Q&A with Omar Wasow
BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Omar Wasow, about 10 years ago, I was interviewing Frank McCourt at Stuyvesant High School. And after the interview was over, he said, ”Where you going next?”
And I said, ”I’m going uptown on the subway.” And said, ”Well, come on, let’s go, I’ll buy you a subway ticket.” I must have looked like I needed money.
We got on the subway, and we’re sitting there, and all the sudden this charming woman comes up to him and says, I’m Omar Wasow’s mother. And I’ve never forgotten that story.
And they went on to talk about you in his class. So, I want to start with that. Frank McCourt.
OMAR WASOW: I had the real privilege, in high school, as you said, at Stuyvesant High School, of taking creative writing with Frank McCourt. And he was - he made a big impression on me. He was a real character. He wrote one of my college recommendations.
And you know, to this day, I think about things he said in that class. It was -- he was, there are stories of him sort of, after teaching, going into bars and sort of being this very theatrical character.
And that’s very much what he was like as a teacher, too. Every day, sort of telling stories and kind of engaging us in these unexpected ways.
LAMB: Can you remember something you specifically learned about writing or storytelling?
WASOW: Well, the - let me something that’s, like, totally not about writing or storytelling. I remember, he used to regularly say, ”What is the capital city of Albania?”
And for, you know, for an entire semester, he’d say, ”See, none of you pay any attention to me. I, you know, I ask this question, you go home, you don’t look this up. Nobody cares about what I want.”
And then you know on the second to last day, I went and I looked up what the capital city was, and you know, to this day, I know Tirana is the capital of Albania. And anytime I see any reference to Albania, I think of him.
And that’s not, you know, it doesn’t really get at the heart of his teaching style, but it speaks to how he was always sort of, in a way, kind of jousting with the class and teasing us.
And in terms of writing and creative writing, he -- one of the things that he -- he was -- at the heart, I think, of what he wanted from his students was for them to find their own voice. And so he let us write about things that were very intimate and very personal, and was very supportive. Without, I think, having what would be more of a conventional creative writing approach, which is to say, you know, here’s -- you need to have a theme and a subject and a, you know, a protagonist and an antagonist.
I mean, it was just, it was like sort of tell us something that moved you. Tell me something that was, like, very powerful in your life.
And so, I remember that things I submitted. And again, there was this -- he was a very encouraging and supportive teacher. So it was a real privilege to have him.
LAMB: Let’s go to the editor side of that meeting on that subway train. Your mother.
When you read your background, you come from a German-Jewish father and an African-American mother. Tell us about that.
WASOW: Well, I interviewed a lot of parents and picked very carefully. And these two seemed like they were high potential.
You know, and for me, my parents are like anybody. Just the folks I grew up with. And so there’s nothing particularly unusual about their backgrounds. But what has been real privilege, I mean, I guess, in a way, what’s less significant in some ways than sort of the particular kind of race or religion, is the sense of being a child of the civil rights movement. Of being somebody born in the wake of this sort of great transformation in America.
And their union, which was, when they got married in 1968, now you know 41 -- next month it’ll be 41 years. It’s -- I guess what’s powerful for me is that it’s sort of -- I feel like I’m a part of a piece of history and have this real kind of, almost mandate, or obligation, or debt, to kind of live up to the ideals of my mother, of my father, of my grandparents, who I see, in a way, as kind of you know sort of freedom fighters.
My grandfather had to you know flee Germany, as did my grandmother. And they undertook great risks to help themselves and help family members. My grandparents on my mother’s side, growing up in Texas, and later in Washington State and Seattle. You know, integrated neighborhoods, you know, underwent all sorts of discrimination, and I feel like I sort of carry this mantle of needing to be -- to kind of carry that fight forward.
And so that’s, I think, the most powerful part of what their union kind of symbolically means to me.
LAMB: What’s your father doing today?
WASOW: So my father was a professor for decades, and is now sort of in semi-retirement. So he’s an economist, and he still does some work with aid projects. But basically spends a lot of time playing solitaire on the computer and traveling in Mexico.
And my mom has been an early childhood educator, working with you know sort of four-, five- and six-year-olds. And then went on to teach teachers, and then went on to become a dean, and has been working for many years in a school, a bilingual school, in D.C., helping to grow its sort of program.
And she’s about to retire, too. And so, my dad’s very excited, because they’ll -- he’ll have a travel partner.
LAMB: We’ve seen you along the way in many different settings, including the fact that you used to have dreadlocks and weighed more.
WASOW: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: But we’ll go back to some of that.
But let’s jump way ahead to today. What are you doing today?
WASOW: So, my primary life right now is as a graduate student. I do some consulting, sort of in my, going back to the kind of dot-com world I used to work in, but I’m pursuing a Ph.D. at Harvard University in a joint African and African-American studies and political science program.
So, will graduate hopefully in a year and a half with a Ph.D. in African-American studies and have a significant body of training in statistics and in political science.
LAMB: Why did you want to do that?
WASOW: I had spent a dozen years in the Internet industry, and loved the Internet, continue to be very fascinated by social media and innovation.
But saw that a number of the key questions I was interested in, particularly around education and criminal justice issues, weren’t going to get answered by the work I was doing in the Internet. And thought the only way I was going to understand, how do we help kids get a better educational outcome, how do we help reduce the amount of crime and incarceration in the country, was to understand those issues more deeply.
And so going back to school has been this real gift for me to be able to kind of go deep on those topics.
LAMB: When did you start at Harvard?
WASOW: So I started in 2005. So four and a half years ago. And have been -- it was a very humbling experience. I’m an older graduate student. Most of my classmates are a decade younger than me, or more.
And they’re -- you know, I’m required to take some statistics classes, and I haven’t done -- you know, these are kids who have been doing calculus up until, you know, a year ago. And I hadn’t done it in 20 years.
And so, it was definitely -- there were definitely moments, particularly in the first semester, where I thought, you know, if I just kind of leave now, my parents will still love me. It’s going to be OK. And luckily, kind of found the wherewithal to turn in those papers and keep going.
But it’s been a wonderful experience overall.
LAMB: Probably the most visible on the Oprah show.
WASOW: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: What year did you do the 12 lessons on how to use the Internet?
WASOW: I think the 12-part series we did with Oprah was in 1999, or early 2000, it sort of overlapped a little.
And the -- and you’re absolutely right. I mean, to this day, that’s sort of one of the things that -- that’s the thing I am remembered most for, is having taught Oprah how to use e-mail.
And that was an incredible experience as well. I sort of -- there are all these moments where she -- she was actually kind of skeptical about the whole 12-part series and didn’t really want to do it at first. And, by the end of it, as we were breaking down the sets and everybody was sort of exhausted from three very intense days of shooting, she was still there doing e-mail.
She clearly had had a bit of a conversion experience. And so that was -- that made me really proud, that some of my passion for this medium had come across, and she had gotten the bug.
LAMB: How did it happen?
WASOW: I had been doing television reporting around technology issues on MSNBC and the local NBC affiliate in New York, WNBC. And sort of as an on-air gadget guru, had shown up on the staff, the radar of the staff, at Harpo, at her production company.
So I got asked to audition for this 12-part series. It was originally just going to have a kind of bit role in the whole 12-part show. Oprah took a bit of a shining to me, and they ended up including me in almost all of the episodes.
LAMB: I’ve seen you writing about the Obama presidential race and the Internet. Did you work for the campaign? And if you didn’t, why not?
WASOW: I didn’t work for the campaign. And I did give money to the campaign. The -- you know and I guess -- and I shouldn’t say that, I mean, there are a number of funny sort of personal similarities, right? I mean, he’s mixed, but his father’s an economist, my father’s an economist. I was born in Kenya, you know, his father’s from Kenya.
And more significantly, there’s sort of a generational sense of, here’s somebody who real feels like he could be a peer.
WASOW: Harvard also. You know, funny first name. And it’s funny, by American sort of convention.
And so there are all sorts of things, both kind of somewhat arbitrary and somewhat sort of substantive, that gave me a really strong connection to him.
I thought I was, you know, you mentioned Stuyvesant before. I was the student body president of my high school, and thought I was going to go to run for office and cared deeply about politics and was -- and had the privilege of working for a congressman, a guy named Bill Gray, who was the highest-ranking black elected official at the time, the house majority whip.
When I was in college, I interned with him. And as much as I learned from that experience, one of the things I took away was that I didn’t want to work in politics. And it was just too far removed from a lot of the stuff I particularly cared about, which is understanding the issues deeply and trying to sort of really kind of study stuff.
And so coming back to your question, why didn’t I work for Obama, I think for me, the way I feel like I can best make a contribution in the world is to try and help distill complicated issues into a more understandable form, so that other people are in a position to take action on those issues.
So that’s where I see my contribution.
LAMB: You were at Stanford when you worked for Bill Gray…
LAMB: … as an intern, or were you on the payroll?
WASOW: No, no, I was an intern.
LAMB: What do you remember learning the most about at that juncture?
WASOW: You know, there were a couple of things that stood out. One was, I saw a speech by a person who was running -- this is not in particular, in reference to Bill Gray, but it is about politics.
There was a mayoral race that year. And a candidate came and spoke to our dorm of 20-some-odd students. And what stood out was, this was this very beautifully-written speech, but you could tell that it had been said so many times, that the sort of life had been beaten out of it.
And I kind of thought, I don’t want to be in a career where the things I care about most deeply have the kind of life beaten out of them. I want to be able to sort of cherish the work a little more.
And that’s -- it’s hard -- I mean, that seems kind of subtle. But the other thing, I mean, I worked for Bill Gray for 13 weeks. And there were two offices, because he was this House majority whip, he had a leadership office. And I was in the Philadelphia office.
And after 13 weeks, we got to go across to the leadership office and meet him. And I thought, this is exciting, we finally get to meet him. I had not met him after, you know, three months of working for him.
And we got ushered into the office, and they took a photo, we shook his hand, and they ushered us out. It was maybe two minutes, tops. And it was just this sort of astonishing experience. So this is what power means in the world. As an intern, I had very little power. And very little status. And I was given very little regard.
And that just felt like a kind of world that I didn’t want to commit my life to.
LAMB: What year did you get out of Stanford?
LAMB: Degree in what?
WASOW: I did an individually-designed major in race and ethnic relations. So, kind of coming back to try to make sense of my life and how race and ethnicity play a role in the world.
LAMB: Do I figure 39 or 40 right now?
WASOW: Yes, 38.
LAMB: Soon to be 39.
WASOW: Soon to be 39. Exactly.
LAMB: So how does this world look to you?
WASOW: In terms of any particular thing?
LAMB: Yes. The future of this country.
WASOW: Yes. I mean, one of the things that is most exciting to be about the Obama victory is that historically, when there have been major successes, as it relates to kind of racial equality, they’ve happened in very strange political times, right?
So you’re talking about the Civil War and, you know, abolition of slavery, and the civil rights movement, which, in a way, has some of its biggest victories in the wake of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. And so it’s not normal politics. It’s sort of very strange politics.
And what’s very encouraging to me about what’s happened in the last few years is that Obama built a winning political majority. And it wasn’t, you know, it wasn’t -- he didn’t win because there was a third-party candidate. He didn’t win because there was any kind of freak thing. It was a very kind of broad coalition that came together.
And I even, as much as I was enthusiastic about his candidacy, was very skeptical of his ability to win, because I doubted the capacity of this country to kind of make that kind of coalition.
And so I think one thing that gives me great optimism about the direction the country’s going is that there is clear proof that people are willing to, in a very significant way, build multi-racial coalitions as a function of normal politics. It doesn’t have to be something that follows from, you know, something extreme like an assassination, or like a war.
LAMB: Politicians, depending on what side you’re on, are looking at the future, saying my grandchildren won’t have any of this. Because we are in deep financial trouble. How does somebody your age look at it?
WASOW: Yes. I, at the same time that I’m enthusiastic about the kind of coalition-building that happened, I’m very nervous about the growth in the federal government. I come out of having been an entrepreneur for a dozen years, of having great enthusiasm for the power of markets and, you know, small businesspeople to really kind of reinvent the future.
And I look at the sort of mass, you know, between two wars, enormous federal debt, all sorts of new commitments at the federal level. I get very nervous about the future of this country as it relates to, you know, having a sustainable society. That we’ve sort of come to expect lots of sort of benefits, and none of the costs. And that that’s, you know, obviously not sustainable, given the debt.
I also have great optimism, though, about some of the kind of reform movements that happen, whether it’s on the side of trying to sort of -- I mean, I think one of the things that I hope -- in my mind, there’s this huge majority in the middle that is sort of socially liberal and fiscally conservative.
And that, if that kind of voting center is able to exert more influence, then that will work as a check on, I think, some of the kind of social conservative extremism around demonizing gays and lesbians, and at the same time, work as a check to the kind of massive expansion of government, which I think is also a check on, kind of, liberty and freedom.
LAMB: A couple years ago, something called BlackPlanet.com sold for, I guess, $38 million.
WASOW: Yes. So…
LAMB: Does that make you a rich man?
WASOW: It doesn’t make me a rich man. By the time we sold it, my share of the company was relatively modest. So, I’m very happy it sold. I’m very happy that it’s got an owner who is really committed to growing it and taking it to a new level.
LAMB: Cathy Hughes in Washington?
WASOW: Exactly. The Radio One Corporation, which now has an Internet division called Interactive One, acquired it. And so, glad that it had a happy ending. It’s still getting about five million visitors a month, so it’s going very strong.
LAMB: Why did you leave?
WASOW: You know, it comes back to the question you asked earlier. I was -- I had been working in social media, and kind of social networking for nearly a dozen years. And a lot of the questions that really interested me, about business, about opportunities to kind of figure out, how does entrepreneurship change the world? Which was really kind of at heart of what I was interested in. How does technology change the world, were less pressing to me.
And I really became focused on, how do, why is there a black/white achievement gap in schools? Why is there -- have we seen an eight-fold increase in incarceration in this country in the last 40 years? And so going back to school was a way to ask new questions.
And that’s, in a way, business was one set of questions, and now, school is another.
LAMB: The Brooklyn charter school.
LAMB: Why did you get involved in that, and what year did you get involved, and is it still there?
WASOW: I am -- so I mentioned, I’m the child of sort of two educators. Almost everybody in my family is a teacher. And when I went into business, my grandfather turned to me, and he said, ”What? You don’t need a high school diploma to go into business. What are you doing?”
And it’s like I had violated the kind of the family, you know, business. And I loved, you know, I continue to love entrepreneurship. But I think starting a charter school, being involved in the charter school movement, the school choice movement, where broadly had been a kind of penance to the educators in my family that, like I’m still, you know, connected to this family trade of education.
And what was wonderful about charter schools was, it was a way to marry my love of innovation and entrepreneurship with the world of education.
LAMB: How’d you do it?
WASOW: So, started initially being involved with a group that was lobbying for a charter bill in New York State. We didn’t have one. That got passed, I think, in ’97. And then we started -- I applied with a small group of friends, to start a charter school, once it was you know possible to do that. Got rejected twice.
The third go-round, which was, I believe, in 2000, we got approved, which was thrilling. But then, even that -- we took what’s called a planning year, where we were going to take an extra year to kind of make sure we got the foundation right.
September 11 happened, in 2001, and there were suggestions that they should freeze all new charters to -- because of, you know, budget constraints. And so it was sort of a long circuitous road.
We finally opened in 2002 as a K, kindergarten through fourth grade charter school. We partnered with an organization called National Heritage Academies. They run a network of, now I think 55 charter schools around the country.
And so that allowed us, as a non-profit board, to bring in real experts in -- who, you know, who have done it a lot. And it was very much a partnership. And so, that was -- so, I was the founding president of the board, and we started the school.
And it, you know, and people used to talk about some of the big challenges of a charter school. How it’s really hard to get a good principal. It’s really hard to get a good school. And, you know, a few weeks in, we had gotten a building, we had gotten a principal. I was like, why is everybody talking about, this is so hard?
And then our principal withdrew, and the building fell through, and so -- we went through a couple of spaces, a couple of principals. I mean, it’s been a real roller coaster ride. But, we are now, I’m very proud to say, when we started, our students, on average, 27 percent of them were proficient in math. Now, 95 percent of them are. There are similar numbers in English.
LAMB: So, what are you doing?
WASOW: It’s -- in some ways, as a friend of mine says, it’s not -- there’s no 100. It’s not one 100-percent solution. It’s 100 one-percent solutions.
It’s having an orderly environment for the kids. It’s having a lot of time on task. It’s making a significant investment in teacher training. It’s making sure that when anybody is not, you know, sort of part of sharing -- anyone on the team doesn’t share the mission of, we are going to set very high standards and make our kids work hard towards them, but also give them a lot of support, that those folks aren’t -- if you don’t support that vision, you’re not going to be on board for long.
LAMB: How many teachers?
WASOW: Well, it’s 650 kids. And I believe it’s a staff now of about 30 total.
LAMB: What do you not have to follow, that every other school that’s run by the city has to follow?
WASOW: So, as a charter school, we are a public school. We are required to follow all of the kind of mainstream laws that you would expect.
We, you know, we have to have -- we’re ADA-compliant. We can’t discriminate against anyone on the basis of race. We are, you know, a public -- we’re subject to a lot of rules and regulations. We have to take the same tests and meet -- but the main kind of trade-off that a charter school makes is, we’re going to give up a -- we’re going to be held more accountable.
We have outcomes at the end of five years, where if we don’t meet those outcomes, we get closed. And in exchange for that higher level of accountability, we get more freedom to set the length of our school day, to set the length of our school year, to pick our own curriculum, the have more freedom in hiring and firing.
And that sort of reduced red tape gives us a lot of room to create more esprit de corps among the staff to you know make sure that we’re, you know, we can invest in a pretty good curriculum that we like, that may be different from what the state wants. But as -- and we can do of that, as long as our kids are doing well on the statewide assessments.
LAMB: Do the teachers -- or can the teachers belong to the union?
WASOW: They can belong to the union. At our school, they’re not unionized. Some charter school are unionized. So it’s not -- the law doesn’t specify.
We are required to have a certain percentage, and almost all of our teachers are certified. But we are given a little bit more latitude to have new teachers who aren’t certified.
So, it’s less -- I think the real difference is not so much in unionization or not unionization, it’s really in, do we have -- can we let teachers go when they’re not performing? Can we let a principal go if he or she doesn’t share our vision? It’s really about making sure that everybody is held accountable, from the students on up.
LAMB: Do you stay away from tenure then?
WASOW: There’s not a formal tenure policy in our school. It’s, I mean, you know, it’s like most jobs. If you do your job well, you are going to be, you know, encouraged to come back. We really want you.
And if you don’t do your job well, that’s not serving the kids. That’s not serving the parents or, you know, public education.
LAMB: So back to your experience with the Internet. Tell us what a day is like for you in the Internet. When do you first get on it?
WASOW: I am, you know, so a day like today is typical. I wake up, I reach for my cell phone, turn it on, and grab -- pull the e-mail down, right on my cell phone.
So I read…
LAMB: What kind of cell phone do you use?
WASOW: I use, now, both an old Trio, which is a -- it’s sort of a bit of a clunker. And then I’ve been playing with an iPhone, which I’ve enjoyed a lot.
And both have their strengths. But you know, and reading e-mail first thing in the morning. And take greater…
LAMB: Do you respond right away?
WASOW: Not always. Typically, I will -- unless it’s something really mission-critical, I will just kind of see what’s come in and wait until I get to my laptop to respond.
LAMB: Where is your laptop?
WASOW: Laptop is in the living room. And it’s, you know, also, you know, sort of, you know, I’ve obviously got a wireless network. And so, and checking the news, and then responding to e-mail, often before I brush my teeth or have breakfast, and go often, you know, and hour or two at the computer before I get up and kind of deal with the rest of the day.
LAMB: So, what’s likely to be happening in your world that you have to get on the computer?
WASOW: You know, so I lead a funny life. I mentioned before that my primary job is getting a Ph.D., but I still do some consulting with my old company, Black Planet. I still am doing some media work. You know, this, as an example, but also the Today Show, you know, Oprah.
And so occasionally I’ll have a bunch of e-mails that are urgent around kind of producing a segment or, I do a lot of public speaking and am sort of grateful for these opportunities to go and speak to, like, library associations. And so there may be logistics there.
LAMB: Do you make part of your living from speaking?
WASOW: Yes. I do make part of my living from speaking. And it’s been…
LAMB: Who pays? Who are the people in this country that would pay to hear you speak, and about what?
WASOW: Yes, it’s a little crazy, right? That anybody should pay. It…
LAMB: I didn’t say that.
WASOW: Well, I guess -- right. I think I find it kind of remarkable.
The folks - I mentioned library associations before, and they’re a good example of groups that are looking for somebody who has both experience with the Internet and experience with social media, and can kind of talk about, has -- how are things like Google, how are the Internet transforming our businesses, transforming our industries.
So it’s a lot of either professional associations or you know, industry associations, that are curious about the way the Internet is transforming their world.
LAMB: Specifically, when you’re up early in the morning, where do you go for your news?
WASOW: I’m a New York Times junkie. So, I am -- that’s almost always the first place I look. I’m also fond of News.Google. I have, you know, I have a bunch of keywords that I’ve set up there, so that I can kind of track various alerts. People I want to kind of keep track of, or different sorts of companies and trends.
A couple of other sites I’m very fond of are Talking Points Memo. My advisor, Skip Gates, has the site The Root, which is a great news site and opinion site covering African-American issues, and I…
LAMB: That’s on by the Post…
WASOW: That’s on by the Washington Post, yes. And I should say, I do some work for them, too. And so I follow them partly for personal and partly for professional reasons.
And then, sort of more broadly, I’m kind of scanning lots of different news sites throughout the day, not with any particular kind of structure. But, you know, Huffington Post, sometimes looking at blogs that -- by professors, and others that I like.
LAMB: Do you go to somebody on the other side, politically, like a conservative Web site?
WASOW: There’s a -- yes, there’s a site I like called The Next Right, which is a blog written by -- I mean, it sort of feels like people who are peers. They are, you know, I’m guessing people in their 30s and 40s, who are simultaneously very committed to a, you know, sort of the success of Republicans, but with, to my mind, out, what I find, often -- you know, I’m actually politically quite moderate.
And so, for me there’s a lot of overlap with, you know, folks like The Next Right. And where I kind of get lost, and where I think a lot of people get lost with some of the Republican rhetoric, is around the most kind of divisive sort of stories.
So for me, going back to the election. What was most sort of alienating in the election, the ’08 election, were these moments were people, you know Palin in particular was talking about real Americans. Right?
And I think of myself, born in Kenya, right. You know, a name that may not show up a lot in Alaska. And I wonder, you know, is she talking about sort of denying me my American citizenship, in some level? Like my American-ness is somehow being written out of the story.
And when people talk in those kinds of terms, it’s almost like a kind of declaration of war. It’s like, that, to me, is very provocative, and I find, very -- it’s a real challenge.
And so, what I like, coming full circle, back to folks like The Next Right, is, I feel like they have a much more inclusive vision of what it means. You know, who’s an American, and who’s in the party? And they’re still committed to ideas I find very compelling, like limited government, like markets. But without some of the more divisive, kind of exclusionary identity politics.
LAMB: By the way, the name Omar Wasow, is there a middle name?
WASOW: Tomas, yes.
LAMB: Explain how that came about.
WASOW: Yes. So, I was born in Kenya, as I mentioned. My parents had a lot of friends who were Muslim, and they had sort of encountered the name Omar when they were in Nairobi.
And they also saw that it was a name that showed up all over the world. And so they liked that it was kind of international, and that it had some kind of local appeal in Kenya.
My uncle -- I have literally an Uncle Tom. And so he’s Thomas Wasow. And so Tomas was a sort of a bit of an homage to him. And Wasow is actually even a bit of a -- a bit confusing, too. My grandfather was adopted by Wasow. And so, he -- that is to say, my father’s father was born with the name Kleinipth (ph) and adopted by Wasow. And so, Wasow is an adopted name.
LAMB: Back to the Internet. Social media, you mentioned. What kind of a social media world, again, do you live in?
WASOW: So, I mean, one of the things that’s been most fun to me. I mean, just to give a little bit of history. I fell in love with social media, not in the last decade or even 15 years, but as a student in junior high school and in high school using bulletin board systems, where you would take a modem and call up to some other local hobbyist or enthusiast in your area. And it was a like a mini-AOL, but all text-based.
And you know this is very nerdy stuff. But that was sort of my roots in social media go back long before the Internet. And when I came out of college, I became fascinated with this idea that I could create a watering hole online as well.
And so, I had this at one point, 20 phone lines coming into my apartment in Brooklyn. People thought I was -- NYNEX, which was the local telco at the time, thought I was running a phone sex operation. Because they were like, why would you have 20 phone lines? I said, you know there isn’t enough room in my apartment for that many people.
So end of the story…
LAMB: Why did you?
WASOW: I had 20 modems, that were hooked up to a computer, so that people could call in to my little mini America Online, called New York Online.
LAMB: What year was that?
WASOW: This is like ’93 to ’99. And it was a really good run, but it was also pre- -- it was before the Web, it was before the Internet really took off. And so, it was kind of a technology that was a little early, and as the Web took off, all of these sort of social media experiences began to migrate to the Web.
And at the risk of geeking out a little, you know in the early days of the Web, you really couldn’t -- you know, I mean, you think about the rhetoric Al Gore used. It was, the Internet is going to be this information superhighway. And my whole experience of the Internet had been -- or online media, had been a bit of like a supper club. It wasn’t this giant set of encyclopedias.
And so, as one person put it, the Web was initially like a neutron bomb on the Internet. Because it took away all the people. It was just stacks of information. And what people had been doing over the last, really now decade and a half, is layering, on top of the Web, tools and technologies that weren’t there at the start, to kind of create, and bring the people back to the Internet in a way that had always been there historically. So…
LAMB: Example of what you’re talking about.
WASOW: So, I mean, with our first site, Black Planet, we were -- part of why it took off like wildfire is, we were giving people things like, you know, easy instant messaging, easy chat rooms, easy ways to create profile pages of themselves, ways to post on message boards.
All things that are totally standard now. But, for a while, that was something you paid $20 a month for on AOL, and there was no good version of it on the Web.
So had basically built all these home-grown, all these tools, to give people an easy experience of that. And you can kind of trace the success of sites like MySpace and Facebook and Twitter as attempts by companies to kind of recreate some of the core experiences that had been there, really decades ago, in these early technologies, but hadn’t been built into this really information management medium of the Web.
LAMB: How many non-blacks use Black Planet?
WASOW: The site is about 90 percent African-American. So, it’s, you know, it’s open to anybody, but it’s really -- it’s a, you know, like any community. It’s really -- people come there because they enjoy interacting with the other members.
LAMB: So, you’ve got a lot of things going on.
LAMB: Jump ahead 10 years. Where do you think you -- what’ll you be doing?
WASOW: So, I went back to school, in part -- not just to kind of go deep on these two topics, but to really -- to learn to write better. And so, you know, my fantasy 10 years out is, I’m writing a lot. I’m teaching. And I’m probably involved in something entrepreneurial.
LAMB: Go back to Skip Gates.
LAMB: Name well known. And particularly high-profile over the whole Cambridge police incident.
Impact on him that you saw, and impact on you, because it had an impact on him.
WASOW: Yes. So, I was talking to him regularly through that process, because of the work I was doing with The Root.
And the -- I mean, I think the most direct impact on him immediately was that it really -- there was this enormous amount of stress for him. Not only because of all of the media attention, and because -- but I think he was, you know, genuinely, you know, frustrated by how he’d been treated.
The -- and then, sort of following the Beer Summit, I think for him there was a real sense of calm -- calm is maybe a little strong, but a return to him former self, he’s very jovial, very -- I mean, I think one of the weirder things that came, that might have -- people who don’t know him would have found it hard to understand is, he’s an incredibly proper guy.
And so, the idea that he was kind of, you know, charged with disorderly conduct, a charge you use when people are rioting, it just sort of doesn’t quite add up. And so, that’s -- kind of, I saw him go from being sort of quite unsettled to quite, you know, returning to his very, kind of relaxed and sort of lively self.
And then, in an interesting kind of way, my -- even though he’s been an incredible supporter of mine in the Academy, his work has primarily been on literature, and mine is interested in criminal justice issues. And suddenly, in a purely selfish way, he -- I’m thrilled that he has this deep interest now in criminal justice. And, I mean, not that he didn’t have it before, but it wasn’t central to his work.
LAMB: What’s your dissertation?
WASOW: So, I’m really interested in why rates of violence vary dramatically across neighborhood and time. What we see is that, you can have two neighborhoods right next to each other. One will have a much higher homicide rate than another.
And the reason I’m focused on that is not so much that I’m particularly interested in homicide, but interested in crime more broadly, and its effect on society, and its effect on race relations. And by looking at homicide and violence, you have sort of a proxy for that.
So you take, you know, a place like New York, when I was growing up here. 1993, there were two and a half thousand murders. You know, it just totally changes the culture of everybody’s interactions.
Now, it’s about 500 a year, right? And so, that’s a very dramatic drop. And trying to understand what led to the spike in homicides, what led to the drop, is at the heart of what I’m trying to understand.
LAMB: Why does somebody study African-American studies?
WASOW: So, there -- a very good question. I mean, I think, what you’re seeing broadly in the Academy is that there’s this real commitment to inter-disciplinary work. That people are blending different fields.
And what’s nice about having disciplines like American studies, in this -- you know, history of science, lots of different things that sort of cut across disciplines, is that it allows people to blend methods in a way that can still help sort of answer important questions.
So, for me, race was a kind of central organizing force in a lot of the questions I was asking, right? I’m not just interested in education abstractly. I’m interested in the black/white test score gap. I’m not just interested in criminal justice questions broadly, I’m interested in why do we see such a disparate impact on African-Americans of the criminal justice system.
So, for me, I was interested in multiple methods using statistics, using political science, using history, to understand these questions. But organized around a common theme of African-American, you know, sort of the -- kind of race in America. And race in politics.
And so, you can think of any interdisciplinary field, African-American studies among them, as a kind of new attempt in the Academy to allow people to mix methods around common topics.
LAMB: By the way, how does someone studying African-American studies get a National Science Foundation grant?
WASOW: So, the National Science Foundation was very -- I was luck to get, or privileged to get, a fellowship. They have a graduate research fellowship.
And they basically support social science. So, they’re looking to support political scientists, economists, sociologists, who are doing work that they think can contribute to both kind of scientific foundation of this country, and to sort of solving important social problems.
And so, I am trained as a political scientist, and have a master’s now in political -- in government, is what they call it at Harvard. And so, it’s as a political scientist that I was granted the National Science Foundation research fellowship.
But, I think what you’re seeing is, and again, this is a little bit nerdy, but there’s sort of this blending, to some degree, of the social sciences. There are tools that economists use that come from sociology. There are tools that political scientists use that come from statistics. And that kind of blending means that there’s -- people will use different tools, based on the question they’re asking. And it’s less -- the disciplinary kind of boundaries are blurring a lot.
LAMB: What do you see when you’re inside the African-American community about Barack Obama as president. What impact is it having, maybe, that white folks wouldn’t see?
WASOW: Well, there’s one -- I mean, I’ve had this conversation multiple times with friends, where, I mean this is sort of a silly example, but a good friend of mine has been trying to lose weight for years. And he relayed to me, after the election, he said, you know what? Like, I can you know, be more disciplined about my eating if we can have a black president.
And I think there is a kind of broad sense that this country has shown it’s capable of greatness, in a way that we didn’t expect, those of us who are kind of in the black community. And that that sort of imposes maybe a kind of -- we can raise the bar for ourselves as well. So that’s one, again, sort of -- in a lot of different ways, I’ve had that conversation with friends.
I think it’s also forced a certain kind of hard conversation inter-generationally, right? That there were a lot of older African-Americans who were either skeptical of, who is this young upstart? Or, I just had a very -- and one of my oldest family friends was telling me, she didn’t want to vote for Barack Obama, because she was worried he was going to get assassinated.
And for a younger generation, that’s sort of an unacceptably cautious and unacceptably -- it’s not conservative, but it’s almost -- it’s too cautious. And at the same time, where it’s coming from is a place of deep love, but it’s sort of, you know, she saw Martin Luther King killed. She saw John F. Kennedy assassinated, she didn’t want to participate in that happening to Obama.
And it gives a kind of a broader inter-generational conversation that he is really forcing, which is, you know what are -- what is the agenda for the black community more broadly? There’s been this kind of gap in the wake of the civil rights movement.
The -- and sort of -- and I guess in some ways, you asked earlier, like what am I trying to research. And really, in some ways, the biggest question I’m trying to understand is, what happened to the civil rights movement? What happened to a kind of African-American -- the black freedom struggle in this country?
Because it kind of dissipated in the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s. And I think what’s interesting about Obama’s election is it takes a lot of those questions back to the forefront. Where is the agenda for advancing the welfare of black Americans today?
LAMB: Anybody that saw you in 1996 on, on MSNBC, saw the dreadlocks.
LAMB: Did you feel differently about the world when you were wearing dreadlocks? And why’d you get rid of them?
WASOW: So, I got -- so I had dreads for 19 years. And first started growing dreadlocks when I was in high school, and…
LAMB: Was it your own hair?
WASOW: Yes, yes, it was all my own hair. And you know, I mean, basically, dreadlocks are just, you know, it’s sort of slightly knotted hair. And so if you let it knot, and you don’t brush it out, it’ll knot. Washed it all the time, was -- and let it grow and grow and grow. Had it through college.
You know, it was -- I had the privilege of having some bosses at MSNBC, at WNBC, who saw it as a plus rather than as something I needed to get rid of. So it was something where -- I even, when I worked for Bill Gray, I -- that was the first time I thought I might have to cut my hair. I went working for this congressman.
And I went down to the, to the first day of this internship in Congress, and I thought they might say, oh no, no, no, no. You’re going to have to go cut your hair and come back. And, you know, and I wasn’t sure what I would do if they had said that. But they sent me down to the office to get my ID laminated. And I thought, once I’ve got a photo under laminate, I’m good. They’re not going to.
So, there were these various junctures where people, you know it wasn’t considered so radical. And in fact, if anything it was just a part of who I was, and they were cool with it.
Fast forward, I went back to school four and a half years ago, and after having been in the kind of national spotlight a little bit with, you know, TV and, you know, NBC and Oprah, decided I really wanted to be anonymous as a graduate student.
And I also this idea that you should change your haircut once a decade maybe. And I was coming up on two, and maybe now was a good time, as I was leaving New York for Cambridge, leaving the dot-com world for the Academy. And just wanting to be sort of very low-profile as a student.
What would have been the impact during the presidential campaign had there not been an Internet, on the Obama campaign?
WASOW: I think there’s no way the Obama campaign could have won without the Internet. I mean, so a couple of key reasons for that.
One is, the Internet allows candidates who really are inspiring on some kind of cause, whether it’s Ron Paul for the kind of Libertarian community, or Obama for you know a certain set of the kind of Democrats. If you’ve got a message that is compelling, you can take sort of passion from a small group of people who are willing to give you money upfront, and turn that into credibility in the offline, non-Internet world. Right?
So, what Howard Dean was not able to do was to take that online passion and turn it into offline success. But it fueled his campaign in a way that, you know, he wouldn’t have gotten as far as he did without the Internet.
And Obama was really the first candidate in any party to take online passion, that capacity for raising a significant amount of money online, and turn that into people knocking on doors on the ground, advertisements on TV, you know real sort of, you know, house parties, lots and lots of offline organizing and marketing.
And so, you’ve got to -- online, you’ve got niches that allow you to get a base, and offline you’ve got to go mass. And Obama used that base online to, you know, really become, you know, I mean to build a broad coalition. But without that initial base, you can’t win.
LAMB: When you were writing about it, you mentioned the fact that 3 million, 3.1 million people gave $600 million to Barack Obama. It sounds like a lot, until you step back and look at, it’s only one percent of the American people, out of 308 million. And $600 million, and we see how much money is thrown around today.
What do you think about the future candidates? Are they going to find it easier to raise that kind of money?
WASOW: I mean, I think one of the other interesting things, and this is -- you’re exactly right that it’s a relatively small percentage of the public that gives. We’re going to see -- and Obama has rewritten the book on how to do a campaign.
And every candidate, not just in this country, but around the world, who is you know interested in winning, is going to think, how can I replicate that model of mobilizing people online to drive offline success?
And so, I don’t think we’ll see the percentage of people donating go from you know one percent to 50 percent. But what you will see -- I mean, what’s great about the Internet is it creates this sort of gentle on-ramp for people to become more engaged as citizens, as activists.
And so, you can give -- you know, it would have been impossible before the Internet to have a successful campaign that raised you know $10 chunks. Because it’s just too expensive. You know, it would cost you $9 to get $10. Online, you can allow people to give small amounts of money, to just do something small, print out a flyer to put in their window, organize a house party.
There are all of these very sort of simple ways to kind of dip your toe in on behalf of a candidate. And then, incrementally, get more and more committed.
So, what I think we will see is, an enhanced capacity for civic engagement, driven by the Internet, and driven by candidates who harness these technologies effectively.
LAMB: Back to your own use of the Internet. What innovative thing are you doing right now that we don’t know about?
WASOW: I’m really excited about the potential for technology to transform education. I had been very skeptical about this in the past. In part, because we spent $60 billion in this country wiring up schools, putting computers in schools, and we have very little to show for it overall.
And what I’ve seen in the last couple of years that’s really changed my thinking about the role of technology, particularly in K-12 education, is there are few companies, like there’s one called Carnegie Learning, based out of -- it’s spun out of Carnegie Mellon, where they’ve developed tutoring software that does a really good job of helping students understand algebra, understand really sort of difficult math in a way that’s self-paced. It’s adaptive, which means it’s kind of personalized, you know it helps you understand the specific things you’re having difficulty with.
And it’s also -- I mean, for me, one of the, I think, the most powerful force of education is a fear of avoiding humiliation. That, like most students are, you know, what they’re thinking about is, how do I not look stupid in front of that girl or that boy? And what’s powerful about being able to do kind of tutoring in front of a computer is, if it’s self-directed, there’s none of that fear of humiliation in front of your peers.
So, I’m in the early stages of working with some friends on figuring out how can we do more to help get high-quality educational software out to a very large audience of people who, particularly the poorest members of our society, and others, who may not have access to high-quality teaching.
LAMB: Now, you went to Stuyvesant.
LAMB: Down near where the 9/11 attack was.
LAMB: And that’s a super high-level school, high school.
Where is the charter school you started?
WASOW: The charter school is in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. And it’s right on the edge of a neighborhood called Bushwick, so it’s sort of Bushwick and Bed-Sty.
But Bed-Sty is you know in some ways, a beautiful working-class community. It’s got you know incredible housing stock. It’s got a pretty good train connection. There’s a lot that’s wonderful there about the community.
We had this -- we found a building that had been, you know I think it was 89 years old when we took it over, but it was a just a shell. But one of the things I’m most proud of, although not as proud as the educational results, is that we took this building where, if it rained on the roof, it rained in the basement. And have turned it into a school that’s serving 650 people, and it’s really become a vital institution in the community.
LAMB: What is the racial mix?
WASOW: It’s 98, 97 percent black.
LAMB: Do you teach there?
WASOW: I have only gone and visited. And you know, read to kids. I’m on the board. But I haven’t taught.
LAMB: How many of those kids have laptops?
WASOW: None of them have laptops that are issued by the school.
LAMB: How many of them have -- how many computers do you have in the school?
WASOW: Not -- you know, we use computers for a number -- there is a computer class that kids go to, which is not ideal. I would love to see us -- I mean, computer class is almost like having, as one person put it, pencil class. Like you don’t go down the hall to use the pencils. They should be integrated into the classroom.
So, our school, in a lot of ways, is not very innovative, when it comes to technology. We use computers for testing, so that we can do three assessments a year and get very rapid kind of grading of those, so that we can track how kids are doing.
We use a lot of technology around creating kind of a -- you might call it an intranet. So parents can stay closer to teachers. And sort of track how their students are doing.
But we don’t do a lot with computer-based curriculum. And that’s something I think there’s enormous potential for our school, and many others, to benefit from.
LAMB: How many of those kids go on to college?
WASOW: We are only -- we only go to eighth grade, and so we haven’t yet graduated a class that has gotten through high school.
But I’m very proud that all of our kids have gone on to competitive high schools, and we’re trying to dial that up, so that even more of our kids can have the kind of experience I did going to a place like Stuyvesant.
LAMB: When you look back at your own life, Stuyvesant, Stanford, Harvard, and lots of other things that we’ve talked about. Who would you, besides your own ability, but who would you give the most credit to along the way?
WASOW: I mean, it’s sort of a cliché, but I owe an incredible debt to my parents. I…
LAMB: What did they do?
WASOW: I think both my parents and my grandparents were really good about encouraging me to be curious. The -- I often get asked in the context of the Internet industry, you know, why -- like at the charter school, why aren’t we teaching kids to use Microsoft Office?
And the thing I have to sort of help our parents understand is that you don’t succeed in this economy by knowing a particular piece of software. You succeed in this economy by being curious. By being somebody who’s constantly learning.
And so, my mother -- you know, if I went to a museum with my mother, she would say, ”How would you do this museum differently?” You know, what would you, and just, you know, even as a six-year-old, I was invited to think about how I might create, and how I might -- you know, the role I can play in redoing, you know, an exhibit.
And so there was just -- or, my grandparents were -- my grandfather, who -- and he wasn’t a geek himself, but he always was very good about, you know, getting me little electronic gadgets that often had an educational component to them. So I was practicing my times tables on a little sort of toy calculator.
And at the heart of it, though, was that my parents were always encouraging me to have a -- take real pleasure in learning. And I -- and it’s just, you know, and that’s propelled me throughout all of these experiences.
LAMB: Which teacher in your life stimulated you the most?
WASOW: Wow. That’s tough. I’ve been really lucky to have some incredible teachers. Frank McCourt, I mentioned. I had this drama professor, Anna Deavere Smith, in college. Henry Louis Gates at Harvard. And all of them have played a really significant role in my intellectual development.
I had a computer teacher in sixth grade who let me beg my way out of woodshop, which is what I was assigned to, and into computer shop, is what is was called then. And I feel an incredible debt to him, because that was one of the first places where I really got to learn to program.
But again, even there, my parents saw that I loved programming, and they didn’t get me an Atari game machine. They got me this sort of toy computer called a VIC-20. I mean, you know, it’s a -- you wouldn’t use it as a doorstop now.
And I plugged that into a TV. I had a magazine subscription with programs that I could type in, and they basically created -- gave this perfect-size sandbox to learn to program with.
LAMB: In today’s social media, the most important, whatever, Facebook, tweeting, YouTube, all that. What’s the most important, do you think, as you look to the future? What’s going to get bigger?
WASOW: Facebook is far and away the, I think, most powerful thing going on right now in social media. It’s, in some ways, got less buzz than, say, Twitter, right now. But there are 300 million people using Facebook regularly.
LAMB: Are you on it?
WASOW: I am. I’m a heavy user of Facebook. And what Facebook has done, which almost none of the prior sites, and by prior sites, I mean there was a site called Friendster, there was a site called Six Degrees. What Facebook has figured out, which none of those sites quite nailed, was how to offer something that was useful day in, day out.
I mean, there was a kind of phenomenon with social networking sites, was that they were a bit like a gym membership. People would join, they would be really excited at first, and then their use would taper off.
And Facebook really, first among all of these sites, has figured out how to make it useful in a sustained way.
LAMB: Last question. When can we, when will we, call you Dr. Omar Wasow?
WASOW: The -- you know, I think my father will be Dr. Wasow probably for the long haul. But I’ve got about a year and a half now. And so, I’m looking forward to claiming my doctorate at the end of -- in the spring semester of 2011.
LAMB: Thanks a lot for joining us.
WASOW: Thank you for having me.