Following This Leader

Colin Powell talks education, immigration, veteran support and taking action close to home

Colin Powell talks education, immigration, veteran support and taking action close to home

By Jill Stewart Brigati

Photography by Jonathan Timmes
Photography by Jonathan Timmes

Several more hands covered their hearts once the audience members noticed that Gen. Colin Powell had done so from the stage, as they rose together for the national anthem at Constitution Hall last June. Only one Langley High School graduate stepped out of order, with an amplified “O … say does that Star Spangled banner yet wave.” Among the 500-plus students, the retired four-star general seemed to hone in on the rogue singer. Then the American flag unfurled from the ceiling, and the former secretary of state, Langley neighbor-cum-commencement speaker shifted his gaze to the podium.

“I can’t remember the name of my graduation speaker, where it was held or if I was even there,” Powell, 72, joked in an effort to show that this was not going to be a “back-in-my-day” diatribe. Then he gave his first directive. “My name is Powell,” he said. He spelled it for the students, all now completely attentive, and advised them not to mess it up.

So far, graduates from Langley and McLean High School, the audience he addressed later that day, have not messed up much, statistically speaking. In 2009, graduation rates topped 95 percent at both schools, each boasting more than 20 valedictorians. “Above all, be kind,” Powell said in his parting message, urging students to reach “forward, behind and across” to help others.

Our Brothers’ Keepers
At his Alexandria office, Powell discusses the education gap within pockets of Northern Virginia. “You will find youngsters who fall behind by fourth grade, which essentially puts them on a path to failing out of high school in due course,” he says.

Powell notes that although most of the region is blessed with an outstanding school system, he adds: “Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for you if a kid in Alexandria or Washington, D.C., fails school.” According to the Virginia Department of Education, the 2008 Alexandria public school dropout rate was 11.1 percent.

“These kids are teachable, and they come into the world as any other kid does,” Powell bristles. When those skills go undeveloped, he calls it a moral failure and an economic disaster. “Everybody ought to be concerned, because we pay the cost of kids not moving into the workplace, and who are finding their inspiration and role models on street corners,” warns Powell, who says the tricky part is connecting the source of talent with the need. These days, he devotes much of his time to making that connection.

Powell’s strategy to help underserved students in the Metro area and around the country is carried out through America’s Promise, a non-profit organization that he and wife Alma founded in 1997. Last year they initiated a dropout prevention campaign with Alexandria-based Communities in Schools (CIS), facilitating a mentor program to more than 1,800 students. “Now what if every church, every club, every business in Northern Virginia adopts a group of kids to mentor?” Powell challenges.

Photography by Jonathan Timmes
Photography by Jonathan Timmes

If at-risk students do not make it through high school, Powell notes they increase their chances of winding up in jail, adding burden to government social services. But, he says, there is an even simpler reason to serve: “Are we not all our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers?”

Ballou High School graduate Brandon Warren, 18, says the college application process would have been daunting without CIS support. “They helped me with a portfolio, a resume, thank you notes, everything,” says Warren, now in his freshman year at Florida A&M University, where he is majoring in business administration.

Not Just a Photo-Op
Even in tough economic times Powell believes that Northern Virginians are typical of every American, with a tradition of generosity. “It is an essential part of our identity. Just sometimes we need to stop and consider where we’re placing our generosity,” he notes. Powell urges “cross-community” giving, “not just with money but time, and not just for our own church population or religious institution,” he says.

Powell acknowledges that commuting to do volunteer work is not easy. Almost 10 years ago he came up with a local solution at his church, St. John’s Episcopal in McLean. “We’re up on this beautiful hilltop, in a nice yellow church, very upscale, Georgetown Pike,” Powell says with a faux air of entitlement. “I went to my priest and leaders of the church, and we adopted a school,” he says, making it sound not much more difficult than passing the donation basket. Powell initiated a volunteer partnership between St. John’s and MacFarland Middle School in Washington, D.C. “We painted it, put in new fixtures, a nurse’s station, and then we began to tutor the kids,” Powell says.

On Saturdays throughout the summer, MacFarland students visit St. John’s for breakfast, classes and lunch, all followed by a pool party at the Powells’ house. “He doesn’t just say, ‘You can come over and use my pool.’ He’s in the pool, right there with them,” says program coordinator Lisa Fikes. Creating a permanent connection with these students is key, Powell explains, “more than television cameras blaring and you read to them for 20 minutes.”

In January, Powell announced the launch of Renew America Together, a federal initiative that encourages local service. He points to the unheralded heroes in the Metro area who incorporate volunteerism into their schedules. “We’ve got people in the financial world showing these kids how to balance checkbooks [in the church program],” he says, adding that local volunteers “might not be getting credit in The Washington Post or New York Times, but they’re doing it.”

In Our Own Backyard
As the son of Jamaican immigrants, one social issue that hits close to home for Powell is immigrant support, and the problem of undocumented immigrants in search of work within Northern Virginia’s diaspora. Powell says government response should be measured. “Municipalities must consider that these folks provide a service,” he says, adding that immigrants take jobs that other people are not lining up to do. “Go to any suburban community in Northern Virginia, and see who’s cutting your grass,” he notes.

Powell says reducing illegal immigration is vital—but so is the need to protect those who are already here. “They tend to be hungrier than many of us who were born [in the U.S.],” he says, noting that all immigrants contribute more to serving our society than they take away.

At the City College of New York, Powell’s alma mater, the Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies offers fellowships to students who seek careers in public service. And with a diverse student body, CCNY’s population is made up of more than 50 percent immigrants. “I love what we’re doing up there because it’s reaching out to young, lower-income immigrant students, not children of immigrants but the immigrants themselves. We’re helping a new generation get the skills they need to be successful,” Powell says.

The Question of Veteran Support
“Is enough being done to help our local veterans?” is the wrong question to ask this Vietnam War general and former Joint Chiefs chairman. “Never is enough being done,” Powell responds in a deep baritone. He describes a soldier he met recently who “had half his head blown off” in Iraq, and whose mother and sister will be full-time caregivers for the rest of his life. “Is enough being done for a soldier like that?” he asks.

So how can the state best help our returning soldiers? Powell says outreach for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide risk are top priorities. But, true to form, he adds that assistance cannot come exclusively from government. In support of a trend he terms “big citizenship,” Powell calls for volunteers to sign up with veteran-related support programs.

“We never do enough for the young men and women who do so much for us. So on this Veteran’s Day, we should not only thank a veteran, but we should try to help a veteran,” he says quietly.

‘Before They Had to Put Up the Fence’
For several years Debbie and George Shapiro shared adjoining backyards with the Powells in their McLean neighborhood. One afternoon, Powell spotted George tinkering with a swimming pool problem and walked over to help. Debbie remembers he got down on his hands and knees, reached into the filter and said, “George, let me show you how to take care of this.”

“And we’re acting all nonchalant, like this isn’t the next secretary of state fixing our pool. Of course that was before they had to put up the fence around their house,” notes Shapiro. (After Sept. 11, Powell’s security detail insisted that a gated fence had to go up.) She says the Powells remained “more down to earth than a lot of people; just the security in the neighborhood got better.”

Almost eight years later, Powell recalls the poolside encounter. “Oh, yeah. It was the bearing in the pump. I could hear it.” The general’s administrator, Peggy Cifrino, says with a smile that her boss remembers everything, including details about the home and auto repair he enjoys doing for fun.

At Home Depot, one of the general’s favorite places to shop, Cifrino says the workers, many of them immigrants, will chase him down the aisles to say hello and thank him for his support. “ Everyone’s nice. Invariably they want to help. But with 15 people asking if they can help you … I know where everything is,” Powell laughs.

The effort Powell makes to remain as “everyday” as possible is evident in his relaxed, friendly demeanor. He often stays in McLean during free time because “people do not make much of a fuss, and that’s kind of nice. It’s real normal.” On the day of the interview, he pulls up to his office building in a station wagon instead of the Corvette Cifrino was on the lookout for. “Well, I have to stop and buy the water mixture to fix my paving stones,” he explains.

As Powell continues to work toward improving matters of social consequence on a national scope, he plans on keeping “retired” life in Northern Virginia. Two daughters live in New York, and son Michael lives in Fairfax; grandson Jeffrey recently graduated from South County High School. “We’re home,” the general says with a decisive nod.


(November 2009)