Before I sound like I completely condemn Wendy Kopp and all that she’s done in the field of education, I want to stress that I think Kopp has a very noble goal and (most of) her ideas were really inspring and resourceful in connecting an answer to a need. My biggest issue with “One Day, All Children” was the book itself—I had trouble moving past was the fact that I couldn’t tell what the purpose of this book was. I vacillated from, on one hand, thinking it’s an autobiography of Wendy’s experience with Teach for America, and on the other hand thinking it’s a book she wrote as a guide to inspire and mobilize young people around new ideas they have. Those were the two main goals I came up with when trying to understand the goal of the book, and maybe Kopp was trying to do both, but I have to say, unfortunately I don’t think Wendy achieved either objective.
“One Day, All Children” did not feel like an autobiography to me. While reading the book, I was often really frustrated with the lack of personal reflection Wendy included. For example, I was in awe of how, even as a recent graduate, she was somehow able to hold her own in meetings with top executives of Fortune 500 companies and senior people in the foundation world. She acknowledges her amazement at how these meetings came together, but she doesn’t reflect very much on how she gained the skills and confidence to lead a meeting with professionals, make a pitch about her organization, and firmly convince people to support her. For example, at one point Wendy recounts how she didn’t plan to leave a certain CEO’s office until he agreed to give some money to Teach for America, all with a pretty “matter-of-fact” tone like it was the most natural thing to do.
I was left wondering how on earth she gained the skills and the confidence to do all of this work with seasoned experts in various fields. It isn’t until roughly midway through the book that Wendy mentions that she is naturally an introvert, and that she had to learn people skills and conversation skills from one of her co-workers at Teach for America. This was a point that I was personally interested in because I consider myself an introvert in some situations. However, instead of thinking deeply about how she worked on this personal trait, she simply says that watching the coworker helped her get over her introversion. I can’t imagine overcoming that characteristic was that easy, and she doesn’t go into detail about how she learned to not only to feel comfortable simply conversing with others, but also feel confident making “asks” and inspiring confidence in adults. Kopp does little deep reflection about other issues that one would think were important to her, such as how TFA became increasingly professionalized and how she dealt with the fact that there was such little diversity early on in the organization. Reading about her honest personal experience with each of these issues would have made the book that much more meaningful.
While Kopp’s book fell short of truly showcasing her personal story, unfortunately I think she was similarly unsuccessful in providing a roadmap of how organizations form and how any young activist can follow her example. Wendy’s book highlights the nearly inhuman amount of work it took to build TFA, and she also stresses the fact that much of TFA’s success is due to a lot of luck. It is important to acknowledge the role good fortune has, but if Wendy’s goal is to inspire others to believe that they can act on their ideas too, her method of framing TFA in this book might not be the best way. I don’t mean to diminish the huge amount of work that many people did to make TFA what it is, but the ultimate takeaway I had from the book is that things often miraculously work out and funding will somehow come through at the last minute. While I’m happy that TFA had such good fortune, I am not convinced that that can happen for everyone.
If a reader is trying to get a sense of how organizations are started and what stages of growth they go through, they wont find that information in this book because Wendy doesn’t deeply address many of the nuts and bolts issues. For example, Kopp glosses over the fact that TFA’s pay structure changed from being egalitarian to more hierarchical. She simply says that it was a consultant’s suggestions, and doesn’t deal with the internal struggle she must have had when giving up this idealistic structure to be more professionalized and mainstream.
“One Day, All Children” was certainly a fascinating read, and I was on the edge of my seat at some points, wondering along with Wendy if their funding would come through from week to week. However, if I were trying to learn more about Wendy as a person or about her organization’s growth and structure, I would be somewhat disappointed on both accounts, for Wendy does not discuss many of the personal and professional obstacles she faced in enough depth.