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Older Pioneers in Social Change

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

I recently attended an extraordinary meeting, the Encore Careers Summit at Stanford University.Encore Careers is a campaign, the goal of which is to engage millions of baby boomers in careers that combine social impact, personal meaning and continued income in the second half of life. The expected outcome is a windfall of human talent that can help solve society’s greatest problems.

Part of the campaign is the Purpose Prize. Sherry Lansing, former chairwoman and CEO of Paramount Pictures, chairs the Purpose Prize panel of judges. She writes, “The Purpose Prize isn’t about past achievements; it’s an investment in the future. It recognizes the power of experience to change the world…and it exists to inspire others.” In its third year, it is proof “that creativity and innovation is not solely the province of the young…longer lives can be a boon to a society so eager for change.”

The summit recognized the winners of the Purpose Prize. Six entrepreneurs were chosen from 1,000 nominees over 60. Each received $100,000 for innovation and extraordinary contributions in encore careers. Nine others won $10,000 each. Funding was provided by Atlantic Philanthropies and the John Templeton Foundation. Both have committed an additional $7.6 million to fund the next three years of Purpose Prize awards.

Among the $100,000 winners:

  • Catalina Tapia, gardener: Tapia arrived in the U.S. from Mexico at age 20 with $6 in his pocket and a sixth-grade education. His proudest moment was when his son graduated from UC Berkeley law school. He decided that more Latinos should have the chance to reach their potential. To ensure that opportunity, he launched the Bay Area Gardeners Foundation, a non-profit made up of gardeners who provide scholarships to low-income Latinos. Gardeners asked their employers and local businesses to donate, and in two years they raised $250,000. In 2007, they awarded grants to 18 students from low-income families.
  • Mark Goldsmith, marketing executive: When Goldsmith volunteered to be Principal for a Day at a New York-area school, he asked for the toughest assignment. He was sent to Rikers Island prison. As a result, he launched Getting Out and Staying Out, a program to help inmates make plans for life after prison. Goldsmith provides coaching, life-skills instruction and support for job achievement. The recidivism rate for Rikers Island is 66 percent overall, but 10 percent for participants in Goldsmith’s program.
  • Arlene Blum, chemist: Blum helped remove Tris, a toxic fire retardant, from children’s sleepwear. She also led the first women’s mountain climbing team up the slopes of Alaska’s Denali and the Himalayan Annapurna. After her cat was diagnosed with a thyroid disease, Blum found high levels of fire retardants in her cat and in her sofa. Once again, she is battling Tris and it “chemical cousins.” Blum started the Green Science Policy Institute and had a recent victory, keeping 1.7 billion pounds of chemicals out of electronic equipment worldwide. She says she is climbing the highest summit yet.
  • Joseph James: James abandoned his career in science for a career in economic development. His inspiration was Martin Luther King, Jr., who recognized that “freedom meant little without the economic means to enjoy it.” James created the Corporation for Economic Opportunity to stabilize the decreasing number of black farmers and reduce rural poverty. His “greening of black America” initiative helps black farmers increase their earnings by selling produce directly to consumers at farmers markets and reducing “fuel miles.”

Among the $10,000 winners:

  • Jay Powell Davidson, a recovered alcoholic and former military officer, created a successful model for housing the homeless and simultaneously treating drug addiction.
  • Sharon Schindler Rising, a nurse-midwife, is revolutionizing prenatal care by conducting routine care in 90-minute group sessions and reducing dangerous preterm births.

What have we learned? The challenges we face in education, poverty, health and the environment require a massive infusion of human capital, experience and ingenuity. The 60-plus generation is an exceptional proven resource.

A dim economy does not stop social entrepreneurs. They have overcome previous obstacles. Retirement can be a time to engage in new ways to work that create tremendous good for our communities and opportunities for purpose, passion and fulfillment.

For more information about Encore Careers, go to

© Helen Dennis 2010, all rights reserved.

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