05/05/2014 03:30 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2014

A Living Systems Approach to Addressing the High School Dropout Crisis

Recently, I had the tremendous privilege of presenting at TEDx HGSE, a local TEDx conference organized by my alma mater, the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The title of my talk was "Social Justice Leadership in Living Systems," and it focused on lessons I learned doing doctoral research that explored the dynamics of large scale social change. You can view the 10-minute talk here:

The talk includes an assertion that if we want to transform the injustices that remain entrenched in living systems today, then we must operate with an understanding of leadership that is grounded in an accurate understanding of how living systems actually work. And the essential leadership challenge in living systems is not to provide direction and control, but to connect the system more powerfully to itself. In this post, I offer a few thoughts on how City Year's current effort to address the high school dropout crisis represents a practical application of this principle.

Since its inception, AmeriCorps and the national service movement in general and City Year in particular have represented efforts to "connect the system more to itself." Although we in the movement do not often talk about our work in this way, it's fair to suggest that the central strategy of national service -- the theory of change, if you will -- is this: to strengthen America, connect America more to itself. Through a year of full-time service, citizens are able to cultivate a vast web of new relationships with other citizens, strengthening the overall interconnection of the American civic project.

Here at City Year, we're applying that principle strategically to the specific civic challenge that is the high school dropout crisis. Again, while we may not often talk about our work this way, our strategy is this: to support the academic and life success of our nation's students, connect American young people more powerfully to each other. Our highly sophisticated, research driven, and impact focused service model is powered by the understanding that our 18-24 year old corps members have a unique ability to develop deep and meaningful "near peer" relationships with the students that they serve. It is this simple yet profound human connection that imbues our corps members with a remarkable effectiveness as tutors, mentors, and role models.

Within the school building and in the classrooms where we serve, we continue to put this principle into practice. As our core value of "Students First, Collaboration Always" makes clear, our approach is grounded in a commitment to work humbly and collaboratively with the teachers, administrators, families, and other community organizations also working to support student success.

From the macro level of the overall vision of AmeriCorps and national service to the micro level of the work our City Year corps members do in schools and classrooms, our efforts represent a practical application of the principal of "connecting systems more powerfully to themselves."

Undertaking the Dual Journey: A Good to Great Challenge
A key insight addressed in this TEDx talk is the idea that there is a powerful link between the work of "connecting the system more to itself" in the both the outer world (in the communities we serve) and in the inner world (of the individuals providing the service). This insight emerged from the empirical research described in the talk, and it aligns with the writings of real-life civic leaders like Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, and many others.

It's important to note that City Year--and national service in general--have always been good at "undertaking the dual journey" in the sense of strengthening connections in both the outer and inner worlds. A rigorous evaluation of AmeriCorps alumni released in 2008 found that they not only felt more connected to their communities and more empowered to create change, but also reported more life satisfaction in terms of having found a fulfilling career and meaningful leisure activities that aligned with their own sense of purpose. While national service programs have always had a proven ability to generate these positive personal growth outcomes, the fact is that historically, the programmatic and conceptual focus on achieving these "inner" outcomes has been fairly limited.

Here at City Year, we've been working hard to take our program from good to great in this regard by integrating a powerful approach to reflection into our unique culture of idealism. This effort to bring a new level of intentionality and sophistication to the work of promoting inner change in our corps members is inspired and informed by our understanding of leadership in living systems. Our theory of change here is as follows: When we guide our corps members' to connect more deeply to themselves, we strengthen their ability to connect more deeply with the students that they serve. And the ability to forge deep and meaningful relationships with students is at the heart of our work. For this reason, we view this commitment to guide corps members through a process of inner change to be strategic and directly connected to our ability to achieve our Long Term Impact goals.

In these ways, City Year is engaged in an effort to integrate an understanding of leadership in living systems into our effort to address America's high school dropout crisis on a national scale. While we are proud of the progress we have made to date, we know that we have a lot more work to do in the years ahead to achieve our ambitious goals. Naturally, we look forward to forging even more connections with a great many other individuals and organizations who share this commitment to ensuring the success of America's young people. The more we work together, the more powerful this movement for change will become!