2021: The Year of Youth Changemakers?!

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

Image © Reuters

January in schools has always served as more of an exclamation point than a period. This year in particular, I found myself ending more sentences with the often misused texting combo of a question mark and an exclamation point: did we survive 2020?! How many more times will someone say “unprecedented” before we have to question the definition of that word?! Are children and teachers and parents okay?! It was with this heightened questioning state that I tuned into the 2021 Inauguration. From Bernie’s mittens to Michelle Obama and George Bush’s special bond to Lady Gaga’s outfit to hearing the words “Madam Vice President” ring in our ears, there was no shortage of noteworthy moments. But the exclamation (no question mark) of the day came from Amanda Gorman, our nation’s youngest inaugural poet laureate. Her provocation, “we will not march back to what was but move to what shall be” is the exclamation mark of 2021 we all needed and the inspiration that changemakers around the world will likely remember and recite for years to come. Amanda Gorman is an example of a changemaker I love teaching about because she uses her talent, her unique perspective on the world, and her thoughtful composition of language to do something about what matters most to her.  

The case for a clear definition of the term “changemaker” has been discussed heavily in the field of social entrepreneurship. Ashoka defines a changemaker as “one who desires change in the world, and by gathering knowledge and resources, makes that change happen.” According to Ashoka founder, Bill Drayton, “changemakers are tenacious about the greater good.” In a recent New York Times article, Drayton stated that “changemakers are people who can see the patterns around them, identify the problems in any situation, figure out ways to solve the problem, organize fluid teams, lead collective action and then continually adapt as situations change.”  

At the Scott Center, we use “changemaker” to represent the individual: people who are committed to advancing the common good, wherever they work – locally and globally, across nonprofits, foundations, community groups, social movements, research communities, and businesses. Social entrepreneurship education is therefore the discipline that creates a pedagogical approach to develop the skillset to be a changemaker and challenge the systems that perpetuate injustice for people and the planet. As we deepen our leadership in this work, we continue to evolve our definition of the term. We not only draw on existing definitions like Drayton’s (and even the Merriam Webster one!); we also draw on the work of the students and colleagues around us, constantly re-imagining all that the term can encompass. Over the past several years, my observations and research have led me to the following list. 

A changemaker is one who: 

  • imagines endless possibilities
  • applies a transdisciplinary mindset to better understand complex problems 
  • challenges systems of injustice
  • maintains a sense of curiosity amidst challenges, uncertainty, and failure
  • commits to taking action
  • is ambitious in doing what is good for the world
  • builds and maintains important partnerships
  • communicates with clarity and conviction
  • lives in a state of wonder and awe of the world
  • is honest about power imbalances

Just as there are 293 ways to make change for a dollar, there are likely just as many (probably many more!) ways to be a changemaker (and sometimes we learn the most from listening to our youngest learners who are very clear on what is fair and kind). Social entrepreneurship education, therefore, is not a single unit, a single lesson on MLK Jr. Day, nor a one-off elective. It is a tying together and deepening of core academic disciplines and complex real-world problem solving and an amplification of what it means to reach beyond. It’s in line with our methodology at Hillbrook for teaching making and DEIJ work: as both a skillset and an integrated undercurrent of the learning experience. It is infinite and audacious and propels the never-ending pursuit “to see the world as it is, imagine what it might be, and partner with our communities to realize long-term impact for people and the planet.” This type of learning pushes students to live school symbiotically with how they live life, often inspired by examples of young changemakers such as Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Lucy Cooke, Patrick Mahomes, Naomi Osaka, Jazz Jennings, Malala Yousafazi, Leah Thomas, Greta Thunberg, and Amanda Gorman. 

In this self-proclaimed YEAR OF YOUTH CHANGEMAKERS?! there is so much to be hopeful about and so many questions that remain. We are inspired that the work we do at the Scott Center and Hillbrook School was powerfully reinforced in Poet Laureate Gorman’s final words: “there is always light if only we are brave enough to see it, if only we are brave enough to BE it.” We hope you will continue to join us on our journey of helping learners of all ages see and be the light.