Social justice superheroes

Megan Bird ’99 and Brooks Tingle ’83 educate outside the box and take learning from the classroom to the executive suite.

Jennifer Wagner
July 30, 2018
Megan Bird of Citizen Schools.

Megan Bird ’99.

When Megan Bird ’99 first arrived at the John Hancock offices in Boston’s Back Bay, she was, admittedly, a tad nervous. The 34-year-old was fairly new to her position as executive director of Citizen Schools Massachusetts and had never led an orientation session for a new board member. She was confident she could capture the attention of middle-schoolers — but the president and chief executive officer of one of the largest insurance companies in the country? “I was a little intimidated,” Bird recalls. “Then I thought of the Harkness table, and how someone once said it’s like the boardroom table when you grow up, and I thought, "I can do this.’”

Bird need not have worried. The accomplished CEO she was schooling was a fellow Exonian, Brooks Tingle ’83. Their Exeter connection came quickly to light when Tingle asked Bird a simple question to break the ice: “You have insurance, Megan, right?” As is often the case, that simple question required much more than a simple answer. During Bird’s lower year at Exeter, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. “My mother passed away when I was 19, and I was able to finish going to Exeter and pay for college because of that insurance,” Bird says. “I don’t usually tell people about my mom in my first conversation with them, but insurance really did make my life possible."

Brooks Tingle.

While the two perhaps may not have gravitated to the same circles in prep school — Bird is a self-proclaimed introvert and nerd, Tingle a gregarious athlete — they bonded over their shared belief in service and the transformative power of education. “I think it is incumbent upon those of us who have had the privilege of a world-class education like at Exeter,” Tingle says, “to make sure that all young people have exposure to learning opportunities beyond the basic school curriculum.” Bird is driven by her mother’s example. “My mom was a family doctor and served low-income communities,” she says. “She also worked in teaching hospitals, and I think that’s why I chose to do mission-driven work and was really attracted to education.” 

The Harkness table ... [is] like the boardroom table when you grow up.”
Megan Bird

That heartfelt conversation back in 2016 grew into what is now a two-year collaboration between the alums and Citizen Schools, a nonprofit that offers middle school-aged kids from lower-income communities hands-on learning experiences. Under Tingle’s direction, John Hancock employees have tutored 66 Citizen Schools students to date. Most recently, eight members of his team ran a 10-week apprenticeship program, “The Healthy Body, Healthy Mind,” with sixth-graders from Trotter Innovation School. Each week the students traveled from Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood to John Hancock’s HQ to learn about mindfulness, healthy eating and other self-care behaviors that they might not otherwise be exposed to. “In the beginning, the kids were wondering why they signed up for an after-school class to breathe in and breathe out,” Tingle jokes. “But you see that spark with certain kids, and you just know that the idea of healthy living is going to stay with them and be with them for their life.”

The John Hancock apprenticeship is just one of many that Bird helps organize across Massachusetts, and in a broad range of fields — from finance and law to website design and sports management. In each, professionals work directly with students, imparting real-world skills, practical knowledge and out-of-the-box aspirations. “In traditional classes, a student may be really shy or having a hard time,” Bird says. “With the apprenticeship, they are able to shine in a way that they don’t usually… Parents are often shocked to see their children so excited and so engaged.”

You see that spark with certain kids, and you just know that the idea of healthy living is going to stay with them.”
Brooks Tingle

The most lasting takeaway from an apprenticeship program is the relationship formed between the student and the volunteer “citizen teacher.” Bird, who began her career in education teaching English in Chile, has maintained her connection with one particular middle-school student for more than three years. Tingle has a history of mentoring as well, often traveling to underserved neighborhoods to reach students in need. He remembers grabbing a cab in downtown Boston early on to go meet with a group of high school mentees. “When I told the driver where I wanted to go, he said, ‘You don’t want to go there.’” But Tingle went there. In fact, he still keeps in touch with one man he began mentoring some 20 years ago as a boy. “These one-on-one relationships are powerful and deep, but they aren’t usually scalable,” says Tingle. “With Citizen Schools, it’s an opportunity to engage a whole classroom and expose students to paths that they may want to pursue as a career. It’s terribly rewarding.”

Linking corporations with schools is the type of education reform Bird believes can make the strongest impression on students today. “I think these groups — K-12 schools, higher education and employers of the world — are set up to function in really siloed and isolated ways,” Bird says. “We need to get those three systems to work together in a healthier and coordinated way to make sure that, in each stage in a young person’s development, they are prepared and ready for the next stage.”  Those are big, system-level changes she is suggesting and ones, perhaps, her daughter and Tingle’s son — both starting at the Academy as preps this fall — might consider tackling. Meanwhile, she’ll continue to prove the concept on a small scale every day with Citizen Schools. 

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the summer 2018 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.