Identifying Community Leaders

09/04/2011 10:12 pm ET | Updated Nov 04, 2011
  • Josh Burstein Founder, the Millennial Youth Professionals Initiative

I was privileged to explore space with six kids from South Central LA last week. MyPi, a new non-profit devoted to empowering inner-city youth, takes teens on fun field trips to cool workplaces. On this visit behind the scenes of SpaceX, something very exciting happened in the brief history of our non-profit: we had a repeat customer.

"Andre" had joined us earlier at 826LA, a creative writing workshop, where he let his imagination run free by penning a "choose-your-own-adventure" novel. Despite his past participation in our program, Andre started this trip imitating the unproductive habits of his fellow students. Hanging out in the back, slouched, disengaged -- too cool for school. But this wasn't school, and our representative from SpaceX wasn't having any of that. She insisted that Andre sit in one of the first two rows -- he posted up front and center as close to her as possible. His friend joined.

Then we talked science. Real boring stuff, like attempting manned missions to Mars, picking apart hi-tech gizmos and fusing them back together, pyrotechnics, the usual. Andre came at our lecturer with a barrage of questions -- his enthusiasm and energy changed the tempo of the presentation. His buddy joined the conversation, and the rest of the crowd responded to it.

Discovering trendsetters like Andre is how we propose to identify and support potential leaders and shift the dynamic of a learning space. An hour later, we went to the production floor, which was loaded with Tony Stark future stuff. The tour sold itself. Between Mission Control and a 180 foot spaceship, a question was posed to the group -- and there was Andre, recalling the type of fuel used by these 21st-century rockets (liquid O2 and RP-1, for those curious).

I don't expect this kid to be an astronaut -- nor does he have to become one. We just like to kick up some dust so a young guy like Andre can see new possibilities. And if he can take that attitude back home and let his charisma work for him in and beyond high school, it makes him a cornerstone of his community. I want to see more like Andre: student leaders to captain our trips and reform the classroom.