A Dose Of Dissidence And A Pinch Of Living In Truth: Remedy For Troubling Times

Today the West struggles under the Left’s tightening grip on the economy, education, individual rights, and nearly all facets of society. Voices from the past who warned of the perils of the threat resonate more than ever; Ayn Rand, George Orwell, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman saw it coming.

Yet there is another leading voice who didn’t just see the Left coming, but who also devised a means to escape it. A voice that doesn’t receive near enough attention.

Vaclav Havel.

You may have just read that name and said: Vaclav who? Understandable, because despite his greatness, Havel is largely unknown in America. But lamentable, especially in times like these, with numerous contributions to explore, learn from, and emulate.

Evolving Excellence in Tumultuous Times

Havel was born in Czechoslovakia just prior to World War II, in 1936. He lived an exceptional life.

He was many things: author, poet, playwright, dissident. And ultimately a statesman and leader of his nation(s).1  You might remember him as the poet who rose to the presidency of Czechoslovakia around the time the Berlin Wall came down.

Havel served as the first and last president of Czechoslovakia up to its dissolution. He then became the first president of the Czech Republic, serving for a decade.

But Havel first rose to prominence as a playwright. He utilized an absurdist style of writing to criticize the communist system. After participating in the Prague Spring in 1968, he got blacklisted when the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia and forcibly put down the movement.

Havel became more politically active, and he spent years under government pressure and as a political prisoner; he spent nearly four years in prison during the late 1970s into the early 1980s.

Havel played a key role in the Velvet Revolution that toppled the communists in Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s. He assumed the presidency shortly after. Havel led the charge to undo the Warsaw Pact and grow NATO eastward.

Czechoslovakian citizens flood the streets of Prague during the Velvet Revolution in 1989
Credit: Velvet Revolution Street Museum

Many of his stances ended up controversial domestically; by the end of his political life, he had greater popularity abroad than at home. Havel continued life as a public intellectual after serving in office and until his death in 2011.

The Big Picture

Havel’s views have been labeled many things over the years. Anti-consumerism, humanitarianism, environmentalism, civil activism, and direct democracy activism.

But one Havel theme reigns supreme over all others: the implications of the individual dissident who decides to live within the truth in a post-totalitarian system.

Let’s unpack that.

Havel feared a future where society’s attention would be diverted by consumerism and television (today add reality TV and social media). The distraction would draw individual citizens’ attention away from the substance of public policy and governance. He foresaw today’s crisis of culture and technology: individuals enslaving themselves because they don’t ask who they truly are and what they should be doing. A form of modern dis- or un-freedom.2  

Havel applied first-hand experience to develop his philosophy and construct his plays.

A key example of this dynamic was a friend of Havel’s who worked at a brewery. The employee-friend was smart, knew of ways to improve the brewing process, took pride in his job, and he cared about the product.

But the employee also knew he should keep quiet and his head down in a socialist and communist system. And defer to his superiors at the beer plant. Yet the employee could not help himself. He spoke up with his ideas for improving brewing efficiency and the quality of the beer. That exposed him to the likelihood of negative consequences.

Havel used that experience to illustrate the key concept of ‘living in truth.’

Even though a single, lowly employee within a giant bureaucracy of an organization or collective had little direct connection to the output (beer), the individual fundamentally cared about the quality of the beer and the efficiency of the process. It connected to the essence of who the individual was, even though the employee didn’t own the brewery and wasn’t responsible for the product. He cared because it was core to who he was.

Havel referenced this employee who speaks up as an individual who chooses to live within the truth. And Havel introduced the idea that the employee brewer, or anyone else trapped in a controlling society who chose to live in truth, were dissidents of the system.3  

Enter The Power of the Powerless

In the late 1970s, Havel penned the essay The Power of the Powerless. It is genius, inspiring, thought provoking, and timely.

He used a character in the essay, a greengrocer shopkeeper, to illustrate how one living within a lie might choose instead to live in truth. Making such a transition means becoming a dissident in a post totalitarian system or society.

Havel’s referencing of ‘post-totalitarian’ does not mean that the system is no longer totalitarian. Quite the contrary. He defined a post-totalitarian system as one where every individual is trapped within a dense network of the state’s governing instruments made legitimate by a comprehensive ideology.4   The post-totalitarian system is a secularized religion of coerced decision-making, repression, fear, and self-censorship.

Havel applied his themes using a communist system as backdrop. But the learnings and lessons apply to the West today with the ongoing stifling of individual freedoms by the Left.

The nameless greengrocer hangs a sign in his shop window that says: “Workers of the world, unite!” Yet the greengrocer cared nothing about that famous line from Karl Marx. It was a stock phrase that everyone came to blindly accept and adhere to. It was not unifying or inspiring to the individual in Czechoslovakia in the late 1970s, whether it be the greengrocer in the essay, Havel’s friend who worked in the brewery, or any other typical individual.

By placing the sign in the window, the greengrocer was telling society that he was compliant, that he fit in, and that he was willing to live in the environment defined to him by the post-totalitarian system.

Note the greengrocer used a common, popular phrase to say this instead of stating something more direct, like “I am a sheep and I blindly and obediently follow what the system (i.e., shepherd) tells me to.” The sign explicitly states one thing but implicitly informs of something very different. Yet the greengrocer was able to communicate the implied meaning through his sign without having to explicitly state it.

And the greengrocer is playing into a form of peer pressure, or what within a post-totalitarian system of government or ideology would be considered as indoctrination. He didn’t receive an order by the government to compel him to put that sign in the window. He did it because he saw that others did it too.

Such behavior becomes self-fulfilling and self-determining. The next person who walks past the shop sees the sign, making it more likely that they will then put the same sign up in their home or business. It feeds on itself as a form of auto-indoctrination.

Havel realized some systems are totalitarian not because a single person, a dictator like Hitler or Putin, has total power. Instead, a system or society may be totalitarian because power is shared in a state of collective irresponsibility. Citizens become both supporters and victims of the totalitarian system, individually and collectively deciding to not live in truth. The system or society becomes post-totalitarian.

Havel highlighted freedom may not always be as we think of it, particularly in post-totalitarian societies. In the West freedom is viewed as doing things we are inclined to do. But Havel taught that freedom is contemplating what you should do as an individual and then having the courage to go do that very thing, even though it will risk the ire of the system or society. That’s a deeper, more meaningful, form of freedom.

Comparing Havel’s Eastern Europe in the 1970s and the West of Today

Today’s West is showing symptoms of becoming a post-totalitarian system, one where many individuals refuse to live in truth (and thus live a lie). Worse, those who decide to live in truth are feeling and looking more and more like those dissidents that Havel spoke of.

The first two sentences in The Power of the Powerless read, “A spectre is haunting Eastern Europe. The specter of what in the West is called dissent.” Havel leads with this to set up an explanation of his premise. And indeed, a similar specter is now haunting the West which is increasingly controlled by the Left.

The post-totalitarian system subdues citizens with the drugs of government subsidy and giveaways to the individual. Havel pointed out how government gifts (rent and housing subsidies, etc.) come with a price: surrendering one’s reason, conscience, and responsibility. A core objective of a post-totalitarian ideology is to rip these away from the individual and assign them to a higher authority.

Today the Left in America and Europe provides government handout after handout to individuals. Entitlements, healthcare, student debt forgiveness, corporate subsidy, and so on. In exchange for something quite precious: surrendering the individual’s right to choose for themselves and to live in truth.

Whether it was Havel’s Eastern Europe in the late 1970s or America today, the benefits bestowed upon citizens by a post-totalitarian system are far from free and are the most expensive benefits one might imagine.

That sign in the greengrocer’s shop window, ‘Workers of the world, unite!’, has an eerie analogy today in the West with ‘Climate action now!’ You see those signs everywhere, in large manicured suburban front lawns (ironic), in corporate public relations materials, at over-priced colleges hanging on bulletin boards, and on T-shirts. Are the people who post these signs truly enthusiastic about climate action? Have they given any serious thought as to what the message might mean?

It’s evident that the overwhelming majority are not and have not.

But someone, or something, produced those signs and then distributed them to the greengrocer in Havel’s story or to the suburbanite, corporation, or student in today’s America. The signs go up because everyone is doing it; because that’s the accepted norm within the system. If you don’t sport a sign, there will be consequences. You show the sign to get along in life. It assures you of not being hassled.

Those displaying the sign are telling us something subliminal yet powerful. That the greengrocer then, or the college student today, knows what one must do and how one must behave. And the sign looks to deliver such a message to those in power as well as to fellow citizens.

Such behavior through the signs also implies that the individual is scared, intimidated, and a follower. That’s where the role of the explicit message on the sign comes into play; it provides a salve to the ego of the obedient individual. Because the explicit message demands proactive action: uniting the workers or climate action, both with an exclamation point.

The approach in a post totalitarian system is diabolically genius: it provides an explicit illusion of being moral while the reality underneath makes it easier for the individual to part with his or her morality. And that’s true whether it was for communism in Eastern Europe in the late 1970s with the greengrocer and his workers sign or with the Left running the West today with the student or suburbanite and their climate signs.

Havel illuminated the difference between the objectives of the post-totalitarian system, or government run by the Left, versus the objectives of a meaningful life and the human spirit. There was what he referenced as an abyss between the two.

With the individual’s human spirit, there is a striving and hunger toward variety, choice, individualism, self-determination, and a fulfillment of one’s own potential.

Compare that to the objectives of the post-totalitarian system: forcing individuals into predefined states and a movement toward rigid structure and belief.

That post-totalitarian approach, or the playbook of the Left, forces individualism to be secondary to a blind obedience that drives the system. Individuals are not deemed by the system or the state to be worth much, only inconsequential cogs in the machinery of the post-totalitarian system.

Building and growing the post-totalitarian system generates continual hypocrisy and irony.

  • Government by bureaucracy is called popular government, even though it’s anything but.
  • The middle class becomes enslaved within the system, but that occurs in the name of the middle class.
  • Taking away the freedoms of the individual is in the name of defending the rights of the individual.
  • Denying society information and censoring is labeled as making things transparent, truthful, and accessible.
  • A bureaucrat’s subjective and wide use of power gets labeled as adhering to the law or the Constitution.5
  • Suppressing free speech becomes a way to protect individual rights, including free speech.
  • And punishing scientific thought and the scientific method is to further ‘The Science.’

To propagate the charade in the post-totalitarian system of Havel or with contemporary government run by the Left today in the West, the system must fabricate and contort statistics, data, and history. Climate change is a prime example, with the cherry-picking of statistical datasets for climate models, selectively reporting one set of weather events while ignoring other sets of weather events, and by constantly changing predictions into the future and conveniently ignoring prior predictions that keep proving inaccurate, time and again.

The culmination is the system transforms reality into a ritual of signs and pseudo-reality. Science gets replaced with political science. Objective reality is replaced with religion of the system. Backed by signs and slogans such as ‘climate action now’ and ‘code red.’

It impacts everyone in society, from the lowliest of the working class to the most elite of the educated class. That’s why some of the most educated and successful individuals blindly adhere to ideologies such as extreme environmentalism. The process that the post totalitarian system employs works across all strata of society and all education levels.

There is a psychology at play. People sport the slogans and the signs not looking to persuade others, but instead to conform and contribute to the wider view and objective of reminding people what is expected of them. It’s affirmation of the herd, and subliminally coercing others to comply or face alienation and losing the peaceful lifestyle that comes with obedience. Individuals are conscripted into the system’s effort to assist each other to become obedient; instruments of control and at the same time subjects of control.6

Pivoting to Living in Truth

What happens if the greengrocer decides to pull down the sign in the window or if the homeowner removes the ‘climate action now!’ sign from the suburban yard? What if both start to say what they think, and start following objective truth and what conscience demands?

Perhaps it’s a form of revolt. But Havel defined it as an attempt to live within the truth.

Living within the truth breaks the veneer of the system and exposes it as a manufactured scheme. Living a lie is exposed as just that, living a lie. Like the Wizard of Oz, one finally gets to see what’s behind the optics. Thus, for the post-totalitarian system (or for government run by the Left in the West today), the ultimate fundamental threat to its power will be individuals daring to live in the truth.

Just as there was a cumulative effect that plowed society into living the lie, when an individual chooses to live within the truth, the system runs the risk of teetering and crumbling.

Trust that the post-totalitarian system will react. Today the Left will accuse someone speaking their mind as wanting attention, money, clicks, or notoriety despite none being true. In fact, most individuals who decide to live within the truth have no prior political activity or affinity for politics. They just want to be able to exert their own individual freedoms: to speak, participate, and think.

And freedom to achieve, create value, make decisions for themselves, and utilize energy. Starting to see how climate change and Code Red are foundational tactics of the Left’s post-totalitarian system today?

This is why Havel considered individuals looking to live within the truth in a post-totalitarian system as dissidents. It’s a different connotation than what we typically think of dissident; it’s not so much that the individual proactively acts as a dissident as much as it is the system treats the individual as a dissident.

The media will shun and ignore individuals living in truth. But if the individual speaks freely despite the system looking to suppress them, the views of the dissident living in truth start to stretch beyond immediate circles and start to gain wider traction across society. The individuals in this category start to be known for their thoughts and ideas beyond their respective professions.

That’s how Havel evolved from a renowned poet and playwright into a political leader. He was the ultimate dissident living in truth in a post-totalitarian system.

Individuals living within the truth in a post-totalitarian system are often labelled rebels. But they don’t consider themselves to be. They aren’t rejecting anything. Instead, they are exerting freedom. They are thrown into the situation by a sense of personal responsibility coupled with the times.

And when these individuals say aloud what others are afraid to say or cannot say, dissidents living in the truth become inspiring. Another threat to the system. Especially if the dissident living within the truth jumps from no longer living within the lie and into proactively advocating for the truth, becoming vocal and visible to all.

There is a key difference between the post-totalitarian system of the Left and a dictatorship.

A dictatorship has no need to respect the law. But the post-totalitarian system, or today’s big government of the Left, has great use for the law. It uses the law to create power and to preserve it in the form of control over the individual. Tightly regulating and weaving an intricate web of complexity within the law are useful tactics for the post-totalitarian Left.

What Would Havel Think Today?

Havel, interestingly, considered himself an environmentalist. But environmentalism back then is a far cry from what it is today. No doubt that much of what he exposed of the post-totalitarian system is embedded within today’s extreme environmental movement. One wonders what Havel would think of today’s Code Red and Climate Action Now!

I’d like to believe he would carry the torch of dissidence when it came to the supposed scientific consensus of Climate Action Now!

Let’s follow his lead in the full spirit of living within the truth.


(1) How many people can lay claim to leading two nations in a lifetime? And being the first democratically elected leader of both? And being the last president of one?
(2) For related reading on enslaving and distracting individuals, check out the essay, “When a Blinded 1930s Writer Saw the 2022 Future.”
(3) Dissident had a different meaning within Havel’s philosophy compared to what we typically think of in the West. Read on for an explanation.
(4) As summarized by Havel biographer John Keane.
(5) Hello, Chevron precedent.
(6) Using Havel’s words, “They are both victims of the system and its instruments.”

Falling, Failing, and Finding Success: Mentoring Young Adults in 2023

CNX Resources is getting ready to proudly mark its 160th year in Appalachia. Our legacy is built on generations of a thriving and talented workforce and our future will rely on the same.

We are staunch defenders of the region. We will work with anyone to better our communities and economy. We often throw ourselves into the fray if there is a vexing problem where we might offer a solution.

One of our team’s motivational sayings reflecting our action-based culture is, ‘see something, say something, do something.’ Admittedly, there are times we jump the gun and ‘do something’ before fully thinking through the ‘see something’ part. But most times, our proactive instincts have been fruitful for individual employees, company, and region.

A few years ago, we began to ‘see something’: a massive problem in Appalachia.

Young adults, particularly those in underserved communities, are becoming an abandoned demographic when it comes to economic and professional opportunity.
Despite pouring trillions of dollars into education, too much of the public school system is failing the next generation. Young adults not wishing to attend college after high school are often on their own to figure out what comes after high school and how to start a career.

So, we started to ‘say something.’

The company developed an Appalachia First vision for the wider region, targeting economic and career inclusiveness to revive manufacturing and transform global energy markets, with Appalachia at the epicenter. We spoke at western Pennsylvania high schools in urban and rural communities about career paths in energy, building trades, and manufacturing. We invested time and resources into organizations who shared our vision of what could and should be.

But it didn’t take long to figure out that we needed to go further.

When we ‘see something’ and then ‘say something’ without acceptable improvement, it’s time to ‘do something.’

A Simple Yet Daring Idea

That ‘something’ was endeavoring to mentor at scale young adults in urban and rural underserved communities who are exiting high school, don’t wish to immediately attend college, and desire to enter the workforce. The platform became known as the CNX Mentorship Academy, now into our third year.

The effort has provided a spectrum of experiences and emotions that come with a significant commitment to mentoring: joy, stress, failure, success, winning, losing, day-to-day grinds, the big picture, passion, and fits-and-starts. Mentoring is both the most awe inspiring and most frustrating thing a person can get involved with.

The young adults we’re supporting are a critical driver of the future of western Pennsylvania and Appalachia. These individuals intend to stay in the region and start professional journeys that develop personal skills, create opportunity to ‘do,’ provide meaningful employment, and that pay a family-sustaining wage.

A couple of points to consider.

Western Pennsylvania is a special place that offers a spectrum of urban, suburban, and rural communities all within proximity to one another. From the Steel City’s southern suburbs, a short 20-minute drive to the north lands you in the most urban-of-urban areas. And a 30-minute drive to the south places you in the most rural-of-rural areas.

It’s a notable characteristic of western Pennsylvania, and the young adults in those urban and rural zip codes face serious obstacles gaining footholds in the middle class.

Second, Academy students don’t plan to attend college right out of high school. One might argue that’s an astute move these days, considering how poor the return on investment has become for far too many students.

Yet there is little support and scant process to provide understandable and navigable pathways for such students, which is ludicrous considering the great possibilities awaiting them.

Running to Embrace Failure

The need for, and the huge potential rate of return, of an effort such as the CNX Mentorship Academy are obvious. But if it were easy, it would’ve been done by now. We quickly learned it would be far from easy.

The author Valarie Johnson says: “We fall. We break. We fail. But then, we rise. We heal. We overcome.” We’ve learned that her words epitomize mentoring young adults entering the real world.

In hindsight, I suppose we asked for some degree of failure.

Our mentorship initiative was designed from the get-go to be challenging, to the point of frustrating. We were attempting something tangible, which means measurable. We wanted it to be impactful, and we couldn’t think of anything that’s more impactful than assisting the region’s next generation. And we wanted it to be local to our home region of western Pennsylvania.

Tangible, impactful, and local sound great. And different.

But if you take those characteristics to heart in the context of the Mentorship Academy, you begin to understand that success is far from guaranteed. The world for young adults in our urban and rural communities is a constantly changing mosaic of harsh realities that are always in play, wreaking havoc on the ability to smoothly transition a young adult into promising professional career paths.

That’s tough to accept for the successful individuals and entities affiliated with this effort. Failure, or the possibility of it, is scary.

And our toiling would stand out and contrast with the norm. Because many community efforts are often designed more for public relations and optics instead of making a truly tangible, impactful, and local positive difference.

Consider the contrast of two basic approaches to community efforts these days.

The first: the entity or a company presents one of those ridiculously oversized giant posters that look like a check. Everyone has seen these photos. Cut a check, smile, snap the photo, post it to social media, move on. Feel-good, yes. But disconnected and one-time.

I admit that I’ve been guilty of this from time to time. But if it helps promote whatever cause is being supported, what the heck. Yet the impact is fleeting.

The second approach is rarer, yet much more effective: invest yourself by getting your hands dirty and personally intervening to address the challenge or to seize the opportunity. Really commit.

That’s a much more demanding route, but also stands to be hugely rewarding. That’s what we desired with the Mentorship Academy.

After a few years into the Mentorship Academy effort, I attest that the path of hands-on immersion comes with collateral damage. It often results in falling short of aspiration.

But we wouldn’t have it any other way.

The direct immersive approach has made all the difference, to paraphrase Frost’s famous poem of taking the road or path less traveled.

Awareness of Opportunity

There are core objectives to achieve with individual students in the Mentorship Academy. They are telling of the situation facing young adults’ career paths.

A base objective is introducing the careers and professions available in a region like western Pennsylvania that don’t require a college degree. The good news is there are many such pathways. They’re out there and looking for the next generation.

Fortunately, we had exceptional partners from the start. Leaders in the energy industry, manufacturing, the building trades (carpenters, steamfitters, electricians, operating engineers, and laborers), hospitality, real estate, construction, and healthcare to name the big ones.

The bad news is that the young adult typically has little clue of the opportunities or what those jobs and careers entail. This is also an opportunity, one that the Mentorship Academy has seized on behalf of students.

Not knowing what’s out there is not a failing of the student. Instead, it’s an indictment of that ‘system’ referenced earlier that’s failing to enlighten young adults on life changing career paths that don’t require college and are often just down the street.

And some responsibility must also be borne by the industries themselves. For example, the domestic energy industry must do a better job of promoting, communicating, and highlighting the awesome professional paths that exist for young adults out of public high school.

So, we dedicate a group of days through the year’s curriculum to visit various industries and job sites so students see these professions in action, real time. Hands-on activities during the tours are common.

A student quickly figures out the professions that intrigue them and their career awareness IQ skyrockets. Knowledge is power when making life/career decisions.

Assembling the Career Tool Box, One Tool at a Time

Although seeing and learning about different industries and career paths is a key Academy objective, there are other crucial goals. Two important ones are developing resumes and interview preparedness.

For resumes, it’s not only about words on paper, but also working with the individual student to strengthen and fill in the resume with activities, volunteering, references, and accomplishments.

Most high school seniors have only a slight inkling as to what a resume is, and very few know what a good resume looks like. But by the end of an Academy year, young adults have polished and, wouldn’t you know it, impressive resumes. Another challenge transformed into an opportunity.

But a resume is only a start. It gets you noticed over a 20-second look by a recruiter or hiring manager going through hundreds of resumes. That’s important, it’s how you stand out and get to the next step.

But it won’t be enough to get you a job offer. For that you’re going to need to also impress at an interview, which is the next hurdle.

We explain to young adults to think of an interview as if they were learning a language or figuring out an app. You get good at it by doing it. You can talk about it, but until you practice mock interviews, you’re not going to get comfortable performing in the real interview.

So we run each student through mock interviews with their resumes in hand. We ask the obvious questions. What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? The student learns how to take a tricky question like weaknesses and answer it in a way that turns it into a positive. Something like, ‘my biggest weakness is that I’m a perfectionist’ or, ‘sometimes I try to take on too much.’

We also discuss how a good resume prompts the interviewer to ask obvious questions. Strategically placing an experience or an interest on your resume that stands out and that is different will serve as a great ice breaker and conversation item in the interview. And the student should be prepared to discuss that topic in the interview; a layup to be ready for.

Finally, students are advised to ask a good question or two during the interview. Something applicable to the job, company, or industry that demonstrates the applicant performed due diligence preparing and is genuinely interested.

And one also needs to be properly dressed for the interview to land that job.

We talk about researching the dress code of the company/location, and then dressing in attire that fits the culture. This means each student needs at least one professional outfit for interviews. Thus, we provide each student with an outfit. It’s a highlight of the year; seeing a student come into the day’s event in jeans and a hoodie and then suddenly seeing them transformed individually and as a group. Clothes prove to be quite a confidence builder.


There is another objective of the curriculum that we had no clue of going into the effort, but quickly emerged within a few months into the first year’s journey: paperwork.

Many young adults in underserved communities lack the necessary paperwork needed to land a meaningful job. The best example is a driver’s license. No driver’s license, no ability to fill out a job application, and thus no job. Doesn’t matter if the applicant has an awesome resume and interviews well.

The logical step is to help the student get through the driver’s license process. Easy, right? Wrong.

Because that requires more…paperwork. Birth certificates, social security cards, health physicals, consents, and so on. And everything with the paperwork needs to be just so, since the government DMV is not what you would consider to be the most flexible organization and it doesn’t exactly embrace the customer service mentality.

Most high school seniors don’t have their paperwork in any semblance of order. And getting it to that point can be complicated and time consuming. But if the student aspires to land the job that sets them on a career path, the paperwork challenge must be met. We invest the time and endure the frustration of getting all that paperwork in order, student by student.

It’s another example of how bureaucracy (and its associated paperwork) can stifle individual achievement.

There is a silver lining with the hoops we jump through with paperwork: it provides opportunities to bond with the student outside of the normal Mentorship Academy curriculum.

If you want to get to know someone, spend an hour with them waiting in line at the DMV.

Lines at the DMV, if used as social networking platforms, would render social media and apps obsolete.

Network and the Confidence Game

As important as immersion into different industries, a resume, interview skills, professional attire, and a driver’s license are, there are two even more important items of value in the Academy’s curriculum for the student. Two intangibles.

The first is that the student exits the Academy with an impressively powerful network. Over the course of the year, they meet the leaders of companies and industries across the region, including those who do the hiring and in some instances the CEOs of the businesses or entities. That’s the benefit of having great partners to participate alongside you in the effort.

That network is one to be envied by seasoned professionals, let alone by high school seniors. It’s a huge leg up that can keep paying dividends for the individual young professional to the extent that they’re willing to invest time to properly utilize it.

And the second crucial takeaway for the student is, in a word: confidence.

Confidence at the age of 18 is powerful. And lack of confidence at age 18 can be debilitating—particularly when it comes to career.

A year of the Academy builds a reservoir of confidence that manifests in resume, demeanor, first impressions, and pursuing career paths. Confidence might be, in the end, the most important ingredient that the Mentorship Academy provides.

The Glue

To succeed in this endeavor and instill that confidence, support beyond the day or so spent with students each month during the formal curriculum is vital. So what about the other 28 or 29 days in a month?

That’s where mentors come into play. The mentors are the glue that holds everything together. After spending a day or two each month diving deep into our curriculum, off the students go back into the unforgiving and difficult real world.

Finding ways to keep students tethered when life is rearing its head is the mentors’ focus. We have mentors who are community leaders alongside mentors who are within the organizations and companies that participate in the effort. Experience shows you need, and want, both.

Mentors are essential to:

  • Building personal connections to the students—important when inevitably something arises in life with the student;
  • Helping shepherd students through the curriculum and the year to get the most out of the Academy; and,
  • Establishing a close mentor-student connection to ensure a tailored path for each student that matches interests, needs, and situation.

This is far from a one size fits all effort, and flexibility and nimbleness are keys to success.

No mentors, no success. It’s that simple.

The Next Level

Success raises the topic of scale. If we are experiencing success with an individual student or a small group of students, then the quicker and the more efficiently we can scale and grow the effort, the more tangible and impactful it will be on the local region.

We talk about the Academy to raise awareness so that more people get involved.

You’re welcome to copy it. You’re welcome to join it. And you’re welcome to learn more about it. You don’t have to steal the playbook, ask and we will give it to you.

If you wish to join the effort, nominate a student, or replicate what we’ve built, find more information on the CNX Mentorship Academy at https://www.cnx.com/about-us/the_mentorship-academy.

We are scaling. Our first year was around 30 students, last year had just over 40, and the third-year class is kicking off with close to 80 students.

Unbelievably, we are now measuring our cumulative impact in the hundreds of young adults. But what if we could take that to the thousands and across regions beyond western Pennsylvania? That’s where you might come in if you want to replicate or join the effort.

Back to Reality

A sober dose of truth is in order.

Young adults course a journey of growth that comes in fits and spurts. Sometimes it’s one step forward and two steps back. And their world doesn’t make it any easier, whether urban or rural.

Not every student is going to exit the Academy exactly where we hoped at the start. And not every student is going to be prepared for ‘career primetime’ at the end of the year.

We adjusted to that reality, and we continue to do so. It’s humbling and makes you think.

But we can say without hesitation that every student who enters the Academy and shows up over the course of the year will be in a markedly better place with life skills, awareness, and confidence by the end.

It all comes down to how one defines success. It’s measured in different ways…in this thing we call life. I wish it were more ideal, but this is how it is.

Back to the author Valarie Johnson: “We fall. We break. We fail. But then, we rise. We heal. We overcome.”

That’s mentoring young adults in western Pennsylvania in 2023. But we discovered that if we stick to it, we win. And so does the region.

Current and Future Life Journeys Hanging on a Suit Rack

The following commentary by Nick Deiuliis highlights the unique partnership between for CNX Resources and Dress for Success, which includes preparing The Mentorship Academy students for job interviews with professional attire, headshots, mock interviews, and resume writing workshops.

I’ve had the opportunity to participate in many exciting and inspiring efforts over my career. Being part of the CNX Foundation’s Mentorship Academy has been one of the best of the best, both personally and professionally. The Academy successfully captures all the great players in western Pennsylvania and joins them together to bring about impactful, positive change to the next generation.

A side benefit to the Mentorship Academy effort is getting to know the standouts across this region’s businesses, nonprofit organizations, industries, and educational institutions. ​ One such shining light is the nonprofit Dress for Success Pittsburgh.

Toward the end of the inaugural class of the Mentorship Academy, we partnered with Dress for Success to outfit the students with professional attire. The transformation was unbelievable, both in visual appearance as well as in personal demeanor. You change a person’s look, and you change their confidence level.

With that type of high impact, Dress for Success instantly became a crucial partner to the Mentorship Academy. CNX and Dress for Success grew closer, and CNX recruited Dress for Success to take up office residence in our headquarters building (part of our HQ at CNX initiative). Now we work alongside each other daily and are a proud sponsor of their mobile boutique providing services to women across Fayette, Greene and Washington Counties.

Which brings me to how CNX, the Mentorship Academy, and Dress for Success serendipitously had me contemplating life in, of all places, my bedroom closet. Allow me to explain.

First, understand I am somewhat of a hoarder, albeit an organized one. It hurts me to throw away things that I may end up using again or that, more importantly, hold the slightest sentimental value. I have the ticket stubs to every sporting event I attended in life (at least for ones where they used to print tickets). Every book I read finds a home on a shelf somewhere in the house. I suppose these are not simply inanimate things to me; they are living memories.

For some reason, I followed suit with this behavior when it came to suits, as in my professional business attire. Over three decades ago, I started out as a young, 21-year-old engineer who didn’t own a suit (or know how to knot a tie). So, I had to purchase a few and started with the classic basics of navy blue, grey pinstripe, and black pinstripe varieties. ​

Through the years I would buy a suit or two, but because my measurements didn’t change much, I never ended up letting go of the older suits. This steady expansion of the wardrobe went on for decades. It spanned nearly ten apartments and houses in the Pittsburgh area, with each move having a step of swiping up the suits on the old closet rack and then hanging them up on the new closet rack. With each progressive move, the closet got a little bigger, but the line of suits got a little longer.1

I see nothing wrong with those suits, including the originals; they are in great shape and a classic gray suit does not go out of style. But in today’s more business casual world, I only need a couple. ​

That leaves a lot of suits just hanging in the closet. I thought of the male Mentorship Academy students from this year’s class. And then I thought of Dress for Success and the thousands of people they assist across the region. It was time to give up the suits.

That’s how I ended up contemplating life in my bedroom closet. I was staring at that line of suits, ready to take them down to the car to bring them in to Dress for Success. But then it hit me as a scanned the line from left to right.

My adult life was looking back at me on that rack. A suit when I was single and in my 20s. One I was wearing in heavy rotation around the time my kids were born. There’s one I wore at a family wedding and one next to it that I wore at a family funeral. A row of suits covering me at board meetings for the lineage of great companies I worked for. ​

The older the suit, the more cumulative the history. An adult life’s alpha and omega found, in of all places, on a closet clothes rack. How could I part with them?

Well, it came down to impact. The suit can remain in the closet, never be worn, and have one person appreciate it. Or it can be repurposed and find new life. And maybe, just maybe, help take someone in this region to the next level of realizing their potential.

The car got loaded up. Tanya from Dress for Success was helping me unload them at the office and asked, “Where did all these come from?” I told her it was a long story but that I would try to explain it to her as best I could.

Dress for Success Pittsburgh is always looking for men’s and women’s professional attire (including dress shoes!) in good condition. CNX sponsors the Dress for Success mobile boutique, which provides services to women across Fayette, Greene, and Washington Counties in western Pennsylvania. Contact CEO Tanya Vokes at tanya@dressforsuccesspittsburgh.org to find out how you might help.

For daily insights and commentary from Nick Deiuliis, follow Nick on Twitter at @NickDeiuliis and on LinkedIn.

Tribute to the Church Fair

The dog days of summer: when July arrives, lawns turn brown, and shade is at a premium. When driving around western Pennsylvania during this time of year, every now and then I come across a neighborhood yard sign or occasional billboard in front of a house of worship promoting the upcoming church fair/carnival. Seeing these signs triggers two simultaneous reactions: the placing of a smile of nostalgia on my face, but also a tinge of melancholy in my mind. Both are for something once special that looks to be increasingly a thing of the past.

What used to be as commonplace as lightning bugs during the summers of my youth in these parts has become a bit of a rarity these days.

Few kids today experience what was once the exciting week when the carnival hit the local parish.  And a multi-year hiatus resulting from the lingering hangover of mandated pandemic shutdowns seems to have not just dealt a death blow to many church carnivals, but perhaps ultimately to many parishes themselves.

That is a shame, because the demise of the church fair mirrors in many ways the erosion of religion, values, and community in America.

Not long ago, church was culture.  Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods and surrounding environs were a mosaic of different ethnicities and creeds.  With each turn at a street corner or summiting of a hill in western Pennsylvania, you would navigate through Slovak, Polish, Italian, African American, Jewish, Greek, Lebanese, and countless other neighborhoods and cultures.  Western Pennsylvania, built by an immigrant class, was the textbook exemplar of a melting pot.

And with each distinct culture came a unique house of worship.  The bricks and mortar of that house became the physical and spiritual centers of gravity for the local community.  Everything revolved around it, including schools, sports, cultural events, and schedules. Infants were born in its shadow, kids were schooled in buildings attached to it, people were married in them, and the deceased were eulogized in services hosted by them.  The house of worship was a reliable provider for the members of the local community from cradle-to-grave, literally.

The celebratory event that brought everyone together once a year was the fair or carnival.

Kids would anxiously mark the week months in advance.  Families would plan vacations to not conflict with the fair.  Extended families would participate in home-away pairings, with cousins from different neighborhoods attending each other’s fairs as hosts/guests.  People took pride and held rivalries within extended families and across communities in the quality of the carnival at their house of worship.

Thus, people in these parts took their neighborhood church’s fair as a serious endeavor.

Resurrection Parish’s SummerFest 2022 (took place June 20-25).

You didn’t volunteer to lead the planning and organization of the carnival or fair; instead, you were selected by earning your way to the spot over years of competently rising through the hierarchy.  In many instances, sons and daughters performed the menial tasks within the team that their fathers and mothers did when they were younger.  Those at the top of the ladder usually were not there by accident.  Strangely, a nonprofit institution had a way of instilling a highly effective meritocracy when event reputation and money were on the line.

Perpetual Planning

Planning for the week of festivities was a perpetual process without end; as soon as the tents and rides were packed and shipped away, the leadership committee was off planning next year’s event.  That’s because the fair or carnival was a crucial piece of the financial viability of the church.  The proceeds funded the schools, paid for the capital improvements to the buildings, and underwrote many of the outreach programs for the local infirmed and poor.  With so much at stake, the house of worship applied a continuous improvement methodology that would rival the best practices found in the hospitality industry.  Overall event quality was the best guarantor of financial success.

Weather was an uncontrollable, yet critical, factor in the ultimate outcome of the year’s event.  A dry and rainless week virtually guaranteed a financial success, whereas dreaded rain would severely impair the financial proceeds.  The church fair taught you at a young age that events outside of your direct control could have an outsized impact on you and your tribe.  Weather was one of life’s ‘known-unknowns.’

Food: The Soul of the Fair

Every event was sure to offer the standards, such as hot dogs and pizza.  But then the ethnic nature of each church took over to offer custom items on the menu: pierogies at the Polish church, pastas at the Italian church, stuffed grape leaves at the Lebanese church, and so on.

Like those who planned, set up, and ran the event, the cooks and bakers for the fair were selected through merit; being a food contributor to the church carnival was a huge source of pride for the cook.  Some of the best food I ever had the pleasure of enjoying was at various Pittsburgh church fairs through the years.

The Ironic Reality of the Church Fair

The carnival taught every kid a new life skill:  how to gamble (and why you want to avoid it).  Games of chance were the biggest money maker for the event.  And the games were clinically designed to methodically procure income from young kids and adolescents.

Little kids would spend allowances saved up all summer to try to win that stuffed animal at the ring toss.  Teenagers would throw dollar bill-after-dollar bill earned from cutting lawns, babysitting, or delivering papers down on the table at the booth where the chuck-a-luck birdcages were rolling the dice.  Many young gamblers learned valuable lessons: the house always wins, you should quit when you are ahead (or not start at all), and the true meaning of ‘gambling is a regressive tax.’  The church had no problem profiting from its sin tax on the younger parishioners, and senior citizens parked at the bingo tables were also fair game.

The Rides

Most fairs had rides for the kids.  They were not amusement park-caliber rides, but they got the job done, especially for the youngest of attendees.  A little duct tape here and there, some leaking fluids at certain spots, and maybe not up to current day regulatory standards.  But the rides put a lot of smiles on little kids faces, and happy kids usually means happy parents, which leads to higher attendance and longer stays.

But That Was Then – Today is Different

Church fairs and carnivals are not as commonplace these days.  Heck, churches are not as commonplace or as well-attended.

I see those signs announcing the upcoming event and think back to my days of youth running around the streets of Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania to all those different carnivals and churches.  I remember them all and miss them more than ever.

What do I remember? The best ride was the Ferris wheel at the St. Mary of the Mount fair on Grandview Avenue in Mount Washington, which offered a million-dollar view at night for a $0.50 ticket.  The most fun was at the Resurrection parish fair in Brookline, where my brother and I would be invited to attend with our cousins.  The best prize I ever secured was a glow-in-the-dark Star Wars movie poster, which adorned my bedroom wall for a couple of years.  The best food…is impossible to say, like picking a favorite child.  You love it/them all.

Long Live the Church Fair

Organized religions offer a mixed legacy, and many people are skeptical of them (author included). Yet this nation could regain much by refocusing on the values that the church fair and carnival epitomized.  Our local communities and national psyche need those values more than ever.


Unsustainable: American K-12 Public Education

The quality of an American public education has been steadily eroding for years. Today, many school districts are graduating children without basic proficiency in reading, writing, math, and science. These kids enter the job market and real world unprepared and unarmed. Meanwhile, spending on K-12 public education has skyrocketed.

Taxpayers pour money into an education system that produces increasingly disappointing results. Amazingly, the embarrassing failures in public education are used as justification to throw more taxpayer dollars at special interests creating the problems.

In a world where everyone marches to the drumbeat of sustainability, our public education system has sunk into a quagmire of unsustainability.

What are this crisis’ problems, root causes, and solutions? Although the situation is complex, the major drivers are quite simple. Covid and the self-induced shutdown of our schools exacerbated and exposed these drivers for all to see, making them more obvious. Ignoring them surrenders our kids’ futures.

Stakeholders and Their Interests

To properly understand the problems and root causes, and to identify solutions, understanding the stakeholders is key. They are:

  • Students, parents, and taxpayers. These are, in theory, the public education system’s customers. Kids need to be taught basic skills, parents desire good outcomes for their children’s education, and taxpayers pay for all of it. If our public education system fails, all three lose.
  • Good educators. Motivated teachers are one of the most powerful assets in a free market economy, providing a multiplier effect on value creation as they develop productive doers. Great instructors deserve and want recognized through merit pay and professional advancement.
  • Bad educators. Like any professional occupation, there are both good- and poor-performing teachers. A poor performer not interested in improving seeks to continue collecting a paycheck and wants to avoid accountability.
  • Teachers’ unions. Public unions, unlike private sector unions, should be viewed with skepticism since collective bargaining and strikes harm the citizenry that the government worker pledged to protect. The public union is most interested in preserving and growing its power, in the form of increasing dues and membership. Rewarding great educators, classroom meritocracy, and academic proficiency are secondary considerations. That’s why studies struggle to find a correlation between teacher unionization and improved student outcomes.
  • School administrators. Administrators, conceptually, sit in between the teachers’ union, teachers, and customers (students, parents, and taxpayers) to create balance and a quality education. Instead, administrators often focus on using bureaucracy to justify more influence, grow staffing, and increase budgets.
  • Politicians. Public officials are elected by the customers of the public education system: parents and taxpayers. But politicians often fail to serve those who they supposedly answer to. Instead, politicians are increasingly influenced by what their true bosses, public unions, demand from them: a system that shrouds transparency, shirks accountability, is fed more money, and limits customer choice.

The Problems

You can’t identify root causes until you recognize the problems. Unfortunately, the problems are obvious and serious.

  • Increasing and alarming numbers of kids are matriculating through public schools despite lack of basic proficiency in reading, writing, math, and science. Schools are failing in their most fundamental duty: to teach students.
  • Urban and rural school districts are especially susceptible to not fulfilling their duty to students. That means the poorest and most economically disadvantaged communities suffer the most severe consequences.
  • Teachers’ unions secure work rules where teachers are all treated the same, as if they were a commodity instead of a profession.
  • The best educators are not recognized nor compensated fairly.
  • It is far too easy for poor performing teachers to skirt accountability, with the system allowing them to remain entrenched for decades.
  • School choice options for parents and students are too limited, particularly in poor performing school districts.
  • Teachers’ unions willingly use threat of strike to disrupt learning and students’ educational paths, if it helps secure more money for pensions, adding of non-teaching staff, and more favorable work rules.
  • Too small of a fraction of each dollar poured into public school districts ends up in the pockets of active teachers or to hire more teachers.

The Root Causes

What are the root causes of these major problems?

  • Community-wide problems, such as lack of economic inclusion, often adversely influence public education outcomes and student proficiency. Solving such problems is beyond the scope of this discussion, and we touched upon some of them in a prior commentary [Teens and Avoiding Poverty: Three Simple Yet Challenging Rules]. Yet addressing the other root causes below will place families and school districts in our more challenged urban and rural communities in better position to succeed.
  • Public unions, including teachers’ unions, pose a massive, cyclical conflict of interest. Teachers’ unions collect dues from member teachers, the unions use dues to fund the political campaigns of politicians (legislators and elected judges) in their districts, the elected politicians then appoint administrators to manage school districts, and collective bargaining agreements are negotiated by the trio of teachers’ union-administrators-politicians that favor the teachers’ union priorities over those of students, parents, and taxpayers. Repeat for the next contract and election cycles.
  • Teachers’ unions exist without any current teacher ever having voted to form the union in the first place. Only one percent of teachers in Florida’s ten largest school districts were on the job when those districts voted to unionize. The New York City public school system teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers, was created in 1960, meaning no one out of the over 100,000 current teachers in the union ever voted to create it. Most public school teachers had a union forced on them from day one of their careers. This is institutionalized conscription of public schoolteachers, districts, and the students they serve in the form of a perpetual public union.
  • Most collective bargaining agreements impose a system whereby marginal teachers can continue teaching without improvement for decades and excellent teachers enjoy little upside in the form of professional advancement and pay. Frustrated parents and exceptional teachers may feel as if the system was designed to protect the poor teacher.
  • The teachers’ union top priority is securing more dues and higher membership. Student proficiency, school choice, and teacher accountability are distant, secondary concerns. When there is conflict between the top priority and lesser priorities, the teachers’ union will choose the former at the expense of the latter. That’s a big reason why students who matriculate the full twelve years through a school district with mandatory collective bargaining end up on average earning less, having jobs requiring lower skills, and being more likely to be unemployed than fellow students in school districts who did not have statutorily mandated collective bargaining.
  • A growing share of “investment” in education is allocated under collective bargaining agreements to fund underwater and out-of-market pensions for retirees and to grow staffing of non-teaching personnel. The rate of increase is alarming: over 14% of education spending in 2018 was to cover pension costs, compared to only 7.5% in 2001. The Los Angeles Unified School District has seen pension costs more than double since 2014. In West Virginia, student enrollment fell 12% from 1992 to 2014 as non-teaching staff increased 10%, and in Kentucky over the same period non-teaching staff grew over six times as fast as student enrollment.

Solutions to Make the Unsustainable Sustainable

The K-12 public education system is unsustainable and in terminal decline. Yet a few simple reforms would drastically improve the situation for students, parents, taxpayers, and great educators.

  • States should enact statutes that require teachers’ unions to stand periodically for recertification, allowing active teachers to make their own decisions as to whether they desire union representation.
  • Politicians and administrators should prioritize within school district budgets active teacher salaries and student-teacher ratios (meaning new teacher hires) over pensions, retiree healthcare, and hiring of non-teaching staff.
  • Collective bargaining agreements and administrators must clearly define measurable performance criteria for student proficiency levels in reading, writing, math, and science. If those proficiency levels are not met, it should trigger preestablished corrective actions to ensure accountability and to protect students.
  • A true meritocracy should be instituted when setting teacher merit increases, promotions, and advancement opportunities. The best teacher in a school should earn substantially more than the poorest performer. The best should advance to more responsibility and opportunity while the worst should be considered for removal in lieu of improvement.
  • School choice should be encouraged via policy and be an option for students and parents, particularly in school districts that post poor student proficiency levels. If public education is not serving the customers with the quality product that the customer paid for, the customers should be free to take their business elsewhere.

Although these simple reforms would drastically improve the lives of countless children, accomplishing the reforms will require long, brutal campaigns on a state-by-state and school district-by-school district basis.

Yet we would be hard-pressed to find a more worthy fight.