Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011

A World Without Fear (or Soccer Trophies)

Last night, TIME's managing editor, Rick Stengel, hosted a panel discussion between four TIME 100 honorees from years past: pastor and Love Wins author Rob Bell; the co-founder of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, Daisy Khan; the founder of StudentsFirst, Michelle Rhee; and the co-founder of, Gary White. They have four very different areas of expertise — religion, social awareness, education and water — but they share one thing: passion.

Stengel: What are you passionate about?

Rhee: We spend twice the amount of money per child as we did a decade ago, and yet by all measures we are at best holding steady and in some respects we are declining. This year, students' SAT scores were the lowest in the history of the test. In fact, if you give me the ZIP code and a child's race, I can tell you pretty accurately what that child's academic achievement is going to be. Think about that. We are still — still — living in a country where what you can achieve is determined by where you live and the color of your skin. That is the most un-American thing imaginable. Until now education reform has been in the hands of politicians, pundits and policymakers. It's time to take the movement to the people.

White: There are a billion people in this world who don't have access to a safe drink of water. More people have access to a cell phone than have access to a toilet. It's time to bring our two worlds together. There's never going to be enough charity in the world to solve a problem this big. We need lasting, sustainable solutions.

Khan: I'm passionate about a lot of things, but tonight I'd like to talk about women in Islam. My husband is an imam so I used to do a lot of speaking engagements on his behalf. It doesn't matter if I visit a think tank or a neighborhood organization, I'm always asked ... why women are treated so poorly. "Why are there honor killings?" I'd get asked. That isn't Islam, that is a cultural practice. You have to separate Islam from cultural practice.

Bell: I'm inspired by the fact that everyday average people like us can do things to change the world. Lots of people live with a quiet despair — they see something happening but they don't know how to change it.

Some people view life as a destination — as in, "We have the right answers, we are in the right club" — but that's not right. It's a journey. If I'm taking a journey, I'm learning along the way. There is a built-in humility to that.

Michelle, you're a big proponent of tough love for children. But you get a lot of push back on that.

Rhee: We're so busy trying to make kids feel good about themselves that we've forgotten how to actually make them good at something. For example, I have two daughters who are ages 12 and 9. They play soccer. They suck. But if you went into their bedrooms, you'd see trophies and medals all over the place. I tell my kids all the time, "You are not so good at soccer. If you want to be good, you're going to have to practice for 90 minutes each day. You're going to have to run sprints. And even then you're not guaranteed that you're going to be good." I get told all the time, "Oh, you're a tiger mom!" But you're not doing your kids any favors by telling them they're good when they're not.

Daisy, Do you think America's attitude to Muslims has evolved at all since 9/11?

Khan: I think immediately after 9/11, America was by and large united behind a common cause and people knew that the Muslim Americans were not the same as the people that had just attacked us. But last year when we tried to open that Islamic cultural center and people got so upset, I realized that no national healing had taken place. People just swept their emotions up under a rug. Long term, I don't despair. Americans are by nature a fair-minded people. But this is a really bad time for us.

Do you ever think, "If only people didn't have X, life would be better?" What is that X?

Bell: Fear. Fear of new ideas, fear of failure. Fear that the other side might have some truth to its argument.

Rhee: He stole my answer! When I was chancellor of D.C.'s public schools, I had the opportunity to meet Warren Buffett. We were at a dinner together and he turned to me and said, "It's very easy to fix the problems in public education today." I said, "Super. If you have an answer, tell me what it is." He said, "Make private school illegal and assign every kid to a random public school." Just think about that. If you took every politician's kid, every Senator's child, Obama's two daughters, and put them in a random public school chosen by a lottery, you'd have a faster movement of resources from one side of the city to the other than you can even imagine.

But that idea is terrifying. Do you want that to happen to your kid? Even the much smaller fights, you get called names like antiteacher or antiunion because those terms are polarizing, and polarizing arguments play to people's fears.

White: My answer would not be fear, it would be lack of awareness. We're not looking for a magic bullet to solve the water crisis. We've had the technology to deliver clean water for over 100 years. We need to realize that this is a problem.

Khan: What if we had no competition among religions? What if we agreed that there was a supreme being and left it at that. Instead we are focused on Jesus Inc., Moses Inc., Muhammad Inc. We're all worshipping the regional managers. What if there was just God?

Bell: I think the measure of a great religion is how well you love your neighbor — the one who is most unlike you.

How has social media changed what you do?

Khan: In a traditional Muslim society, women are not allowed to go out and protest. But when they use social media, they can connect to each other. They are empowered. I think we're very close to a modern-day women's suffrage movement in the Muslim world.

Bell: Religion often has paradoxes that don't always fit so easily into 140 characters.

The Ten Commandments were short.

Bell: Yes, and we've been assessing those for a while now.