens — each focused on our unique part of the solution, with an eye toward a vision for a better future.