Action and Agency

by Annie Makela, Founding Director of the Scott Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Hillbrook School

From pediatric cancer to climate change, from racial justice to homelessness and foster care, from small business support to pandemic recovery response, young people care deeply about a wide range of timely and vital issues. In our work at the Scott Center, my favorite moments happen when students feel compelled to transform ideas into the actions needed to make a tangible impact in their communities.

When we launched the Scott Center four years ago, Social Entrepreneurship Education was a new concept — and Hillbrook was the very first school in the world of K-12 education to teach social entrepreneurship across the JK-8th grade experience. As pedagogical pioneers, we knew it would be critical to give learners of all ages concrete ways to engage in this subject. So we turned to the Scott Center’s Six Pillars to guide our work and shape our curriculum. These pillars — also called ‘learning lenses’ — help us ground our work in real-life experience, both on and off campus. In addition, they create space for evolving traditional ways of conducting service learning and community engagement.

While we continue to live and breathe the entrepreneurial experience — advancing the work of the Center at Hillbrook and beyond — we are ecstatic that the initial questions we received, such as “Why would you teach entrepreneurship to four year olds?” and “Do you just want every child to start a lemonade stand?” have turned into “Can you help me bring this curriculum to our Lower School? What does it look like to grade social impact projects at your school? How do you help parents see the power of this kind of education when it likely wasn’t a part of their school experience 30 years ago, in the same way that Math, English, Science, and History were familiar learning concepts?”

Two to three times a week I receive an email from an alumnus who shares how their experience with the Scott Center has influenced a project, enabled a collaboration, or created a sustained desire to make a difference in the world. I am proud to say that word of our work continues to spread. Last year alone we shared resources and curriculum with over 100 educators around the world — and, in turn, they have shared their knowledge with us. We have also conducted conversations and interviews with over 500 social entrepreneurs and social impact leaders across diverse industries; what we have learned from them is both profound and affirming: Building an entrepreneurial mindset that is rooted in creative problem solving and imaginative thinking is a skill that extends far beyond the day-to-day classroom experience. Social Entrepreneurship Education represents the intersectionality of action and agency.  

As an ode to October, this month our focus is on the pillar of Civics. Lessons on civic engagement allow children to bring their own interests and passions to the table as they  advocate for the change they want to see in the world. We guide our Civics study of social entrepreneurship by asking a single question: What communities will I be part of this year and what is my role in those communities?

Hillbrook’s Head of School, Mark Silver, frames this idea perfectly, saying:

“In this time of intense partisan division and amidst a growing sense that we are not able to bridge the divides in our country, we are committed to teaching children how to engage in civic discourse, to help them learn how to listen with empathy, to be more curious than certain, and to stand up for their beliefs while still allowing for multiple perspectives on the complex issues that face our society today.”

As we continue to deepen our learning about the intersection of civics and entrepreneurship, we have found the following principles to be helpful when working with both children and adults. If you implement them, I would love to hear feedback about your experience.

1. Focus on community and relationship building. We want good things for our community and our planet. As educators, parents, social impact leaders, and engaged citizens, we must elevate and amplify the voices of students no matter their age. My favorite thing about Social Entrepreneurship Education is that it removes traditional teacher/student power dynamics and puts us in a space as co-learners, helping students and adults alike build agency, creative confidence, and excellent communication and negotiation skills.

2. We can all benefit from learning how to have better arguments. This starts in classrooms and around the dinner table. Thanks to my former colleague at the Aspen Institute, Eric Liu, I have learned to think positively about the word “argument.” Eric founded the Better Arguments Project, which, in the organization’s words, “is a national civic initiative created to help bridge divides — not by papering over them but by teaching Americans how to have Better Arguments. We believe the more we can equip communities to have arguments rooted both in history and in best practices of constructive communication, the healthier our country will be.”

3. “Action is the antidote to despair.”  I was recently reminded of this quotation by Shannon Hunt-Scott and have returned to it many times over the past eight months. In our Reach Beyond program at Hillbrook, the middle school experience this Fall has been focused on the 2020 election and committing ourselves to being an anti-racist school community. We talk often and openly about the intersectionality of the work of the Scott Center with our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work. We are inspired by the framework of the organizational resource Teaching Tolerance, which calls upon the standards of identity, diversity, justice, and action. Together with Teaching Tolerance, the Scott Center recognizes that students in today’s diverse classrooms need knowledge and skills related to both prejudice reduction and collective action.

4. Consistently return to our core questions at the Scott Center: What matters to you and what are you doing about it? These questions have helped me navigate the most difficult conversations and decisions not only in 2020, but in many complex moments in my life. I love these questions because they take winning off the table and make space for learners to sit together (in person or virtually) and experiment with ideas and language. They allow children to build the critical skills of imaginative thinking, creative curiosity, vulnerability, and humble expertise. As one of our core Civics lessons, students researched campaign finance and the creation of PACs and Super PACs. Fundraising and philanthropy in politics is a powerful force and one students are eager to better understand. Our lesson revolved around understanding that candidates align fundraising goals with pillars of their campaign. Imagine you are running for CA Senate. What three or four platforms would be most important to you?

5. Imagine what might be…! In our last class of the newly designed 6th grade Equity and Impact course, students embarked on a final reflection in which they used the Scott Center vision to think about how their understanding of their own and others’ identities created an opportunity not only to see what was happening in the world, but more importantly to imagine what a more just, equitable, clean world might look like. It won’t surprise most of us who know the power of youth that their voice, agency, and vision for a better world far outweighs their despair about what is happening in this moment. One student shared, “I have never been more thankful for technology, for doctors and nurses, and for my school. I remember my parents saying education is a privilege and all I can think about is wanting a world in which everyone gets to go to school all the time. And hopefully it could be a school like Hillbrook.” It was a beautiful and heartbreaking reminder of the ways in which inequity, tragedy, and uncertainty also ground us in what matters most to communities. “Who would you partner with to make it possible for everyone to go to school here in Santa Clara County?” I asked the student. “Tech companies, the government, I probably would need to find some good investors who have the same imagination as me. Oh, and I would want to partner with all my teachers! Because everyone deserves to have great teachers.”

The power of the work we do at the Scott Center continues to amaze me. We are committed to seeing beauty in uncertainty and ambiguity — and to chop up, rearrange, take apart, smooth, and put back together our old ideas and beliefs in new and more meaningful and useful ways. Every day we work alongside students, engaging and respecting them as co-designers and co-conspirators, together making the world a better place. When we make space for such action and attitudes in school, it always goes to prove the truth that young people’s imaginative capital is among the most powerful resources in today’s world.

In preparing for many of our lessons on the social entrepreneurship lenses of Civics and Agency, I referenced and used the following non-partisan resources that I hope you will check out and share.

Better Arguments Project

A Starting Point

Close Up

Facing History and Ourselves

Hope Through History

Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves