Contributing editor Rob Goodman interviews Kanya Balkrishna, who along with Andrew Mangino, co-founded The Future Project, “a national movement to empower the next generation to build the future, one dream at a time.”
Find out what that means and what they’re doing to make it happen in the conversation below.
Rob Goodman: Thank you so much for this interview, I’ve read a lot about The Future Project and I’m really fascinated by its distinct approach to education reform. I wanted to start with the background that both you and Andrew have in politics, particularly in political speech writing.
Kanya Balkrishna: Yes, I worked for Peggy Hamburg, and Andrew worked for Joe Biden as an intern, and then for Eric Holder.
RG: Is your exit from traditional electoral politics and entrance into social entrepreneurship any kind of reflection on what you observed in D.C. in the time you spent there?
KB: Working for the administration and being a speechwriter were both inspirations for all of this. I think working for government is also a bit of a kick in the ass. It makes you want to go out and figure out how we can create a way to make change that really brings people together, that’s galvanizing, and that can come to define our generation.
Andrew and I actually met when we were in college writing for and running the Yale Daily News together, and we were editors the year that the election was happening, so we took ourselves, obviously, very seriously, and really felt connected with the spirit of the election and the message. We both moved to D.C. shortly after we graduated to write speeches because, like so many other people in our generation, we were extremely inspired by the big idea that we as individuals, as a collective, were able to make the change that we wanted to see in our communities and in our world.
So we went out there and we were working in speechwriting roles. We were twenty-two and they were incredible jobs and I learned so much from Peggy. But at the same time we were seeing that so many people who come to D.C. to change the world and to be part of the big movement end up working for the government. Even if it was an administration that we all worked hard to make possible, at the end of the day, government is slow.
We didn’t know the term social entrepreneurship. Andrew met Bill Drayton and worked for a short while at Ashoka. We started learning about what a social entrepreneur was: in some ways it is a person or a group of people who don’t wait for government to make change and just go out and start doing it and start building. The very early days of The Future Project were all about volunteers coming together and building something together. That was such an exciting experience and so many of us felt like there was something there and that it was an opportunity to create something that could be the call to action of our time.
RG: You mentioned the limitation in speed, that obviously the government is such a complicated and enormous machine that doing anything significant in the realm of education policy takes a long time. I wonder if another limitation that you notice is in the range of solutions that are contemplated. Does trying to reform the education system through political action limit the field of alternatives that even seem conceivable? Is that another inspiration behind social entrepreneurship as a way to reform, rather than politics?
KB: First of all, we don’t really think of ourselves or really talk about ourselves as an education reform organization. But especially at that time, in 2009, 2010, the conversation around education and education reform was so incredibly negative and so confusing. I grew up in education—my mom was a teacher for a long time and runs a big afterschool learning center in Memphis, which is where I went to high school, so I spent much of my childhood working with young people. But when you talk to young people, when you talk to students, you see and hear the most troubling of frustrations, like, “I’m bored at school, school has nothing to do with my life.”
RG: I was a teacher too and I heard that all the time.
KB: Right! So you hear that, but you also hear it from teachers and principals. You hear those frustrations but you also hear ideas for how to make change in your school. You hear hope, you hear possibility, you hear all of these things and then when we step back we realize that the education policy and reform conversation largely isn’t talking about any of that. I’m not saying [traditional academic metrics] aren’t important, but there is a big thing missing from the conversation. What do students think and want, and what do they want to learn? How do teachers and principals want to create an environment that causes young people to learn what they need and want to learn for the world we live in now? How do we foster a sense of passion and purpose in schools? And nobody is talking about that.
RG: Why is it that students aren’t engaged in the classroom? I’m thinking of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, in which he had a really vivid description of what it’s like to be disengaged as an elementary school student. In his case it was in west Baltimore. The idea is that school seemed something artificial to him and that it seemed as if there was an implied threat: unless you comply with these sort of arbitrary rules that we’re not going to explain or justify to you, the result is going to be impoverishment and subjection to violence.
KB: I’m certain that many of our students feel what you described, and I bet some teachers and others do as well. There is the lack of relevance to real life, there’s the disconnect between harsh realities and what’s happening inside the classroom or in the hallways of a school. If a young person’s passion is not tapped into, if there’s not an authentic, intrinsic motivation and engagement happening, then disengagement is inevitable. This is true of every student, even students who go to schools in more wealthy communities. When you’re a teenager, you’re literally going through the years of your life in which you are shaping your world view and your values and your brain is growing.
RG: If you tap into that, teenagers are some of the most passionate people in the world. I remember hearing someone ask a particular band what they thought about the fact that most of their fans were thirteen years old. And they said, that’s amazing because no one ever loves music as much as they do when they’re thirteen. I imagine that goes for a lot of things, that there’s a lot of untapped energy among teenagers. It might also be the case that when the school system, whether it’s privileged or impoverished, doesn’t recognize that kind of untapped energy, it creates a lot of resentment.
KB: It’s just the most human thing. That’s why we sometimes struggle with the question of what business we are in. Yes, this is about learning and this is about schools but it’s not just a business of education. It’s the business of life and of growing up and of figuring out how to live a life in which you feel fully alive and fully expressed.
RG: Given what you say about these projects encouraging students to feel more alive and more in control of their circumstances, how might you imagine that percolating into the classroom? I imagine that at the end of the day, even though they have control over their projects and their passions in that respect, there’s still a certain degree to which it must be fulfilled through the curriculum.
KB: We definitely see that trickling into the classroom in a really powerful way. It happens a couple of ways. One way is just organically; if you are a student who is building a sneaker business or any kind of business for example, and are starting to understand what it takes to articulate a vision and execute it, you’re starting to realize that you might need to learn a little bit of math to do it. Or that it takes good writing skills to articulate what you need in the form of a proposal, or if you’re launching an event or recruiting a team, you realize that you have to be able to compellingly share your vision with the world. My point is that in some ways it happens relatively organically. Although of course, one of the big things our dream directors are doing is providing a lot of coaching. They’re often working to connect those dots.
The other thing to note is that the way the model works right now is that every dream director is dedicated to just one school. They’re there all the time. They’re embedded into the community, into the school. The way we launch into schools is through what we call a possibility audit in each school. We go in and ask everybody in the building what are the needs and problems, what are the possibilities, what do they dream of for their school? For a while after that, dream directors are getting to know and work closely with teachers. They go to professional developments. Teachers are really helpful at pointing dream directors early on to the right student leaders to help start this movement, but they also start working with teachers as collaborators. Dream directors help teachers think through how to set up their classroom to be most engaging for their students, or how they are going to do X, Y or Z lesson, or how to bring projects into whatever they’re doing for a particular unit.
So there’s the organic, there’s the collaboration, and in some cases we’ve been experimenting with opportunities for dream directors to teach classes or to help shape the advisory curriculum that every young person would have to go through, and to work more during the school day and during class time with students. That’s intentionally not happening everywhere, but it is something we’re exploring. The middle option I spelled out, the collaboration with teachers, is something that ends up being really powerful and can cause some really special things to happen inside the classroom.
RG: Do you think that as The Future Project continues to grow, it’s going to shape the conversation on education reform more generally? Do you see it occurring parallel to efforts that are more organized around Common Core? Could it be a competitor for that model that’s going to hopefully try and bend the conversation in the direction of the variables you mentioned—things like relevance and passion and engagement instead of metrics? Or do you see it as something that happens in a complementary way?
KB: I definitely don’t think of it as competition in the sense that, very specifically, our model can work in any type of school and any type of community: rich, poor, charter, public, private, etc. I will say that over time, we at The Future Project, including our students, and our partners are calling for a change in the way that we see success for young people and for schools. And it’s not about the Common Core. It’s part of the conversation, but I’m not here to cling to the experts in curriculum decisions. What our team, our students, our principal partners, and our student partners all believe is that success is defined too narrowly right now. It is not defined in a way that is really setting up young people to thrive in the world. We need to be thinking about how to measure the things that matter but don’t know how to measure yet. And we need to be creating environments in schools that set young people up to live lives in which they are empowered and equipped to make change in their lives and in the world.
RG: The deeper things you’re trying to get at, like passion, engagement, and purpose, are notoriously difficult to capture in a meaningful way. Even though metrics are unsatisfactory in a lot of ways, one could see why education policy debates are more generally conducted in terms of metrics, because it makes it possible to scale things and speak about things with less of a dose of personal bias. What is the challenge of doing a project on a scale like the one you’re trying to attempt with The Future Project without the kind of measureables other education reformers put so much stake in?
KB: We recognized early on that we’re building an R&D team for education, schools, and young people. This kind of thing doesn’t exist on a large scale in the realm of education, which is kind of crazy, given the fact that literally every single person in our country is going to go to school at some point. In that spirit, one of the big questions our team is very focused on is: How do we capture and measure and share the success of our work in our schools and with our young people?
One of the things we’ve done is build what we call the Future Lab within our team. One of the initiatives of the Future Lab is to go out and recruit and partner with a host of cutting-edge researchers and scientists across the country—everyone from Angela Duckworth to Dr. Kaufman, both of whom are at Penn, to Carol Dweck and Bill Drayton at Stanford, to Pedro Noguera who’s flown out to UCLA to start a new center out there, to Shane Lopez who’s the world-leading researcher and expert in hope, all sorts of folks who don’t normally work together in this way. We’re engaging all of these folks around how to capture, measure, and assess the change we are making and that young people are experiencing in areas that are typically more intangible. One of the things we’re working to build is a new metric. We sometimes call it “the dreamer quotient”: a new, singular metric to assess the ability a young person has to choose a meaningful goal for him or herself, and then to go on and actually achieve that.
RG: When you pitch a future project to funders, is there a go-to piece of research that you usually highlight upfront as a really important foundation when looking at education?
KB: There are a couple. Most of the articles I really love are focused less on education and more on what it takes for a person to live a life in which they are fully alive, to say it colloquially. There’s a great study Search Institute did that basically describes the importance of young people discovering their spark and having the relationships and environments to nurture that spark and help them to use that spark effectively. I think a lot of the work that’s been done on growth mindset and on agency and locus of control, and self-regulation and self-control, is around young people understanding themselves and what they want and having the power to act on that.
RG: Comparatively, are there other national school systems that cultivate these things like self-direction and student-centric learning and where students have power over their own futures?
KB: There’s a lot I think we can learn from the Finnish education system. They approach things very innovatively. We identified in our early days that we can certainly take from other school systems. Some of the best systems by traditional standards across the world, even the systems that are not necessarily the ones that we would want to emulate, are those whose values align with the national values. Part of the issue in our country is that, at its best, the sort of unfulfilled promise of America is one of passion, of innovation, of entrepreneurship. Our schools are not set up right now to instill and teach those skills, those values to young people. That’s been a really interesting thing because if you look at South Korea and similar countries, the national identity and the values of the school system are extremely aligned. That’s missing here.
RG: In America, the national identity and national values are so contested, especially in the last generation, and could inform how patriotic debates over education can get. When we talk about education we’re not just talking about education, we are talking about what kind of values we want to implement.
KB: Absolutely, I agree with that in a big way. That’s why we never really talk about ourselves as an education reform organization. If you talked to our team, everyone would say the purpose is about young people. I think about the future of learning and of schools, but we come at that from a different place. Many reform conversations delve into the details of the curriculum, but that isn’t where we focus our energy, and it’s not what we claim to know the most about.
RG: When it comes to funding, do you have a long-term goal for how The Future Project might become self-sustaining?
KB: When we founded The Future Project, we knew nothing. I had never raised a dollar in my life and neither had Andrew. Over the last four years we’ve raised, I think $22 or $23 million, which has been really crazy.
And we’ve been very fortunate to find some incredible people that are very aligned with us. When we started this, we—and I’m not just talking about me and Andrew, I’m talking about everybody who came together in those early days to start this—we really were committed to solving the problem at the scale it exists. It’s challenging in the non-profit world because, as you were pointing out, there are such big limitations to philanthropies and the scale in the non-profit world often looks so different than the scale in the for-profit world.
We have learned a lot about the 20% of what we’re doing that is making 80% of the difference. We’ve been building out; now we have a few small teams within our Future Labs focused on building more scaleable tools and trainings and things through which we can impact exponentially more young people than we would be able to through our current model. But we also want to transform our business model over time.
One thing we are already experimenting with is selling our current model, the full time dream director model, to schools and districts. Very, very often, every single day, we get emails from people saying, “I am a teacher at such-and-such school in Raleigh, North Carolina. When are you bringing The Future Project here?” If we were to replicate our current model, we’d have to say “not for a while.” But usually that teacher will write us asking, “Can you teach me to be a dream director? I would love to bring this to my school. I would love to bring this to my city.” The model here is already based on inside-out change and community-driven change. That’s what we want anyway, we want local communities to build this and launch this when they’re ready in their communities. We certainly aren’t building anything that we want to force upon anybody. But imagine if we could build a training institute one day that could bring in earned revenue over time. We’re also thinking about tools we could sell directly to schools and to school districts so that we could do training online. We’ve been playing for a few years with the idea of building a digital dream director role in schools, which could be available in a sustainable way.
RG: When you speak to foundations and philanthropists about scaling your organization, is there a tension in that you want to present The Future Project as disruptive, but not as too disruptive? In other words, you want it to be something that appeals to people who control a lot of funding. In that sense, I could imagine that there’s a critique of the education system that says that a lot of the issues we see in disengagement and in listlessness and lack of empowerment are really structural issues and poverty issues that have to do with the neighborhoods these schools are in, with the environment in which children grow up, and that you can’t make a fundamental change in the education system without making a structural change economically. I’m not sure if that’s something that The Future Project subscribes to. But I also wonder if there’s a structural limit on the ability to make that case because of where the funding for education entrepreneurship projects come from.
KB: There are certainly structural issues, and so many of our students face them every day. Our goal is to do whatever it takes to equip young people to live lives in which they have passion, purpose, and power to make change. Doing that definitely requires our students to confront the realities they face—structural realities and poverty and racism. There are a lot of things our society is grappling with right now that are directly impacting the students we work with and serve. Those are real. They come up every day and in every context. We are coming to all of this from a place of possibility, and we believe in the power of individuals and of the collective and young people. I’m not minimizing anything or saying that these things can’t be done without taking one or the other into account, but the bigger idea here is that we believe that any young person, no matter what, has the right to live a life in which they have passion and purpose and power. It’s a justice issue. It’s important for us to provide young people with all of the resources they need, the coaching they need, the connections they need to organizations and people that can support them in all kinds of realities.
Rob Goodman has worked as the speechwriter for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Senator Chris Dodd. He has written speeches and opinion pieces that have appeared on the floors of both houses of Congress, on national television and radio, and in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal.