"It's like I spent the first part of my career toiling away in the 'minor leagues' and now have a chance to make a huge difference in the world."

Tom Pollak
DC Tutoring & Mentoring Initiative
Washington, DC


He enjoyed his job, but this is infinitely more satisfying

I began the DC Tutoring & Mentoring Initiative in 2015 with the goal of creating a campaign or movement to get a tutor or mentor for every local student reading below grade level or with other academic or non-academic needs. In the District of Columbia, only 27 percent of the 80,000 students are proficient in reading, so that means more than 60,000 volunteers are needed. This sounds like an impossibly big number but it’s not, when one considers that there are several million people in the DC metropolitan area. We recruit new volunteers in one-on-one conversations at farmer’s markets, outdoor movie nights and on streets and public events where people are not in hurry. It’s slow going — but it’s scalable. If a volunteer canvasser can sign up five people in an hour, that’s solid success. We will be focusing on getting more employers and religious congregations involved in 2017. If we can build 100 teams of five people willing to help canvass two hours a month, we could recruit 20,000 new volunteers in 2017!

I left my job in management and research after 20 years to devote myself full-time to the project. I enjoyed my job, but this is infinitely more satisfying. It’s a huge undertaking but it feels like the right thing to do in the world today. Not only do we hope to transform education but we also want to show that a “civic” approach to solving the tough challenges our society faces, whether in education or other areas, can work: We can, in fact, appeal to the “better angels of our nature” and get people to volunteer on a sustained basis to for the good of the community. I tell people we need to build our “civic muscles,” just like people work out to get in physical shape. It’s a long, slow process but I believe it is simply the only way we can move forward to change educational outcomes for kids in poverty while repairing our tattered civic fabric.

We’ve signed up nearly 1,000 volunteers since 2015 but we are still struggling to find the best way to ensure that they follow through with our 40 partner tutoring and mentoring organizations and schools. There’s lots to learn and the slow pace can be frustrating, but we hope to inspire others to try the same approach in their communities and begin to turn this into a national effort that will ignite the imaginations of people across the country.

It’s like I spent the first part of my career toiling away in the ‘minor leagues’ and now have a chance to make a huge difference in the world — to make my own “dent in the universe,” as Steve Jobs put it. It may not succeed, but some things are worth the effort.

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