How to Empower Young People to Build Their Own Future: A Conversation with Ayele Shakur
Q&A 14 October 2020
By Ayele Shakur, BUILD
I think it’s important that we teach students the design thinking process because so much of their life journey will involve problem solving, ideating, and iterating.
Chief Executive Officer, BUILD.org
Q: Can you walk us through your journey into education and your focus on issues around equity?
Ayele: My journey began in the late eighties after graduating college. I moved out to Hollywood to follow my dream of being a screenwriter. Unfortunately, I quickly became a starving screenwriter because it’s a really difficult career to break into.
During that time, there was a teacher shortage in Los Angeles, and they wanted anyone with a college degree to apply for a teaching position. So, I became a teacher—thinking I would have my afternoons, weekends, and summers free to write. In hindsight, that was really naive. But, at the time, I had no idea how much time went into being a good teacher.
I started working with first and second grade students in Compton, California, just south of South Central LA, during the height of gang violence. And, I immediately felt a real sense of purpose working with young people.
It was normal to hear (and see) police helicopters circling the skies and to have shootings constantly force schools into lockdown. This really woke me up to the reality that many bright young people—despite being full of potential, curiosity, and a desire to learn—have the deck stacked against them. Trauma was a regular, everyday occurrence.
I became really determined to ensure my young people would get the best education I could deliver for them. Students are carrying a psychological backpack to school that’s loaded down with many issues from their home and communities. We have to start by addressing trauma and paying attention to the social and emotional wellness of our young people. When young people feel supported by a caring adult, they can open up and find the space to focus on learning.
Engaging with young people to identify their interests and what excites them has anchored my career. When I was in Compton, nothing worked until I realized you have to find something that they’re passionate about. It was super exciting to have that sense of clarity and purpose in my work.
I also thought, “If I’m going to be a teacher, I need to get the best training possible,” and decided to come back home to Boston to get a master’s degree in education from Harvard. I’ve been an educator now for 31 years, and I love every minute of it. I love working with young people, and I’m passionate about reaching young people who feel society (or even their teachers) have given up on them because I know they are capable of greatness.
Q: Your passion led you to working at BUILD. What drew you into working there, and what is BUILD looking to accomplish?
Ayele: What drew me to become CEO of BUILD was the idea of using entrepreneurship as a vehicle to re-engage young people and get them excited about learning and on a path to success. The program is designed to help young people, particularly those from under-resourced communities, start real businesses in the ninth grade based on their passions and interests and connect them with mentors in the business community. And, best of all, they get to keep the profits. Each year, we help operate 200 student-run businesses and serve about 2,000 students from Boston, New York, Washington, D.C. and the Bay Area.
Most of us can remember being in high school and never feeling in control of anything—especially when you’re stuck at home, your parents are telling you what to do, and the community only sees you as a kid. However, when you become the CEO, CFO, or VP of a company that you created, it changes the way you see yourself. It changes your sense of agency. And, now you have this business language that opens up a whole realm of opportunities that most of our young people don’t typically have access to. This access opens up their minds to what is possible in their lives.
We saw all of this possibility, and then took it a step further a couple of years ago by implementing a five-step design thinking process into our curriculum. Students start with Empathy, then move to Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. This process serves as the basis for our virtual offerings.
It’s vitally important for students to have a strong sense of identity of who they are as Black and Latinx youth, and what role they play in making their community a better place.
Chief Executive Officer, BUILD.org
Our plan is to add an additional equity lens to that framework, so students can dive much deeper into the empathy step of that design thinking process. In this way, they will intentionally interrogate some of the questions that we should be asking as we think about solving problems in communities of color.
I think it’s important that we teach students the design thinking process because so much of their life journey will involve problem solving, ideating, and iterating. Those experiences become lessons and the more they build on them, the more they are able to take those life lessons and skills and apply them to overcoming other challenges.
Through this experience, we are also teaching young people eight Spark Skills—collaboration, communication, grit, innovation, problem solving, self-management, social entrepreneurship, and civic engagement—over the course of four years. And, at the end of each year, we conduct a diagnostic assessment to measure students’ growth in those areas. These are 21st-century skills that we know young people need in order to thrive.
What I realized after being at BUILD for eight years (first running the Boston office and then as CEO) is that we were defining success as going off to college to start a career, while ignoring the social responsibility component. Now, students are using their entrepreneurial skill set to go beyond making a profit to making a difference. It’s about them having a heart for their communities, wanting to understand why so many disparities exist within communities of color, and then feeling empowered to do something about it.
Q: Do you have other examples of entrepreneurship shifting the way we think about the connection between education, equity, and communities?
Ayele: When schools pivoted to virtual learning across the country and around the world, we released a COVID-19 Virtual Design Challenge that focused on social entrepreneurship. The challenge—which had an overwhelming response—called on young people to design solutions that would promote mental and physical wellness in the midst of the pandemic.
The Challenge, which will soon be open nationwide as an educational resource to educators across the county, allows young people to meet clients, hear stories of how COVID-19 is impacting them, and then choose a client to build solutions for.
The Challenge really helped young people find their voice and create something for (and empathize with) others. And, in the process, they’re able to better manage their own feelings and anxiety.
It’s vitally important for students to have a strong sense of identity of who they are as Black and Latinx youth, and what role they play in making their community a better place. When students don’t have that grounding, they start to make decisions that are detrimental to the community. And, they don’t see themselves as needing to come back to the community and be a part of the change they want to see. We want them to see the assets and the vibrancy in their communities.
Q: When the pandemic hit, what other ways did you see BUILD could make a positive impact?
Ayele: For 20 years, BUILD’s program partnered with school districts to help young people learn about entrepreneurship as a path to college and career. And, unfortunately, we’ve seen that our current education system is not built with equity in mind.
For so long, we’ve been helping Black and Brown kids overcome a system that was not built for them. And, when COVID-19 hit, we were determined to make sure that when our schools opened up again, we would never go back to normal because normal was not working for so many young people.
We wanted to help drive a conversation around how we could rebuild the education system with equity at its core. What was clear, though, is that our school districts (understandably) were in the midst of a crisis. They were really focused on meeting the basic, everyday needs of young people.
They needed an outside actor, working in partnership with the district, to facilitate the change that we all want to see on the other side. It would be tragic to get to the other side of this pandemic and realize nothing has changed for the better. There’s so much suffering and pain that’s connected to this pandemic that there just has to be a bright side.
While there’s inequity across all aspects of society, including in our criminal justice system, housing, and workforce development, I believe that the root causes of those inequities are traced back to our education system.
Chief Executive Officer, BUILD.org
When all the schools closed, you had high-performing, well-resourced schools that were able to pivot to online learning fairly easily. It was difficult for everyone, but those schools had infrastructure there, and nimble teachers who were able to adapt a normal school schedule to online classes.
On the other hand, all the challenges high-need schools were facing pre-pandemic moved to the online world and were further amplified. Our premise was, what if we could take down the silos of our traditional public schools and really maximize their impact and reach?
We’re calling our initiative Campus Without Walls: a cross-sector collaboration led by BUILD, Boston Opportunity Agenda, Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy and a network of other partners together with Boston Public Schools. The goal is for all young people to be intrinsically motivated, gain greater access, and take full advantage of a wide range of learning opportunities that prepare them to thrive in a rapidly changing digital world during COVID-19 and beyond.
In addition to providing a program that identifies bright, talented, and culturally responsive teachers who run engaging online classes and opens up their classrooms to students across the city, we’re adding a constellation of local community-based organizations and enrichment programs, like BUILD, Boston Debate Leagues, and Boston Higher Education Resource Center. We’re also bringing together the business community to facilitate work-based learning experiences. And, university partners will provide early college credit opportunities, as well as college student volunteers.
With Campus Without Walls, we’ve discovered that you can bring all of these community assets together to create an education system that can extend long beyond the pandemic, move us away from the current industrial age, and really usher in a digital age for education.
Q: Why is racial justice so important as we think about rebuilding education?
Ayele: There aren’t a lot of African-Americans serving as CEO of multi-million dollar organizations, so I’m always thinking about how I can use my mantle to make a difference. And, advancing the cause of racial justice has been a key driver for me in this work. I’m a child of the sixties and seventies, and my dad was a civil rights attorney and public defender—it’s in my DNA. And, while there’s inequity across all aspects of society, including in our criminal justice system, housing, and workforce development, I believe that the root causes of those inequities are traced back to our education system.
The inequity really starts in education and just continues on with young people as they enter adulthood. If we’re truly going to address the racial justice issues in this country and begin to build young people up, we have to start with our education system. That’s why the tagline of Campus Without Walls is “liberated learning.” We’re physically liberating young people and removing the silos and separation, so that they can access all the great things that public education offers.
We’re also liberating the ideas that students are acquiring. That’s why we focus on social entrepreneurship, civic engagement, wealth building, and an anti-racist, decolonized curriculum. These elements will be fundamental components of the Campus Without Walls experience, and we’re excited to launch the pilot in January 2021.
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