Last night I was approved as the newest school board member of the Alameda Community Learning Center (ACLC). I would not have gotten involved with this organization if it wasn’t for the invitation from my friend who is a teacher at the school. Being a member of this board, I hope, will bring a variety of valuable experiences to both myself and the board. This will be my first board membership experience and considering my combined background in Education and Business, I offer a unique perspective to the guidance of this particular school.
Deciding to sign on to this new role, was not, however, a simple decision making process for me. One thing that makes ACLC unique is its mission to be a democratic community. I would venture to say that many schools and other organizations also strive to be democratic, but in order to do it in a way where everyone’s voice is heard, is challenging and messy! I got to experience this first hand at last month’s board meeting. While I was impressed by the students’ concern and high level of engagement, it sometimes felt like the conversation was reeling out of control.
After that first meeting and some reflective conversation with friend, I realized that this, in my opinion, is a great way to learn and to lead. This type of democratic practice is something I had experimented with in other leadership roles, but when it got too messy I tended to shy away and take a different approach.
This all got me thinking about where else I do or do not see this type of a democratic process being done well. If it’s not being done well, then why not? It seems to require a fair amount of self (either individual or institutional) knowledge and comfort because it demands opening up and being vulnerable. However, the potential benefit when it’s done well, seems to be tremendous.
As a class assignment for my Innovation in Business class, we completed a design project using the Human Centered Design by IDEO.org. Our class was divided into groups and we were given the general topic of food justice in Oakland We then had to pick a smaller scope for which we would focus our design question (for example: How do we connect backyard gardeners with neighbors to increase the sharing of fresh food harvest?). Rather than brainstorming solutions amongst ourselves, developing a plan and then setting out to implement our plan, we took a completely different approach. We identified a target audience, did several interviews with a variety of members in that community, analyzed responses in order to find patterns, and experimented with a series of prototypes until we reached a final product that responded to the need our community expressed. Wow, the amount I personally learned from this process was incredible! When I first learned the structure of this process I thought it sounded simply like common sense. However, it wasn’t until I actually went through the process with a real project that I learned how valuable and insightful it was.
To our surprise, our final product that fit the needs of our community was a once a month lunch club. We realized that it wasn’t a fancy new piece of technology that community members needed, it was the opportunity to build face-to-face relationships and personal investment with others around them.
This got me thinking… there are some companies out there that do a great job at giving money to schools, for example Target has always given 5% of its income to education, but maybe students in our public schools could equally benefit from the face time of the many successful corporate professionals in our communities. What if a company invested in public education with their time? I know as a teacher it would have been an immensely insightful experience for me to have a general manager helping with foundational writing skills in my classroom. I can only begin to imagine the potential value that would develop for others involved.
As a follow up to a previous post, Future Job Prospects for Teachers?, my professor responded with a very thought provoking comment about how companies’ focus is to produce and schools’ focus is to educate. This leads to a challenging situation because there is a disconnect. In response to Dave’s comment–how I would I begin to answer my own question of what needs to change so that we as a society begin to shift toward sustainability, I would say the strategy is multi-faceted.
As an effort to build on the skills of innovating, I have been actively networking with contacts new and old, some of which have been quite prominent people. Recently, I have been intrigued by a certain question (and the subsequent responses). The question, which is best fit to those who have been in the work force for at least a decade, is: What are you most proud of accomplishing in your career? Somewhat to my surprise, the answers have been focused on the same concept: creating value for others (whether it be lifelong career opportunities or starting a “green” network in the company they worked for). This makes me think that people (as a species), really do have a desire to create value and not just produce–although our consumer culture is a strong force as well.
To begin to answer my own question, I think we need to shift our cultural mindset from needing to always produce/consume more to be happy, to finding value in enough. The lesser challenge here is that we are not a culture that is typically satisfied by enough. The bigger challenge is how we can find satisfaction in creating more value. Clearly we already find some satisfaction here–as mentioned in my conversations above–so how do we spread this on a large scale?
I’m going to diverge from my usual topic with this post–I decided to tackle a personal project in the past week that is just too appropriate to the topic of innovation for me not to blog about it. The project… DIY chair upholstery!
I admit, I’m slightly obsessed with all things having to do with home design. In one of my alternate lives I would be an interior designer. Currently, I have to live out this obsession as a shopper on a budget. This means that when I randomly came across an antique chair on the side of the road that my neighbor put out for the trash, I quickly snatched it up and start pondering potential for transforming it into a beautiful accent chair that would complete my bedroom decor.
Thus began the internal debate: Is this really a DIY project I want to undertake? Will I fail miserably? Thanks to my wonderful husband, my determination pushed me over the edge when he lovingly told me that I simply should not do the project because it would end in disaster. I immediately began researching. I watched countless YouTube videos, looked up hours for the Oakland Tool Lending Library (a best kept secret in my opinion), embraced the encouragement offered by the friendly Discount Fabric store employee and got to work.
As I spent hours ripping apart old upholstery by myself in my backyard, I realized I was embarking on one of the five primary skills that innovators excel at: experimenting. I was taking something apart, learning how it works, and setting up my plan to put it back together in whatever creative way I could come up with.
Somewhat to my surprise and to my complete satisfaction, the chair us just about done! While there were certainly parts of the project that could be considered imperfections/failures, I met my goal–to experiment, produce something beautiful, and to prove that I too am an innovator through my creative energy and determination.
I am an avid listener of the American Public Media podcast, Marketplace. On yesterday’s episode one of their commentators, Robert Reich, spoke about the depressing prospect of jobs in this new age of technology. Reich is a Public Policy professor at UC Berkeley, and his message initially irritated me because it lacked his usual constructive follow-up to societal concerns. He briefly touched on the health of Education jobs and how inefficiency pervades our systems, which causes pressure to digitize jobs. This is leading the new wave of online classrooms, which has benefits but will unfortunately displace some teachers. When I come across what seems to be a bleak situation I have gotten into the habit of asking myself, how can this sticky scenario be turned into an opportunity? What is it that we value as a society? How can we re-arrange our resources so that we show what it is that we value?
I believe that a large part of the answer can be found in business. The for-profit sector holds the potential to develop a product or service, market it to whomever they please, but most importantly make a profit and re-invest that profit as they see fit. There are a number of industries, clothing, banking, insurance, technology, etc. that I am a consumer of, and for which I could be persuaded to be more loyal and a bigger spender. Companies in these industries should be looking at how they can be more associated with fields such as Education. These companies should be asking themselves questions such as: How are we helping to create jobs in Education? How are we fueling the economy (increasing consumer spending) by offering a sustainable service that is focused on the greatest social good and not just our own profits? What innovative companies should we be investing in that are doing these things?
The Oakland Block Party was organized 3 years ago as a way for the community to help raise money for Oakland Public Schools. As a former Westlake Middle School teacher I have always been a strong supporter of the annual Oakland Block Party. Now, as an MBA student, I continue to be a strong supporter, but I look at the event from a new perspective.
Upon entering my graduate program, just 4 weeks ago, we were asked to read an interesting article from the Harvard Business Review titled, Creating Shared Value. The authors of the article argue that in order for business leaders to be successful in the coming generations, we will need to implement systems that create sustainability within our communities. One way of doing this is by reconceiving products and markets. In my opinion, the organizers of the the Oakland Block Party have done this quite well. Last year they raised 15K for Oakland Public Schools and this year their goal was 60K. Additionally, there are numerous sponsors and partners that make this event possible and receive a large amount of public recognition. What is really interesting to me though, is the role of the consumer. On a graduate student budget, I am not very likely to just give $25 (cost of one ticket) to Oakland Public Schools (I would, however, be more likely to volunteer my time), nor am I very likely to spend that $25 on a Saturday happy hour. Yes, I am frugal, but did I mention I’m a student? Back to the point, when I receive the opportunity to have a fun night out, AND a way to donate to the schools, I’m actually willing to spend a bit more than $25. If I think this way, I’m assuming I’m not alone. With the rise of social enterprise, and the success of events such as the Oakland Block Party, it confirms the message from the article–creating shared value, where community members, businesses and institutions (i.e. public schools) feel invested in one purpose–must be the way of the future.
I came across an organization for the first time the other day, World Innovative Summit for Education (WISE), which is funded and lead by the Qatar Foundation. I have heard of the Qatar Foundation previously because I have a friend who works as an international teacher through them. I was aware, from talking with her about her work experience, that the Qatar Foundation was set up because Qatar is the wealthiest nation in the world per capita and the Sheik decided to delegate much of that wealth toward social programs, particularly education. What is new to me, however, is their unique approach to the improvement of education locally and worldwide.
First, WISE hosts collaborative events from a variety of sectors and over a hundred countries in order to develop innovative solutions to education. Second, they offer different awards and prizes as an incentive for individuals (again educators and professionals in other industries) to create advanced, innovative projects. Third, they look for ways to support the next generation of leaders–students and young educators from the developing world. And last, but not least, they have a variety of off-shoot organizations– publications, a Haiti task force, a TV program, etc.–to reach out to those around the world.
If this is not innovation in education at its best, then I’m not sure what is. They have basically taken a resource that they already have–money–and are using it to build strong social programs and to incentivize others to do their own innovating. And, to boot, Qatar is one of the smallest countries in the world.
So, this got me thinking. As one of the largest and wealthiest countries in the world, what are we doing to set up an independent foundation, solely focused on the innovation of our education system? It might seem like a big, grand dream, but why shouldn’t it be a reality? What are the biggest obstacles that stand in the way of actually making it happen? Are those things more important than supporting the social and educational development of the members of our country and of those in our global community?