Start Empathy


The truth in vulnerability

Written by David Castro

Laura Hay |

Photo: Authenticity by Cindee Snider Re

Reflections from the 2016 Ashoka U Education Track.

Gaining momentum

What’s the difference between an organization and a movement? Ashoka U’s 2016 Exchange in New Orleans answered this question and then some.

Imagine higher education leaders gathered together in a living, learning laboratory to consider how our nation’s top educational institutions can serve as vehicles for positive, sustainable social impact and innovation: college presidents, administrators, faculty leaders, researchers, journalists, community activists, Ashoka fellows, students… . the list goes on. A legion of changemakers, alive and in action.

Ashoka U’s scope is inspiring and awesome, with 35 leading institutions having joined the cause as changemaker campuses serving thousands of students, each one embedding social innovation as a core value and showcasing the ways in which they have built supportive environments for changemaking across the entire institution — admissions, curriculum, career services, and community and alumni engagement.

The education track

This year, I had the pleasure of serving on a team of facilitators (joining fellow team members Greg Van Kirk and Paul Rogers) for the Exchange’s Education Track. This special program convened a diverse group of leaders representing K-12 schools, universities, social entrepreneurs, education partners and funders who are creating a world where every young person is empowered to make the world a better place.

The Education Track underscored the unique collaboration between Ashoka U and Ashoka’s Start Empathy Initiative, through which Ashoka has identified more than 260 Changemaker Schools. Similar to Ashoka U institutions of higher education, Changemaker Schools are national models at the K-12 level that prioritize empathy and changemaking as student outcomes. Through innovations in school curricula, culture and systems, these schools cultivate children as changemakers. Ashoka is identifying, selecting, and collaborating with these leading schools, striving to enhance and amplify their models so that empathy-driven changemaker education becomes a reality for all children.

Lusher Charter School field trip

Through a field trip, Ed Track participants explored one such changemaker school in action: Lusher Charter, a vibrant K-12 school in New Orleans. The difference in Lusher’s approach was immediately visible. Empathy is in Lusher’s DNA and embedded in its core values — among the most important, kindness. Lusher also has a decades-long commitment to arts education. Every school day begins with music and dancing, and each student participates in years of theater, music and dance education before selecting a primary arts focus in high school.

Photo: Lusher Gates by BBC World Service

At the site visit, a diverse group of middle school students playing lively, engaging music greeted the guests. Student representatives joined the student musicians for the welcome, introducing themselves personally, smiling and shaking hands. These students then led classroom visits and presentations. In each classroom, Lusher’s teachers and learners were interactively engaged in project-based and problem-based learning.

The Lusher curriculum employs a unique pedagogy designed to foster social and emotional development as well as academic learning. Students in a history presentation were having a dialogue not only about political and economic trends, but also about how people felt about their situation and how they related to one another. A theater class involved students mirroring one another, engaging and developing those important mirror neurons that create the cognitive capacity for muscular empathy. A music class showcased students playing together in small ensembles requiring close teamwork and forging visible emotional connections among the teachers and learners. Teams of kindergarten students learning math used special blocks to construct large numbers, turning the learning into a tactile, playful process. Lusher demonstrated changemaker education as a living practice.

Digging deeper into Changemaker Education

Drawing inspiration from the Lusher field trip, Ed Track participants explored teacher preparation for changemaker education. At Lusher, we had seen some of the fruits of school’s collaboration with Tulane University, and Ashoka U Changemaker Campus. Tulane had recently finished assisting Lusher faculty in integrating design thinking principles into its curriculum. The innovative framework informed many Lusher lesson plans, inviting students to engage in problem-solving projects meaningful to community members.

Track participants also had the opportunity to engage in dialogue with Megan Marcus, founder of FuelEd. Megan is an Ashoka Fellow doing breakthrough work helping teachers master the social and emotional skills required to build impactful classroom relationships. Such bonds between teachers and learners help students become world class changemakers. Megan’s fundamental insight is that relationship building requires teachers to develop their own social and emotional competencies. The strong relationships that students form with teachers form the foundation for academic success. More importantly, these relationships have a deep impact on core changemaker competencies such as motivation, grit and empathy.

The Truth in Vulnerability: Laura White

This brief essay cannot hope to cover all the terrific work conducted during the Education Track in New Orleans, including key insights about college admissions, empathy curriculum and evaluation, among a host of other critical themes and topics. We cannot close, however, without remembering the profound keynote speech given by Laura White, one of our Ed Track participants.

Laura’s inspiring relationship with Ashoka began in high school through Youth Venture, where she received support for Swim 4 Success, Laura’s initiative helping low-income children learn how to swim. This leadership experience led Laura to Tulane, where she scaled the program and became interested in social entrepreneurship. At the Exchange, Laura spoke candidly about her relationship with Tulane Professor Carol Whelan. In addition to being the Paul Tudor Jones II Endowed Professor in Social Entrepreneurship, Carol is a Senior Professor of Practice in the Tulane Teacher Certification Program.

While an undergraduate at Tulane, Laura was a key changemaker promoting social entrepreneurship education and helping Tulane become one of Ashoka’s most prominent changemaker campuses. Laura credited her success in this work to Carol’s openness — her willingness to see that students could have important ideas and serve as leaders in the development of the University’s educational programs.

Carol served as a key mentor (Laura’s “Tulane Mom”), inspiring her interest in joining Ashoka after graduation. At Ashoka, Laura emerged as a key leader within the groundbreaking Start Empathy and Changemaker School initiatives.

But Laura wanted to have an even more personal impact on education practice and the lives of children. So in she went back to school, earning a Master’s in Early Childhood Special Education from George Washington University in 2015. Today she has found a way to unite her passions for social entrepreneurship, empathy, changemaker education and early childhood education: Laura is a front line teacher at a changemaker school, Maury Elementary, part of the DC Public School System.

Laura told the Exchange Community a compelling a story about how she challenged her very young students to design a simple recycling project. Her class then delightfully challenged Laura as well, pushing her with their creativity and passion. Laura was able to take that openness — the gift she had received from Carol Whelan that had so encouraged and inspired her as a Tulane student — and pay it forward in her own classroom with much younger learners. Wow.

“There’s more truth in vulnerability than certainty,” said Laura. Amen.

Upon return from The Big Easy, I spoke about Laura at our Quaker meeting in Radnor, Pennsylvania. As you may know, Quakers don’t speak at a meeting unless they feel moved by the spirit. I felt moved. This is what I said:

“This weekend, in New Orleans, I attended a national conference of teachers, students and social entrepreneurs who are in the process of tipping the whole U.S. education system. They are teaching young people not just academics, but how to relate to one another, how to practice empathy, how to develop as socially and emotionally developed leaders, how to be whole. When you peel away some of the jargon around this work, what it really gets down to is this: helping children deepen their capacity to love. We know that this ability, the power to love one another in the midst of difference, conflict and chaos, is what we need in our society to make positive change. An inspiring young teacher who is also a social entrepreneur, Laura White, spoke with remarkable honesty and integrity about how sometimes we need to admit what we don’t know, about how we need to give up being experts so we can really learn from one another. She said that there is more truth in vulnerability than certainty.Sitting here in our meeting for worship this morning, we know that our society has a lot of problems. But know this also: there are thousands of great people doing amazing work to build a better nation and a better world. Today I want you to know this: There is hope.

When we are vulnerable, we are open to change, and we inspire others to be open too.

Today Ashoka U is so much more than a program within the organization we know as Ashoka. Today Ashoka U is a vibrant team of teams; it is “Ashoka 2.0,” extending out into the greater universe. Today my friends, Ashoka U is amovement.

Bio: David Castro is the President and CEO of Institute for Leadership Education Advancement and Development. You can learn more about their work here.

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