By Huck Fairman
If you are wondering what you can possibly do about local, national or global problems, some very useful and personable guidance was offered, at a recent Princeton Public Library talk, by a multi-faceted activist and author, CEO and professor, Alex Counts, but also in his engaging new book, “Changing The World Without Losing Your Mind.”
Changing the world, or at least people lives, was an idea that came to him early, from his own family. His father was a psychiatrist, his step-mother and older brother were social workers. Dinner conversations discussed means of helping those struggling with mental health issues. His father told him that he sometimes quoted to patients lacking meaning and motivation a Martin Luther King, Jr. admonition:
“If a man hasn’t found something he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”
Counts attributes that and other influences as profoundly shaping his life and work. In a New York City middle school, he and a friend conceived and lobbied for an intramural sports program. In his high school years at Horace Mann in the Bronx, he was introduced and sensitized to the horrors of the Holocaust and to those of hunger, the latter by interaction with Oxfam America. He was also introduced to the need for tutoring in low-income schools, preparing students for college – a program which he then joined.
At Cornell University his social conscience was expanded toward more “reformist activism,” harnessing both idealism and practicality. There, the issues at that time were anti-apartheid campaigns, including pressing Cornell to divest from companies doing business with South Africa.
Already giving presentations about world hunger, his energy found a new direction and collaborator when friend, Julia Plotnik, asked him to help start a Cornell chapter of RESULTS.
In Counts’ words, this was “a scrappy grass-roots advocacy organization founded by (Princeton resident and national force,) Sam Daley-Harris,” that lobbied Congress for more foreign aid to address poverty.
As admirable as were the direction and accomplishments that Counts had achieved by and in his college years, what begins to stand out at this point, and perhaps retrospectively, was his growing ability to look critically at himself and his work. It is unusual and refreshing to hear a high-achieving individual acknowledging his mistakes and the need to alter his approaches. This humility and ability to learn from others as he self-criticizes is the combination that has allowed him to survive the stresses – and there are many in what is a surprisingly competitive and sometimes conflicted field – and continue to weave the multiple threads of his work, when many others have been wounded and rendered ineffective.
There is not enough space in this column to even list all the ideas and campaigns that Alex has embraced and contributed to. But a partial account must include his winning a Fulbright scholarship to pay for his first nine months, out of six years, in Bangladesh working for Muhammad Yunis (where Counts learned the essentials of Bengali,) and for Yunis’s Grameen Bank, the financing arm of Yunis’s microfinancing approach to reducing poverty. All of this flowed from Counts’ bold, uninvited writing to Yunis saying that he (barely a post-college young man,) wanted to work with him. Yunis wrote back, inviting him to join him in Bangladesh.
Part of his time there was spent learning from Yunis, but also helping to develop a self-empowerment plan for women. When Counts saw the benefits for replicating this plan, and the Grameen Bank model in other countries, and when Yunis didn’t have such a plan ready, Alex formulated, and together they launched, the Grameen Foundation – now with a $25 million endowment.
To promote and spread the Foundation’s philosophy, Counts wrote, “Small Loans, Big Dreams: How Nobel Prize Winner Muhammad Yunis and Microfinance Are Changing the world.”
Counts’ current book is not, however, so much a record of his achievements, as it is a primer on leadership lessons from three decades of entrepreneurship. Both he and Sam Daley-Harris did not sail unopposed through their many legislative and innovative efforts. Part of what Sam taught him was how to weather opposition and/or competing visions.
Now this book, “Changing The World …” presents the lessons learned from his experience, organizing them in three broad segments.
The first, “Getting Started,” lists what he found to be the requirements: a. Deciding to Make a Difference, b. Choosing to be Bold, c. First Lessons in Leadership, d. Learning to Tell my Story, e. Laying a Foundation, f. Running my Own Show.
The second segment, “Learning to Lead,” offers seven categories of essential insights on how to lead. And the third segment, “Caring For Yourself,” offers five key attitudinal approaches to managing your own mental health. Here he reveals that his expectations weren’t always matched by developments, while his personal mental state sometimes wavered under his own pressure, arising from his “single-minded” dedication to a cause. Far too many in the helping fields, he observes, loose perspective through excessive work. Time off is essential for mental clarity and physical health.
For this reason, he broadly summarizes the book’s topics as: Governance, Management and Health.
Additionally, Counts passes on his experience and insights through his professorship at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. And he is a 1946 Society member of the Fulbright Association, which honors its founding year and whose members donate one thousand dollars annually.
For those wondering what they might do, at some level, to benefit their society, or the world, there is much here to alert and guide, after first stirring aspirants to be bold.