SALT LAKE CITY — Liz Murray became famous for going from homeless New York City teenager to Harvard University undergrad.
A New York Times article, an ABC 20/20 episode, innumerable other media accounts, a movie, an Oprah interview and a recent a book — "Breaking Night" — have all recounted her gritty life of being raised in the Bronx by drug-addicted parents that drove her to sleeping in subways and stairwells.
Her story tells like the American dream — work hard, don't give up, you can do it. But her journey defies simple stereotypes, she told a rapt audience Wednesday, part of Local Officials' Day at the Legislature, an annual event of the Utah League of Cities and Towns.
Later, business innovation guru and best-selling author Clayton Christensen gave the same audience a similar message: to change outcomes in business, education or health care, we must understand and organize the familiar in novel ways.
A Harvard business professor, Christensen outlined his ideas on changing higher education to legislators Tuesday. He's written a series of books on innovation, beginning with "Innovator's Dilemma" in 1997.
In her speech, Murray said her parents often let her and her sister go hungry to support their drug habits, yet she knew that they loved her immensely and she felt no anger about their choices. While she experienced great privation, her experiences also brought her incredible blessings.
Her journey from hard streets to Harvard Square happened only because she learned to make choices that empowered her life, not choices that continually put things off for "later," she said.
"Choice by choice by choice you will carve out a new life for yourself," Murray encouraged her audience.
Yet, her success also happened because of Perry, her dedicated high school teacher and mentor, as well as scholarships, government funding, a homeless shelter for teens, and a community that on hearing her story reached out to help her with rent, food, furniture, money and even doing her laundry.
Murray became homeless at 15, and she descended into a downward spiral of sleeping on park benches, begging for change, and shoplifting food and clothes. Still, everyone, no matter how bad their life and choices, has a "what if" voice in their heads that pushes them to dream, she said.
Too often we put off that voice with "later," or "one day," she added. For Murray the voice of her mother, who every night put her to bed, came back to her. "One day I'll get sober," her mother would say. "One day. I'll do it later. One day."
"Eventually later runs out." It's "paralysis by analysis," she said. "You have to be in action to know if your dream is possible for you."
She told the audience of a Harvard psychology professor who told her class: "If you ever think someone is coming to fix your all your problems, you're wrong."
A student responded, "Well, you came."
"Yes," the professor answered, "But I just came to tell you that no one is coming."
In an interview, she said people respond to her life as if it were a Rorschach ink blob test. They either see it as the embodiment of the American dream or proof that we all need community support, she said.
"I don't know why people think it has to be one or the other. I think it's both."
Once she was telling friends from Germany about some of the great non-profit organizations in the United States. They had difficulty understanding that because in their country, the government "takes care of everything," they told her.
Murray said that from her experience, if she had to choose between a system of helping the poor more like Germany's or more like the U.S.'s, she would choose Germany's, she said.
Here we don't necessarily need to spend more tax money, she said, but to spend it more effectively. She would especially like to see better access for the needy to education, health care and job readiness programs.
She graduated from Harvard three years ago, is married and has a four-month-old son.
Besides speaking to groups throughout the country, she is working to establish a high school for the homeless, and she volunteers for Covenant House, which helps homeless teens. She's also working to start a website that will harness the power of social media to promote pay-it-forward "global networks of kindness."
Christensen told the audience of legislators, civic leaders and young people that America's education and health care problems can only be solved through innovation that by busting out of institutionalized patterns of thinking and behaving.
We have to understand what the "job" is that we are "hiring" our products and services to do, he said.
Traditionally organized schools, with students sitting in neat rows, taught the same thing at the same time without any practical application, do not do the job that students have hired them to do, Christensen said.Comment on this story
"School is not the 'job,'" Christensen said, "but only what they hire to do the job." The real job is to help students feel successful.
"All students are motivated to feel successful," he said. "Not all students are motivated by school."
Even students who drop out or join gangs are motivated to feel successful, he added.
"Most schools are organized to make most kids feel like failures when they go home."
Christensen said teaching students by giving them "big, hairy" complex projects that require the application of diverse knowledge will bring students the feeling of success.