Darell Hammond - Keynote Speaker
August 29, 2011
Good afternoon and thank you for welcoming me so warmly and kindly to this amazing community, with this awesome weather and your contributions already from the classes of 2015 to the Geneva community.
Earlier this afternoon, I actually had the privilege and honor to go see the play parks that you’ve already left as a testament to what is possible when you do something significant and worthy for other people. I had the opportunity to talk to some of the students who were involved in the effort, and how good it made them feel.
As the president alluded to, our organization is really looking forward to working with the students and the community to actually take from the idea, of a great place to play, to constructing one next spring in the Geneva community by our own hands – our own hands…
But I want to step back just a minute to tell you about who I am and why I do what I do. A good mentor of mine has this mantra that says, “Service is the rent we pay society for living.” I cash that check in service because when I was two years old, after the birth of my younger sister, my father who was a cross-country truck driver, left my mother to care for all eight of the Hammond kids. As valiantly as she tried for two years, she just couldn’t make it and had several nervous breakdowns; and at the age of four I became a ward of the court, for them to decide my future.
From Jerome, Idaho, we were shipped off to the suburbs of Chicago, to a group home called Mooseheart the Child City. It was a 1,200-acre campus with 500 students who lived on it. Looking back knowing what I know now, although it was difficult circumstances that brought us there, what a great opportunity I had on that campus for fourteen years; to be a student of Mooseheart.
It was there, when we were participating in sports, and seeing that other schools around us were consolidating, we got new uniforms every year. It was there, when the band programs of the teams that we were participating in or the arts programs at other schools were being eliminated, mentors and volunteers throughout the country cared for these little kids in this group home to send us art supplies and band instruments. Again, I didn’t realize how good I had it back then, but I certainly, looking back, realize how good it was, because when I was 23 years old, living in Washington, D.C. and reading the front page of the Washington Post one day, a headline screamed out about no place to play.
As I read the article, it was about two kids who were 2 and 4 years old – the same age that I was when my father left us and when I went to the group home; but their circumstances didn’t end the same way. They had crawled into an abandoned car in the heat wave of 1996 and tragically suffocated and died. The reporter went down to the section of Washington, D.C. where this happened, and went block, by block, by block, over a period of three weeks, and the first time she could find a green patch of lawn – a park, a playground, a basketball court, a swimming pool – was three miles from where these kids were living.
Coupled with the fact that she also encountered the mayor at the time pointing the finger at the housing authority, the housing authority pointing the finger at the department of urban and housing development, the residents pointing their fingers at each other, the consequences of these actions were that nobody was going to do anything about it. The legacy of these two kids, unlike my legacy and the years that I had, was going to go for naught. We organized and went down to that community to build those kids - Iesha and Clarendon – a simple, safe place to play so that they would never be forgotten.
As President Gearan talked about, that idea is rooted into a movement that has now built 2,000 play spaces, raised $200 million, unleashed a million volunteers – and we are just getting started. In doing so, we are trying to solve two problems, to be quite honest, as an organization: one is this play deficit.
Do you realize that, as we are starting school here today, elementary kids across the country are starting school as well, but only 52% of them have recess – which means 48% do not! Only one in five kids live with access to a park. Low income and minority communities are even worse. One in three kids under the age of ten years old are not just over weight, but are 30 pounds overweight. Kids today under the age of ten are getting upwards of seven and a half hours of some sort of screen time a day – computer, video or monitor.
Interestingly enough, it is also not true, as some people allude to, that crime is up, or that the rate of abductions is up. Actually, crime is down and the rate of childhood abductions is also down; but our kids are spending their lives indoors, and not outdoors. So this play deficit that exists is having dire consequences to the emotional, cognitive and muscular development of our kids. It is through play that kids get the opportunity to socialize, build, create, tinker – and most importantly – have fun. We put them in organized sports, organized activities, thinking that doing so is part of the solution, when it is; but that is for older kids. All we really need to do is to have a cardboard box that says: ‘Turn this into a spaceship, a rocket, a dollhouse.’ It is literally free play, in as much as your mind is doing the building, not the toy in and of itself.
I can go on and talk about how we built this organization from this power of a small idea and what we learned along the way, but I really want to share some of the experiences as lessons that I have learned, having started this at 23 years old, that may be relevant to some of the students here.
Life is a journey, not a race, don’t rush though it, but at one point you actually have to grow up. Bear witness – I heard that as the theme though all the speakers. Experience things that you like and don’t like, try them all once. You actually may end up liking things that you didn’t think that you would like. Go out in the community as you have already done, but make a habit of it, not a single occasion for it.
You, and you alone, determine what is significant and worthy and this is an important point, because at 23 years old building KaBOOM!, if I had listened to the people that told me that play didn’t matter, and that it was nice, not necessary, or that it was a luxury, or that there were better and cheaper ways to build playgrounds than unleashing volunteers, I probably wouldn’t be standing here before you today. I chose that it was worthy and significant, and used my whole life to pursue this sense of passion and justice.
And along the way, the second part of the problem that we have been able to encounter is civic leadership, like Raya Hood in San Antonio, Texas, who lived literally in one of these proverbial communities. Her section of town was right next to the section of the town that was higher income and a train track ran between the two. On this side of the railroad tracks is where the playground was, and the parents didn’t want the kids from her side of the town to come use this playground. For two years, they talked about erecting a fence and she showed up at every community meeting and fought it; and she lost. What did she do at 72 years old? Build a playground for her own kids that actually happened to be so cool, the kids on the other side of the street actually asked to come to their playground.
Or Juanita Hatton, in the Nicetown section of Philadelphia. When Vice President Gore showed up to help her build the playground, it was a monumental occasion for what a lot of people said was the toughest section of Philadelphia. Two days later, after the concrete dried, she went to cross the street on a Monday morning before going to work – and there was graffiti on her playground that she helped fundraise for, construct and build. She was in a quandary. She wanted to pick up the phone and call me and complain, but what she did was she called in sick that day, as an hourly employee, and she grabbed a bucket and scrubbed off the graffiti; because, she told me, she didn’t want the kids to see it when they came home from school.
Unfortunately, this same experience happened several times over the period of a couple of months, and every single time, she didn’t call me; she called in sick, and she went across the street and scrubbed off the graffiti. She got the word out that said, ‘I will outlast you, you will not outlast me.’ A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to be in Philadelphia with Juanita at her playground project that is almost 14 years old – that has never been touched since.
Or in South San Francisco – the Boys and Girls Club. Just like the community center that you helped clean up here, that only had 40 volunteers that showed up. On their 5th anniversary they asked me to come out, and I went out and there were 300 people there, celebrating the 5th anniversary of not just this park, but how this park was created. At the end of the barbecue, the organizer said, “Watch this,” and she said, “How many people were here, and helped build this park, five years ago?” Two thirds of the hands went up. The amazing part about it was, like a Woodstock moment, because of the story that had been created about how this park was created, people wanted to be a part of it and had convinced themselves that indeed they were.
It doesn’t matter if you work for dot-org, like KaBOOM! is, a non-profit, or dot-com, like a business, or the government; nobody has a monopoly on passion. Nobody has a monopoly on the next big idea, or the solution to the challenges that we are facing. As I sit and talk to students all the time, sometimes they are only about pursuing one path, “I’m going to go into the business sector because I can make money and then go back to the non-profit sector and give back.” Go to the business sector and solve a problem for some of our biggest challenges, or go to the government, and some of the best innovation I believe that I see happening is actually happening in local state and federal government. Don’t box yourself in, to any one idea, but go across to all of them.
Use your youth, like I did at 23 years old, as a true force for good, and then follow that passion wherever it can take you. You need to take it to places too. I talk about play because I actually had the opportunity to meet Michael Jordan, the basketball player. This is going back a couple of days, but he told me that, “I actually, in my contract, wrote a ‘for the love of the game’ clause in there.” The reason he did it was because nobody wanted him to get hurt, nobody wanted him to get injured, and nobody wanted an image of him playing a pick-up game, when Nike couldn’t sell it to somebody else. So he said, “I will only play basketball if I can do it for the love of the game.” What are you doing for the love of your game – whatever that is?
Finally: under promise and over deliver. Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect. I have been though this with 100 employees and sometimes people think showing up is all you have got to do. No, you have to practice perfect because when you get into the situation of actually needing to do something, it is only then that you will be able to actually perform at the place that you thought you could.
When better is expected, good is not enough. The interesting part about this is that I have learned in my life I am the only one who knows the difference – nobody else, but you. So the point in all of this is that it doesn’t matter where you come from or all the situations and things that have led up to you being who you are. You determine what is both significant and worthy – and what the expectations are for your own trajectory.
Thank you for having me, I look forward to coming back in the spring and building a great place to play together!