IMPACT

The Future Project How Two Young Social Entrepreneurs Are Trying To Close The Inspiration Gap In Schools

04/14/2015 10:09 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2015

The Future Project's co-founders, CEO Andrew Mangino and President Kanya Balakrishna, in their offices in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood.

When Andrew Mangino talks about the startup he co-founded, one that’s been hailed by boldface names ranging from spiritual guru Deepak Chopra to Special Olympics chairman Tim Shriver, he doesn’t describe any complex technology or app. He speaks in the same excited cadences of any Silicon Valley innovator, but his idea is about as low-tech as it gets. When he’s asked about how it all got started, he inevitably mentions three things: an internship, the ability to dream and a Bangladeshi-American high school student.

It was in the fall of 2009, just a few months after he graduated with a degree in politics from Yale, that Mangino signed up to be a mentor through his internship as a speechwriter in the office of Vice President Joe Biden. Organizers paired him with Saidur Sarkur, a junior at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C., who needed help applying to colleges.

The two were talking in the school’s hallway one day when Mangino posed a simple question to the teen, one he had often asked himself while growing up. It was a question he credited with propelling him to the top of his high school class, through the Ivy League and into the corridors of the nation’s capital.

“I said to him, ‘What’s your passion? What makes you excited?” Mangino, now 28, recently recalled. “He said he had never been asked that question before.”

As they spoke over a series of meetings at school and Starbucks, Mangino realized that engineering piqued Sarkur’s curiosity. The teen’s dream was to go to Bangladesh, where he'd been born, and to rebuild his community, which had been badly damaged from tsunamis and flooding.

Sarkur “was able to envision his future and what his education could lead him to," Mangino said. "He lit on fire."

The conversations with Sarkur would also prove pivotal for Mangino, who came from a very different background. A top-achieving student at Yale, he was the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper and would soon hold acceptance letters for a Marshall scholarship to Oxford and Yale Law School. Like many recent graduates, he was sorting out how he could find his place and do good in a messy world outside the manicured courtyards of campus.

Today, Sarkur is studying engineering at his dream school, the University of Maryland. And Mangino is still trying to light fires in the minds and hearts of young people -- only now he’s doing it on a much larger scale.

***

Four years ago, Mangino founded The Future Project with the aim of transforming students and schools by looking beyond the familiar measures of success. Instead of focusing only on school performance, graduation rates, college matriculation and job placement, Mangino wanted to get to what he saw as the root of the problem. Students don't have enough motivation, he says, and they lack belief in their own futures.

It’s not that the typical metrics aren’t important, Mangino says. But he strongly believes there's a lot more to success than grades and test scores. It's a conviction he developed while walking the hallways of Woodrow Wilson High School, speaking face-to-face with a young man whose potential couldn’t be fully rendered by numbers alone. The Future Project places mentors in schools -- usually people in their 20s and 30s -- to get students talking and thinking about how to achieve their dreams, big and small, short-term and long-term. The program's mentors refer to themselves as "Dream Directors," a title meant to signal that The Future Project’s ambitions begin in the school building but don't end there.

Dream Directors work full-time in schools but are hired, trained and paid by The Future Project, which recruits almost entirely from local communities. By design, most Dream Directors aren’t certified as teachers, though their salaries and benefits fall within the same range. Instead, they’re poets, musicians, scientists and engineers. Their jobs are financed by the millions of dollars The Future Project has raised from investment firms, foundations and individual donors.

Since launching in Washington, D.C., New York City and New Haven, Connecticut, in 2011, the organization has spread across seven American cities, including Philadelphia, San Francisco and, most recently, Detroit. It now has 70 employees and exists in more than 40 public schools. Nationally, there are 50 Dream Directors. A handful have titles like "Chief Dream Director" or "Movement Director," and are tasked with citywide, multischool initiatives.

Mangino knows that he and his growing cohort of Dream Directors are up against steep challenges. Any way you want to measure it, the United States' school system leaves much to be desired. Over the past decade, high school graduation and college matriculation rates have steadily increased, but 20 percent of American high schoolers still don’t graduate within four years. Statistically, poor, black and Hispanic students fare the worst. And at least part of the reason is that the standard curricula just aren't reaching kids. In a 2006 report from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 88 percent of dropouts said they'd had passing grades while they were in school, but almost half said they'd left because they were bored by their classes.

These are the issues that get Mangino out of bed in the morning. Many young people, he says, may know what they want to do in life, but don't believe they can achieve it. Mangino and the Dream Directors want to change that, one student at a time.

TrueHaven
During TrueHaven, students from eight schools came together to pitch and workshop their Future Projects.

Bryce Goldson is one such student. He’s not your typical 18-year-old. In addition to being a junior at Riverside High School in New Haven, he works 40 hours a week on the assembly line at a Schick razor factory 10 miles south of the city, and is the father of a 1-year-old daughter.

On a Saturday morning in early March, Goldson spent one of his rare days off at Hill Regional Career High School for TrueHaven, a boisterous work-and-play festival organized by local leaders of The Future Project.

Gathered in the cafeteria with about 70 teens from various southern Connecticut schools, Goldson watched as small groups took the mic and presented their goals for the year. One group was organizing "The Word," a citywide poetry jam in April. Another group spoke about Take Over, an arts and volunteering festival to be held in May. The audience cheered each announcement, and the presentations were broken up by interludes of hip-hop dance-offs, including one to the Harlem Shake. Similar events have taken place or are being planned in other cities, like last year’s DreamCon -- a daylong gathering in Manhattan of 500 Future Project students and Dream Directors from across the country that had students attend panels on leadership and pitch their ideas to bystanders in Times Square. The aim of these events is two-pronged: to pump up teens about their collective work and abilities, and to get them following through on their ideas.

Later, in a classroom upstairs, Goldson described his own goal: starting a weekly support group for teenage dads at his school.

Bryce Goldson
While at TrueHaven, Future Project team member Bryce Goldson Instagrammed a photo of his 1-year-old daughter as part of an advertising campaign for the support group he's creating for teen fathers.

“I call it ‘Father-Hood,’” said Goldson, whose daughter, Ja'Loni, spends weekends with him in the apartment he shares with his mother and two sisters. “I want to help guys figure out how to take care of their kids, how to figure out and balance all the things you have to do as a dad.”

If it weren’t for The Future Project and a Dream Director named George Black, says Goldson, he wouldn’t be thinking this way. Black, a 28-year-old part-time church youth minister, recruited Goldson to his Dream Team a little less than two years ago. The 13 students at the core of the high school’s program convene twice a week after school in a colorful meeting room, plastered with inspirational quotes and posters of role models like Muhammad Ali and Dr. Seuss.

At each school, every Dreamer -- or Future Fellow, as they’re also called -- has to think of one or more Future Projects to accomplish during the year. Each week, they take small steps (“actions”) toward reaching those goals. There's a wide range of projects at Riverside: One trio of boys is forming a Japanese animation club, while two girls are creating a club to talk about female self-esteem. Another pair of students is planning a banquet to raise money for the homeless.

The actions vary, too, and many students draw on their tech skills and love of social media. That Saturday, Goldson created a hashtag to promote his support group. He posted it on Instagram under a photo of Ja’Loni. A student who wanted to make custom T-shirts created a design on an iPhone, while duo of budding rappers were talking about raising money on GoFundMe so they could tour. (Their account is here, for the curious.) Some Future Projects, and the steps that students take toward achieving them, might strike an outsider as modest. Yet Mangino and his fellow Future Project leaders insist that getting kids to work toward these goals is a bigger deal than it seems.

For Goldson -- who, at his mother’s urging, transferred from an expensive Catholic school to Riverside in order to save money after he learned he was going to be a father -- his own Dream Team is an unofficial version of the support group he wants to create.

“I get to be around people who tell me I’m a good father. You need to hear that,” he said. “They tell me I should talk about it to other people and share my story.”

While many teenage mothers and fathers end up dropping out of school, Goldson said he never considered leaving. An A-and-B student, he had his mom, his sisters and his coaches -- he’s in his third year as an outside linebacker at his old school’s football team -- to give him the support he needed. The biggest challenge, he found, was simply being open and proud about teen fatherhood.

Bryce Goldson
Goldson and his daughter, Ja'Loni.

“In the two years we’ve worked together, he’s a much more vulnerable guy. He’s much more comfortable about his life and struggles,” said Black, who often finds himself in one-on-one sessions with students between classes, at lunch and after school. Black mentioned that “a lot of our students are dealing with lots of issues at home,” like poverty, neighborhood violence or simply not having a way to get to school.

While Goldson was getting started on promoting the group at TrueHaven last month, another teen, Taylor Rogers, was making progress on her own Future Project.

Rogers, a senior at New Haven Academy who wants to go to nursing school, had waited three years to join her school’s Dream Team, one of the first in the country. One year, the extra college-credit courses she was taking after school were what kept her from the group. Other times, it was her part-time job, first at a day care center and now as an associate at Walgreens.

So this school year, when her mother told her to stop working weekdays and focus on school, she immediately decided The Future Project would be her new “job.” Her projects include creating a website where Dream Directors and students can share photos of their own projects and events, and thereby support each other and gain confidence and pride in their creations.

As she staged iPhone portraits of her friends to kick off her website's photo project, Rogers reflected on what being a part of The Future Project meant to her.

“I don’t have a lot of confidence in myself,” said Rogers, who has five siblings and who will, when she enrolls at Southern Connecticut State University, be the first girl in her family to go to college. “I just feel down on myself. But when I’m working and actually doing something to empower myself, that’s what motivates me.’”

Taylor Rogers
Taylor Rogers, right, snaps a photo of a fellow Dream Team member for her Future Project. Her goal is to create a website where Future Project participants from across the country can share their accomplishments.

On a recent afternoon at The Future Project's sparse, open-plan office in lower Manhattan, Mangino -- whose official title at the nonprofit is CEO -- spoke about what drives him.

“In the Great Depression, people used to store money under their mattresses. What we’re now facing in this country is a dream depression, where people store their dreams under their mattresses,” said Mangino, who wore a sky-blue The Future Project button on his lapel. More recently, he added, the Great Recession and its economic aftermath have made it even harder for young people to believe they can achieve the unexpected.

“The bigger picture is we have to inspire America to believe in itself again," said Mangino. "Anything is possible, but that spirit has dimmed.” He gestured toward the The Future Project's “wall of dreamers,” a series of dozens of photos of odds-defying role models. Among them were Steve Jobs, Mohandas Gandhi, Madonna and Jim Henson. Interspersed were pictures of Dream Directors and students.

The ideas behind The Future Project, and the language that employees use to describe them, may seem unusual, or even naïve. But Mangino, together with Future Project President Kanya Balakrishna -- the two are romantic as well as business partners -- say they are simply applying well-documented research from fields as varied as sociology, neuroscience, behavioral and developmental psychology and social emotional learning.

One of the best-known researchers they cite is Angela Duckworth, a 2013 MacArthur fellow and associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her studies on self-control and "grit" -- which she defines as the ability to maintain self-sustained interest in long-term goals -- are often cited by certain education reform proponents to emphasize the importance of character development in student success. The Future Project also gives a strong nod to renowned Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, whose theory of growth mindset says that “brains and talent are just the starting point,” not the end-all-be-all. Dweck is a proponent of the idea that dedication, resilience and hard work are what really lead to success and accomplishment. Both Duckworth and Dweck are among The Future Project’s advisers.

These ideas aren't without their critics. Some social scientists argue that passion and perseverance can only do so much to bring up a student's actual test scores. Others have asked how much a can-do attitude can really help disadvantaged students escape the cycle of systemic poverty. How much do race, class and other factors play a role in success? Statistically speaking, as Matt O'Brien recently noted at The Washington Post, “poor kids who do everything right don’t do much better than rich kids who do everything wrong.”

Still, there seems to be room for an approach like The Future Project's, one that puts an emphasis on building up students' internal resources. A 2013 Department of Education report noted that students were learning to “do school” but weren’t necessarily “developing the life skills to persevere in the face of the challenges they would face in the ‘real world.’”

Andrew Mangino
At The Future Project's New York office, a wall displays photos of inspirational figures and offers a map for the organization's expansion through 2050.

Becoming a social entrepreneur, or working in anything remotely related to education, was never the plan for Mangino. Growing up in West Caldwell, New Jersey, he had long dreamed of working in journalism, law or politics. Each was an established field, he says, where he could have an impact on society.

When he was 5 years old, he started putting out a neighborhood newsletter. It was a hobby he followed through high school and college, where he was editor-in-chief of the Yale Daily News. At Yale, reporting pushed Mangino off campus and into the community. He covered race and de facto segregation in the local schools, and reported on the heated civic debates over imposing a youth curfew after a spate of gang violence. There was no shortage of problems, but what stood out to him was the apparent apathy and lack of determination among kids just a few years his junior.

After graduation, he worked as a speechwriting intern at Vice President Biden's office and then full-time as a speechwriter for Attorney General Eric Holder. It was during the internship that he met Sarkur, the student who struggled to tell Mangino about his dreams.

Around this time, Mangino realized the professions that had once appealed to him no longer seemed to. He wanted to do something different. Indeed, the tides of his life seemed to be moving him in directions he hadn't expected.

As a freshman at Yale, Mangino had met Balakrishna, a staff writer for the paper. The two quickly became friends, and by their senior year the friendship blossomed into romance. Born in South Korea to Indian immigrants and largely raised in California and Tennessee, Balakrishna had always wanted to work in medicine. But like Mangino, she began to see other possibilities ahead. Her experience as the Daily News’ managing editor “totally changed me,” she said. “I started falling in love with something unexpected.”

Over late nights and early mornings at the Daily News office, they would reflect on how something as simple as storytelling could change their community. Was there a way, they wondered, for them to carry that beyond the confines of campus?

Later -- one year out of college, living together for the first time in Washington, D.C. -- they would sit over breakfast and dinner and continue thinking about the big questions of meaning and purpose. As two young people who were lucky enough to graduate from one of the world’s best universities and work prestigious jobs -- he as a speechwriter for Holder, she as a speechwriter for then-FDA Commissioner Peggy Hamburg -- they were keen on finding a way to give back and help others. Both were avid readers, and they would often share books. It was around then that Balakrishna gave Mangino a copy of David Bornstein’s How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas. He gave her Walter Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin, a book that chronicled the life of one of the country’s original entrepreneurs.

Though they didn’t know it yet, The Future Project was on the cusp of being born.

Mangino and Balakrishna were surrounded by eager college graduates in D.C., all of them full of energy and idealism. They would gather friends at their apartment, over the phone and in email chains -- teachers, journalists, artists, acquaintances in finance -- forming what was to become their new organization.

Mangino deferred his admission to Yale Law. Scheduled to start a Marshall scholarship at Oxford in just a few months, he quickly left the Justice Department for a six-month stint at Ashoka, a nonprofit based in Arlington, Virginia, that mentors and provides resources to social entrepreneurs.

Bill Drayton, who popularized the phrase “social entrepreneur” in the early 1970s, is the founder and leader of Ashoka, whose prestigious network of fellows includes 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner and Indian childrens’ rights champion Kailash Satyarthi. At Ashoka, Mangino was part of a major initiative on spreading global empathy, which involved working with schools on social learning skills in a fashion not unlike what The Future Project aspired to do.

“Six months is short for most people, but Andrew was able to contribute a lot in that time," said Drayton. "He was giving himself an education in what social entrepreneurship is, and became one of the youngest fellows we’ve had."

At Oxford, Mangino studied education and social innovation while co-leading his emerging organization. Eager to fast-track The Future Project, he left the university within three months.

Gemar Mills
Newark, New Jersey, is one of the school districts to most strongly embrace The Future Project. At Malcolm X Shabazz High School, principal Gemar Mills (left) said the organization is in part responsible for the once-failing school's turnaround. "I tell students that the dream is a lofty goal that sometimes seems unattainable," said Gemar. "It’s not an easy process."

Like any startup -- particularly one centered on ideas and people instead of technology -- the journey of The Future Project started slowly, and wasn’t without its challenges.

“People told us we wouldn’t be able to get into schools," said Balakrishna, 27. "They said it would be hard to work with principals. They said that because we weren’t focusing on test scores, people would not listen."

Yet little by little, the organization did make progress. They found schools via cold calls and emails. Mangino vaguely knew the leaders of some New Haven schools from his days covering them as a student journalist. (The Connecticut city now has eight Future Project schools enrolled.) The group approached other schools, like the NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies, because they were well-known for their experimentation. Initially, the Dream Directors were part-time volunteers. Many were friends or friends of friends who had recently graduated from Yale and other universities.

“There was something about them that was very hopeful. They were passionate but thoughtful,” said Sonal Shah, an adviser to The Future Project who met Balakrishna and Mangino in the early days of the program.

“Sometimes being a social entrepreneur means you are very busy, but busy-ness doesn’t create a change itself. What you have to do is be thoughtful with an intent and purpose behind why you are doing everything,” said Shah, who is currently the executive director of the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University, and who speaks with Balakrishna every couple of months to talk about challenges and expansion. “Kanya would ask me not just about how to help the organization do well. She would ask, ‘How do we make sure our team is treated well and how do we make sure our team is growing well? How do we build a good culture around this?'”

More recently, momentum has increased. In February, The Future Project received $10 million from the investment firm McCourt Global. The organization has also received funds from the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, the Heckscher Foundation and the Emerson Collective, as well as from individual donors. New Dream Directors are being hired for new cities, such as Detroit, where the school system has signed on to have full-time Dream Directors in 20 high schools. Since last September, Dream Directors have been installed in 12.

“So many people in schools say the secret to success is measuring our kids more. But for The Future Project, what they are saying is, ‘No, if we can get our kids to focus on what they can do, that will lead the change,'” said Ted Dintersmith, a board member and venture capitalist who has himself donated to the cause. “I am fundamentally optimistic about what kids can do, which is what The Future Project is all about, but I am pessimistic about the policies of how to fix education,” he said. (Dintersmith is also the executive producer of "Most Likely to Succeed," a documentary on education that recently showed at the Sundance Film Festival.)

At just four years in, it’s much too soon to assess The Future Project's long-term effectiveness. Mangino and Balakrishna admit that it would be difficult to draw a direct link between The Future Project -- or any individual Dream Director -- and a given school’s success.

Still, education districts are quickly joining the effort, with interest from schools in Chicago, Dallas, Baltimore and Los Angeles, as well as Austin, Texas, and Omaha, Nebraska. Mangino and Balakrishna say their ultimate goal is to have a Dream Director in every one of the country’s 26,000 public high schools.

Despite the limited data available, The Future Project has tried to quantify its own impact. In a recent poll of students on Dream Teams in New York and Newark, New Jersey, 90 percent said they were “more excited to learn in school” since joining. Four out of five of those students said they had “accomplished something they didn’t think possible.” Some teams in New York and Newark reported a 20 percent increase in student attendance in 2013.

Since those surveys, The Future Project’s ambitions have grown. This summer, it plans to launch Future Lab, a research effort that Mangino hopes will “advance new ways of measuring power, passion, purpose, perseverance and sense of possibility for an individual student -- and inspiration, engagement and hope on a school-wide basis.”

“We're very cognizant of making it seem like we've succeeded simply because attendance numbers rise, when that is not really the success that we care about,” he said.

Perhaps one of the most relevant metrics in the country, as far as The Future Project is concerned, is the Gallup Student Poll, a national annual survey of feelings of hope, engagement and well-being among U.S. public school students in grades five through 12. The latest results, released in the fall after polling more than 875,000 students, found that 53 percent felt hopeful for their future, 53 percent felt engaged in school and 64 percent were “thriving” when it came to well-being.

Dream Director
Dream Director Frank E. Brady leads students in motivational activities at TrueHaven, a March gathering of New Haven Dream Teams meant to help students gear up for this year's projects.

The Future Project is often compared to Teach for America, the nonprofit that places thousands of high-performing college graduates in troubled schools each year and has been struggling with a decline in recruits. While Dream Directors are similarly young and often recently out of college, Mangino and Balakrishna say what they’re doing is different.

“We don’t think of what we do as just installing Dream Directors,” Balakrishna said, pointing to the group’s goal to transform not just students but staff and school culture as a whole. “We see this as a movement young people are leading themselves.” One difference: While Teach For America zeroes in on troubled schools, The Future Project includes elite magnet schools and places low-performing students next to students at the top of their classes. The hope is that different students can learn from each other.

In Newark, one of the school districts that has most enthusiastically embraced The Future Project, Robert Clark, a senior adviser to district Superintendent Cami Anderson, said he couldn’t see any downsides to experimenting with mentorship through Dream Directors. The principal and school officials have cited it as one of several efforts that led to a widely touted turnaround at Newark's once-failing Malcolm X Shabazz High School.

“In education, we have a lot of theories, but it’s not always easy to see how they are applied. But The Future Project is a concrete way to apply ideas like social emotional learning,” said Clark, whom Anderson has tasked with researching alternative education in the district. “It’s often these non-technical things that keep young people engaged and feeling like they have a voice, like school is a place where they can get all these needs met, as opposed to just being taught their core subjects.”

“Yes, you need to test the long-term viability of this by researching it, following young people and seeing if this program is keeping them from dropping out and keeping them engaged," said Clark. "Are they better parents, better citizens because of their experience? The jury is still out on that. But the best test is individual young people."

The debates don’t faze Mangino and Balakrishna.

“There are a lot of solutions out there, and we can go back and forth on those, but we are all trying to solve the same problem,” said Mangino. “We want to make sure a person graduates high school in a place where they have the mindset and the skill set to live the most extraordinary life possible.”

But what exactly does an extraordinary life look like? Many of the people now trying to introduce innovative concepts in schools will look to traditional areas like college enrollment, employment and adult salaries to measure their impact. At The Future Project, the goal -- in a word, dreaming -- is less concrete. How do you tell if something like that is successful?

“We say, 'When our students are in their mid-20s, by that point, are they using their passion and skill and strengths to make a difference in the world around them?' That’s one way of looking at success,” said Balakrishna. “But we don’t want to define success for anybody. What right do I have to tell people what success is for them? We want people to define success on their own terms." That, she said, could mean having a family, owning a store or running a corporation.

“If people are really, truly fulfilled," said Balakrishna, "imagine what a difference that would make in the world.”

Suggest a correction
Comments

CONVERSATIONS