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Key Takeaways:

  • Young people can develop “Agency” over their own lives by cultivating four factors: strong family connections, a personal faith commitment, educational freedom or school choice, and an entrepreneurial spirit.
  • “Agency” is not just free will, but free will guided by a moral sense of right and wrong. By informing young people about the F.R.E.E. framework and the success sequence, they can cultivate Agency and make better life decisions.
  • People should not fall prey to narratives that tell them what they cannot do, such as the “Blame the System” and “Blame the Victim” narratives.
  • The true definition of equity is not achieving equal outcomes for certain identity groups but ensuring that everyone has equal opportunities to succeed.
  • Ian emphasizes the role of the family in child development and the influence of the microsystem, including family, school, church, and neighborhood, on children’s well-being.

Executive Summary:

Hello everyone; thanks for joining us on a new episode of the NEGOTIATEx podcast. Today, we are joined by Ian Rowe, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who focuses on education and upward mobility, family formation, and adoption.

Rowe is also the co-founder and CEO of Vertex Partnership Academies, a new network of charter-based International Baccalaureate public charter high schools in the Bronx. He discusses his work and background, including his experience as CEO of Public Prep and Deputy Director of Postsecondary Success at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

With that said, let’s delve deep into the insights that Ian shares in this episode.

Understanding the F.R.E.E. Framework 

Ian’s book “Agency” outlines a four-point plan for children to overcome harmful narratives and discover their pathway to power. Aram asks Ian to define “Agency” as he sees it and explain its connection to power. 

In reply, Ian highlights his experience running public charter schools in the Bronx and working with children from diverse backgrounds. This helped him identify four factors that contribute to the development of a sense of agency in young people: strong family connections, a personal faith commitment, educational freedom or school choice, and an entrepreneurial spirit. 

Rowe refers to these four factors as the F.R.E.E. framework and believes that they can help young people break the cycle of disadvantage and develop a sense of “Agency” over their own lives. By understanding these factors and cultivating them in their own lives, young people can become architects of their own futures and overcome adversity.

“Agency” Is Free Will, Guided By A Moral Sense Of Right And Wrong  

Subsequently, Ian Rowe discusses the importance of moral discernment in exercising Agency over one’s life. He emphasizes that “Agency” is not just free will but free will guided by a moral sense of right and wrong. Citing the F.R.E.E. framework, he explains how these elements can help individuals cultivate moral discernment and make better decisions for their lives. 

Rowe also sheds light on the Success Sequence, a series of decisions that can help individuals avoid poverty and enter the middle class or beyond. He believes that by informing young people about the F.R.E.E. framework and the success sequence, they can cultivate “Agency” and make better decisions in their lives.

Young People Should Not Fall Prey To False Narratives

Moving on, Ian discusses the need for an “Agency” for every child in the country, regardless of their socioeconomic background and status. He highlights that he runs schools in low-income communities to help students understand that they can overcome obstacles and have the tools for self-betterment and renewal within them. 

Rowe identifies two emerging meta-narratives in the country that are telling young people what they cannot do: Blame The System and Blame The Victim. The Blame The System narrative portrays America as inherently oppressive, which can be debilitating and rob young people of a sense of “Agency”. 

On the other hand, The Blame The Victim narrative ignores structural barriers that exist and puts the blame on individuals for not taking advantage of opportunities. According to Ian, both narratives tell young people they cannot do difficult things and hinder their ability to cultivate “Agency”. Rowe believes that Agency can be an empowering framework alternative to these narratives.

Use Of Images To Illustrate The Concept Of Equity

Ian shares that in his book, he has included several images that help to convey his message more clearly. One such image is a chart depicting equity and equality, where individuals are trying to watch a baseball game through a fence. In the equality image, each person has the same size box, but one person can see over the fence while another cannot. 

However, in the equity image, one person has had their box taken away and given to someone else in order to achieve the same outcome for everyone. Ian believes that this visual depiction shows a false view of equity as a forced top-down zero-sum game that robs everyone of the “Agency”.

Definitions of Equity and Equality and their Implications for Addressing Discrimination and Privilege

Next, the speakers delve deeper and discuss the true definitions of equity and equality and whether they help or hinder the conversation around discrimination and privilege. Ian highlights that equity often refers to the absence of disparities by certain identity groups and the push for equal outcomes by the group. 

This, according to Ian, is a false goal that would achieve universal mediocrity. Equality of opportunity on the other hand, focuses on ensuring that individuals have access to a level playing field but accepts that not everyone will have equal outcomes. 

Role of Family in Child Development and the Influence of the Microsystem on Children’s Well-Being

In response to a question about conditions leading to the challenges faced by children, Ian explains how he came to understand the central role of the family in human development. He mentions discovering the high rate of non-marital births in low-income communities and how it contributes to cycles of disadvantage, poverty, and domestic violence. 

He mentions Urie Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model of human development, which identifies the microsystem, including family, school, church, and neighborhood, as the most proximate forces that influence child development. Ian suggests that if the microsystem is not strong, then other forces, such as media and popular culture, can have negative effects on children. 

Ian, Aram, and Nolan discuss a lot more on this episode of the NEGOTIATEx podcast. We encourage you to join the discussion by sharing your feedback with us at team@negotiatex.com. Your insights are greatly appreciated!

Thank you for listening!


Nolan Martin : Hello, welcome to the NEGOTIATEx podcast. I am your co-host and co-founder Nolan Martin. And with me today is Aram Donigian. And Aram, would you like to introduce our guest for today's episode?

Aram Donigian : I will. I'm really excited by the discussion we're gonna have today. It's, I think, a little different from other conversations we have with people in the negotiation influence persuasion field. And I think this is one of those  critical conversations we can be having because it impacts not just us, but future generations. And, so I'm really excited by where we're gonna go, and I hope that listeners will stay with us through both of these episodes that we're gonna release to get the full understanding of what Mr. Ian Rowe is gonna share with us both from his book, but more importantly from the work that he's doing.

So folks, Ian Rowe is with us today. He's a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on education and upward mobility, family formation, and adoption. Mr. Rowe, the co-founder and CEO of Vertex Partnership Academies; a new network of character-based international Baccalaureate public charter high schools opening in the Bronx in 2022. And is the chairman of the board for Spence-Chapin, a nonprofit adoption services organization that provides adoption and adoption support services.

Mr. Rowe is a senior visiting fellow at the Woodson Center and a writer for the 1776 Unites Campaign. He is a trustee at the Thomas B Forman Institute and a senior advisor for the Foundation against Intolerance and Racism,  Fair for All, Parents Defending Education, and the National Summer School Initiative (NSSI). Mr. Rowe is widely published and quoted in the popular press, including the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, C-SPAN, the New York Post, the Washington Examiner, and the Education Week, and Education Next. In addition to serving 10 years as CEO of Public Prep, a nonprofit network of public charter schools based in the South Bronx and Lower East Side of Manhattan. 

He was Deputy Director of Post-Secondary Success at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Mr. Rowe won two public service Emmys while serving as the Senior Vice President of Strategic Partnerships and Public Affairs at MTV.

He was the director of the Strategy and Performance Measurement at USA Freedom Core Office in the White House and co-founder and president of Third Millennium Media. Mr. Rowe was also a senior staff member for Teach for America in his early days. After receiving a high school diploma in electrical engineering from Brooklyn Technical High School, he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science Engineering from Cornell University's College of Engineering. He earned an MBA from Harvard Business School, where he was the first black editor-in-chief of the Harbus, the Harvard Business School newspaper, serving as an elected school board member. He resides in Pelham, New York with his wife and two children. Ian, thank you very much for being with us today.

Ian Rowe : Well, Aram and Nolan  thank you for that introduction. I'm exhausted just listening to it.  [laugh]

AD : If you hadn't done so much, you know, it'd be shorter, and I know we can shorten it, and I think it's helpful for folks to understand where it is you're coming from and all the amazing things you've done. We're gonna jump right into it, Ian. I have really enjoyed reading your book. When we were getting started Nolan said, “Hey, how did you hear about Ian?” I said, well, a friend of mine, a colleague posted something about meeting you and talking to you here and you speak on LinkedIn and mentions your book.

And so, that was the lead. And I have to say of things that I've read recently, I highly recommend it. Ian, the name of your book is Agency: The Four Point Plan for All Children to Overcome the Victimhood Narrative and Discover Their Pathway to Power. Could you define for us and our listeners what you mean by agency, and how that connects to this concept of power?

The Role of “Agency” in Breaking the Cycle of Disadvantage and Overcoming Adversity. (04:37)

IR : Thank you for having me on the podcast, and before I give you my, I guess, formal definition of Agency, I’m gonna talk about how my experience has informed why I think this concept is so important. You know, as you said in the introduction, I currently run Vertex Partnership Academies, which is a new network of International Baccalaureate high schools. And for the decade prior, I ran a network of all-girls and all-boys public charter schools in the Bronx in the South Bronx in particular.

And even before then, you know, I've worked with kids in virtually every capacity. Rich kids, poor kids, black kids, white kids, Asian kids, kids from homeless shelters, kids in broken homes. And what's been interesting is that when I've seen kids who are raised in certain challenging situations, some have succumbed to those conditions, like they have recreated the disadvantages within their own lives.

And yet there were others who grew up, you know, maybe in troubled single parent homes, deep poverty, and yet somehow they were able to make different sets of decisions that have allowed them to embark on a life of prosperity. And the animating question of my life has been what makes the difference, right?

What is it that allows young people to understand that they don't have to be a victim of their own circumstance? And so in the kids that I've seen as they entered into young adulthood, were able to visualize a different sense of their future. My observation is that they had a sense of agency, that they were not victims, that they were architects of their own life, that they could craft their destiny, but it didn't just come out of nowhere. So, I observed four major factors that were common amongst those kids that seemed to arrive at a different place in their lives.

The first is in just family. So, regardless if they came from a troubled single-parent household or a dysfunctional, even married two-parent household, or domestic violence, somehow the family that they're from didn't restrict the health of the family that they formed, right? And we can talk a little bit more about things like the success sequence and we'll talk about that.

But, that was one of the first fundamental things that I've observed, that the cycle of disadvantage partially ended because the family you formed was very different than the family that you came from. The second major observation that I saw in kids, again in my own experience, is that they typically had a personal faith commitment. Didn't matter if they were Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, it was just that they lived by a moral code.

And not only that, they lived by a moral code, they were part of a community, a community of people that they were in kind of rituals of support.

So each week, whether you went to temple or church, you were part of a community that loved you and reinforced these expectations of the moral code. So that's just a key observation, this idea of a personal faith commitment. The third big observation that I've seen in young people who transcended their current condition was that they benefited some way from educational freedom or school choice.

So, they had the opportunity to go to a school that was much more right sized for them. So that could mean a charter school, a private school, a religious school, but somehow, again, even regardless of circumstance, their family, their parents, somehow they were able to go to a great school. And then the very last sort of common element that I saw is that these kids had what I call an entrepreneurial spirit. They were problem solvers in their own lives.

And so this is really important because if you have a strong family that you formed, if you have a strong personal faith commitment, if you've benefited from educational freedom or school choice. That usually creates the foundation for you to be more entrepreneurial, to be more of an informed risk taker in your own life. So those four elements; family, religion, education, entrepreneurship, I started to see that that could be a framework that I call FREE (family, religion, education, entrepreneurship) as a pathway. So if more young people knew about that arc of decision making, then they could cultivate more Agency in their own lives.

AD : The quote that I wrote down from your book that I loved was, “just as velocity is not just speed, but rather speed in direction. Agency is more than free will, it is free will guided by a moral sense of right and wrong”. Did I get that?

The F.R.E.E. Framework: Empowering Individuals to Make Better Decisions (09:50)

IR : Yeah, No, that's exactly right. And because we all have free will, right? We all have the ability to exercise decisions with our own lives, but as we've seen, there are lots of people who have free will who do some terrible things, right? So the question is how do you wield your decision making power over your own life? And that's why the FREE framework I think is so important because Agency just you said is not just free will, it's free will guided by moral discernment.

So, where does your ability to become morally discerning come from? And that's where I argue this framework of family, religion, education, entrepreneurship, and help you get there. So for example, within family, there's some data that I often talk about called the success sequence. And that is a series of decisions: you finish just your high school degree, then get a full-time job of any kind, just so you learn the dignity and discipline of work.

And if you have children, marriage first, if you follow that series of decisions, 97% of the people who follow that series of decisions avoid poverty. And the vast majority enter the middle class or beyond. If you don't know that that framework exists and you live in a community where the predominant family structure or single parenthood and you know, absent fathers, that you would never know that there's a way to make decisions around that first dig anchor of Agency. And so that's why I really try to have the same empowering message of what young people can do if informed with the right kind of information.

NM : Ian, kind of wanna take a step back here for our listeners and kind of build on what you had already kind of talked about here. But could you help describe what you see as the need for Agency for every child in this country, regardless of socioeconomic background and status?

Empowering Young People to overcome self-detrimental narratives (11:51)

IR : So part of the reason I run schools, especially in low income communities, is that I want students to know that they can do hard things. You know, that they are going to face obstacles in life, that there will be impediments, but that they have the tools of self-betterment, of self-renewal within them and that they have the ability to overcome.

And to your question, unfortunately, I've sensed two emerging meta narratives in our country that are really telling young people all the things that they cannot do, right? That based on certain characteristics of their personhood, their race, their gender, they're inherently a victim or marginalized. And I see these two narratives, I call these two narratives; one is blame the system and the other is blame the victim.

In the, blame the system narrative; that's a view of America, as an inherently oppressive nation, that if you are of a certain skin color, if you're black, there's a white supremacist on every corner, or capitalism itself is evil, or if you are a woman, you're inherently marginalized and behind the eight ball.

And that these forces in our country are so overwhelming, so overpowering, so discriminatory, so powerful that you are powerless to overcome them. And obviously that kind of narrative is very debilitating and robs young people in particular of a sense of Agency. But on the other side, I sense this narrative of I call blame the victim. In that narrative, America's not the problem. I mean, America's great, America's the land of opportunity. In the blame, the victim narrative. You are the problem. You haven't pulled yourself up by your own bootstraps, you haven't taken advantage of all these opportunities that this country provides for you.

Now, of course, the problem with that narrative is that it ignores what happens when a seven year old is growing up in a community where they may not have access to resources or a strong family. I mean, in the district in which I just opened high schools, of the kids that started ninth grade in the year 2015, 4 years later, only 7% graduated from high school ready for college.

That means 93% started high school and either dropped out or they actually did earn their high school diploma, but still could not do math nor reading without remediation if they were to go to college, right? So only 7%. 

So if you are, if you are a 12 year old, like you can't solve that problem, right? So there are some structural barriers, and so at the same time we call for personal responsibility, we also can't ignore some of the structural barriers that do exist. So those narratives of blame the victim and blame the system to me add up to a singular lie that tells young people that you can't do hard things, that you can't overcome these large forces, or it's your fault if you haven't done so. And that's why I felt Agency could be an empowering framework that is an alternative to those narratives.

AD : What I loved about, in your book, are the pictures that you've put in there. Nolan and I both be army guys, we like pictures over words, Ian [laugh]. So, even though it's beautifully written, and so whether we reference and just tell folks, hey, go read the book obviously. But the images between kind of blame the system, blame the victim and then this free approach. To me, it just really brought it kind of made it very obvious what it was you were conveying.

The False View of Equity: A Forced Top Down Zero Sum Game (15:58)

IR : Yeah, well, you know, there, there are a couple of images, I have in the book, well, one I have in family, which I thought was important just to get a sense of how I experienced the kind of stability and support that allowed me to have a sense of Agency in my own life. But in the book, I have a chart that many people may have seen it. It actually depicts equity and equality, and essentially it depicts equality. You know, all the several people are trying to watch a baseball game and there's a fence and they all have the same size box as supports, and one is able to see over the fence, but another isn't.

But then in equity you notice that in order for everyone to have the same outcome, they literally have taken a box away from one of the individuals and doubled up someone else. It's a powerfully visual depiction, which shows from each according to their ability to each according to their need. It's a very Marxian socialist concept, and it's a false view and it says equity is a better outcome. And it’s not, it's a forced top down zero sum game, which robs everyone of Agency.

AD : That was the image by the way. So you corrected me and thank you for that. Language is so important. So you're talking about the difference between equality and equity, and as we continue to frame the problem, I don't know if  we need more there, the definitions around discrimination privilege, these are words I feel like get thrown around a lot these days.

IR : Oh yeah.

AD : And do they help or hinder the conversation that you're trying to lead us to have?

The False Goal of Closing Disparities by Group (17:37)

IR : I think what you're asking is very important because, definition of terms is so important. Like equity is not equality. It's interesting, when I went to Harvard Business School, equity had a very different meaning than it is today. When I went to Harvard Business School, equity was something everyone was trying to get. Like you could get equity in this company called Google or you know, Amazon. Because equity meant your opportunity to have ownership in an enterprise of unlimited potential. Equity, today means something very different. Equity, today means the absence of disparities by certain identity groups, right? So, the way to achieve equity means that you've gotta eliminate those disparities between groups. You've gotta force equal outcomes by group, right? So, if let's say 23% of black students are reading at grade level and 42% of white students are reading at grade level, then in order to achieve equity, both of those groups have to equal the same.

Which, by the way, I'm using real numbers. Though, even if all black students suddenly were to equal white students, you'd have mediocrity. Because we've never had a situation in our country where even a majority of white students are reading at a grade level. So closing disparities by group is a false goal. It's actually a goal, all it would achieve is universal mediocrity. 

And so equity is this search to close group disparities and the lazy explanation that any disparity must be caused due to discrimination within that group. So if there's a disparity of outcomes of blacks versus whites, and that must be racism. Equality is something completely different. Equality of opportunity is for individuals, where equity is all about absence of disparities by identity group, equality of opportunity is focused on individuals. And as a result, both equality of opportunity accepts the reality that you're not gonna be equal at the end of the day in terms of results, right?

What we want to do on why I run schools is that kids are operating on a level playing field, equal opportunity. Do I have access to a great school? Do I have access to great teachers? Do I have access to schools with high expectations? That's the level playing field. Not every kid is gonna get 97 on their math test, right? Not every kid is going to be the superstar soccer player. So you accept the differences that occur in one's life, but that's not equity. 

Equality of opportunity for individuals is what our country was founded on. It's why I think individual Agency is so important, but equality is not equity. And I think it's really important that we all really define these terms so that we're consistent about what we're talking about.

AD : Also, continue kind of setting up the problem. And I, and we're gonna get to some of the work you're doing. Just a moment. You meant, could you say a little bit more about what you're seeing in terms of creating the conditions for the challenges we face, family fragmentation, shifting societal norms. 

How are these things kind of leading in? And then, I don't want to throw too much at you on time, but you quote Urie, is it Urie Bran….?

IR : Urie Bronfenbrenner, yes.

AD : So his work, and I just wonder about the process. What I'd love the process by which an infant transforms into an effective member of society. What are the conditions we're seeing and why is this again, why this the urgency of this work?

Bronfenbrenner's BioEcological Model of Human Development (21:38)

IR : Yeah, and you know, what's interesting is that I had been running public charter schools starting in 2010, and I had always thought the most important thing we need to do is just focus on running great schools. Obviously family is important, but I didn't really understand the central role it plays in the human development, until I was six years into running these public charter schools.

We had just moved our headquarters from Manhattan to the South Bronx, 140 ninth Street and third Avenue. Because we had huge demand in the South Bronx, all of our future schools, we were gonna open there. So we said let's move our headquarters. And one day I decided to take my team on a walking tour. I mean, you know, there was a needle exchange on the corner where we had opened up our new offices in the Bronxville.

We said like, this is where our students are, and so we should have our headquarters here. We decided to go on a walking tour and as we were walking, we saw in the distance a 27 foot, baby blue, Winnebago truck with all these adults who were excited, who were standing almost like the ice cream truck when it comes around with kids.

But this, these were grownups. And as we got closer, there was graffiti lettering on the side of the truck. The graffiti lettering said, “Who's your daddy?” Well it turned out that the ’who's your daddy’ truck was very well known in this area of the Bronx, and it's a mobile DNA testing center, where low income folks are spending somewhere between $350 and $500 to answer questions like, “could you be my sister?”, “Are you my father?” Really profound questions about family structure.

And as I really started to dive in and do more research, I discovered that the non-marital birth rate in this community was about 85%. And then, I really started looking into numbers of women 24 and under. And that's when it really struck me, throughout the country, women 24 and under who have children, about 71% of those babies are born outside of marriage. Within the white community,  it's 61%, within the black community, it's 91%.

And you have to say that they're always exceptions that some of these kids are gonna grow up with a single mom who was able to overcome, you know, every leap in bound to be successful for their kid. But the vast majority, the vast majority are on a pathway for another cycle of disadvantage poverty, domestic violence. And so if you are running schools and you're concerned about these issues of upward mobility, you cannot ignore the phenomena of what has happened in terms of family fragmentation.

And it was at that moment in 2016 that I decided I couldn't just speak about running great schools. I also had to help the next generation, the rising generation, think differently about their decision, related to family formation. You know, the non-marital birth rate of all babies in the United States now for more than a decade is more than 40% of all kids across race.

And I discovered Urie Bronfenbrenner because he created something called the bio ecological Model of human development and it's really common sense. But basically, what he was able to identify was that if you put a baby at the center and imagine a series of concentric circles around that baby radiating out by which circle has the greatest influence. Not surprisingly, the circle, the tightest circle, the one that has the greatest proximity is your family, your mom, your dad, your siblings.

And then if you radiate out a little bit more, you might see your school, you radiate a little bit more, you might see your church, radiate out a little bit more, you might see your neighborhood, you radiate a little bit more, you might see government, public policy, media, popular culture. And the point that Bronfenbrenner made was that if we really want to strengthen the development of children, you've gotta strengthen those most proximate forces, what he called the microsystem. And so if the microsystem, if the core is not strong, then what happens is all these other circles who have values and ideas that don't necessarily conform to your own, those are the ones that start interacting with your children. 

So that's why social media, for example, the internet can be so dangerous because suddenly your kids are now seeing images or hearing stories or learning ideas about things that your immediate family may not want you to, and yet they now are being exposed. So the combination of Bronfenbrenner's bio ecological theory plus this realization of the explosion, particularly in non-marital births just made it clear to me that I had to step out more, to acknowledge what a lot of us know but don't really talk about, which is the breakdown of the family, is one of the most fundamental causes of the issues that we see so many kids confronting as adults.

AD : Thanks for taking that work on. It probably would've been easier just to focus on great schools.

IR : You know what, if you're a school leader and you're being honest, you're being honest about what the challenge is that young people face and you don't confront the family question, you're being disingenuous. Basically, we need to run great schools. But if we're not talking to young people about what their future decisions are, particularly as it relates to family, they will be on a perpetual cycle of disadvantage.

NM : Hey everyone, Nolan here. I have to jump in and in today's podcast for part A of this show, be sure to rate, review, and subscribe to the NEGOTIATEx podcast if you haven't already. And also join us next week for part B of this awesome interview.

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