Making a Difference:
Incremental Progress Towards Transformational Change

Kennedy School of Government - 2008 Black Policy Conference
April 11, 2008


Good evening. Thank you, Earl, for your kind introduction. In the 15 months since I became Maryland’s Lieutenant Governor, I’ve always been particularly proud of three things that are mentioned during my introduction: my family – my wife Pat and my two children, Rebecca and Jonathan; my military service; and my seven years here at Harvard. This is a wonderful university and the source of so many talented and creative leaders in our country.

Ester Krofah, Admas Kanyagia, thank you both for the tireless work you put into make this conference possible and for giving me both the opportunity and incentive to return to this beautiful campus. Thank you Dean Elwood and Dean McCarthy for your leadership here at the Kennedy School and for producing outstanding graduates.

Thank you to those of you in attendance this evening and participating in the 2008 Black Policy Conference.


This evening, I’d like to speak to the conference theme - “How ‘Making a Difference’ Works: Approaches to Real Solutions” and share with you a little of the Maryland experience in certain issue areas of importance to the African American community.

Somewhere embedded in that theme is the belief that there is a need for change in our world. The belief that our community and our world cannot simply remain as they are. The belief that tomorrow we need to be in a different place than where we are today.

And within the theme also lies a basic question: How do you, how do we, make a difference?  How do you bring about change? Likewise, the theme suggests an answer: Through practical solutions; specific programs, initiatives, campaigns; and quantifiable steps (either big or small),

All of these I would submit are what we can consider to be incremental progress towards a profound, lasting or transformational change in our world.

This weekend, during your conference, as you look at the work being done around the country and the world in reshaping Black communities, as you look at the work being done to improve the welfare and quality of life for Black people …

Tomorrow, you will no doubt hear from practitioners who are ‘Making a Difference,’ who are creating positive change, often inch by inch, mile by mile, day by day – and less frequently by “one giant leap for mankind.”

Dr. Marian Wright Edelman once said, “We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee.”

And while your study and work here at the Kennedy School is designed in large part to equip you to foresee and even shape the big differences, the big goals, the transformational change in our world, you should be equally ready, willing and able to design and promote the particularized requirements associated with incremental progress.

It’s timely that we’ve come together this weekend under the theme of “How ‘Making a Difference Works’” – during the month in which we remember the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. An American visionary who inspired the country towards transformational change and who, at the time of his death, turned hard in the direction of calling for practical solutions to address the issues of poverty, not only in the black community but in all communities throughout the nation.

Forty years later, the challenges of our times continue to call out for transformational change. Our times require us to articulate and pursue big goals. Big goals such as securing the right to healthcare for all; establishing a system of public education in which all children achieve at high levels and reach their full potential; ensuring broad access to affordable neighborhoods that connect to opportunity; accessing good jobs, wealth, and economic prosperity.

All laudable, lofty goals.  Transformative in nature.  All achievable, yet require a bit of oxymoronic ambition: Practical idealism; Ideology built around consensus; A patient urgency.

The enthusiasm to make big gains through small steps, to solve big problems with manageable, seemingly small solutions – to make incremental progress.

The concept of incrementalism has been misinterpreted by some to mean we are happy with the status quo or that we cannot change the world because the world has already changed us.

I don’t believe that.  I believe that our constant, incremental progress – incremental, meaningful action – leaves no issue or no problem too big to tackle. And that’s where I’d like to begin as I share with you the Maryland experience.


I see from your schedule that tomorrow you’ll discuss a number of problems or challenges facing communities within the African Diaspora: Wealth building; Health outcomes; Educational reform.

These challenges are not unique to Black communities, nor are they white problems – they’re American challenges. And, for that matter, issues that challenge people the world over from Iraq to South Africa to Germany, China and Jamaica.

Yet, they are challenges that are manifested differently in different communities. They are problems that offer unique challenges in the African American community. They are problems that represent societies continuing struggles toward equality, opportunity and inclusion.

Take health care: Black infants are two and half times more likely to die before their first birthday than are white infants. African Americans make up more than half of all new HIV/AIDS infections but we are only 13 percent of the population. Black Americans are one and a half times more likely not to have a regular doctor than are whites.

Consider the spatial disconnect between communities and opportunity: Three out of four welfare recipients live in inner cities and rural communities, yet two out of three jobs created in America are created in the suburbs. One out of four black families does not own a car, yet only 12 percent of the Federal transportation budget goes to public transportation. Even during our current housing crisis, more Americans own homes today than they did 15 years ago, yet fewer than half of all black Americans own a home, compared to three out of four white Americans.

And on education: White students outscore black students by 16 points on reading ability. Nearly half of all black adults score in the bottom levels of Adult Literacy, compared to 14 percent of white adults. Young black adults are twice as likely to have not earned a high school diploma or GED than white young adults. And while one out of three black students go on to college – a figure that has gone up with each generation of African Americans – black men are still vastly underrepresented on college campuses across the country.


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