Big Thought: A Conversation with Sam Williamson and Greg MacPherson

Q&A   21 July 2016
By Sam Williamson and Greg MacPherson


We began with a belief that arts would be a powerful tool in helping children.

Greg MacPherson
Senior Director of Operations

Q. What got you first committed to education? What keeps you committed?

A. Sam: What first got me committed to education was an early realization that it was a strategy to combat almost any problem. What kept me committed was discovering I had a knack for facilitating groups, brainstorming sessions, and activities. When these two realizations collided, I saw I had an opportunity to pursue something that I was both good at and enjoyed and that would have the potential to make some change in the world.

A. Greg: I found my way into the informal education field accidentally; yet, in hindsight, the path was actually pretty clear. I was a theatre major and arts aficionado pursuing a path in arts administration. Along the way, that path dovetailed with education, which felt natural to me. There are committed and caring educators through out my family that continue to serve as role models—my grandmother was a music teacher; my mom was a pre-school teacher; my sister is a current teacher and now a school librarian; and my wife is an elementary school teacher. I enjoyed extracurricular and cross-curricular opportunities growing up that helped me find my spark and my community. Those experiences made learning relevant—fun. They kept me engaged, invested in my future.

I have seen many times that the opportunities I had, and took for granted while growing up, are not available to large segments of our communities. This is unacceptable. I find personal meaning in being part of the solution to make these education opportunities available to youth in our community. You get to see many examples of the positive impact we have. That keeps me committed; it fuels me day after day.

Q. Could you tell us a bit about Big Thought’s history? Why did it start? When did it gain significant momentum?

A. Sam: Big Thought began in 1987 as a regional Young Audiences chapter helping to provide arts programming to students in school. Young Audiences of North Texas then evolved as it developed some new partnerships with the city and the school district, and Big Thought was born through that evolution.

A. Greg: We began with a belief that arts would be a powerful tool in helping children. The organization grew to serve children, teachers, and parents in more ways than our founders could have imagined. Big Thought gained significant momentum through a series of public/private partnerships. Our collaboration with city and county government agencies began in 1994 with Creative Solutions, a partnership with Dallas County Juvenile Department. That was followed by Library Live!—a joint effort with the Dallas Public Library. In 1997, Arts Partners (rebranded as Learning Partners) was born as a citywide partnership that connects the city’s resources with every Dallas ISD elementary teacher and school—150 schools serving 80,000 students.

In 2004, we became Big Thought to reflect our expanded vision and broader scope of work. More growth in the last decade includes Thriving Minds After-School (TMAS) and Thriving Minds Summer Camp (TMSC). In summer 2014, we launched a new initiative in partnership with Mayor Mike Rawlings called Dallas City of Learning. These programs allow us to collaborate with hundreds of partner organizations to serve PK-12 youth in school, out of school, on campuses, and in the community.


The predominant targets are those ‘program desert’ areas where the space needs activation.

Sam Williamson
Senior Instructional Specialist, Big Thought

Q. What is your favorite story to share about your time at Big Thought?

A. Sam: My favorite story to tell about my time at Big Thought would probably have to be the middle school summer camp in 2013. We were charged with creating a new curriculum targeting middle schoolers that got them engaged in 21st century skill-based enrichment courses, while also connecting to historical figures that were integral to the lessons. We ended up creating a curriculum featuring “revolutionaries” that both gave students an opportunity to study figures they idolized, never knew about, or had only heard of, and then explore how they could set themselves apart through the work they do. It was a memorable project for sure.

A. Greg: My favorite moments also tie back to our middle school work. In summer 2011 and 2012, Big Thought and Dallas ISD moved two weeks of our four-week Thriving Minds Summer Camp program out of the standard district campus environment and transplanted it to Fair Park, a 277-acre park home to the annual State Fair of Texas—which boasts cultural, sports, and educational facilities. In summer 2011, we converted the Automobile Building into a labyrinth of temporary classrooms hosting over 1,500 youth from every district middle school. So, these kids received ELA, science, and math instruction from their certified teachers in the Automobile Building, then took excursions into the park and engaged in activities at the African American Museum, Children’s Aquarium, Discovery Gardens, and Museum of Nature and Science. Fair Park came alive with learning. Most students knew Fair Park only through the State Fair, so this was a new introduction to its other cultural and educational opportunities. It was such a rejuvenating experience for the educators as they led lessons outside by a fountain or under shade trees.

Q. At its center, Big Thought looks to close the opportunity gap by bringing opportunities to the kids who need them most. How does Big Thought determine which communities to serve? What has the role of those communities been in creating Dallas City of Learning?

A. Sam: Determining the communities to serve is always a challenge. In fact, I might even recommend a rephrasing of the question to ask how Big Thought determines which communities to serve right now, as we do try our best to eventually make our way around to many, if not all, areas of Dallas. The predominant targets are those “program desert” areas where the space needs activation. Since this organization has evolved to be able to provide services to the community through direct services, partnerships, funding, and in-kind support, it allows us to have an exceptionally wide each for our relatively small staff. Dallas City of Learning has started to play a big role in this work, as it has provided yet another system through which we can expand access to programming beyond just what we can provide ourselves. Still in its relative infancy, it’s exciting to think about what DCoL will be in a few years, particularly as it pertains to the goal of bridging that opportunity gap.

A. Greg: When the organization changed its name to Big Thought, we decided to focus on Dallas County with an emphasis on students attending Dallas ISD. We had already worked with 40 area school districts, but the need in Dallas was so great—86% of 150,000 students identifying as economically disadvantaged.

The refocus allowed us to go deeper programmatically for greater, more systemic student impact. We focus our efforts on equity across all geographic areas of the city (Library Live! services all 27 branch library locations, Learning Partners services all 150 elementary schools). Other programs are directed at the program deserts that Sam mentioned, high-density and under-resourced poverty areas. Our role is to support partner organizations already active in those areas, connect additional partners and resources to provide services in those neighborhoods, and provide transportation for youth to explore other neighborhoods and city resources. Dallas City of Learning has become the embodiment of this effort, specifically during summer. The technology platform connected with DCoL allows us to assess the need for partner resources and pinpoint those program deserts. This technology also lets us measure whether our strategies are actually driving more programming to these areas. In summer 2014, approximately 45% of the youth engaged in DCoL came from these high-density poverty areas. This number jumped to 70% in summer 2015.

Q. Where do you see Big Thought and Dallas City of Learning going next?

A. Sam: I see Big Thought and DCoL expanding the network of involved partners exponentially. This expansion will take the ‘Dallas’ out of City of Learning as the radius of offerings will expand beyond the city’s border into new cities and communities that are facing the same issues and deserve a place at the table of this movement.

A. Greg: I see the next phase of Big Thought and DCoL being driven by the principles of connected and blended learning. We have had success in building and engaging a network of partners (schools; city departments; non-profits; higher education; corporations; social services) committed to the work, and we are piloting the digital learning functionality of the DCoL technology platform.

In the next phase, the connectivity of the in-person and digital experiences offered through DCoL will deepen and become more directed by the individual interests. As this unfolds, I agree with Sam—the radius of youth and partners engaged in the work will also grow and strengthen.

New resources and news on The Big Idea!


We recently announced a new R&D acceleration initiative to connect and support local communities ready to bring public, equitable, learner-centered ecosystems to life.