MF 099 : How Career Passion Leads to a Higher Purpose, with Nick Melvoin
Updated: Jun 17, 2022
Nick Melvoin is an educator, attorney, and candidate for the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education. Today, you will learn how Nick’s passion led him to a mission to solve today’s biggest issues in education.
Successes at a glance:
Attorney, educator and candidate for the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education:
Learn more about Nick’s platform.
JD from NYU Law.
MA (Urban Education) from Loyola Marymount University.
Now, an adjunct faculty member teaching a course on education law:
BA from Harvard University.
Alum of Teach for America (TFA).
Former school teacher at Markham Middle School:
Taught seventh and eighth grade English, coached soccer and helped students launch a school newspaper.
Joined the ACLU along w/ Mayors Riordan and Villaraigosa, arguing that a layoff of two-thirds of Markham’s teachers was a violation of student rights. They won in a landmark decision.
Nick has also been involved in several other high-profile cases in furtherance of education rights which you can read about here.
Has worked w/ the Obama White House via the Domestic Policy Council and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in investigating civil rights cases.
Setback failure or time when things fell apart:
Nick answers this w/ one word, “daily!” Nick had an uncle who was a jazz pianist who referred to jazz as a “series of miraculous recoveries.” Nick has embraced this as a metaphor for life, especially having been a teacher and educator. Of all his careers and accomplishments, Nick shares that teaching is the hardest and most rewarding thing he has ever done. As he describes, your day consists of going in w/ a lesson plan which quickly gets derailed. But no matter what obstacles or twists and turns you face, you have an important responsibility: to make sure your kids succeed. This is not an annual, quarterly or weekly goal. For Nick and other teachers in the trenches, this is a daily goal, one that will include multiple setbacks trying to knock you off course each and every day.
On a macro level, Nick’s mission has faced even bigger setbacks along the way. As an attorney and education advocate, Nick was involved as a party in several lawsuits that sought to ensure teachers and students would have their rights protected and to further the goal of equal education opportunity “no matter which zip code” a student was born in. Nick shares that he was involved in two lawsuits that sought to protect students from losing qualified and quality teachers which had initial success but were overturned by higher courts bc of everything from procedural technicalities to the overwhelming strength of the status quo. Imagine Moving Forward listeners. With his background and education, Nick could have gone to work on Wall Street or w/ the biggest law firms in the country. But Nick had a mission that lit his inner fire. He spent time teaching kids, in an effort to make their lives better. This mission drove him to fight for the rights of students and teachers in the courts. Imagine devoting yourself to a noble mission that doesn’t pay much but one you truly believe in and fighting for its just cause, only to see it face a devastating setback in the courts – ironically, the one place where you expect justice to be served. Nick faced this setback twice. But what kept Nick going was his endless devotion to his mission. Nick also had the benefit of history. Having been inspired by the Brown v Board of Education case, Nick went back to its history and saw that the good fight back then was the culmination of years of effort and facing similar setbacks along the way. Moreover, Nick reminds himself, as his Uncle taught him, that life is a “series of miraculous recoveries.” Finally, Nick also carries w/ him the struggles of his students, as a stark reminder, that no matter how large or insurmountable the obstacles he faces, it pales in comparison to that of his students. It is these reminders that keep Nick motivated and moving forward.
The “aha” moment that sparked a pivot:
First, it’s important to point out that Nick has an incredibly powerful mission statement that has driven his career. He opens our interview by describing himself as “someone who is trying to good out there in the world.” As Nick says these words, there is a quiet confidence behind them that is extremely rare. A statement like that can often come off as a cliche so when someone declaratively offers it as his or her mission, it all comes down to tone. With Nick, there is a not a hint of sarcasm or sales; no hidden agenda. He says these words w/ a bold earnestness that immediately conveys someone who is comfortable in his own skin and is driven by a mission that he believes in. As Nick, an alum of Teach for America (TFA), shares his story of working in the inner city as a school teacher, you become witness to a story that is the fuel behind his decision to run for the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education. As Nick so poignantly describes his experience, working in the inner city, “once you see it, you can’t unsee it.” One of Nick’s formative inspirations was Bryan Stevenson, a law school professor, who encouraged his students to be “witness[es] to injustice.” Nick’s experience as a teacher led him to law school which opened the door for him to work w/ the White House and on cases w/ the ACLU that would determine everything from teacher livelihood to broader education policy. This led Nick back to the West Coast where he has continued to work w/ parents, teachers, students and schools to fulfill his mission of doing “good out there in the world.”
In terms of when things clicked, Nick recalls a time when he was teaching a group of middle school students and feeling crestfallen because they were reading below a second-grade level. At that moment, he remembered a parable he heard from a rabbi when he was young of a group of people huddled near a river bank seeing a baby floating down the river. Before the baby drowns, one of the people saves the baby only to see another baby floating down the river. As the town’s people save the next baby, another continues to float down and another. At one point one of the town’s people runs up the bank when another shouts “where are you going?!?” to which he replies, I’m going to find out why these babies are flowing down the river. This parable encapsulates Nick’s mission. He is the man running up the river to find out why so many babies are flowing down the river but at the same time, he struggles w/ the question of whether he is abdicating his duty to save those who are in immediate danger. Moving forward listeners, it’s not always easy to follow a path or a mission, even if it’s as clear as day why you are pursuing it. You will have moments where pursuing a goal may mean leaving behind immediate concerns. But as Nick’s story illustrates, moving forward is neither easy nor is it w/o those days where you may feel some guilt over where you put your energies and time. But as the parable that Nick shares w/ us teaches us, all of the town’s people, those that stayed to save the babies and the one who ran up the river to find out why this was happening, are all serving the same mission, the same cause. For Nick, he spent his time saving the babies “flowing down the river” and now, he sees his purpose as finding out what’s causing this and putting a stop to it. This isn’t the story about a rising star in politics or a clever campaign slogan. This is the story of a man who is serving a mission to help all of our children so they can have the same opportunities to move forward.
Resource or cultural experience that inspired Nick to move forward:
Nick is also a fan of The West Wing.
When Nick graduated from Harvard, his class had J.K. Rowling.
Favorite app / website / resource or productivity hack:
Productive practice (from Nick’s teaching days): taking to-do list and putting right into the calendar, using color coding in iCal (IOS). This forces Nick to devote the time to his priorities.
How Nick recharges when facing a roadblock or challenge:
Finally, Nick loves to unwind w/ a bubble bath.
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Advice to past self while going thru a difficult time:
Nick’s advice to his younger self: focus on the big picture, the larger journey. Nick is a self-proclaimed detailed oriented person (and a Virgo) so he tends to be a little OCD when it comes to reading every email or news story that comes across his desk. The problem was that he would often do this at the expense of taking time for himself. Putting it all in perspective, what Nick remembers from the past are the big events, not that he read every email or news story. So Nick’s advice to his younger self is to focus on what’s important and what will you remember in 5-10 years. Moving Forward listeners, ask yourself: what is consequential and what are the things that truly need to get done vs the things that are nice to get done.
Parting wisdom (in a few words):