Valle de Bravo Gathering of Learning Architects

I believe that reinventing higher education is one of humanity’s important milestones going forward. Here I recount my experience of a recent gathering of creators of alternatives to the mainstream university. It is one window open to the messy process of reinventing higher education and an invitation to walk through the door.

Educators Symposium, 27-29 May, Universidad del Medio Ambiente

We gathered at a Symposium held at the Universidad del Medio Ambiente, In Valle de Bravo, Mexico, from the 27-29 of May 2016. I got to Mexico City a day before to travel with Udi and Genaro to Valle. I was very curious to meet Udi. He and his wife Kelly resigned from UK academia and started a one year trip to alternative universities around the world to make a documentary. Their project is called Enlivened Learning and I wanted to know more about it. Genaro – a small farmer, in his words – just returned to Mexico from Hawaii where he learned (even more) about agroecology.  He is also the co-founder of a university called Instituto Superior Intercultural Ayuuk, formed by 11 indigenous groups of the Oaxaca mountains. When we got to Valle, Victoria was waiting with a welcoming “at last you are here” smile. Victoria is one of the co-founders of Universidad del Medio Ambiente (UMA). Before UMA, Victoria was putting her Phd in economics to work for the environment, promoting the creation of a Natural Protected Area in Valle de Bravo and setting up a Trust Fund for environmental projects. The frustration with the way projects received were researched was one of the impulses for starting UMA. Here they are, the first three learning architects I met: 

Victoria was also responsible for all of us converging there. UMA together with Un-School of Disruptive Design in New York were the institutions behind the Symposium and Victoria and Leyla – the Unschool founder – were going to be our facilitators. We arrived at our homestay, a house with a serene lake view. There we joined Liora – long time actionist and co-founder of Gaia University (Global) and Johannes – co-founder of UnaVision (Germany), an organization dedicated to learning journeys.

We sat on comfy armchairs overseeing the lake and a casual conversation started. It kept going and growing for the next three days. To organize my thoughts on it, I will answer three questions: “What?”, “So what?”, “Now what?”.

What (happened)?

Friday (27th of May) – Get to know each other

A twenty minute drive from Valle’s center, there is UMA’s beautiful campus.  We walked through a garden that opens up in a wide green pasture. The main building is composed of a central courtyard surrounded by classrooms and offices. The four corners are open, shaded by a green roof. The mustard colored bricks were made right there, from the clay of the land. The whole building has a warm and natural feel. Next to the main building, there is a kitchen and a wide porch. On that porch we sat at a rectangular table that could fit the whole group. One by one people showed up at the table and introduced themselves.

UMA Campus

UMA Campus

After breakfast, we made a circle on the grass and Victoria welcomed us and introduced the three-day flow. We would present ourselves and our work in the first day, and explore, brainstorm, prototype and plan in the next two days. A round of brief introductions followed and then we went for a silent walk around the UMA campus to get familiar with the place, gather our thoughts and intentions, and arrive. My intention was to make long-time friends and listen deeply. I also wanted help with deciding where to go next in Latin America for documenting my Break/Free from University book.

Silent walk

Silent walk

Back in the main building, each of us took 5-10 minutes for presentations. We had, in that room, a few hundred years of experience in trying to disrupt, reinvent or improve (higher) education. Here is a gallery with all 22 of us:

In between presentations we took a walk in the woods, paired up for a conversation about remembering a moment in our childhood when we felt a special connection with nature. I walked with Silvia, who used to live in big cities like London and Mexico City but now lives in a ranch in Valle that is a space designed for home-schoolers. I shared a memory of me watching ants for long stretches of time asking myself “What are they doing?”. Silvia had a similar question as a child, but much larger in scope: looking at the people in the city, going around being busy, she was asking “What are we humans doing here?”. Towards the end of the walk, all of us sat down in a circle and shared a one minute version of our partner’s story. I enjoyed this moment and the “humanizing” angle it offered on this group of rebel over-achievers.

6 - wood walk

The afternoon was the time for serious playing. My playmates Claudia, Doris, Frederico, Kirby and I, were sitting at a table outside, in the shade. The serious part was to share a learning practice we do that we consider “disruptive”. We invited Doris to start, as the elder disruptor of the group. In 1982, the year I was born, Doris was co-founding what is now Universidad Campesina Indígena in Puebla, Mexico. Doris shared how, before they start the actual learning, they nurture the transformation of the groups of new students into communities of learning. Sometimes it can take up to six months for the meaningful relationships to be formed. Then it was Claudia’s turn to share a few of the practices used in Escuela DIA (Development of Intelligence through Art). Claudia founded the organization that develops the DIA methodology in 1992, when I was already ten. In the meantime they worked with 25.000 teachers. You can read the entire list of practices shared here.

The last activity of the day was for each group to design a theater sketch representing one or several of the disruptive practices of the group. The practice that fired up the the imaginations of our small group was to integrate “pause” in the learning processes, in different shapes or forms. We decided to play with the idea of “pause” and instead of creating a theatre play, we would create moments of “pause” in between the plays of other groups.

7 - theatre

You can observe in the image how well a pause fits between (1) a chaotic group progressing from confusion to collective intelligence and (2) a teacher with his troubled pupils that discovers a more personalized, self-directed and mindful approach. The fourth play was about a controversy dialogue and mind-mapping.

Saturday (28th of May) – Ideation and Prototyping

We started our second day in a circle on the grass with Leyla as facilitator. Leyla is a star in the design  world. She designed games, installations, booklets but also the Un-School of Disruptive Design in New York. She was a fireball of energy even if she was jumping into our gathering right after a four day workshop she facilitated. She invited us to start by finding three professional connections with three other people in the group. I discovered I was connected with Gaby around using gamification and design thinking in our projects, with Udi around enjoying to facilitate learning and with Liora and Johannes around our intention to develop a meta-university.

Start of the second day

Start of the second day

We continued with connecting ideas on six flip charts with the words: Impact, Communication, Validation, Space, Pedagogy and Economics. We also had a page to write questions for each topic.

After we collectively brainstormed and filled the flip charts, we formed a group for each one. In the small groups, we came up with three ideas independently, we shared them and chose one of them to present to the larger group.

On the “Economics” table we synthesized our ideas into something named “Free University Architecture”. Its features are:

  • self organized and managed by students who do everything from cleaning to governing; 
  • the system architecture (software, knowledge) is open source, created in Wikipedia style by hundreds of learning architects around the world;
  • the experience (teachers, mentors) would be offered in a gift culture system;
  • students will be engaged in productive enterprises and projects that provide resources for expenses like rent and utilities, supplies or books.

Each of the six groups presented, all of us contributed more ideas and we ended up with this whiteboard:

10 - whiteboard with ideas

We voted, combined ideas and from the five clusters that resulted we developed five rapid prototypes:  


Theory of Change Guide/Portal

12 - theory of change prototypeEach of our learning environments aims to stir the world into a different direction and each of us has an implicit or explicit theory of what that change is and how it happens. Then there is the reality of the change we actually produce. This being so central for our work, we want to benefit from looking into the real impact we produce, sharing the raw data related to it and developing methods and tools to evaluate it. This way our theories improve, our reality gets closer to the theory and we inspire each other towards better impact. We will have an online portal to collect stories of our students successes and also of their excellent mistakes while doing their best trying to have an impact. Anyone could look into the data, match it with our theories of change, figure out patterns of change between organizations and even come up with a meta-theory of change.


The Learning Journey

The Learning Journey rapid prototypeThe learning environments in this network are incredibly diverse responses to the same reality: higher education needs to be reinvented. And we are doing this in small experiments, on different continents, inside different movements. Even if we have the common essence of rebellion, the manifestations of it are beautifully diverse ecosystems of learning, thoughtfully designed, forged in experience and fueled by love for learning and people. We are excited by the idea that some learners could self design a “meta-program” that would be a learning journey to a number of these ecosystems. This learning journey, nicely documented, will tell a powerful story of the potential in our friendship and will kindle further collaboration. 

Badges, Micro Certificates and Peer Review

13 - badgesWe recognize that certificates and diplomas are at the core of the problem of higher education. Those of us who are not prepared to abolish them completely, want to re imagine them. To that end, we see the potential in Mozilla’s open badges infrastructure. Our collaboration would have three levels: (1) designing and using a pool of (micro)badges together; each of us would aggregate them in macro(badges) in his particular way but we would share the smallest units; (2) the (macro)badges would be mutually recognized and endorsed, even going as far as creating an evaluation that is distributed in the network and awarded by the network; (3) each institution can ask to be peer evaluated and endorsed by the network. The second iteration added the flip side of the idea, where students offer badges to institutions.


Cosmovisions Exchange

14 - cosmovisionsSome of the members of the network emphasized the need to preserve indigenous knowledge systems in the face of the monoculture of thought pushed by mainstream university system worldwide. There is an awareness in our network of the urgency to create real intercultural dialogue. So we see as a distinct task for our network to develop tools that facilitate that intercultural dialogue. For this purpose, we developed a cosmovision exchange exercise. It starts with a “fishbowl setup” where four people from different environments make visible their interpretation of a piece of art and their reactions to what others perceive. Subsequently, the whole group who was watching is involved in a facilitated dialogue.


Mutual Currency

15 - mutual currencyWe imagine a near future where the circulation of people between our learning environments will be facilitated by an alternative currency. The working title is UNA. Members of our communities would earn some UNAs by hosting someone in their country and spend them by covering their participation in a program of another learning environment in the network.


In between working on these ideas, we refreshed our minds and our bodies with a treasure hunt around UMA campus and of course, with lunch. The treasure hunt was a lovely design that engaged different creative capacities and skills. We built a floating egg nest, we planted, we found our way blindfolded through a minefield and we solved word puzzles. It left me with good creative energy.

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The day ended on a high energy note. So high that right after dinner Genaro and Liora started dancing salsa without music. Some music was eventually improvised and more of us joined in a joyful celebration of a fruitful day.

Sunday (29th of May) – Who does what, when?

Sunday being the final day, we had to get our ideas down to who’s going to do what and when, after we split. I got into a small group working on “the website”. We kept the “phase 1” of the project light so we could complete it in a month. But we need to have a name. We knew it is going to be hard to come up with a name that everybody would embrace. We created a few proposals for the bigger group to choose from. Then in the big group our chief disruptor Leyla seduced us with an even lighter perspective. Let’s just use the platforms that we have or that are already there (like Medium) and communicate about our network in an unstructured and decentralized fashion. We didn’t even chose a common #hashtag. Each of us will choose the #hashtags that we like and we will let time filter the few ones to converge towards. Two examples mentioned were: #ecoversities and #edhack. 

We ended up with individual commitments, things that each of us wanted to do. For example I wanted to write this article and help with online facilitation. Victoria is going to catalyze the Learning Journey prototype. Johannes will facilitate the work around our common currency. Udi and Manish will facilitate the merging of “Valle” group with the Ecoversities group that met in Tamera (Portugal) last August. Gaia U will facilitate the development of the “Badge” system with Traian as part of the team. Beyond this there are probably tens of smaller, one on one collaborations and visits that were set up.  

We kept our playing habit for the third day with a collaborative game followed by the testing of the cosmovisions exercise that one of the teams designed Saturday. We ended the day by sharing what we learned. You can see in this image some of the keywords.

17 - learnings

After we closed the formal session Manish facilitated a closing ceremony that was a deep and beautiful gift to take with us, further in our paths. For a few of us the day ended later with a couple of beers in a local bar.

So what (does it mean)?

The Symposium was a standalone gathering but I see the significance of it as part of the process of small alternative universities and un-universities getting closer. There was another meeting in Tamera, Portugal in August 2015 and there will be another one by the end of the 2016. My reflections and learnings are informed only by the Valle de Bravo Symposium but tend to refer to the dynamic of the overall process.

The (centripetal) force is strong

1 - coverAs Udi was saying at one point, these places we’ve built are fragile so we need to stay together. Actually, I see them as intrinsically powerful structures whose fragility comes from going against the current. In any case, our need to stay together is as natural as survival instinct. On the flip-side, our aspiration to steer the world into a different direction needs a much bigger army, so we are natural allies on that road. The values we share are another glue. And on top of all this, the fact that around this common essence we have a wide diversity of architectures, methods, tools, stories and metaphors is a potential treasure that we all see. So what I saw in the meeting was a genuine and strong intention to get closer and weave our small experiments into a connected ecosystem that has more impact.

Taking the time

19 - plantingOne of my main sources of learning was to experience the pace and the rhythm that is given to the growth of this network by people wiser than me. It is a slow pace that follows with patience the growth of our relationships. I know the challenges that we are taking on are felt with urgency by everyone. The impatient side of me that wanted to jump right away into massive action was now witnessing a counter-side of me, of a more recent date, that can appreciate the power of moving slowly and attune itself to it.  

An example of that was the play element in the design: the walk in the woods, the treasure hunt and the collaborative game. I think that if we can enjoy playing together and being together, then our work together can have vitality. It was refreshing to see that Victoria and Leyla artfully introduced that in the design and that the rest of us played along and extended it beyond the formal design. My feeling is that we play well together so I’m confident that we will do great work together. I am also aware that it is going to be a long and slow process before we will see the fruits of this collaboration. We are just growing our roots.  

The need to be around old-time rebel doers  

20 - rebel doersMy realization was that in this moment in my journey, I need to be around long time rebel doers. Most of the times I feel like an old-timer: for 13 years I have been investing all my creative energy towards transforming higher education. And as they say, “its not the years in your life, but the life in your years”. So I discovered I highly cherish the time  around “rebel learning architects” that have been doing this specific kind of work for even longer, some for 20 or 30 years.  My gratitude for this insight goes especially to Liora, who took the time to have long conversations with me in the breaks. (Liora, if you read this: Thank you! I am coming to California for more :-) )

Many times I can’t even ask a specific question because I’m not seeking the explicit knowledge but the tacit one. The wisdom. I realized that I just need time around experienced learning architects to absorb their way of being and seeing the world. To catch the small differences that make a big difference, the insights and the very practical habits they have. So I found myself excited and challenged by the idea of us designing a learning environment for ourselves as learning architects. That could be a strong root for everything else.

The unstructure

21 - unstructureWhen we gave up the idea of building a website, it was like a relief. It was not shying away from work but more like an instinct shared by the group. A  suspicion that traditional infrastructure of a collaboration would be too heavy and energy draining. We want to be lighter and more fluid and use the energy we have in a more free and organic way. So, we won’t spend time to decide what is strategic. It will emerge from where we choose to put our energy. Each of us will choose a way to name it and #tag it. We won’t have a central page but we will write about this in a distributed way and make various aggregations and links. Our experimenting with the “Un-structure” is one of the most exciting things to participate in, for me. Especially so as I feel it is in the direction of our instincts, right on the edge of what we know. 

Now what?

What this global group of alternative universities will do next is an interesting question. I know Manish is reminding me to translate a clip for the Ecoversities Film Festival. Udi is preparing the next Ecoversities meeting. Johannes started the mutual currency workgroup. A few of us are playing with an open badge for a recent learning journey we took. As we choose to skip the project management approach, we will have to watch this “thing” emerging from our individual actions synchronized in an uncentralized way. What is clear is that it is alive and it grows. So I invite you to leave a comment below answering the question “Now what?” or just share anything you like. As an example, here are two individual to do lists:

Traian's list:

a) research each project and ask for a visit or an interview for #breakfreebook;

b) online facilitation: enliven the space for online conversation in a way that it blends nicely with our offline meetings;

c) kick off a small, “low hanging fruit”, exchange program: with energy of writing a few emails help something like 10 people from the Alternative University travel to other places in the network and recieve 10 to spend some time in Bucharest with us; connect it with the Learning Journey and the UNA currency prototypes.

Victoria's list:

a) identifying and asking for specific mentoring from the participants that may help me strengthen the processes in UMA for self-agency development and change experience (specifically, I would like to move learners from co-designing one big change-project during the program, to experiencing several smaller change projects that feed into a lighter design of a bigger project by the end of the program;

      b) find space for experimenting the learning process designs and practices that were shared;

c) incorporate into the design of the UMA degrees, the possibility for learners to spend time in any of the network organizations – strongly for the Bachelor’s Degree we are designing.

As a more broad outlook into the future, I know I will dedicate my energy to see universities reinvented on my watch. I believe it won’t be me, or a lone genius, or a Silicon Valley “unicorn” that can achieve that. I bet it will be a collective genius born from trust and friendship of many exceptional learning architects, like the ones gathered in Valle de Bravo. So I can gladly report that in this Symposium at the end of May, humanity made small but significant step towards having a collective genius that will create a new kind of university.

Ecoversities Radio

Crossing the mexican desert in a car, 10 learning architects and social activists form India, Germany, Mexico, Romania and Brazil have plenty of time to share life stories and ideas about learning and their communities. Manish hits the record button and takes the role of our radio show host, recording three episodes about (1) games and learning, (2) learning journeys and (3) storytelling. At the end of the playlist there is an older radio show about ecoversities recorded by School Without Borders.

@Radio with Ecoversities friends

The last 15 days I have been on the road, crossing Mexico from San Miguel de Allende to San Cristobal de las Casas. I stopped in Valle de Bravo at Universidad del Medio Ambiente for a gathering of around 20 learning architects, education disruptors and creators of universities. After the gathering, ten of us embarked on a ten day learning journey to three remarkable alternative universities. As we were getting closer to one of them (CESDER – Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo Rural) five of us stopped in the middle of nowhere, in a small village and we looked for a place with internet for an interview about our recently born Ecoversities Network. Meet my beautiful rebel friends …

  • Genaro from Mexico, co-founder of ISIA – Insituto Superior Intercultural Ayuuk
  • Manish from India, co-founder of Swaraj University
  • Udi from Brazil, co-founder of Enlivened Learning
  • and Victoria from Mexico, co-founder of Universidad del Medio Ambiente

and hear abour our collective explorations …

District China

It is -7 degrees Celsius in Beijing. I am tired from the 21-hour journey. When I get out at the Dongzhimen station, it feels like -50. I take a guess and go right. I can be under a warm blanket in 20 min. I pray to get this right! Just like Google Maps, God does not work in China. When I get to the hostel 40 minutes later, I can’t even articulate words. Cold was the first discomfort in China, but not the last.

Hello China!1-selfie-china

The hostel had seven malls in its neighbourhood, and malls and coffeehouses is all I visited in my first six days. Gloria Jeans was my favourite.

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I spent my first days in the company of this nicely designed laptop by the chinese brand Lenovo

51rR2rp4-jL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_After six days of self-confinement in front of the laptop, I hit publish and go explore. I was not going to visit any organization here. For now, the thirty I visited in the US are enough. I decide to reverse the pattern and spend some time alone, reading, writing and reflecting. It is time to dive into my quest for the big picture. Out of the three intentions that I have for this year-long journey around the world, the “big picture” got no attention yet. I picked a book that would give me an overview of the country: Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today, How It Got Here and Where It Is heading. I was roaming the streets with the kindle in my pocket, weaving the narrative of the book with my observations and the conversations I had with both expats and chinese people.

When I got to Tiananmen Square area, in the center of Beijing, I knew that was the place. It will serve as a background for my reading about China and my reflection beyond. I am the opposite of the tourist with a list. When I find one place that inspires something in me, I will not go see the next one. Instead, I prefer to go back and spend more time there. I read about it, I absorb its details and use it as a spark to reflect and imagine – the people, the context, the ideas, the meaning.

I spent half of day in the National Museum of China, visiting the permanent gallery about China’s history from ancient times to the last emperor.IMG_20151204_141200

Then I went to see the Road to Rejuvenation, explaining the last century when chinese people finally emerged victorious after a century of “semi-colonialism and humiliation”. The Communist Party of China was responsible.IMG_20151204_161417

I skipped the Great Wall for going back the second day and the third day to Tiananmen to have long walks and spend time reading in the museum. The grandiose building feels appropriate to host hundreds of thousands of years of human history. The time at the museum was the most inspiring and meaningful for my bigger quest.

Although I did not visit the Great Wall, I experienced equally impressive walls: the great firewall that I endured for 6 days before installing a VPN and the language barrier that was significantly higher that in any other country. Finding vegetarian food was a treasure hunt.IMG_20151129_185809 (1)

Going back from Tiananmen Square to my hostel, I was walking with my head at 45 degrees up and wondered at one building after another. They were mostly headquarters of banks I never heard of. The buildings and the infrastructure are impressive. The huge screens in the malls and on the street, the metro, the airports, the bridges. It seems “bigger and shinier”.

Sometimes, I used the subway to go back. After visiting India, I expected to see many people dressed in some kind of chinese distinct style, wearing the equivalent of sari, salwar, kurta or dastar. Everybody was wearing stylish western clothes. I also expected lots of poor people. Everybody had huge smartphones and used them intensely. The China I experienced in the subway seems to have embraced the material culture of the west to the full.

“There is a new religion in China: it is called Money” – my hungarian roomie Andras used to repeat often as a conclusion to his stories and examples. He works in the beauty industry, himself concentrating on making money. Other expats told me that they feel the influence to become more “pragmatic”. The myth goes that it is not uncommon for a girl to ask a guy on their first date how much money he makes and what car he’s driving. Maybe that story is exaggerated, but China surely feels materialistic.

Energized by this new religion, coordinated by the Communist party, China moves at an impressive speed and scale. Looking through one gigantic bridge in Shanghai, you can see the cranes with the smog in the background. I took this picture as a metaphor to hold about China. In economic terms, you feel this is where the action is. There are many reports of corner cutting but they sure move fast.

The masks that many people wear in Beijing bear testimony that there is a price to be paid for the speed. As the Paris Climate Summit was underway, I witnessed this apocalyptic sky. The picture does not capture the intense yellow that made it even spookier.smogy day

The smog and the masks, the luxury, the huge screens, the smartphones, the impressive buildings and the censorship remind me in many ways of the science-fiction dystopias from  Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World or Hunger Games.IMG_20151214_235158

The Communist Party of China is ruling this mammoth of a country without the show of free elections. They use a different story and that also works. They use force more brutally to protect their power. The control of the media is not so sophisticated. But beyond the elements of style, the essence seems to me the same in China as in Romania or US: people accept the power system, suffer from it and get on with their lives. They make the most of playing in the game whose rules are not of their making. Sometimes they fight back but they do it inside the game. The rules of power don’t get touched. Normal people get the scraps. The game is rigged. Like in a casino, the house always wins.

China was a revealing mirror to look into as a world citizen. It lacks the sophisticated cosmetics that dress up the “development model” sold to or imposed on humanity by the West. China embraces this model and pushes it to its limits. Here you can see the absurdity of sacrificing the environment, people’s health and social justice for greedy growth. They don’t use the democracy story so it becomes clear that whatever the story – the power asymmetry is the same. Looking from China district, the whole world resembles the Panem dystopia.

Before getting depressed about world’s current politics and power distribution, I will take another step back to look at humanity’s trajectory over time. You can read about that in my next article: Big History (coming soon).

Peace, Love & Ice Cream – 3 weeks in United States

“So you want to fly to US from India and return to China?” asked Ms Vlaicu when she finally reached me in India. She has been trying for two weeks. “And we have only two weeks for the visa … I doubt it is possible, but we can try if you want.”

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Peace, love and ice cream – the synthesis of my 3 weeks in U.S.

I got the US Visa in New Delhi, just 1 day before my flight to Washington DC. I offered my 3kg Toshiba laptop as a gift, just before leaving to the New Delhi airport. Without it, my backpack weighted only 9kg. The clothes I carried were for hot weather and informal and all of them were dirty. I badly needed a haircut. I slept on the floor the last night in New Delhi and it was cold. Thirty eight hours have passed since I woke up and I was about to finally lay down. For the past three months I slept in a tent, in a 8 bed dorm without AC, in a few buses and even on a rooftop. The gigantic bed and the room only for myself were the most welcomed indulgences.

Feeling slightly out of place, dizzy from the timezone difference and in awe that I eventually made it there, the IVLP adventure was about to start on me, and I was trying to catch up.

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For 30 years they are protesting non stop in front of the White House

IVLP stands for International Visitor Leadership Program and it is “the premier professional exchange program” of the US department of State. They pride with Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or Romano Prodi and other 334 current and former chiefs of state and heads of government who have participated in IVLP. You can’t even apply to the program. The U.S. Embassies handpick candidates and nominate them to Washington where the U.S. Department of State selects the lucky few they invite. Close to 5000 people considered “emerging young leaders” in their countries visit U.S. yearly on different topics. IVLP has been running for 75 years.

Fourteen of us got the invitation for “IVLP Changemakers – the impact of social entrepreneurship in U.S.” and since I saw the list, I was impatient to meet them. Gradually they would reveal themselves to be amazing people, charming characters and excellent professionals. Like Iongwa would joke: “true great leaders”. And from colleagues they became friends. Like a tune you hum in your head, I still hear the introductions we used to make 2-3 times per day, each one in a strong signature accent:
Hi, I am Karla Gradilla from Mexico …
I am Khalid from Oman …
I am Sophie from Greece
I am Annina from Switzerland
I am Ruben from Armenia
I am Iongwa Mashangao from Democratic Republic of Congo
Yeah, Hi, I am Mya Mio Chel from Myanmar
I am Nda from Zimbabwe
I am Surath Giri from Nepal
I am Carlos from Portugal
I am Shereen from Egypt
I am Dukencia from Haiti
I am Onur from Turkey

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“true great leaders and future presidents” – Iongwa Mashangao

Sometimes Virgil and Minnie introduced themselves. They were the awesome team accompanying us from the beginning to the end, translating cultural differences, explaining, telling stories and helping us to put the meetings into a larger context. I think Virgil was also in charge with the jokes … he never missed an opportunity :-).

In the following three weeks, the 16 of us participated in countless meetings, we went to a symphony, to the cinema,  we drank and cooked together, we watched a movie, shopped, danced, had dinner in american houses and much more. But more often than anything else, we attended meetings.

We started by spending 6 days in Washington DC. There we visited Department of State, we got familiar with federal structure of United States but we also met local organizations. Half of us moved to Vermont to experience the tiny green state in the north that has undergone a spectacular transformation in the past 30 years. Although our group won the “plane is too heavy, someone needs to get off” lottery, we reunited a day later with the other half of the group in Kansas City. While some know it for the barbecue, Kansas seems to be a rising star in entrepreneurship friendliness and the home of the famous entrepreneurship focused Kauffman Foundation. While walking on the streets in a weekend, Kansas City reminded me of a ghost town, but in accelerators like Sprint and Think Big Partners, we met with a vibrant entrepreneurship community. We ended our program on the west coast, in the charming Seattle, home of Bill Gates, the inspiration for The Jetsons and the headquarters of at least 3 empires: Microsoft, Starbucks and Amazon. Here we fed our cultural appetite by going to both a symphony, but also queuing up for the opening of The Mockingjay part 2. The nostalgia was already present when we closed the program in the majestic Seattle Public Library – in the morning of 21st of November. Later that day we went for a cruise and had our last dinner together.

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In this three-week tour we met more than 30 organizations. Most of them are on the list below, in a chronological order. I have combined descriptions I found online with my memory and notes. Just a few times I added my reflections or comments. So, the list:

US Department of State – Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs ” works to build friendly, peaceful relations between the people of the United States and the people of other countries through academic, cultural, sports, and professional exchanges.” IVLP is one of the programs they implement for this purpose.

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Photo by Karla

World Learning is an 80-years-old organization working in 60 countries. It started in 1932 with the Experiment in International Living when 23 students from New York went to live in Germany, paired with local host families. Our IVLP program was organized by World Learning. The 14 of us were among the 2000 people they receive on behalf of the US Department of State annually.

Beeck Center for Social Innovation at Georgetown University is a fresh organization launched in February 2014 with a 10 mil $ gift from the Beecks – a family who’s two children study at Georgetown. The fresh new center is lead by Sonal Shah and Marta Urquilla, coming from outside the academia with an impressive track record in Obama Administration – Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. The center “strives to amplify existing initiatives, ignite new ones, and drive creative and critical thinking on issues related to social impact and innovation.” They “actively promote policy-relevant, cross-disciplinary approaches to research, ideas, and action”. It seems that its popularity is rising in Georgetown campus and I bet they will produce important work in the policy arena.

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U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs (EB/CBA) coordinates the Entrepreneurship EffortsDr. Vanessa Beary, who serves as the Senior Advisor on Youth Entrepreneurship presented the work of the department. Among other initiatives, EB/CBA organizes Global Entrepreneurship Summit, an event that gathers thousands of participants. Last year it was organized in Kenya and in 2016 will be back in U.S., in Silicon Valley.

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Photo by Karla

Busboys and Poets is basically a restaurant while also being “a space for art, culture and politics to intentionally collide” They believe that “by creating such a space we can inspire social change and begin to transform our community and the world.” We had an introduction to  the U.S. federal system and we got to meet the owner and got more insights about how they operate. Details like the small bookstore, the events they were organizing and the leaflets at the door were indicating that the place is boiling with debate and it really is a hub for discussion and social change.

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Photo by Karla

Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship designs entrepreneurship curriculum for schools and works with teachers and schools to deliver it in one-year courses or in a three-week intensive program. They also complement with a national business plan competition.

1776 – “Where the revolutions begin” – is a global incubator and seed fund helping startups transform industries that impact millions of lives every day—education, energy & sustainability, health, transportation and cities. It looked like a hub/co-working space but they seemed to have a powerful network of partners including  local authorities, big companies and local universities.

SCORE Association was previously known as the Service Corps of Retired Executives, but is now “Counselors to America’s Small Business”. It provides free business mentoring services to entrepreneurs in the United States, by both active and retired business executives and entrepreneurs who donate their time.

Community Forklift is a Non Profit Reuse Center. It means that they receive donations of different construction materials, furniture and appliances and they resale them. In their words: “We pick up donations of unwanted and salvaged building materials throughout the metro DC region. Then, we make the building materials available to the public at low cost, and provide vintage materials for restoring old homes.  We also offer public education about reuse, and distribute free supplies to local nonprofits and neighbors in need.” It is a powerful place driven by a passionate and creative team. In terms of organizations with a soul, it really stands out.

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Halycon Incubator’s exceptional feature is an incredible mansion in Washington D.C where the lucky social entrepreneurs can live and work from for 5 months, while they also receive a 10.000$ stipend. This article has the full story.

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Photo by Karla

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Dog Tag Bakery
In their words: “From the early hours of each morning, our bakery is mixing up batches of handmade baked goods while providing valuable work experience for disabled veterans and caregivers. The Dog Tag work-study program combines education with the experience necessary for our vets to succeed post duty as civilians.”

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Ashoka – is a behemot and an icon when it comes to social entrepreneurship. “Ashoka is the largest network of social entrepreneurs worldwide, with nearly 3,000 Ashoka Fellows in 70 countries putting their system changing ideas into practice on a global scale.”. I like the way they matured and how their current mission goes to the essence.

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Team Vermont
Vermont is the home of Ben & Jerry Ice Cream, Burton Snowboards and the progressive candidate Bernie Sanders. Our first meeting in Vermont was with four people: Tom Torti , president of Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, Karen Paul , counselor in Burlington City Council, Emily Piper – co-founder of LaunchVT Competition and Bruce Seifer – a local activist and co-author of a book about Vermont’s impressing success story. Bruce – a veteran that got involved when Bernie Sanders got elected in 1981 – is said to be also the co-author of Vermont’s success.

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Photo by Karla

Vermont is using 100% renewable energy, Burlington regularly shows up in rankings of the healthiest, happiest, best place to raise a family cities and, to really impress me, they also have Vermont Employee Ownership Center that helps regular businesses convert into coops. An example is the case of New School of Montpelier which became the largest cooperative in Vermont after converting. This is just one example of progressive thought in action. In explaining their success, one of the ingredients I picked up is that, being a small community, they were able to turn a culture of competitiveness into a climate of collaboration. Burlington’s success seems to be the result of having a long term vision that was consistently followed. Their recent development plan is a beautiful magazine that resulted from a long process of consultations. It was a good example of how they co-create the long long term vision of the city.

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Middlebury College
Middlebury College is a private liberal arts college founded in 1800. It is one of the oldest liberal arts colleges in the United States, one of the highest ranked (#4 in US on this list) and also one of the most expensive (you need 62.000$/year to study there). In total, 2526 undergraduates from 50 states and 74 countries study there and choose from 44 majors in the arts, humanities, literature, foreign languages, social sciences, and natural sciences. The daughter of Jeff Bezos is rumored to study there, probably being among the 50% that don’t have a scholarship.

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We met with Tiffany Nourse Sargent – Director, Community Engagement Center and John Isham and Mustafa Babak from the Center for Social Entrepreneurship. The two centers aim to prepare students for lives of meaning and impact. The work of the two centers is connected and hosted by the same cozy house. The CSE is at its begining, but already has some big names as partners. They organized a fellowship for 6 people, a summer internship abroad in social enterprises and they give small grants for summer projects initiated by students. Their work is mentioned in this article. You can also hear John Isham reflect on the first year experience.

Ben & Jerry’s – the activist and fun company
Ben & Jerry’s competes with Haagen Dasz in the super premium ice cream category. If you go on their website, first thing you see is “We’re on the ground at COP21 in Paris bringing you daily updates from the movement and breakdowns on negotiations.” You can see and feel the legacy of Ben&Jerry having fun and being activists, everywhere in the factory we visited. They proud themselves of being a company “founded by two hippies”. In their history you would find them scooping free ice-cream at Occupy protests in New York, being pioneers in fair trade or protesting oil drilling in Alaska. In 2000 they have been acquired by Unilever but they say that “through a unique acquisition agreement, an independent Board of Directors is created to provide leadership focused on preserving and expanding Ben & Jerry’s social mission, brand integrity, and product quality.”

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My 2 cents: they seem to be for real, a company with a soul. I would guess their are struggling to keep their DNA inside Unilever but I just love the idea that an ice-cream company would have the balls to campaign, for example, for money out of politics. After visiting them, Ben&Jerry has become one of my favorite companies. And if they don’t live up to that awesome image they are projecting, that image will still inform my vision about how a company can be a fun-to-be-around, engaged citizen.

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New Farms for New Americans
“New Farms for New Americans (NFNA) mission is to help refugees grow more of their own food that is fresh, culturally appropriate and free from harmful chemicals, while also recognizing the social, psychological and physical benefits associated with gardening. NFNA currently works with participants from Vietnam, Burma, Bhutan, Congo, Burundi and Somalia.”

We visited one of the farms where they were raising goats, chickens and cultivating vegetables. I find it to be a lovely project, brilliantly adapted to the local context. It is serving at the same time the market that exists, the cultural traditions of refugees, conserves the land, builds community and helps refugees integrate and provide for themselves both healthy food and self-esteem.

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Photo by Karla

TEDx KC Team, hosted by VML is a volunteer team that organizes one of the biggest TEDx Events in the world. They have 3000 people attending and several talks end up having millions of views on TED global website. VML is a huge creative agency headquartered in an old airport. Their offices look great. Even though I am familiar with TED and TEDx events, I was inspired by the story of this team. You could see the passion they put into organizing the event and the local impact and global resonance this has lead to. The experience reminded me that TED is not only a great source for content but also an impressive global undertaking worth studying for its astounding scaling model.

Sprint CSRSprint Accelerator
Kansas City is the home of Sprint. We met with the CSR team and also visited the Sprint Accelerator where a startup weekend event was taking place. The CSR team we met was in an interesting moment of transition, scaling back and embedding their successful “green” initiatives in the day-to-day operations and switching their focus to empowering youth through education. I will keep a close eye on their progress, as their track record with green initiatives suggest they will do a good job with this.

Photo by Karla

Startup Weekend KC was taking place right when we got there so we took part in the kickoff and then we went back to watch the final pitches. Global Entrepreneurship Week was starting right after that, so on Monday so we went to the Multicultural Business Happy Hour taking place at Think Big Partners – which is a hybrid combination of a technology focused accelerator, innovation center and coworking space. Just before heading to the airport to leave Kansas we dropped by UMKC Henry W. Bloch School of Management to listen to this year’s Regional Entrepreneur of the Year award recipient, Danny O’Neill, telling his story of how he turned his passion for good coffee into The Roasterie.

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Technology and Social Change Group at Washington University
The Technology & Social Change Group at the University of Washington Information School explores the design, use, and effects of information and communication technologies in communities facing social and economic challenges.

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Photo by Karla

Farestart
“FareStart is a culinary job training and placement program for homeless and disadvantaged individuals. Since 1992, FareStart has provided opportunities for over 7,500 people to transform their lives, while also serving over 6 million meals to disadvantaged people in our community.” Best cookies I had in US.

Tiffany McVeety, the author of Entrepreneurial Edge Small Business Tools delivered an workshop at Seattle Impact Hub. Being there gave me the opportunity to explore around and to briefly meet Michael Libes, founder of Fledge – a conscious company accelerator and proffesor of entrepreneurship at Pinchot University – a university committed to the common good, hosted by the same building. The third organization hosted there is Social Venture Partners. Partners in the SVP Network pool their funds and together they make multi-year, unrestricted gifts to carefully vetted nonprofit investees with proven potential for social change.

Photo by Karla

Photo by Karla

Gates Foundation gives grants totaling billions of dollars and it is considered very influential. They have an inspiring visitor center, one of the best interactive museum-like experiences I saw. I was surprised to hear that Gates Foundation hires 1200 people in Seattle. But I was most impressed by the activists campaigning for divestment of Gates Foundation 1,4 billion they have in fossil-fuel companies. They were campaigning daily for more than two months, with no success in getting at least a meeting with the foundation – so I admired their determination and questioned the Foundation’s attitude. I think they have a point and you can read more in this article

Photo by Karla

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After 23 days of sleeping in hotel rooms, for the last three days in U.S. I moved to a family in a residential area of Seattle. Charity – my host – happened to be an educational consultant, helping schools to implement project-based learning. Our breakfast and lunch conversations were a delightful and rich exchange of ideas and resources about progressive education – complementing Charity’s delicious cooking.

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During the 3 days left in Seattle, I reflected on the experience. Three weeks, spending quality time with 15 amazing people and visiting more than 30 organizations in four states.

The feeling I had was that social entrepreneurship is work in progress, helped (probably) by its trendy popularity. Many talk about it, many things are being labeled with this tag but when you strip it of this noise – it is a hard thing that few people/organizations achieve. It takes the courage, creativity and all other skills of entrepreneurship combined with the big heart and wisdom of someone that cares so deeply about an issue that sticks to it for years. We are looking for two rare things combined.

My specific interest is around nurturing social entrepreneurship in youth. My overarching question was: what are some architectures and experiences that successfully provoke and nurture social entrepreneurship in young people in their twenties. Middlebury’s CSE and Beeck Center were two places we visited where they had “hands on” experience, although a recent one. Sprint CSR team was just starting to focus on that. AshokaU is bringing universities together around this question and will be the go-to place to explore further. Annina explained the nuts and bolts of her work and I got excited by Impact Hub Zurich’s Summerpreneurship architecture and the results they have so far. And Vermont was an inspiration in terms of how a larger ecosistem can help. Most of the other organizations and meetings had something to teach me, even if not directly related. There are pieces of solutions scattered in US and around the globe and there are also people scattered around the globe, trying to complete their puzzles.

I had a pronounced interest in how they think about youth’s relationship with authority. All the people and places I interacted with seem to have the same blind spot I usually encounter. They don’t seem to give much thought to it. Everywhere I look I see us paying an enormous tribute to our current mental models, commissioning our schools, universities and most non-formal projects to pass them on. And of course our thinking patterns come with the same patterns of action/inaction attached.12248041_10153366680373031_1034520070653947464_o

The universities are busy asking the questions for students. The teachers and administrators are active and the students passive. The young of our planet are busy playing the grades game that university designs for them. In relation to knowledge and wisdom, students are disempowered. They don’t get to ask the “naive questions”. They don’t get to explore the world on their terms – the world is being presented to them and interpreted for them. And maybe this world of ours is sometimes a mess because existing generations failed to find and adopt different patterns of thought and action. But we are busy passing the existing patterns further, robbing the young spirits of their essential role in a human society – to question the status-quo, to rebel and ultimately to refresh human society with new thinking-and-doing. The good stuff of past generations will be rediscovered but it needs to be challenged first so it can reveal its relevance and value. A debate in a university course is as good as it gets. But if you are sitting in a course, the big questions have been asked already. The rules and boundaries have been set and the basic assumptions about what is a valuable use of your time and focus are embedded.

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As a social entrepreneur, I find that the hardest-to-win battle is with the existing mental models. I think we badly need young people to become social entrepreneurs, the type that challenge the ideas we have about happiness, lifestyle, work, good thinking, research, truth, consumption, ownership, media, trust, security, impact, justice, collaboration and many others. For doing that, I think they need spaces where they have the power as individuals to determine their goals and their use of time and also as groups to self-organize. I tried to read between the lines the willingness to accept an inverted power dynamic between the young generation and the one in power. Most likely it is unrealistic in the whole of society but I am inclined to think it should be the norm in learning environments. And if not in all learning environments, at least where we hope to nurture social entrepreneurship.

There was little time for an in depth conversation about this specific topic, so I am only making a guess that the places I visited are not actively thinking about this. They might be doing it in a way that is not self-evident in a short visit. Either way, it is a conversation I will try to have with some of the people involved in social entrepreneurship education.

This is just one of the many reflection points that our visit to US enabled. I have a long list of follow-ups and hopes of staying connected. I leave U.S. with a different representation of it, embodied by the real people I met and the places I visited. It is a great country after all because of its normal people, in spite of the questions I have about the actions of its politicians. This time, for me, U.S. was about Peace, Love & Ice Cream. The general environment was peaceful in every way, starting with the general politeness and the smiles as a norm. It was peaceful for me as a personal experience, having everything organized in contrast with being in the chaotic India, on your own, for 6 weeks. The places we visited and my awesome colleagues were full of love for people and the environment. Our group was full of love of life. Social entrepreneurship seems to be fueled by love. And Ice Cream – because I indulged myself in ice cream and milkshakes while the whole group was savoring the rich and comfortable material life in US.

Peace, Love & Ice Cream … this would be a good name for the flavor of this three-week journey to U.S. 

 

It has been an awesome experience for which am grateful to Ms. Gabriela Paleru, Ms. Stephanie Boscaino, Ms. Cornelia Vlaicu, Ms Geetha Rajagopal, Mr. JP Das, and Mr Scott Van Alstine, Amy and Allie, my thirteen awesome colleagues that became my friends (a.k.a “great true leaders and future presidents”) and the amazing Minnie and Virgil, and to all the people that invested their time to meet us and share their experience, and especially to Dave and Lynna and to the Massell family for inviting us into their homes.

To all of you, a wholehearted virtual hug from Beijing!