SPEECH: George McDonald at the Hilton Head Institute

On May 14th, hundreds of thought leaders, chief executives, and philanthropists gathered at the Hilton Head Institute for its annual forum.  The Doe Fund’s founder and president, George McDonald, delivered the evening’s keynote address.

About a hundred and fifty years ago, two Irish women— a mother and her daughter— made a leap of faith and courage: to leave behind everything they knew, and build, with their own hands, better lives for themselves and their families.

They had heard, inklings and rumors from the other side of the world, about a land of opportunity, thousands of miles away. So they went.

But why would they do it? Why would they risk so much? Was it simply poverty, forcing them across a freezing, churning ocean? Thousands of others were just as poor. And they stayed put.

No, they weren’t just running from hardship. They were on a journey— a pursuit, toward something greater: opportunity. The opportunity to choose their path; to create one, for themselves and their children.

And so they came, surviving a terrifying, six-week journey, floating past a newly christened Statue of Liberty, homeless and penniless. Fortunately, according to the inscription below the statue, homeless and penniless was just fine, in America. Because here, their work— their lives— would have real value.

Those two unbelievably courageous women are the reason I’m here tonight: my great-great-grandmother and her daughter. The miracle of their story is the promise of our nation.

It is the promise that if a person reaches up towards America— with outstretched arms, eager to work— America will reach back and lift them up. And the next generation will build on that foundation; and they will stand even taller; and climb even higher.

We are a nation where human capital is unsurpassed in value…and power.

Those two Irish women, God bless them and their courage, spent the rest of their lives as domestic servants to one of the richest men in the world: J.P. Morgan. Five generations later, my family is still in the business of serving people. But instead of serving the rich, we now serve the poor.

In 1979, I gave up my career in business and did something that, according to my friends, was crazy: I rented a six by nine foot room on a rough stretch of Third Avenue and started visiting the homeless at Grand Central Terminal. I spent the next two years, over seven hundred consecutive nights, handing out sandwiches to the people living there.

I have always believed that capitalism— that distinctly American invention and the beating heart of our prosperity— truly is a force for good. But I couldn’t reconcile that with what I saw: Homeless people mistaken for garbage in the streets; crushed by trucks; dying of exposure and hunger.

How could a system like ours, created by a nation so rich with opportunity that people risked their lives to reach it— how could that system allow so many people to suffer?

One night, a man took one of my sandwiches, looked at it, and said, “Thank you, George…but what I really need is a room and a job to pay for it.”

A room, and a job to pay for it. And that was it. I thought about my family’s journey. I thought about the statue in the bay.

There, lying in front of me, in this filthy train station, were my country’s “huddled masses,” asking, yearning to work— barely surviving and still, asking to work. Homelessness was their famine; incarceration and drugs were their dangerous journey across the ocean. Their arms were outstretched. They were reaching up!

But instead of reaching back, we threw them a few bucks — or the occasional sandwich— hoping that that would be enough. That they would put their arms down. That they might just disappear.

The last two lines of “The New Colossus,” the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty, reads, “Send these, the homeless…I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” The golden door is the door to prosperity.

I realized: Our country hadn’t failed these people. Our country made the same promise to them that it made to millions before. It was us, the people on the other side of that journey, who had failed to deliver on our nation’s promise.

We had stopped recognizing their humanity. And once that happened, we were blind to their value— their human capital. We had shut and sealed the golden door, ourselves. Most of all, we failed to see their courage as easily as we saw our own.

And so, I made opening that door for them— the very door my family had passed through generations ago— my life’s work.

One evening, around our tiny kitchen table, my brilliant, beautiful wife Harriet and I put together the Ready, Willing & Able transitional work program. We had nothing except a contract to clean up some derelict buildings and a half dozen homeless men. What happened next was miraculous.

They got and stayed clean. They showed up to work on time. They were so efficient— so diligent— in their work, we finished ahead of schedule and under budget. That was the first time I saw the true power of work and opportunity. And I have never stopped believing in it.

Twenty five years later, the results have been pretty terrific.

We now serve over 1,000 people with paid work, job training, and social services, each day. Over 22,000 formerly homeless and incarcerated men have taken part in Ready, Willing & Able since we began. The businesses we created to support our programs have generated over $800 million. And the people themselves— the poorest of the poor; the “huddled masses”— have earned over a quarter of a billion dollars through their hard work.

Ready, Willing & Able has been proven, by studies at Harvard University and top auditing firms, to be the most effective means of breaking the cycles of poverty, homeless, and incarceration. And the model is so flexible, a half-dozen cities across the country have replicated it.

I would love nothing more than to accept all the credit for these achievements. But I can’t.
All that we did, and all that we do today, is invest in people’s lives with opportunity. They do the rest.

The question that has stuck with me ever since my time at Grand Central is: What would our society look like if we, as a nation, fully leveraged the power of our system— the promise of opportunity? Is it possible that the answer to society’s biggest problems— poverty, incarceration, inequality— has been there all along: inscribed on our statues; coded in our American “DNA?”

Is it really as simple as work?

In 1935, with the country on the verge of collapse, President Roosevelt ordered the creation of the WPA. It wasn’t easy: critics warned that the unemployed didn’t want to work. Nothing would get done, they said, the people were just too lazy.

It so happens that Harriet and I heard the very same thing from the City of New York, when we told them we wanted to put the homeless to work. And they were as wrong in 1935 as they were in 1985.

The WPA created 3.3 million jobs; it wiped out unemployment in the United States; and lifted millions of people out of poverty. Many of the projects completed by WPA workers— public infrastructure, community centers, museums— are still in use today.

That’s how powerful work is in America. The WPA ran for only eight years. And our country is still benefitting from those jobs, eight decades later.

Of course, we face a new set of American challenges today.

The number of young men asking for our help has doubled in the last two years. And they aren’t looking for a second chance from us; they never had a first! Virtually the entire generation that preceded them, including their fathers, has been incarcerated, warehoused and locked down.

Millions are on their way home from prison right now with no skills, no education, and no jobs. When they come home, and ask to work, will we see their courage? Will we meet it with opportunity, or will we decide, just like the bad old days of Grand Central, not to see them at all?

Can we afford to doom their children, the young people at our door, to the same terrible existence, while our entitlement system strains under the weight of their unrealized, uninvested potential?

The missing piece— the key and the solution— is so simple, so fundamental to who we are as Americans. It’s the reason our families came to this country. It was the path out of the Great Depression. And it’s been the way home for the thousands of people that our organization has served.

If we create opportunity…if we provide the opportunity to work for every unemployed, impoverished, incarcerated, and homeless person in this country, we can extinguish some of our biggest fears almost instantly.

Imagine if every able-bodied, working age person knew that, no matter what, they could always take home a paycheck if they were willing to go to work. We could finally and truly close the gap between poverty and the first rung of the economic ladder.

Our workforce would swell. Millions of people could leave the rolls of public assistance forever and, instead of tapping the country’s resources, they would restore them— as contributing, tax paying members of society.

But to do it, there is one thing we’ll need in abundance: Courage. The courage to deliver on our nation’s promise. And we have to recognize all those outstretched hands for what they are:

Not the plea of the needy— to be dismissed with an easy “hand out.” But the cry of untapped potential; of human capital, waiting to be invested; waiting to pay dividends; waiting for a “hand up!”

There is a tremendous amount of power and vision in this room. If we, as leaders in our communities, can take this idea— this perspective on the potential of every American— and grow it, and talk about it, and share it, then I believe we can fulfill our country’s promise.

We can raise the floor of poverty, without lowering the ceiling of wealth, and our country will rise together.

For thirty years, I have seen the power of work transform lives. Believe in it with me. Share this vision of a working America. And let us all take a moment to be in awe of our great nation; the courage and resilience of its people; and the promise of opportunity, which has brought us all together tonight.

Thank you very much. It’s been a privilege to be here this evening. God bless you.

Share This Post

About Author: The Doe Fund

Founded in 1985, The Doe Fund provides life-transforming services for the homeless, the formerly incarcerated, disenfranchised youth, and people living with AIDS. The organization's flagship Ready, Willing & Able program has helped tens of thousands of individuals achieve permanent self sufficiency through paid work, transitional housing, and employment training.