By Ebony Lambert, National Comprehensive Center
Throughout their 30+ year history of innovation, Big Thought has become a national model in arts education, Out of School Time systems, summer learning, and juvenile justice intervention. Now they’re one of six community partnerships in the U.S. helping scale national best practices in Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). This summer, we talked with Byron Sanders, president and CEO of Big Thought, who spoke about the importance of tying student learning opportunities to the city’s key industries and why school districts should collaborate with community-based partners to build and deepen relationships with families.
What is Big Thought’s work and what are your team’s goals in the Dallas community?
Our whole north star is to build a world where all marginalized youth are equipped to imagine and create their best life and their best world. We’re all about youth agency, creativity, and social emotional development. As you can imagine, one of the primary spaces where that really comes alive is in OST, non-traditional learning spaces. We've been in this work for quite some time, and we’ve grown in scope and scale as a systems intermediary.
You don't do this work just for standardized tests. At Big Thought, we're about recalibrating what is actually important to the goal of education, and we have redefined that for ourselves. We developed what we call the Creator Archetype, which is the framework that we use to define the five domains of a 21st century-ready young person. We’ve worked to name these domains, and to think critically about how we have calibrated our human development systems to be able to be intentional about not just measuring the skills but also building that muscle. And now we're helping partners in our ecosystem map themselves to discrete skill sets and microcredentials underneath those five domains. So we started off with ‘hey, let's stop the summer slide,’ and now we’re building an architecture for what I call succession planning for a city.
What do you mean by “succession planning for a city”?
When you look around, certain cities and regions have opportunities that might be more prevalent than others, right? Take aviation in Dallas, for example. Knowing this, we as a city or region need to be pipelining young people by thinking about those opportunities very early on, and getting them early exposure to the industry. So when I say “succession planning for a city,” I’m talking about a city-wide strategy to map out the kinds of industry experiences that are out there for young people. This way, we have a heat map of experience deserts, and we can be really strategic with this data to make these plans come alive.
That’s amazing. How did you come to understand the needs in a community and craft programs and services to meet those needs? What was the process and how did you make sure you were hearing the voices of historically marginalized populations?
That’s the question. Once we came out of the hard COVID-19 lockdown last spring, the Centers for Disease Control said socially distant programming would be possible for certain providers. But providers weren’t running to get back out there because they didn’t know what kind of capacity they needed to do that kind of programming. So we partnered with a number of other systems-level organizations to do a summer needs survey.
We didn't know how many folks were going to participate. But we got over 1,000 responses and we learned some really important information. We got there just by reaching out to the families we've been serving for a long time, as well as community leaders. It was getting on the phone and connecting with people. And at the time, this was a really interesting snapshot of what things were most important to people in our community.
Why do you think Big Thought’s approach was so successful?
Being both a programmer and an intermediary sets us up to have strong connections with families. Typically, when you find intermediaries who only do intermediary work, you sometimes have a hard time getting to that depth in the community. But because we also do programs we have those connections. If we didn't have this pre-existing ecosystem, it would have been very, very difficult to do.
What would you say to someone trying to do this work without this specific ecosystem at their disposal?
States and districts are trying to figure out what to do with these federal ESSER funds, right? Well, if they aren't critically thinking about how to help their communities build this kind of infrastructure or ecosystem right now, then there is a tremendous missed opportunity because we're not going to get these kinds of chances a lot. So that's the first thing that I would say to agency leaders: You need to be incentivizing your communities to help build the best approximation of these kinds of ecosystems. The bigger your city is, the more detailed your system needs to be. I know some people might have their plans, but they really need to set aside some funding and resources to invest in these ecosystems.
I would also say that we have to find a mechanism that allows for two-way collaboration with organizations that are most embedded in our communities. Most school districts don't have the capacity, or haven't funded the capacity, to nurture those relationships. But we lose a lot of information when we aren't connected to the community partners that are that trusted voice. So we should be investing in that connective tissue. If you don't have an intermediary, then invest enough within your school district for there to be people —warm-blooded human beings, not another email or text-based system —who are out there carrying the message about the resources and opportunities that are available. There's no other way around it.
It's about relationship building —collectively we're building communities, and it's needed more than ever.
Read the other blogs in this series: Intermediary Insights Series: Building Infrastructure for OST/ELO Ecosystems with Byron Sanders of Big Thought and How do Community Organizations Support COVID-19 Recovery Efforts? Introducing the Intermediary Insights Series