How Privilege Can Be Used For Good
The only way to change the world is to see it as it is.
By Evan Forster
Suddenly privilege has become a horrible thing to be associated with.
I am a private educational consultant. My clients pay for support through the college admissions process; often, they are quite privileged, but unlike the students in the recent Felicity Huffman / Lori Loughlin college admissions scandal, I never do my clients’ work for them. I never make “getting in” to the college of his or her choice easier. Instead, I make it harder, demanding that each one be the leader and author of his or her own admissions process.
Recently, a colleague who also provides these services expressed an existential crisis. He had received a scathing email from a beloved professor who condemned him for helping the rich and wealthy attain even more privilege through elite college admissions.
“How do I make sense of this for myself?” he asked. “How would you respond?”
My response was simple. I have no guilt helping the privileged. I’m not Rick Singer, the con artist who has for years been helping rich families get their undeserving children into elite colleges. I am not just helping the privileged attain brand-name university status. I intentionally help them embrace their privilege as a tool to become accountable, ethical, responsible leaders who can one day change the planet.
The only way to change the world is to see the world as it is. When it rains outside, you can wish it were sunny, or you can grab an umbrella. Better yet, you can hold your umbrella over someone else.
At my educational consulting company, I teach the importance of leadership to all of our privileged clients — college-bound or graduate-bound. Each candidate is required to take on a leadership project while working with us. Period.
The ethos is that the privileged have an extra duty to be responsible and accountable leaders.
Sometimes clients are successful in their projects’ goals, and sometimes they fail. Most experience the entire spectrum of leadership — the ups and the downs. One client recently spent part of her summer in Costa Rica where she taught local children to speak and read English. She complained that it was really hard because the local library had little to no children’s books. That’s when I helped her to see that there was an opportunity for her to make a difference.
As a privileged girl from the Upper East Side of NYC, she had access not only to the library in her own bedroom but to the bookshelves in friends’ bedrooms all over the city. That’s when she launched “Read the World” and began sending children’s books to that small town in Costa Rica. The best part? She learned about the concept of legacy by making sure that her project was passed down to other younger friends who continue it today. All of them learned how to leverage their privilege to make an impact on those less fortunate.
I admit that not all of my clients take these leadership experiences as seriously as others, but those who do not, suffer for it when they are trying to express who they are via the written word in an essay, a short answer, a resumé, or in the spoken word during an interview — and then they really get “woke.”
Those end up as children of the Huffmans and the Loughlins of the world like Olivia Jade and eventually get drenched in a rainstorm without so much as a newspaper for protection. They have no shame about their privilege, no interest in leveraging it for others, and no skills to fend for themselves or make a difference on the planet — despite their innate resources.
I don’t ask students to do anything I don’t do myself. For example, from 2000 to 2013, I created and then ran the college-bound program for the nonprofit Chess in the Schools in NYC. From 2010 to the present, I launched the nonprofit organization Essay Busters, also in NYC, to make sure that we give back, because we get so much. Others who work in my firm have been mentors for Essay Busters or created their own local projects like a local urban garden.
Here’s the kicker: Almost 50 percent of my grad-school clients also became Essay Busters Mentors. And after they did it once, they took it on again — even when they had already been accepted to the top grad programs around the world. And I have never been surprised to find out that many clients keep “giving back” wherever they are today — in their careers, in their neighborhoods, and/or in their families.
Herein lies my point about the privileged: I have found, over the past 20 years, that most people I work with, who undoubtedly have privilege, are just people like everyone else — small, medium or large — who want to make a difference.
Maybe it’s because they have big egos and want to leave a legacy. Maybe it’s because they were raised to do the right thing. Maybe it’s because old Auntie Evan (what students call me) refused to take “no” for an answer. I don’t know. I don’t care.
What I do know is that I have had the great fortune to give back to those in need and help those of privilege learn to do the same and pass the concept on to their children that it’s their duty to help the less fortunate.
I’m sorry that life is inequitable. I wish it were different. But it’s not. So, with respect to parents, those of us in education, and to my colleague and his professor’s scathing note, my advice is “stop being ashamed of privilege and thank your professor for helping to create an amazing man learn to make a difference on the planet … one student at a time.”
This story was previously published on The Good Men Project.