I was born in a 1-room log cabin miles from the nearest neighbor in the middle of the woods in British Columbia, Canada. Our family grew most of our own food (well, actually my parents did – I helped to eat it), and lived on less than $500 per year. When I turned 4, my mom and dad wanted me to have a school to go to and the possibility of a social life with peers, so we moved off the island, into a suburban neighborhood where there were other children, and I could start in at an exceptionally child-respecting public school. I enjoyed school some of the time, but often felt bored with it. I learned what I wanted to learn, when I wanted to learn it, and school sometimes seemed as much as anything to be a distraction.
When I was 10, my parents were frustrated with the school options in our neighborhood, and our family made the move to California, USA. There was a fantastic school in Santa Cruz, and my mom and dad had done enough research to feel that it would be a great place for me to thrive. I’m sure the warmer weather didn’t hurt their enthusiasm for California, either. I enjoyed two wonderful months at my new school, and then the school lost its rented site and folded. Already settled in our new community, but not caring for the other school options, my parents proposed the radical option of learning without formal education, or “home-schooling”, as it was called in the U.S. They would support me, and I would be the driving force behind my learning journey. I would be free of the rules and confines of a school system – free to live my life and supported to follow my passions. I loved the idea, and was soon frequently quoting Mark Twain, “You can’t let school interfere with your education.”
Self-directed learning enabled me to start a natural foods bakery called “Ocean’s Bakery.” With door-to-door delivery throughout our neighborhood, at age 11 my entrepreneurial efforts landed my picture on the front page of the Santa Cruz Sentinel under the headline: “Boy Isn’t Very Rich, But He’s Got Dough”. Free from school, I was also able to perform in numerous musical and theatrical productions, to become deeply involved in the citizen diplomacy movement as a children’s peace ambassador to Russia, and to begin to find my calling as a social change leader.
In 1989, when I was 15, I joined with a friend to start a national speaking tour, traveling the United States inspiring high school students to make a difference with their lives. That led to our 1990 founding of YES!, a non-profit organization I directed for the next 20 years
So I never went to college. I never got a law degree, or a medical degree, an MA or even a BA. I technically dropped out of 5th grade. But I spent 20 years directing an organization with a million dollar budget. I have spoken in person to more than 200,000 students, organized 100+ week-long gatherings for young leaders from more than 65 countries, written a couple of books, and made a difference in some people’s lives.
I still feel like I’m on my learning journey. It’s a journey that’s taken me all over the world, and taught me about the pain of racism, classism and war, about the deep illness that is gripping our world, and about love, courage, and the beauty of the human spirit. It’s taught me about fundraising, organizational management, non-profit law, social change movement building, cross-cultural alliance-building, and the art and science of facilitation and leadership. In short, it’s taught me about what matters to me.
Of course, now at age 37, I could have just finished with a prodigious education. Armed with a bunch of degrees, maybe I’d do something radical and entrepreneurial, like starting a bakery. If I was lucky, maybe it would land me on the front page of the local newspaper.