A month ago, I attended a Pitch-A-Thon the Future Leaders Institute (FLI) hosted in which students pitched their ideas for building a better tomorrow and received feedback from community leaders (respondents) in the sustainability and social change fields. FLI challenges students to research and identify societal problems, and come up with a plan for how to address them through efforts in their classroom and their community.
I sat, somewhat stupefied, as student after student 20 years my junior took the stage and gave a powerpoint presentation about problems as diverse as Darfur and melting polar ice caps, and tangible solutions they could help enact in their own community. I couldn’t help but think that my own career in the green business community would have started 10 years earlier had I only had a FLI of my own where I grew up. Each respondent was matched with four students for purposes of giving them feedback, and I honestly felt that despite a pretty substantial resume as a green business author, a sustainability consultant, and serial ecopreneur, I should be the one taking feedback–from Eve Cowen, Executive Director of FLI, for what she’s been able to accomplish.
Van Jones recently recommended Cowen for the prestigious Harold J. McGraw (of McGraw-Hill fame) Prize in Education. I’ve learned to listen to Jones, and when he says that the FLI “can no longer be education reform’s best kept secret”, and that we need to create far more evangelists so the promotion can be done by and from many angles, I make a mental note to help FLI spread its mission (and later, write a blog post about it).
So what exactly does FLI do? The official description is that it “provides a year-long course in public high schools that empowers youth to create projects addressing society’s greatest needs. FLI advances education and builds civic leaders as students pursue their passions, network with local professionals, mobilize their communities and build social enterprises that create powerful social change.”
But what it really does is set kids loose on the world with the power of youthful energy, enthusiasm, idealism, and creativity, coupled with social activism, hands-on strategy, and real world experience (that was us, the ‘respondents’, and other mentors that FLI connects these kids to). Getting them started with small, tangible activities in their local community shows them that they can make a difference in the lives of others and for the world as a whole. Doing this in a socially responsible context sets their mindset as global citizens for life.
FLI is also a powerful vehicle for education reform, allowing kids to find subjects they are passionate about, activate that passion within them, and help them become positively engaged in school. Aside from the obvious beneficial elements of social change, the benefits of this approach include a 100% graduation rate among FLI participants, with 100% going on to college. 15% of those kids are the first in their family to go to college, and 100% of them write about FLI on their college entrance applications.
In the interest of full disclosure, I confess to being a friend of Eve Cowen and fan of her work. But I do feel like I’m in good company. In Mr. Jones’ recommendation of Eve for the McGraw Education Award, he lauded her with this compliment.
“I place Eve in the very top tier of the many outstanding, emerging leaders with whom I have had the pleasure to work over the past 20 years. In terms of her talent, intelligence, drive, focus, persistence, creativity, effectiveness and overall promise, she is in the top 1 percent (99th percentile).”
In addition to the much-deserved credit for Ms. Cowen, the FLI needs to spread its mission throughout the country. Helping students succeed should be the #1 priority for education officials in the U.S., and Cowen has created a model of success that needs to be emulated elsewhere.
Scott Cooney is the author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill), and hopes that someday that green economy will simply be referred to as…the economy.