Dune Lankard is a Native Eyak of the Eagle Clan from Cordova, Alaska, who has committed his life to protecting Eyak culture, his ancestral lands and “a wild salmon way of life”. Dune started his talk with the class with a brief review of the more recent history of the Eyak people, a story that includes earthquakes, the Valdez oil spill and climate change resulting in measurable increases in the ocean’s temperature and acidification. Dune shared beautiful pictures of the land and water where he grew up, along with images of the visibly melting glaciers and the devastated coastline and impacted wildlife left behind by the Valdez spill.
The heart of Dune's talk, though, was about how he and his organization have worked together to save the land so that, as he put it, “there would be something to fight about later.” In describing this part of the journey, Dune exemplified the aspect of the social entrepreneur as someone who sees a problem, becomes obsessed, and then leverages whatever resources they have access to in an effort to realize the change they can see in their heads as though it has already come to pass. Along these lines, Dune’s efforts through the Native Conservancy have included writing federal policy, kelp farming, experimenting with innovative freezing processes to achieve food sovereignty for the elders in his community, hosting famous musicians on rafting trips down the Copper River, and building better fishing boats out of hemp resin using 3D printers (to name just a few).
In describing these projects, Dune also referenced the many ways in which a corporate structure - in direct contrast to traditional indigenous practices - contributes directly to an extractive relationship with the world around us. He referenced the ways that Alaska had created a corporate strategy for the individual ownership of oil rights and fishing rights that had led to Native people unwittingly forfeiting control (and by extension losing access to their role as stewards of our lands and waterways), and warned against the dangers of allowing a similar approach to the further annexation of our oceans. It made me think about the conversation we had had as a class the week before on Patagonia’s journey, and wonder about how we might more deeply explore the implications of this concept, especially as we exist in the context of the business school.
While Dune talked about the importance of his mother as an inspiration, and about the importance to him of honoring and caring for the elders in his community, I also appreciated that he mentioned the importance of leadership of the next generation. He talked specifically about Nick Tilsen and the NDN Collective, and he apologized to my students on behalf of our generation for not leaving them a world in better condition. I was particularly moved by his ask of the students that as they consider their respective paths, that they incorporate the role of guardian into their lives.
It is worth noting that Dune did all of this while we were experiencing mild Zoom hell. The screen reportedly turned off while Dune was speaking, though his vivid storytelling overpowered the technical interruptions. I mention it only because it is easy in discussing these classes to share the high level concepts, while the experience of teaching - and I imagine, learning - is also shaped by these more mundane details. One nice post-script to the class, I have already received an email from a student asking if I thought Dune and his organization might be willing to consider her for an internship.
The second half of class was focused on the students’ team presentations on social entrepreneurs, and we were only able to get through three because of the technical SNAFUs. I’m always interested to see which leaders the teams select - so far they’ve done Warby Parker, and two social entrepreneurs I hadn’t heard of previously, Jessica Schreiber, founder of FABSCRAP, and Hla Hla Win, founder of 360ed. We’ll have the final two presentations this coming week. One thing to note here is that Melissa and I are experimenting with having the students contribute to the grading of their peers’ presentations, working from a presentation evaluation rubric. I have not taken a look at those yet - I wanted to wait until all the presentations were done - but I will be interested to see how their assessments compare to my own.
We will be joined by Willy Foote from Root Capital this week and the readings include one from Willy himself: “To Invest in the Future of Coffee, Starbucks Turns to the Capital Markets,” Willy Foote, Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/willyfoote/2016/05/23/to-invest-in-the-future-of-coffee-starbucks-turns-to-the-capital-markets/?sh=51e123341174
along with finishing up Krakauer’s Three Cups of Deceit
This past class featured Dina Buchbinder, the founder and CEO of Education for Sharing (Educacion para Compartir), an international nonprofit organization founded in Mexico fifteen years ago. Dina is a good friend, an extraordinarily accomplished social entrepreneur and a disarming speaker, and she started off her remarks by noting that she had no idea fifteen years ago that she’d still be doing this work. I particularly appreciated Dina’s candor as she described her journey as one that had unfolded organically, responding opportunistically to invitations to expand the program, and investing more deeply in areas where they found traction.
Dina’s talk hit many of the themes that we have been discussing as a class – the importance of the team in building a social enterprise (despite the narrative focusing so much on the social entrepreneur), the critical nature of the business model (beyond merely revenue generation), and the power dynamics that impact who has access to the resources that facilitate leading social change efforts. In describing the work of leading her own organization in different countries – and within countries, in different regions – Dina talked about the importance of recognizing and incorporating context in all aspects of an organization’s operations.
Dina noted her preference for unorthodox approaches and a dispositional resistance to following the rules. It’s been a theme that has come up now with all of the speakers – an abiding sense that the rules were a part of the problem and basically fungible. And, true to form, Dina was quick to shift the conversation from a description of her own story to a questioning of the students about their respective passions and the origins of these passions (which made me wish I had thought to ask the students the same questions earlier).
One of the things I realized last year in teaching this course was that the students possessed a number of misconceptions about the nonprofit sector. While our discussion of social entrepreneurship isn’t limited to nonprofits, it became clear that myth-busting around social entrepreneurship required some clearing of confusion around how nonprofits actually function. To this end, during the second half of class we walked through some of the more prevalent myths about nonprofits – that they can’t make a profit, that all employees are volunteers, that overhead is evil, that they can’t lobby (this actually appears only to be a myth within the sector; outside humans haven’t ever really thought about it), and that US nonprofits get all their money from foundations.
In walking the students through all this, I was struck by how strange it is that while 10% of the population is employed by nonprofit organizations, there is so little understanding and awareness of our sector. This obviously has huge implications on everything from our ability to hire people to attitudes impacting philanthropy, and in teaching this course it sometimes creates what feels like a tension between fostering awareness vs. designing a rigorous learning experience. It is my hope that both can be achieved, but I am aware at three weeks in (out of fourteen) that it will not happen unless I make a concerted effort to encourage the students to go deeper.
One timely topic that came up during the discussion of the myth that nonprofits can earn a profit was the Patagonia sale. In describing the key difference between nonprofits and for-profits as the prohibition on nonprofits from distributing its profits to an individual, one student noted that Yvon Chouinard had essentially created that same condition for his for-profit with the recent announcement of his donation of ownership. This prompted a good discussion around nonprofit compensation - what, exactly, is reasonable? And regarding the Patagonia decision, we talked about the implications of the complicated legal machinations involved (why do we make it so hard to do something like this?), and an international student noted that it was interesting to contrast the differences and implications of lower taxation rates in the US. I was pleased to see that the students were thinking more broadly about what actually makes a social entrepreneur, and the significance of legal/corporate structures in creatively addressing social issues.
For this coming week, the students are preparing for their first presentation on a social entrepreneur of their choosing and we will be joined by Dune Lankard of the Native Conservancy and our Readings (and listenings) include: Podcast: Kelp, condors and Indigenous conservation https://news.mongabay.com/2022/02/podcast-kelp-condors-and-indigenous-conservation/
Readings: 5 Ways Social Entrepreneurs are Promoting Sustainability Around the World, PBS News Hour
Begin reading Three Cups of Deceit, Jon Krakauer (to be discussed at our October 3 class)
One of the things that teaching Social Entrepreneurship has really brought to my attention is the challenge of defining the terms involved. In part this is the result of people being a little fast and loose with language, but I also believe that context is significantly responsible. When we used the term social entrepreneurship ten years ago, we probably did mean something different from what we mean today, and presumably it will be different ten years hence. There are any number of definitions for the term social entrepreneurship itself (I have included the list of different references and definitions that I shared with my class below), and when you throw in ‘social enterprise’, ‘systems change’ and ‘scale,’ while inspiring students’ eyes to roll back in their heads, you also realize how important it is to try and find some common understanding about what you’re actually discussing.
One of the ways I am trying to encourage my students to understand what social entrepreneurship means is by having them meet a wide assortment of social entrepreneurs sharing their (varied) experiences of actually being one. This past week Alexandra Bernadotte, the CEO and founder of Beyond 12, joined us via Zoom, sharing her journey to launching and leading Beyond 12, along with some powerful insights about what she sees as critical to achieving educational equity.
Alex talked about the role of technology in their work, and the importance of marrying technology to human interaction (“humans don’t scale, machines don’t analyze”). She shared the insight that the systems we are trying to “fix” are in fact not broken, but actually operating as designed to compound privilege and I was struck that this last statement did not seem to be even slightly controversial to my students. I unsuccessfully tried to spark a bit more of a conversation about the idea and couldn’t help but wonder if being a young adult in this moment has made questioning and deconstructing the system the default response.
Students did actively engage with questions about Beyond 12’s revenue breakdown and other operational issues, and they were also curious (and notably well-informed) about the tech-related challenges of data privacy and bias. Just as the definitions of our sector have and will change over time, the conversations about the path to scale and its challenges are grounded in the context of the moment.
After Alex’s remarks, we talked a bit about the readings – especially the Marshall Ganz piece arguing that social enterprise is not social change (and calling out Ashoka specifically) and the response from Michael Zakaras (from Ashoka) in SSIR. I noted the importance of language in the two pieces, with Marshall Ganz referring more broadly to social enterprise while Michael focused exclusively on social entrepreneurship, and of definitions, with Michael maintaining that social entrepreneurship is more defined by its commitment to systems-level change than its relationship to markets and revenue models. As I told my students, I do believe that is true now, but I don’t think that was necessarily true ten years ago.
The Ganz piece was also a great springboard for noting the impact of power and privilege on the sector, a theme I hope to reference throughout the course, and its connection – or lack of connection – to government and policy work as tools of systems change. This is an area of growing personal and professional interest for me and I am particularly excited to have included a class on the emerging field of democracy entrepreneurship as part of the course.
The group work focused on the students coming up with their own definitions of social entrepreneurship and preparing for their first group projects, ten minute presentations on a social entrepreneur of their choosing.
Dina Buchbinder from the Mexico-based Education for Sharing joins us this afternoon and the readings for this week are:
“Are Social Enterprises Different?” Jeff Skinner, London Business School
“Two Keys to Sustainable Social Enterprise” Osberg, Sally and Martin, Roger, HBR
“For Love or Lucre,” Fruchterman, SSIR
A sampling of descriptions and “definitions” of social entrepreneurship:
• Ashoka Social entrepreneurs are individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change.
• Austin, J., Stephenson, H. & Wei-Skillen, J. (2006) Social entrepreneurship is an innovative, social value-creating activity that can occur within or across the nonprofit, businesses or government sector.
• Bornstein, D. (2003) A path breaker with a powerful new idea, who combines visionary and real-world problem solving creativity, who has a strong ethical fiber, and who is ”totally possessed‟ by his or her vision for change.
• Dees, J.G. (2001) Social entrepreneurs play the role of change agents in the social sector, by: Adopting a mission to create and sustain social value (not just private value); Recognizing and relentlessly pursuing new opportunities to serve that mission; Engaging in a process of continuous innovation, adaptation, and learning; Acting boldly without being limited by resources currently in hand; and, Exhibiting heightened accountability to the constituencies served and for the outcomes created.
• Johnson (2000) Social entrepreneurship is emerging as an innovative approach for dealing with complex social needs. With its emphasis on problem solving and social innovation, socially entrepreneurial activities blur the traditional boundaries between the public, private and non-profit sector and emphasize hybrid model of for-profit and non-profit activities.
• Light (2006) A social entrepreneur is an individual, group, network, organization, or alliance of organizations that seeks sustainable, large-scale change through pattern-breaking ideas in what or how governments, nonprofits, and businesses do to address significant social problems.
• Mair, J. & Marti, I. (2006) Social entrepreneurship: Innovative models of providing products and services that caters to basic needs (rights) that remain unsatisfied by political or economic institutions.
• Martin, R.L. & Osberg, S. (2007) The social entrepreneur should be understood as someone who targets an unfortunate but stable equilibrium that causes the neglect, marginalization, or suffering of a segment of humanity; who brings to bear on this situation his or her inspiration, direct action, creativity, courage, and fortitude; and who aims for and ultimately affects the establishment of a new stable equilibrium that secures permanent benefit for the targeted group and society at large.
• Nichols , A. (2007) Social entrepreneurship entails innovations designed to explicitly improve societal well being, housed within entrepreneurial organizations which initiate, guide or contribute to change in society.
• PBS “The New Heroes” A social entrepreneur identifies and solves social problems on a large scale. Just as business entrepreneurs create and transform whole industries, social entrepreneurs act as the change agents for society, seizing opportunities others miss in order to improve systems, invent and disseminate new approaches and advance sustainable solutions that create social value.
• Schwab Foundation What is a Social Entrepreneur? A pragmatic visionary who achieves large scale, systemic and sustainable social change through a new invention, a different approach, a more rigorous application of known technologies or strategies, or a combination of these.
• Skoll Foundation The social entrepreneur as society’s change agent: a pioneer of innovation that benefits humanity. Social entrepreneurs are ambitious people with the qualities and behaviors we associate with the business entrepreneur but who operate in the community and are more concerned with caring and helping than “making money.”
mission driven, strategic, resourceful and results oriented.
We have liftoff! Thirty students managed to find their way to the Haas Innovation Lab, better known as the ILab, for the first Fall 22 Social Entrepreneurship class. Last year the class was held in one of the more traditional Haas lecture halls, and while beautiful and LEED-certified, I found the location a bit stuffy. The ILab, by contrast, is a more open space with movable chairs and desks, located improbably in the bowels of the Stadium. My friend Susie Wise (check out her wonderful new book Design for Belonging), has taught me a lot about space as a lever of design, and I was struck by how palpably different it felt to be launching the class from this explicitly collaborative classroom.
We jumped right in with Bill Drayton who Zoomed in from Washington DC, immediately challenging the students to see themselves as changemakers and social entrepreneurs. Bill focused his remarks on a couple of different Ashoka Fellows, the shared qualities of social entrepreneurs and their collective orientation to systems change. He also talked about the historical context of the rise of social entrepreneurship. I have heard Bill make similar remarks any number of times, but as I was listening this time, I was particularly struck by his defining the moment by the explosion in both the rate of change and the rate of interconnection. This was at the root, he explained, of the new inequality – the defining distinction between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ being their respective ability to move from a world of work that emphasized repetition to a world where the key to success was the ability to adapt to (if not drive) rapid change.
Bill described his own youthful start as a changemaker during the civil rights movement, the power of recognizing patterns, and the importance of questioning/not always following the rules. The irony of that final point as I launched into an overview of the course structure and expectations – including the (in my opinion) delightful no screens policy that is a Haas norm - did not escape me. Watching the students watching Bill was both fascinating and a little nerve-wracking for me. Did they get what a big deal he was? Was he being too abstract? I think they did and that he wasn’t, but I was also struck by how language can so easily ‘other’ us. When Bill was talking about ways of measuring the presence of changemaking, he referenced YouTube ‘clientele,’ as opposed to calling them followers, and the use of this term from a bygone era created just a brief moment of disconnect. It wasn’t a big deal in any way – nothing at all by way of comparison to what my non-native English speaking students are dealing with all the time - but in the moment it was notable and made me wonder about ways to address these more subtle manifestations of difference.
As planned, I introduced myself and Melissa, the course Reader, talked a bit about her experience working with Teach for Malaysia and studying in the UK. A second year MBA candidate, Melissa briefly described her summer internship learning more about capital markets, and offered to support the students as they needed, available to talk about anything they might want to discuss. As she was speaking, I could not help but recognize how valuable it is to have someone involved in delivering the course who is closer, both in age and experience, to the students. We then broke into groups and I invited the students to go around and answer the “Three Minute Know Me” questions, which I’ve included below.
The class wrapped up with some housekeeping, and a few students came up afterwards to introduce themselves. Having taught the previous year in a masked environment, it was a delight to be both unmasked and able to see the students’ full faces. Since the pandemic I have become acutely aware of how much I rely on peoples’ in-person energy and facial expressions when I am speaking to a group. No class this week because of Labor Day, so no blog next week. We will resume on the 12th with Alexandra Bernadotte, the founder of Beyond 12, as our guest.
Readings for this coming week: Guclu/Dees/Anderson:“The Process of Social Entrepreneurship,”
Marshall Ganz, “Social Enterprise is Not Social Change”
Michael Zakaras, “Is Social Entrepreneurship Misunderstood?”
Plus a podcast: Innovation That Matters: How to Coach Students Without Trying to Fix Them
Three Minute Know Me: I asked the students to share their names, pronouns, year and course of study and then to answer these questions:
● When I want to chill, I listen to ____
● People know I’m excited when I _____
● When people meet my family, they are surprised by _____
● When I need some alone time, I like to ____
● You’ll know that I’m stressed when I _____
● My favorite stretch is ____
● It’s easier for me to ask for help when _____
● I feel most confident when _____
● My favorite pick-me-up is ____
● I feel like being around people when _____
● A favorite simple indulgence is ______
● My friends think it’s weird that I ____
● I learn best by ____
● I wanted to take this class because _____
I start teaching my course on Social Entrepreneurship today at UC Berkeley. It’s an introductory course for undergraduates, taught through the Haas School of Business as part of the Center for Social Sector Leadership. This is my second year teaching the course, and while the first year was all about figuring out what I was doing, I was hoping this year might allow for a little more reflection on the content and things I am learning along the way. To this end, I was thinking that I might blog about the class for its fourteen-week duration. Part of me suspects that this commitment will be a lot like deciding to sing a karaoke song, finding oneself halfway through Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Were Made for Walking" overwhelmed by regret. The other, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed part of me is enthusiastic about the power of writing as a tool of synthesis.
Last year when I set about designing the course I was given the previous instructor’s syllabus as a jumping off point, some excellent moral support and a lot of latitude to design the course as I saw fit. I looked around and spoke with folks who had been teaching Social Entrepreneurship – there are courses on the subject at almost every major university, which is a bit wild to me as I still vividly remember when I heard the term for the first time. The resources developed by Debbi Brock and Ashoka were particularly helpful, and I spoke with a number of friends/fellow social entrepreneurs who had taught similar classes.
I landed on a course structure that emphasized bringing in a guest lecturer for each session – generally a social entrepreneur or someone who had worked closely with social entrepreneurs and brought a unique perspective to the ecosystem – combined with lectures by me and group activities and discussions. I’m sticking with that format for this year, with the one modification that as Haas had eliminated the mandate that grading happen on the curve, I’m putting a greater emphasis on collaborative learning and all the assignments are group assignments. If I convey nothing else in the course, I’d like to communicate that social entrepreneurship is a group activity.
Going into last year, I had thought that I understood what was involved in leading a course. After all, I had spoken at assorted courses on social entrepreneurship, I was an experienced public speaker, I have lots of thoughts and experience with learning design and, perhaps most obviously, I was/am a social entrepreneur. What I realized during the semester, however, was that the trick was in creating an experience for 30 different humans with a wide range of goals. Some of the students aspired to be social entrepreneurs themselves, but certainly not all. Some of the students were far more interested in B Corps and social enterprise, about which I harbor some probably unfounded suspicions. Some students were deeply sad that my course was offered at the same time as Monday Night Football. I’m not entirely sure I mastered the trick of it, but I’m excited to try again.
Bill Drayton is my kickoff speaker this afternoon. He’ll be Zooming in and I thought that having the man who coined the term ‘Social Entrepreneur’ tell his story to start was about as badass a way to begin the course as I could imagine. I’m planning to introduce myself and have my Graduate Student Reader, Melissa Kong, introduce herself (Pro Tip to anyone considering teaching a course on SE, Readers are the difference between possible and impossible). We’re going to break into groups to give people a chance to get to know one another and then we’re going to begin exploring Social Entrepreneurship. That’s the plan, at least.
This is your invitation to come along. I’ll be posting the readings and sharing highlights (and probably some lowlights) from the classes weekly, and I’d love to hear from you if you have suggestions, recommended readings, thoughts… Welcome back to school!
This week’s readings: “Everyone a Changemaker,” David Brooks,
David Bornstein, "Changing the Word on a Shoestring”
“The Meaning of Social Entrepreneurship,” Dees/Duke/Fuqua Case
This past Spring I coordinated an experiment involving graduate students from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and the Goldman School of Public Policy addressing infrastructure challenges experienced by emerging organizations focused on democracy innovation.
I described the project’s structure in more detail in this blog at the beginning of the semester, and the idea was based on conversations I was having during the pandemic with leaders of different emerging democracy innovations. Admittedly, “democracy innovation” is a fuzzy term, but my thought going into the experiment – a thought that was reinforced by the experiment – was that there is a subset of new nonprofit organizations focused on improving functional aspects of our democracy. For purposes of the project I looked specifically at groups that lean centrist, are 501(c)3s – or at least partially 501(c)3 – and I excluded groups working on media. Most of the groups that ended up participating focused on voting and the structures that promote more inclusive voting, as well as organizations working to promote greater cooperation and collaboration across the political spectrum, including the promotion of more business engagement in the political process.
The project got off to a good start with six organizations and 12 graduate students, though we lost an organization and a student about a month into the process. I wasn’t particularly surprised by this attrition. As I said often (and probably somewhat annoyingly), this was always intended to be an experiment and there was as much to be learned from what didn’t work as what did. The group’s reason for dropping out of the process was that the staff person who had been assigned to the project wasn’t continuing with the organization, so they did not have the bandwidth to support the students. This proved to be a recurring theme throughout the semester with staff departures and illnesses significantly impacting the work.
The structure of the experiment also assigned an established nonprofit leader as a volunteer coach to each team. My hope was that they would be able to scope the projects prior to each team launching. Perhaps not surprisingly, project scoping took significantly more time than I had anticipated, and for most of the groups the work did not begin in earnest until at least a month in. Despite my relative lack of instruction, these volunteer coaches made some great contributions to both the organizations and the students they were supporting. I think with a little more structure and guidance that role could be leveraged to maximize their contributions.
Looking back over the semester, I am left with three main takeaways. The experiment did affirm the core premise that prompted the project in the first place: emerging organizations addressing issues of democracy innovation have significant infrastructure challenges that are limiting their impact and ability to achieve scale. What I did not understand going into the experiment, however, was that while I had a fairly decent idea of where I was hoping to help these organizations land, I was really lacking in understanding around their starting places.
It was in a conversation with a longtime campaign organizer in which she described the process of “raising the circus tent” - attracting large sums of money and quickly achieving notable outcomes while building minimal infrastructure - that I came to better understand some of the challenges that our teams were experiencing. I had erroneously assumed that in focusing on how these organizations might have stronger infrastructure that they were comparable to other nonprofits of their relative size and experience, and that the democracy organizations were seeking to build more permanent infrastructure as a key priority. But appearances can be deceptive, and the (understandable) expectations of our grad students around the basic infrastructure elements they assumed to be in place, along with the very real constraints of the organizations we were trying to help (time being the most obvious), made the work hard. My first takeaway was that a better understanding of the organizations’ starting points is essential to supporting them in building the infrastructure they want and need. While the concept of democracy innovation remains an under-defined concept, the experiment convinced me that leaning in to better understand these organizations and how they function – as distinct from other nonprofit organizations, essentially digging in to better define democracy innovation, will be essential to building the supports they require to maximize their impact.
My second takeaway was that I fell into the common design trap of failing to adequately define the “who” of my experiment. In attempting to coordinate an experiment for both organizations and students, I unintentionally designed an experience that underserved both groups. The structure of the experiment – as a paid experience for the graduate students – contributed to a more transactional attitude towards the projects. This was not true for all the student groups, but in the absence of a class structure to support relationships among students, coaches and organizations, the connection between the work and protecting democracy was often overshadowed by the frustrations of collaborating as part of a group whose more significant shared characteristic was a shortage of time.
On the day of the fellowship’s final presentations, I also sat in on the final presentations from the Haas course Social Sector Solutions (S3). That course is designed to support students in providing consulting services, and it was evident from watching their presentations that the course’s time commitment – and curriculum – ensured that the students were better prepared to address the needs of their organizations and the challenges of working on a team. The more rigorous vetting process – and commitment - for S3 also ensured that the participating organizations were better prepared to robustly support the process. While my experiment had focused on emerging organizations by design, this created a more challenging situation for the students because these organizations tend to be less well resourced and more prone to significant staff turnover.
The third takeaway was that I came away wondering if all of these organizations should build lasting organizations; that maybe some of them were best served in achieving their goals by being structured as time-bound campaigns. And not surprisingly, once I started wondering about this for these democracy innovations, I couldn’t help but wonder about the truth of this for other organizations in our sector. Organizations are a lot like living things and living things work really hard to keep themselves alive. How often do organizations lose sight of their intended outcomes because they feel forced to focus instead on their own survival?
This isn’t the first time I’ve considered this, but there was something about looking at the needs of an adjacent group that made the challenges of my own sector feel more obvious (sort of like how one realizes so many different things about the US when one is traveling abroad). It was in thinking about this need in the democracy innovation space that I began to wonder if the answer might be a new structure/business model that afforded organizations the benefits of infrastructure without the distraction of maintaining it. While we have fiscal agents and incubators that support emerging organizations, it is less common for these organizations to actively engage with the participating groups in thinking through the often un-sexy, but always essential questions of scale.
So, what’s next? I’m thinking about two follow up paths of experimentation. The first, addressing my second takeaway around better identifying the beneficiary, is exploring the idea of creating democracy innovation subcohorts within existing classes like the aforementioned S3. Leveraging these existing offerings and their expertise in preparing and supporting students in consulting projects feels like a more effective way to achieve the intended outcomes.
The second potential path involves exploring ways to support these democracy organizations independent of a student experience, a follow up of sorts to the question around the need for a new operating structure. I came away from the project wondering if there might be better ways for me to engage the coaches – possibly supporting existing fellowships for democracy innovation leaders with direct consulting or creating a process to identify veteran social sector leaders interested in serving as board members for these organizations. Could a group like this lean in to better understand the nature of democracy innovations and to design structures and opportunities better tailored to their needs? Could a group like this ultimately spark innovation that contributed to new insights relevant not only to the democracy innovation space, but to the social sector more broadly?
Inspiring greater citizen engagement with our democracy is going to require some exceptional creativity and leadership. While the original idea for the project sparked a great deal of enthusiasm among the participants, that proved hard to maintain as they turned to the actual, more mundane work of figuring out how to help these organizations operate more efficiently. That said, a couple of the groups were able to make progress and gain inspiration from the process.
There’s a story about the mathematician Richard Hamming and how he used to routinely ask colleagues what the most important work in their field was, followed by a question about why they were working on anything else. After a 35-year career in the nonprofit sector, I have come to believe that creating the opportunities for people to actively citizen and to support efforts to innovate in our democracy are both essential to protecting that democracy and the most important work in our sector. It will be challenging and success is not a foregone conclusion, but we can do hard things. If you or someone you know is doing work in this area, I invite you to reach out. The one thing that I know for certain – and that this experiment reinforced for me – is that we cannot do this work alone.
This month marks the kick off of a new project I’m working on, an experiment that I am leading as a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. As a follow up to 18 months of interviews with leaders of organizations working in the space of democracy innovation, the project is a semester-long design cycle out of the Center for Social Sector Leadership (CSSL). Six Haas MBA and six Goldman Public Policy MPP/MPA candidates have been selected to work in interdisciplinary pairs as paid fellows to address specific infrastructure challenges at six democracy innovation organizations (Block Power, Bridge Alliance, Business for America, the Institute for Political Innovation (IPI), New Politics and Turnout Nation). The student teams are being supported by coaches with relevant scaling and growth experience from other nonprofit sectors, with the project work beginning this month and continuing through April, 2022. The goal is to have project deliverables and presentations in May.
There’s a quote in Konstanze Frischen and Michael Zakaras’ book, Unfinished conversations: On democracy, race, the economy and a path forward, from Eric Liu, the co-founder and CEO of Citizen University which has felt particularly relevant to the why of my spring project,
“Well, I would say that democracy works only if enough of us believe democracy works. The process of self-government involved policy and legal structure and institutions, but what animates it all is civic spirit – a belief that participating in the first place will yield benefits. What we’re seeing in the United States right now and around the world is that democracy is not inevitable. It is not self-perpetuating. The belief in democracy requires constant nurturing and cultivation. And that belief has to emerge from the inside out: Showing up in this diverse community is something I should want to do because it benefits me and those around me.”
More than anything, my hope for this project is that it creates an opportunity for a diverse group of humans to show up and contribute, to actively participate and to be reminded that this whole democracy thing is an experiment that requires our active care and feeding. If I’m honest, I’m also hoping that it will be a reminder to those participating that engaging in this way – having the opportunity to meaningfully contribute to something larger than ourselves – can be both energizing and hopeful.
On the more concrete level, there are also some outstanding questions I hope the experiment will begin to answer:
While the projects are just kicking off this week, the learning has already begun, including:
There is still much to be learned and my plan is to write more about the process – I’m aiming for a mid-semester update as well as a final one - but there is one observation that I wanted to share in closing. In many ways, this is a very personal project borne out of my deep concern about what I perceive to be threats to our democracy and a desire to translate 25 years of helping people learn to play well together into a practical approach to mending our not-so-civil society. I have been gently called naïve, and I have been repeatedly reminded that the scale and scope of the challenge at hand makes my small experiment seem less than inconsequential. In the face of these entirely justified criticisms, I find inspiration in a sports adage, “Fight fatigue with focus.”
We are all tired. Shifting my attention from doom-scrolling to the work on this project has measurably buoyed my mood. I actually caught myself nerdily/optimistically thinking that experimenting with election reforms at the state level might actually get traction in a way that ultimately catalyzes a shift from gradual change to significant sudden change. I invite you to consider this moment and how you’re feeling about it, and to decide to shift at least some portion of your limited time to doing something about the things that worry you. No matter how small or seemingly inconsequential. I invite you to join me and my colleagues in this project in actively citizening.
As schools prepare to re-open after the quarantine-prompted year and a half hiatus, school leaders are wrestling with some significant decisions. School closures in response to the pandemic laid bare a host of pervasive educational inequities – from access to broadband to extracurricular learning opportunities. It also served to make the complexities of teaching and learning abundantly clear to many people who had simply not been compelled to consider them before. In particular, the multifaceted nature of teaching – combining both instruction and custodial care (the unfortunate educational parlance for all things non-instructional) - left many families reeling. Given the challenges of keeping one or two kids engaged at home, the idea of differentiated instruction for a classroom of 30 kids was at last understood to be an almost Herculean task.
One area where the importance of the “care” side of the equation was made particularly evident is in the practice of substitute teaching. While substitute teaching is very much the “elephant in the classroom” – at 10% of a student’s instructional time and a cost of $4B annually in the direct costs of subs – the practice has an outsized impact on the experience of school. Making it even more significant is the issue of “fill-rate.” The national average of 80% - meaning that for every 100 requests for a sub, on average 80 are filled – leaves schools to either sub in other staff (administrators, school counselors, reading specialists), or to distribute the untended students among other classes – a process that is often referred to as “farming out.”
Just as the pandemic helped people to fully grasp just how complicated – and important - care-taking actually is, the real and impactful challenges of substitute teaching were made similarly more visible. Efforts to contain the viral spread of COVID revealed that creating a structure in which subs are not going from building to building also has the happy unintended consequence of enabling them to form relationships – with both students and staff – that contribute to the greater likelihood of their success in the larger educational sense.
It may sound cliché, but there are huge opportunities in the challenges we face. Looking at substitute teaching - universally acknowledged as one of our most dysfunctional and un-loved legacy systems – provides some great examples. The opportunity in this moment is in not simply focusing on how to “get back to normal,” but rather to look at the challenges we face, the innovations that have emerged, and to ask the question “how might we build systems that works?” At Substantial, we have been asking just this question about the substitute teaching experience in an effort to shift the debate from “how do we get enough subs?” to “what might we do with 10% of student time and $4B annually?”
One example that has emerged is re-imagining the role of substitute teacher as a full time school-based position that not only represents an important pipeline for new teachers, but adds flexibility to school staffing that may help in addressing the unanticipated challenges that are likely to arise in the coming year. Another idea is engaging specialty subs in the short term – guest instructors who supplement instruction with a focus on a topic that might otherwise go uncovered like art or financial literacy. From the use of ed tech to inviting students themselves to assume greater responsibility for the “classroom” experience, reframing the design of our responses to emphasize co-creating systems that work for everyone involved proved most effective when our old systems were rendered temporarily unworkable.
This moment creates two very distinct opportunities – responding to our challenges with improvements or innovations – and one very real danger: settling for a “return to normal”. In the case of substitute teaching, a return to “normal” would be asking “How do we get more subs?” Improvement might mean shifting the question to “How might we get the great subs we have to come back, helping them to be even more successful?” Innovation, ultimately, involves asking “How might we design the best possible student experience?” Thinking about the myriad issues that face school leaders as they open from these three vantage points is helpful in sparking empathy for the incredibly heavy lift that they face in this moment.
The question we collectively face – not just in education, but more universally, is what will we do with the lessons of the pandemic? Will we hold on to our appreciation for the challenges of keeping students engaged throughout the day? Will we continue to feel thankful for those workers who were deemed essential and asked to risk more than the rest of us? Will we acknowledge the system’s inequities and seek to redress them? As schools re-open, reconsidering the role of the substitute teacher provides an opportunity to imagine how we might hold ourselves accountable to incorporating these lessons. And as we re-open as a society, we might allow these lessons to prompt our thinking more generally on how we intentionally design this next phase of our collective life in a way that honors the importance of relationships and connection.
It has been a difficult few weeks, which is really saying something when you consider that we’re still “languishing,” as Adam Grant so eloquently described, in a pandemic that’s ending seems hard to pin down. Nonetheless, the mass shootings and the ruling in the Chauvin case have contributed to a greater-than-usual sense of unease and overwhelm.
In the midst of this, the book I co-authored with my Substantial co-founder, Amanda von Moos, Substantial Classrooms: Redesigning the Substitute Teaching Experience was released. We wrote the book in the before-times, and it had originally been scheduled for publication this past summer, but Amanda and I convinced the publishers that absolutely no one was thinking about subs in that moment. People are, indeed, now thinking more about subs. As we consider re-opening, it seems likely that many places will face considerable teacher shortages. The pandemic has also laid bare the singular importance of connection in teaching and learning, and more specifically the extent to which teaching requires a blending of both instruction and the “custodial care” that we had previously managed to overlook, if not completely dismiss.
The other thing about our book, though, is that it’s about design, and specifically bringing human-centered design to bear in working with entrenched, under-loved and often dysfunctional legacy systems. In this way, it is also a book for this complicated moment of unease and overwhelm. In looking at how we might redesign the substitute teaching system, our book endeavors to highlight the importance of being open to entirely new narratives, of redefining the problem itself, and radically reimagining what's possible.
Along the lines of radical reimagining, I’ve found myself reading a lot of science fiction and fantasy over the past year. While it has been a great escape, inherent in the worldbuilding that these genres employ, is an approach that Leah Zaidi identifies as critical not only to science fiction, but also to foresight and design. This storytelling about plausible futures helps us to both imagine, and more importantly also to create, new visions for our society. I like to think that we have tried to bring a spirit of fantastic reimagining to the task of redesigning substitute teaching, and that it is precisely this level of fantastic reimagining that this moment requires.
Luckily, science fiction thinking starts very much on Earth. Three grounded takeaways from the book that I believe apply to this larger collective need to reimagine a better future are:
Start with a hack. One of the antidotes that Grant calls out to counteract languishing is the small win, which translates pretty directly into the design concept of a “hack” - a small, scrappy experiment that enables quick learning and requires very little expense or risk.
Identify bright spots. Great things are already happening. By focusing on the positive deviants, and amplifying their stories, we point the way to even greater innovation.
Lead with empathy. These entrenched, under-loved and dysfunctional systems we hope to shift are complex because they are human. Not losing sight of the fact that there are actual people behind both the challenges and innovations that are happening, and taking to understand them and what motivates them – uncovers essential truths that can help us imagine a better path forward.
While health officials still need to determine when schools will reopen, educators have begun turning their attention to how schools might look when such re-openings begin to occur. And one thing is clear: when kids return to school, they’re going to need a way to have social connections while maintaining physical distancing. Eliminating play and physical activity from their days—especially eliminating recess —is going to have the exact opposite effect of what is needed. Instead, looking at intentionally designing play activities that promote physical distancing, encourage hand washing, and promote youth leadership represents a singular opportunity to leverage students’ intrinsic motivation to cooperate by using one of the oldest parenting/teaching tricks in the book: turn it into a game. In whatever schedule configurations that emerge, having staff who can support small group, student-led play and physical activities will be essential to reopening schools that work.
Further, conversations about the post-COVID-19 learning losses as something equivalent to a super “summer slide” set up a potentially dangerous dynamic around academic remediation that is doomed from the start. The long and short of it is that academic remediation doesn’t work, but accelerating learning can. Dr. Will Massey’s research found that high quality recess was associated with improved executive functioning, emotional self-control, resilience, and positive classroom behavior in elementary school children—all essential preconditions for accelerated learning amongst the age group that is most likely to have experienced the greatest learning losses.
If COVID-19 has done nothing else, it has laid bare the messiness and inevitability of our interdependence. Play’s future is deeply rooted in its past: a risky behavior that has nonetheless survived eons of evolution precisely because it teaches us to navigate the demands of social connection.
People need meaning, the opportunity for mastery, and community to thrive. Creating opportunities for people to contribute, and to find their best selves is some of the most important work we can do.