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Young leaders get deep education at Clinton Global Initiative University

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 8, 2013 - Former President Bill Clinton received a fascinating hypothetical question near the tail end of the Clinton Global Initiative University.

A college student asked the 42nd president whether he would prefer to serve eight more years as leader of the free world or to complete 16 goals of the Clinton Global Initiative. While Clinton is constitutionally barred from being president again, he indicated he wouldn’t seek the office again even if it were possible.

“I would rather keep on doing what I’m doing for as long as I possibly could,” Clinton said during a conversation on Saturday with comedian Stephen Colbert. “Because I think I have learned how to do it. And I’m not sure anybody else would be doing this. Whereas I’m quite sure there will always be a lot of talented people who are vying to be president of the United States.”

Clinton didn’t say whether his wife – former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – would fit into that category. But the three-day gathering – mostly on the campus of Washington University – covered plenty of ground. So much so, in fact, that it probably took the prestige of a former commander-in-chief to pull it all together.

In addition to bringing notable names to discuss vexing issues with 1,000 college students, CGIU provided young people with a chance to learn more about transforming ideas and ideals into a sustainable reality.

Some of the highlighted projects were international in scope, such as Rice University students working to reduce maternal mortality rates in the developing world.

Others were thinking more locally, including one Saint Louis University student trying to set up a mobile farmers’ market for the city’s underserved areas.

As with this weekend’s live blog that rivaled "War and Peace" in length, there was plenty of ground to cover. But here are five takeaways from the event:

Thinking small can lead to big results

William Kamkwamba had a fairly conventional idea for his town in Malawi: build a windmill for his home.

The Dartmouth University student got the idea when he saw a windmill while reading a book. Kamkwamba reasoned that since others had built the power-generating device before, he could as well.

But even though he was determined to accomplish his goal, he said a lot of people around him “laughed” at him.

“Some were saying ‘you’re going crazy.’ Some were saying ‘maybe you’re smoking weed,’” Kamkwamba said on Friday, prompting laughter from the audience.

But Kamkwamba had the last laugh when his windmill worked. The small gesture provided Kamkwamba with international fame – and drew attention to the need for “clean” energy in the developing world.

“I trusted myself,” Kamkwamba said. “I believed in myself that I could do it if other people have done it before. There’s nothing that they can stop me.”

Kamkwamba wasn’t the only person at CGIU who talked about how something small made a big impact. Jack Dorsey, the co-founder of Twitter and Square, talked about how 140-character messages sparked international conversations – and even outright revolution. Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus talked about how providing “micro-loans” to the poor made a big impact.

Closer to home, Jeremy Goss, a second year medical student at Saint Louis University, talked to reporters about his project to bring a mobile farmers’ market to underserved areas. He said the small gesture of eating healthy could be a big deal for poorer neighborhoods.

“We’ll go into communities – food deserts – that don’t already have grocery stores and provide fresh, affordable food that’s also local,” said Goss, who added that he plans to use a refurbished bus. “Unfortunately it’s the case that some of these communities have gone for years at a time without grocery stores. There are children who have grown up their entire lives not having an orange.”

Women are critical to social, economic advancement

Yunus gained world-wide recognition – and the 2006 Nobel Peace prize – for providing very small loans to some of Bangladesh’s poorest citizens. Chelsea Clinton noted that Grameen Bank has lent nearly $11 billion to 8 million borrowers.

The vast majority of borrowers from Yunus’ bank are women. But when his bank began lending to women, Yunus said he faced opposition “from men in the same family.”

Many husbands, he said, were threatened that “his wife is gaining the power of handling money.” They demanded to handle the loans because they weren’t confident that their wives would pay the funds back.

“When a woman says ‘I don’t know how to use the money, I’m afraid of money’ – always remember this is not her voice. This is the voice of the history that’s created around her,” Yunus said. “The rejection. The fear. The threat. So she’s a product of that history. Our job is to go back again and again to peel off that fear until she becomes a normal human being.

It isn’t just about money. Shabana Basij-Rasikh, the managing director of the School of Leadership in Afghanistan, said that educating women in countries such as Afghanistan can reap big benefits down the road, she said.

“You know that all of those students will pay it forward,” Basij-Rasikh said on Saturday. “They will invest in other people’s education. And they will go back and make a difference.”

Even the simple act of teaching somebody how to play soccer could help foster power within women. That’s the concept behind the SEGway Project, which has mentored 70 girls in Nepal and Kenya.

"Through soccer, these girls are breaking down gender barriers, learning to be competitive … and learning to segue into the leaders they were born to be," Brown said.

For what it’s worth, Bill Clinton noted on Saturday that the one lingering problem that he would like to rectify more than anything else was "the disparity and treatment between boys and girls and women and men."

STEM training vital for economic vitality

Before he autographed a solar paneland took pictures with members of the St. Louis Rams, Bill Clinton used his pep talk at Gateway STEM High School to call for robust training for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Clinton even went so far to link the country's future prosperity with students being trained in the "STEM" fields.

"We live in an interdependent world. Our fates are bound up together. If you want a future of shared prosperity, everybody’s got to have a fair chance to be a part of it," Clinton said. "And we’re not doing that today. Roughly speaking, we need to produce for the next decade 1 million more people trained in the STEM areas just to maintain our current position."

Even in the last few years of economic turmoil, Clinton said, there's still been a high demand for people in the STEM fields.

"There were 120,000, give or take, openings just in the computer science field," Clinton said. "And the aggregate total number of people who graduated from our universities with those degrees was 40,000. It's a good argument for immigration reform in the short run, but it's a better argument for schools like Gateway in the long run."

Gateway STEM prompts students to pick a major. Some train to become EMTs or work with airplanes. Students can also go into pre-vet and certified nurse assistant programs.

"This school is a metaphor, a symbol and a part of America’s future," Clinton said. "And everybody who teaches here, everybody who works here, everybody who goes to school should understand that.”

Clinton noted that STEM fields have a “participation gap” between female and male students. He also said that gap existed between “African-American, Hispanic and other minority groups and Americans of European, Asian and Middle Eastern descent.”

One way to close that gap, said Gateway STEM senior Adela Redzic, was having programs at an early age aiming to get women excited about science – or any other field within the STEM acronym.

“I think that there are women who are interested in science,” Redzic said. “Like Chelsea said, it’s not sexy. It’s not something people give much attention to.”

Failure can be instructive

While Bill Clinton reached the top of the American political ladder after being elected twice as president, his prospects didn’t appear so bright after 1980.

Chelsea Clinton talks about how participants at CGIU learn about why challenges and setbacks are important in implementing ideas.

At that point in time, Clinton had lost a congressional race and been ousted as Arkansas’ governor. He quipped on Friday night that he then became “the youngest former governor in the country.”

But instead of letting those dual defeats sink his ambitions, Clinton noted that they helped him know what to do in subsequent years.

“If you’re broken by defeat, you’re giving someone else the permission to define your life. And your worth. And your tomorrows,” Clinton said. “You know, if you’ve lost a lot of yesterdays – welcome to the human race. But you don’t have to give anybody your tomorrows. I think that’s the most important thing to remember.”

Indeed, Clinton isn't the only politician to bounce back after a loss. In Missouri alone, some of the state's most successful politicians -- including U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., Gov. Jay Nixon and U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth -- all lost before winning their current posts.

During a press conference showcasing student projects at CGIU, Chelsea Clinton was asked how the event was preparing people to encounter bumps in the road to implementing their ideas.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is to ensure that questions of challenges and then superseding challenges are percolating around and embedded in the different conversations that are happening,” she said.

She added that many of the speakers at CGIU were focused on “not just on how success may have seemed like a fait accompli, but really was inevitably a process.” The opening session featured three different people – her father, Dorsey and activist Zainab Salbi – talk about their setbacks, she said.

“All of them had common threads and one of them was the necessity of continued belief and the conviction of what you’re doing, but also the humility to learn from whatever kind of challenges or bumps in the road along the way,” she said.

Everybody needs a helping hand

When Chelsea Clinton asked Stephen Felice how more girls are “kept and inspired” to delve into the STEM fields, the president and chief operating officer of Dell noted that accomplishing that goal is “not just strictly teaching the technologies.”

Rather, he said it’s about “creating a support environment" where women can "express their own opinions" and know "that they can take risk.”

Many women in developing countries, he said, need mentoring and advice before they start businesses. The key, he said, is for women to “ask for things and not be afraid to put themselves forward.”

“A lot of the work that we spend time on is just as much as around mentoring as it is enabling the technology itself,” Felice said.

In fact, Oliver Libby – the co-founder and chairman of the Resolution Project – said mentorship can often be the most rewarding aspects of the nonprofit angling to spur youth leadership.

“We saw a need at youth conferences to have a pathway to action for the students who come to youth conferences to learn and network,” Libby said. “And we provide them with a social entrepreneurship competition to hear their ideas. We fund them, provide mentorship and provide a global community of their peers so they can have action today instead of waiting until tomorrow.”.

For Staci Shelton, a project to stop the spread of vacant buildings in St. Louis requires collaboration.

Shelton, an Air Force veteran and a student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, wants to renovate “abandoned, dilapidated and boarded-up homes in urban areas.” She wants to provide training and technical skills to the individuals sprucing up the homes, which she said may provide help with future employment.

Shelton told the Beacon that she hopes her project “will be very much a collaborative effort.” That’s especially important, she said, since combating problems with vacant properties is a big problem in the St. Louis area.

“I know I myself can’t do everything,” Shelton said. “But I’m hoping with connecting and joining hands with other organizations that will be able to tackle that … I hope in the next two years to make a dent in the amount of dilapidated and abandoned homes in St. Louis.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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