|Henry Owen in his Washington office. MOLLY BINGHAM|
Geographically, the offices of the Honorable Henry D. Owen '41 are as inside Washington as they come. Across Lafayette Park from the White House, they abut D.C.'s glossy, modernist corporate downtown. Realistically, however, there are few other cities in the United States where being inside the loop places you so far out of it, because much of what encircles this powerful political center is a loop of inner city so decrepit that foreign diplomats consider the capital a hardship post.
After a career focused on building strong economies abroad, first at the State Department and then as ambassador-at-large for economic affairs, Owen is now turning his sights to local development. Nearly 40 percent of Washington's public high-school students don't graduate, and local businesses complain--despite D.C.'s high unemployment rate--of a shortage of qualified local workers. So in 1993, Owen and Smith Barney vice president for investments Theodore A. Schwab decided to do something. They started Capital Partners for Education (CPE), a nonprofit that provides disadvantaged young people with an alternative to the local public schools in the form of mentors and $2,500 per year in tuition assistance.
"The geniuses will take care of themselves," Owen says, answering educators' oft-voiced worry that private voucher-type programs, which have spread from one city in 1990 to nearly three dozen cities today, skim the best students out of public schools. "We want good average citizens who, if they get a good education, will be happy" and productive. CPE doesn't send students to prestigious academies, and it doesn't have a minimum grade point average for entry. Instead, it takes "solid young people" whose families are struggling on welfare or fled to America to escape war or poverty, and tries to show them that there is more to this country than has yet met their eyes. Most students win spots in local Catholic schools.
CPE differs from conventional mentoring programs in that its mentors are not the well-meaning but impecunious young. Because they must commit financial resources to their advisees' educations, CPE mentors are established, successful adults who provide guidance on everything from career pathways to table manners. "She's like a second mother to me," says Genevieve Patrick, the eldest child of Trinidadian immigrants, about her mentor, a former Bell Atlantic executive. The group tries hard to introduce students to "the other Washington," through lectures, field trips, and special events, like a pool party at the home of Colin Powell. (He and his wife, Alma, are CPE supporters). CPE currently sponsors 25 students, but hopes to double that number every year. Owen and Schwab talk of creating 1,000 scholarships a year within a decade.
Owen fondly remembers reading, in college, Alexis de Tocqueville on America's lively culture of action and organization by private citizens. In philosophy class he was told: "Service is what matters in life. If you haven't learned that, you haven't learned anything." Political scientists might call him part of America's "long civic generation," a wave of unstoppable joiners and organizers. His program, indeed, shows that he understands that money alone cannot end the dire consequences of poverty. It takes social capital, too--social connectedness.
~ Garance Franke-Ruta