Big Fish: Wes Moore on Leaving for College, Returning to Baltimore

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With Wes Moore, biography only tells part of the story.

Moore graduated Johns Hopkins University, and left his hometown to become a Rhodes Scholar. He then served as a paratrooper with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. A year later, he was White House Fellow serving as Special Assistant to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He then went to work for Citigroup in the private sector. His latest role is as a social entrepreneur. His company, BridgeEdU, helps college students make it through their often-difficult first year.

While that sort of resume may scream ambition, the roles that have brought the 36-year-old the most attention reveal that his journey is more quest than climb. In his two books — The Other Wes Moore and The Work — and his show on the Oprah Winfrey Network, Moore puts others out front. Whether it’s a man incarcerated for murder or a disabled woman who learns to fly, Moore looks at how people are shaped by their circumstances, and how they respond.

In reflecting on his own place, Moore decided along with his family to move back to Baltimore from New York City in 2012, settling in Guilford. With numerous talk show appearances and op-eds keeping his name out there, talk of higher office has followed him ever since. His focus, however, has remained on helping local kids. We asked Moore about his life and work at home.

Sum up your life philosophy in one sentence.

Our most profound work lies at the intersection of our greatest passions and the world’s greatest needs.

In a TED talk, you discussed returning home from Afghanistan. What do you tell people about returning home to Baltimore?

Returning home to Baltimore has been a truly phenomenal experience. I am passionate about the future of my hometown and to raise my family, build my business, and work in communities that I truly call “home” is a blessing.  Our potential is limitless and our human capital is blindingly bright.

Through your correspondence with The Other Wes Moore and working with youth in the criminal justice system, what is the biggest obstacle you see to breaking the cycle of violence in Baltimore?

We have a tremendous amount of gaps in our community, education gaps, health gaps, housing gaps, and more. But the most dangerous gap we have in our society is the expectation gap.  We have to have an unwavering faith in the potential of all of our neighbors, because if we don’t, we create a community of self-fulfilling prophecies, which often times lead to heartbreaking results.

Do you still keep in touch with The Other Wes Moore? What is his life like now?

I do still keep in touch with Wes. And frankly his life hasn’t changed much in the 14 years he has been incarcerated.  One of the most common questions I get about the book is why did you stop telling the stories so abruptly in 2000.  The reason is, I wanted to give equal weight to both stories in the book. After 2000, that is literally impossible.  I could write about his life since 2000 in a paragraph. This is not to create sympathizers, but to highlight realities.

What is the best moment of the day?

Evening with my family.  I go very hard all day long, but I don’t take evening meetings, unless they are after bedtime, because that time is too precious for me.  Dinner time with Dawn and the kids, bath time, and stories at bedtime serve as a motivation all day long. 

Your company, BridgeEdU, looks to help students graduate by giving them help during their freshman year. In your view, what do students need to succeed when they first arrive on campus?

There are so many things students need as they transition to higher education.  Thirty-four percent of all students who start college every year will either not make it past their freshman year or not reenroll their sophomore year.  This is a real problem.  And whether it is because of financial challenges, academic remediation, or the social transition, we need to provide all of our students a softer on-ramp to higher education if we want to be serious about growing and supporting a middle class in our city. Introducing a more holistic experience that includes internships and service learning, coaching, co-curricular assets, financial aid supports, and injecting social capital, among other things, will help.  These are all things that saved me and set me on a different trajectory.  I just feel like we need to make sure these assets are now democratized. This is why I started BridgeEdU, a program that is meant to provide the softer on-ramp for our students.

What’s the best part of hosting a show on the Oprah Winfrey Network (other than the chance to get to know Oprah)?

Working with Oprah is wonderful, and gives a great platform to meet so many amazing people and share their transcending stories. My show, Beyond Belief, highlights individuals doing amazing work in their communities. Just meeting these people and seeing the positive change they’ve enacted was an incredible experience.

What was the best piece of advice you received during the journey described in The Work?

The best piece of advice that I’ve received was actually in Baltimore when I told one of my mentors I was going back to New York to work in finance. He immediately said to me, “I understand why you’re doing it, but as soon as you feel like it’s time to leave, then leave.  Because each day you stay, you become extraordinarily ordinary.”  That advice has always stuck with me.

What’s your favorite local organization or charity?

I am a huge fan of so many community-based organizations in the city.  I co-founded Baltimore Corps last year that helps to recruit, retain, and rebuild Baltimore leadership and talent base.  Additionally, organizations such as the College Bound Foundation, Associated Black Charities, Art with a Heart, Urban Alliance, the Y of Central Maryland, Big Brother Big Sisters, and many others, both serve as partners for BridgeEdU and also inspire me daily.

What is on your bedside table?

A picture of my family. They are the first thing I see in the morning and the last thing before I close my eyes. Right now I am also reading an enlightening examination of the beginning and the end of the war on drugs.

You’ve said in the past that you won’t be running for mayor or any other political office in Baltimore in 2016. Have you changed your mind?

I have not changed my mind. I enjoy the work I am doing now.  It is where I am supposed to be for right now.  I will always fight for my city, but don’t need to run for office to do it.

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