Mark Zuckerberg is the reason I do what I do.
Let me explain. In the 1990s, I attended Lawrence Academy, an elite boarding high school in Groton, Massachusetts. About seven years later, Mark Zuckerberg was a student at Phillips Exeter Academy, just 60 miles away in New Hampshire. The first time I left Lawrence Academy, I was 16 years old, devastated, and reeling from the insights into institutional corruption I’d witnessed. When Zuckerberg left Phillips Exeter, he was on his way to Harvard. When I left for the second time, I was 18 years old, running as fast and as far away as I could to the west coast of this country.
Schools are proprietors of ideas. These ideas are exchanged as curricula in a classroom, and as social norms in the human interactions on campus. As always, the leaders set the tone. As mini-societies, these college-preparatory schools say a lot about who we are as a nation. They occupy a unique societal niche, as well, by being exempt from Title IX and Clery Act protections (unlike most Universities they emulate), and often, exempt from taxation through “charitable” status. Tuitions range from under $20,000/year to just over $70,000, for one year of high school education.
Right now, we are at an ideological crossroads in America: the intersection of Corruption & Accountability.
If you trace one fork of the road back, you’ll find a root in these elite, educational institutions — some nearly as old as the Constitution that sought to define us. There are currently about 335 boarding high schools from coast to coast, sending out a population roughly the size of New Haven, Connecticut (about 130,000+) every few years. These generations of young people fan out into our country to create lives of impact and influence by design. Monkey see, monkey do.
When Apple CEO, Tim Cook, declared in June 2020 that the company would be installing privacy updates to their iOS 14 model — requiring apps to ask permission before tracking personal data — Zuckerberg told his employees that they needed to “inflict pain on Apple”. This move of Cook establishing a “culture of consent” would undermine the very business model of Facebook. The company earns revenue by mining and selling individuals’ personal data, without their permission, for targeted advertising. It exploits the privacy rights of many for the benefit of a few.
When I told Lawrence Academy headmaster, Steven L Hahn, repeatedly in 1994 that they needed to remove the child molester-employee I’d just confronted, he then told me, “There is no financial aid for you to come back next year”. I was sent away. The move of me insisting on protection for young people threatened a status quo — where a few careers were preserved at the expense of many young lives.
So, the idea some elite institutions are asking families to accept is that certain people can and will get away with a whole lot.
I returned to Lawrence Academy every year for seven years, even after running away, to ensure that man would not harm students again. While I was on my way east to tell the truth publicly in a speech, they finally let the man go. Headmaster, Steve Hahn, resigned the following year. What did students in 2001 see? A man, as a leader, walking away with nothing but praise, even after being exposed for severely unethical behavior. Monkey see, monkey do.
In 2018, Phillips Exeter faced its own revelations of decades of concealed abuse on campus, with 11 former staffers being accused. We may want to believe these are isolated or “historical” events. Yet, fact-based reporting reveals otherwise. The Boston Globe Spotlight Team reported from 2016 on, that over 300 incidents had taken place in more than one hundred schools around New England alone. We won’t even touch the numbers in the church. Is it possible that Mark Zuckerberg was absorbing the same atmospheric message about who is held accountable and who is/is not protected? What ideas do these schools convey about justice and human rights?
Of course, not every boarding school graduate will accept the idea that some are above the law or exempt from accountability. But, some have taken the idea and run with it. So, everyone will eventually be affected by that idea in action.
Facebook has nearly 3 billion users worldwide (I have never been one). In fact, 80% of Facebook users live outside the United States. Yet, the decision of whether to censor a US President for “hate speech” and the “incitement to violence” on its site came too late; former president Donald Trump was finally banned from Facebook only after the insurrection on the capital on January 6, 2021.
The world is watching.
How many times do we, as Americans, have to get our hopes up that justice and basic decency will be served — only to feel crushed by the failure to hold certain men to account, again and again? If we study recent US Supreme Court nominations, Impeachment Trials, or efforts at regulation on tech giants, we see a clear divide. As Tim Cook said, “Too many are still asking the question ‘What can we get away with?’ when they need to be asking, ‘What are the consequences?’”.
I do what I do because accountability matters.
If elite boarding schools are a unique pocket of resistance to civil rights-in-action, they also offer a unique opportunity. As President of the nonprofit, The Amends Project, I am working to change the system, so that these institutions became purveyors of different social ideas. We are talking about education, and any great teacher will tell you: they also learn from their students. So, it’s time the old-boy networks get schooled.
It begins by “mending the loophole”, of policy that states school officials can decide whether to “handle things internally” (aka: silencing, confidential payouts, etc.) or whether to involve police. That’s a big override of civic duty and moral obligation. So, we direct decision-making power to a diverse, local, strictly-non-affiliated group of volunteers to receive and track reports of abuse. The response by school officials is then also graded, based on recommendations laid out by The Independent Schools Task Force of 2018. Accountability. Reform.
What’s the new idea? A consistent standard for all — regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, position, rank, or socioeconomic status.
In other words, Justice.
This solution is called The Justice CORPS Initiative — the Committee to Oversee the Rights and Protections of Students. After three years of advocacy, I am partway to my fundraising goal now, and need your help to fully run the pilot at two schools for the 2022–2023 school year. There will also be two short documentary films of the first schools taking the brave step toward accountability. Can you see it now? Please visit https://theamendsproject.com/support-the-movement/.
Even Zuckerberg has assembled a “Facebook Supreme Court” to handle content management, striving for 40 diverse members worldwide to decide what constitutes hate-speech, and what must be taken down from the platform.
I also believe, if we focus on the ideas that harm us (and not people or cult of personality), then we might all rise together.
Mark Zuckerberg may — momentarily — embody the dark side of an idea from our shared boarding school culture. Yet, this is our collective evolution, and we can all find the strength to embrace a new idea.
Like they say at Apple, let’s Think Different.
Vanessa Osage is a two-time nonprofit Founder, President of The Amends Project, and Author of Can’t Stop the Sunrise: Adventures in Healing, Confronting Corruption & the Journey to Institutional Reform, published by Stone & Feather Press, 2020