The best stories of great people — be they global luminaries, leaders of nations, or the pet advocate rock stars next door — leave the reader feeling as though he or she just had the great pleasure of spending an hour or two with this person.
Let’s sit down with Matthew Mahan, VP of Causes on Facebook, and featured guest at Shine with Spot July 30th.
Matt grew up in Watsonville, CA. “Steinbeck country,” he says, noting that Steinbeck is a favorite author and that Watsonville was actually mentioned in East of Eden.
His dad was a postal worker, his mom a teacher, and they, along with Matt and his sisters Beth and Megan, lived in an agricultural town of some 10,000. “It’s a lot different now,” he says, “with a population of some 50,000 and a much different demographic.”
Transitioning from apple to strawberries, migrant labor burgeoned in Watsonville in the ‘90s, Matt explains, which drew down the educational system. So for high school he drove 90 minutes each way over Hwy 17 to San Jose to an all-boys Jesuit high school. The first two years he made the trek by bus; once he got his license he drove, with Beth on board as well.
Mahan loved school, and especially this school. “’Men for Others’ was the motto,” he says, and the emphasis was on creating well-rounded, empathetic character. Doing college prep, Matt spent much time on campus, and says he enjoyed great support from teachers, was on the wrestling team, and was student body president his senior year.
After graduating Matt headed for Harvard in Cambridge MA “where it was freezing cold.”
“Generally education has opened so many doors,” Matt says, “giving me the opportunity to be whoever I can be and have an impact on the world. It has been so stimulating.”
At Harvard Matt majored in social studies, which he says “sounds like drawing maps with colored pencils,” but adding that in his case “was an interdisciplinary program that involved tracks in social science, anthropology and political science, which truly all came together in terms of moving from theory to practice, thanks to a required capstone senior thesis.” His was some 120 pages, and he says creating it helped him synthesize what he’d learned into something he could apply. “So many resources are at your fingertips at Harvard,” he says, “you can really create your own education, and make a lot out of it.”
Mahan also did community service, worked on the student newspaper, and again was student body president his junior and senior years. An extraordinary opportunity during this time was being invited to participate in the curricular review, a process that occurs only once every 35 years, and which inspired Matt to do his senior thesis on liberal arts education in America. “Education is a great source of opportunity, engagement and excitement,” he says.
Eventually Mahan’s focus on education shifted to policy issues. This led to his involvement in Teach America, through which he taught English and history to middle school students for two years overseas.
The Teach for America program called for cultural immersion, and through a grant from the Michael Rockefeller Memorial Fund Mahan received a stipend to spend a year in “cultural immersion” in South America. Participants are encouraged to move beyond their comfort zone, minimize contact with family and friends during their year away, and become fully immersed and involved with the community. Ironically, he says, while participants are encouraged to break away from experiences of their pasts, his time in South America took him right back to the ag work of his childhood home. While in Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, Matt spent a lot of time building steel windmills to pump water. “They have a ton of water, but it’s 30 feet underground,” he says.
During this time, Mahan says he met fabulous people, and had a great deal of time to write and reflect.
Shortly after, Matt rekindled his friendship with former dorm-mates, the pack of five who created Facebook. “Hanging with these guys I became more aware of the digital revolution that was fundamentally changing the way we communicate,” says Mahan. The then fledgling Causes focused on the intersection of grass roots efforts and action campaigns — simply put: how people organize themselves to get things done.
“Social media provides a unique opportunity to organize people for collective action,” says Mahan, “making it possible to quickly get a lot of people on the same page.”
Already engrossed by the way digital media was fundamentally changing communication and our very culture, this reconnect would serve to inform the direction of the next five years of Mahan’s life.
Kristan Dael is a freelance writer and the alter ego of Jennifer Mccammon. She lives in Portland with her 3-pack, and strives to produce articles that inform, edify, engage and entertain.