Interview with Pencils of Promise founder Adam Braun
I thought it was high time that Popten covered a new type of pop culture. Though this time the pop stands for Pencils of Promise, a New York-based non-profit focused on – amongst other things – early education and empowering a new generation of passionate young leaders to create profound good. Pencils of Promise, or PoP, opened their first 7 schools in Laos and Nicaragua entirely funded by donations of less than $80 by students and young professionals from across the globe. The story of PoP’s humble beginnings is so sweet it almost seems like it came from a made-for-TV movie. Adam Braun, the organization’s founder, relays the full story on their website, but in part:
It began with a simple question. A small boy, begging on the streets of India.
“What do you want most in the world?” I asked.
I reached into my backpack, handed him my pencil, and watched as a wave of possibility washed over him. A smile erupted and his eyes brightened. And I saw then the profound power and promise brought through something as small as a giving a pencil to just one child.
I recently had the chance to chat with Adam about Pencils of Promise and all of the amazing things they are doing. I found this organization and all of its lofty goals to be awesome, in the true, biblical sense of the word. I was in awe – truly inspired – and am sure you will be as well.
A quick video of PoP for background:
Who are your role models (real or fictional)?
My role models are members of my family- my parents and grandparents and siblings. They’re all so different but at their core they’re simply loving people who consistently help others in their own unique way. I’ve also always been fascinated with counter-culture and revolution, which is at the core of Pencils of Promise’s movement… others said young people couldn’t create a nonprofit that valued every single form of contribution whether large or small, so we set out to prove that the impossible was possible. It’s reading the biographies and listening to the music of those that always stayed true to their core beliefs that consistently inspires me to keep creating this organization that others said could never exist.
The story of your founding is quite moving. What was your most memorable encounter besides that?
A few years ago I was backpacking through Central and South America for several months. A local man approached me randomly in Guatemala and invited me to stay with his family because he’d taught himself to read English but couldn’t pronounce the words properly. He wanted to teach his children to read and write one day. There was something amazing about his humble, kind presence and I ended up agreeing. I lived with this man Joel Puac and his wife for three days in a remote village with no real roads or signs, reading the Book of Solomon from his Bible into an oldschool cassette recorder for 5-6 hours a day… and the funny part is that I’m Jewish, but it was a beautiful cross-cultural experience. I visited him a year later, and he’d been listening to those audio recordings every night to practice his English pronunciations. The whole experience radically changed the way I looked at the power of education, local empowerment, and how small, unique forms of support could be worth just as much as huge donations.
How do you decide where to build your next school?
We’re dedicated to working with and alongside local populations, so first we meet with the local Education Ministry who provides a list of their prioritized villages that need educational facilities. We then go visit each one to meet with teachers, leaders and elders to create a comprehensive community profile. Based on the community commitment, need, sustainability, impact and our funding abilities we then create a schedule for initial construction and ongoing support.
What was the most interesting non-monetary donation PoP has received?
Most non-monetary donations are people’s skills and abilities, which is how we’ve grown so quickly since we try to commit every dollar possible into school projects. Our organization is sustained by a leadership team that’s worked tirelessly to shape the organization over the past year and a half while also maintaining full time day jobs. We’ve also been fortunate to work with top design students at the Pratt Institute, who designed our logo, brand aesthetic and a beautiful brochure. It’s a great example of how a group of 21 year-olds were able to add tremendous value to PoP simply through their talents and passion.
What is the craziest thing you’ve heard of a supporter doing to help raise money for PoP?
There are three guys who are about to embark on the Mongol Rally from the UK to Mongolia in a used ambulance to raise $30,000 to build new schools with us. It’s just awesome. Check them out at RenegadePencils.com.
PoP’s mission boasts a fairly even balance between the global education crisis and empowering people to create social good. How did you decide on such an innovative dynamic of donor v. recipient?
We call that our 51%-49% Principle, which refers to 51% of what we do being around the creation of educational opportunities abroad, and 49% is geared towards empowering those who join and support the PoP Movement to be a real part of that creation of good. There’s a restless generation emerging that knows they can find ways to help others and also wants to see the tangible impact of their dollars. That’s what our two-fold mission seeks to enable.
How else can people get involved?
I always tell people to think about what they love doing most, and do it for PoP. Get creative, include others and just have fun. Hosting your own fundraiser is always a blast too. If you want to be a part of something collective then we’ll be doing a multi-city event across the country in November with Philanthro Productions, so email firstname.lastname@example.org to get your community involved.
What was it like traveling with documentary filmmaker Philip Buiser?
Traveling with Philip was an absolute blast, because he’s so hands on with his filming. Within an hour of my arriving in Laos we were on motorbikes riding out to a nearly finished school. Suddenly he jumps off the bike, runs over to these huge elephants, and lays on the dirt in their direct path just to film their feet hitting the ground. At that point I knew we were going to become close friends, and we spent an amazing few weeks capturing some beautiful stories. He and photographer Nick Onken opted to put their lives on hold for several weeks to help us tell the PoP story. It’s just another example of talented people finding their own unique way to contribute.
Since I mostly write about music here, I have to ask – what is currently in heavy rotation on your iPod?
I am a huge, huge music person. It inspires and motivates me more than anything else. My biggest traveling companions have always been Dylan, Levon Helm, Richie Havens, Neil Young, The Rolling Stones, Talking Heads, Bob Marley and Radiohead. The current summer iPod rotation includes those usual suspects along with lots of Pretty Lights, The Raconteurs, Asher Roth, The Presets, Muse, Thievery Corporation, Datarock, the Mos Dub mashup and on really nice days I love Fleet Foxes or Iron & Wine. The up and coming band I’m all about is The Ludlow Thieves, keep an eye on them because they’re dynamite.
What’s next for PoP?
We’ll complete our 11th school between Laos and Nicaragua in September, we’ve just opened our first office in New York City, and expect to unveil a game-changing website thanks to our amazing friends at AgencyNet later this year. It’s a lot for an organization started with $25 less than two years ago, but we’re excited about each day bringing new supporters and what’s collectively to come.