Inspired by The AFT's Culminating Capstone Projects, These Young Changemakers Share Their End-of-Year Stories
It was May 25, 2019, graduation day. I was rehearsing the lines of a poem I wrote for an inspirational leader at my school. Mark Eversole had invested more than 40,000 hours in service to Fort Collins High School in Colorado. I remember watching him cleaning up trash in the hallway and thinking to myself: “That man is a changemaker!” He serves selflessly, he engages intentionally, and he reminds us how conversation and small acts of service can transform the culture within a school. Eversole retired in 2019, and on graduation day I read my poem to thank him for his service. I read the closing line: “To the light of eternal day, Mr. Eversole, we wish you could stay, but we know this love must part, for you and your wife to travel the Lambkin Way.” Imagine 6,000 people cheering and shouting and the arena shaking with energy, as we poured out gratitude for one man, one leader, one changemaker. Celebrations of gratitude like this are commonplace in normal times: retirements of beloved teachers and school staff, yearbook signings, last-day-of-school parties, and of course graduation. But, how do we close out this school year in a way that celebrates those who've reached the final milestone, the seniors and retiring teachers who prepare for the next chapter of life? How do we close the year in a way that celebrates the impact of changemakers like Mark Eversole, while also inspiring others to take up changemaking when the world needs it most?
Inspire Your Changemakers by Participating in AFT’s Culminating Capstone Projects
The global pandemic has impacted us in many ways, some helpful and most not. On the positive, pollution seems to be on global pause, our earth having the opportunity to heal, and we are finding more time with our families and loved ones. On the negative side, a report by Education International highlights alarming increases in domestic violence, child labor and worsening mental health. For teachers, students, parents and families, our days can feel repetitive; and social distancing, while critical for public health, can lead to crippling isolation.
In the face of these recent challenges, AFT President Randi Weingarten encouraged us to reduce stress on parents and kids, foster simple approaches and set routine. She reminded us that “a calm brain is a learning brain.” As we reflect on this message, we explore how all of us—teachers, parents, students, staff and others—can close out this school year in a way that identifies opportunities for everyone to foster love and step into their changemaking power to promote the good of all.
Systems are changing, markets are shifting, and unless we empower others to be problem-solvers and changemakers, the world will pass them by. How do we inspire people to look beyond the problems, to identify solutions and build teams to address them?
Millions around the world are stepping into the “Everyone a Changemaker” movement, which is built on the principles of empathy, teamwork, leadership, problem-solving and empowerment of co-leaders. Our students and schools need this framework to be successful in a constantly changing world. The following changemaker framework is the greatest tool we have to unleash the power of every generation and bring about positive change in the world.
Empathy & Changemaking
Empathy is the foundation of changemaking. It is the ability for someone to step outside of their own understanding and be transformed by the experiences and perspectives of others. Empathy is a commitment to fostering change through love and respect, and carrying a genuine curiosity for how we can serve and celebrate others. Empathy is not found by assuming we understand the challenge, but rather, by recognizing that we don’t, and by having a commitment to learning. Empathy is a cognitive and emotional skill: It needs to be discovered, developed and strengthened. By exercising empathy, we show that we care. We care for the senior graduates who have lost months of potential memories and their traditional graduation experience. We care for the teachers who are battling with the challenges of maintaining student engagement. We care for the students with no access to technology, and the senior athletes who have lost their season. We care for the retiring teachers who never imagined their journey would end in quarantine, far from their dear students. We understand and care for them all.
Teamwork & Changemakers
As the proverb goes: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Teamwork is the collaboration of changemakers. We are not meant to take on these challenges alone, but in community. We lean on each other, and we grow together. As many can attest, we couldn’t have transitioned smoothly to online learning if it weren’t for the dedication and commitment of every teacher around the country. We may be distant, but we are still together. Before COVID-19, we saw millions of students walking out of class to raise awareness for climate change, or to protest gun violence, and to demand change. This is powerful because it is done in teams or groups. Teamwork is the mobilization of the masses. So how do we replicate this in the age of social distancing? There is not one clear answer, but we can celebrate that the entire world is watching, and the decisions we make and the teams of teams that we create will be the foundation that remains after this storm passes.
If the law shapes our everyday life, then shouldn't everyone have the chance to learn about it? How two students are creating a legal literacy program for middle school students in the U.S. #EveryoneAChangemaker #TMoChangemaker https://t.co/gtzi0O2fiL
— Ashoka Changemakers (@Changemakers) May 18, 2020
Changemakers Inspire Leadership
Leadership is the commitment to bringing out the best in those around us. There are always a handful of changemakers who spark other changemakers. Whether it's the students of Stoneman Douglas High School or the legendary Greta Thunberg, there are many who hold the mission of inspiring others to step into changemaking. These role models in our society recognize that their greatest contribution is moving others into action. The world post-quarantine is going to require a new kind of leadership. A leadership that distributes decision-making, that views all members of our communities as essential stakeholders and as co-equal leaders in the future we build. Ensuring that everyone is a changemaker means ensuring everyone has a seat at the table, and that's what the new leadership is all about.
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Problem-Solving As A Changemaker
Anyone can identify a challenge facing our society, but how many are willing to imagine new solutions? This is the fundamental question that distinguishes changemakers. Changemakers don’t get stuck on the problem, they focus on the solution. They don’t dwell on the issues, they imagine new possibilities. It is the difference between complaining about an issue on Facebook vs. assembling a team of 300 to march for awareness. Changemakers imagine a world where the number of solutions overpowers the problems. This mindset of problem-solving is the essence of changemaking and social entrepreneurship, and the world needs this kind of thinking.
Empowerment of Co-Leaders in The Movement
As Henry De Sio Jr., former Ashoka vice president puts it, changemaking is centered on the idea that “everything you change changes everything.” Co-leadership recognizes that every individual has a role to play. You can’t sit on the sidelines, because our world needs you to take action, and your action will inspire others. The climate crisis will not be solved through hierarchies and titles, but through action, and every person is a co-leader in this effort. Co-leadership recognizes that small acts of changemaking, by millions of people, can lead to global change that shapes systems. This is your moment. This is our moment.
Changemakers: The Path Forward
We are closing this academic year and wondering how we move forward in the face of so much uncertainty and hardship. Good news: Changemaking is not restricted by lockdowns, quarantines and social distancing. Changemaking is a power within us all, and it can be activated at any moment, regardless of our circumstances. By having this mindset, students and teachers can be empowered and reminded that their strength and changemaking ability are unhindered, even if all of the previous plans have crashed down. No graduation, no end-of -year assembly, no yearbook signing, and yet we all must remember that we still have the opportunity to be changemakers.
The needs in our communities have increased tenfold, and so have the opportunities. My challenge to you: Identify a problem in your community, find a solution, build a team or two or three, and begin to make change. Do not be discouraged by the circumstances, but be empowered by your opportunity to have a real impact in this world and in your communities. When the COVID-19 situation eventually passes, the remnants of this pandemic will be millions of young changemakers ready to take action for social good. Schools may be closed, but changemaking is in session.
We as changemakers have two choices. We can say “change” is coming, and there is nothing we can do about it. Or, we can embrace change and say, “We as changemakers will step up to the plate.” The moment is here; and although things are different now, we can learn to embrace the change and celebrate it. Wherever our classroom is, whatever our learning environment might be, consider stepping into your changemaking power and inviting your students, colleagues, family and friends to join you. Celebrate the teachers who will not let even a global pandemic stop their ability to love and serve their students. Their commitment is courageous and inspiring, and we will remember these moments. Finally, let us all stop, reflect and thank everyone who has been instrumental in this online transition, especially the educators: You have poured out your energy, time and love; and we are so grateful for you. You are the changemakers.
By Christian Dykson with contributions from Paul M. Rogers, Victor Ye, Laya Yalamanchili and Manat Kaur.