How to Change the World: A Breakthrough Idea From the Front Lines

In his book The Social Animal, New York Times columnist David Brooks offers the following critique of decades of failed efforts to effectively address pressing public problems:

Since 1983 we've reformed the education system again and again, yet more than a quarter of high school students drop out, even though all rational incentives tell them not to. We've tried to close the gap between white and black achievement, but have failed. We've spent a generation enrolling more young people in college without understanding why so many don't graduate ... The failures have been marked by a single feature: Reliance on an overly simplistic view of human nature. (p. xiv-xv) [italics added]

In the book, Brooks presents the wealth of new scientific insights illuminating the ways that human behavior is powerfully driven by matters of emotion, relationships, and meaning. These insights challenge the view of humans as dispassionate, individual rationalists; rather, we are deeply social and emotional beings with rich inner lives best addressed, Brooks states, through "stories, poetry, music, image, prayer, and myth."

This is not an argument against empiricism. Brooks recognizes that effective policy needs to be grounded in the sort of rigorous understanding of a problem that only research and data can provide. But statistics alone are not enough. History suggests that efforts grounded in a disciplined focus on outcomes and metrics but lacking an appreciation for the profoundly human processes of growth, development, and transformation will have limited impact.

Here at City Year, this is an insight that has informed our ambitious effort to effectively address the nation's high school drop-out crisis. Our tagline is "give a year. change the world," and we have recently embraced the belief that there are actually two elements to this challenge: Changing the outer world of communities in need through service, and changing the inner world of our young adult "corps members" (as we call our 17-24 year old participants) through leadership development. To focus on one of these elements while ignoring the other would be to engage in a limited and incomplete effort to generate change.

In our efforts to change the outer world, we have fully embraced the need for a rigorous, data-driven, empirical approach deeply grounded in research that illuminates the scope and scale of America's high school drop-out crisis. Research has shown that the problem is highly concentrated: just 12% of the nation's high schools produce 50% of the nation's drop-outs. For that reason, we partner with school districts to identify schools in greatest need, and deploy teams of City Year corps members to serve not just in those schools, but also in the elementary and middle schools that feed students into them. Research also shows that as early as sixth grade, students can be identified as being at risk of dropping out based on key academic and behavioral indicators. That's why we partner with teachers and administrators at the school-house level to identify students veering off track on those indicators, and empower our corps members to provide service focused on getting those students back on track with regards to those specific indicators. Throughout the year, we collect student-level data that allows us to continually assess and improve our impact, and we rigorously train our corps members in the specific skills and competencies they need to maximize their service impact.

We have no doubt that this strategic and data-driven approach is essential for City Year to bring about the large-scale impact that we are committed with our partners to achieve. But we recognize that our audacious goals for outer world impact represent only part of the work we aspire to undertake in our efforts to change the world.

Recognizing the remarkable power of relationships and social networks, we immerse our corps members in a unique organizational culture thoughtfully designed to magnify, focus, and sustain their spirit of idealism. Our corps members serve on diverse teams -- not as isolated individuals -- and spend their days embedded in a social environment that expects high achievement, intentionally inspires hope and optimism, balances challenge and support, and builds deep connections across lines of difference. To keep our corps members inspired and motivated, our culture is organized around a collection of idealistic stories gathered from cultures across the globe, and is grounded in a clear set of values that powerfully articulate City Year's deepest beliefs and highest aspirations. Corps members also participate in a structured reflection experience that is inspired by Joseph Campbell's mythic "hero's journey" framework; in this way, we invite each corps member to understand their year of service as a mythic journey of personal transformation. Significantly, by developing our corps members in these ways, we enhance their capacity to support the students they serve with social and emotional sophistication.

City Year recognizes that when it comes to changing the inner world, the work is to immerse individuals in social networks that elicit high achievement, sustain idealism, and speak not just in the language of metrics and outcomes, but also in the language of stories and myth. We also seek to deepen personal transformation through enhanced self-awareness, reflection, critical thinking, openness to growth through challenge, and access to ways of understanding personal struggles and strengths that are both meaningful and empowering. Were we to neglect this element of our work, we would be engaged in a limited and incomplete effort to change the world.

City Year rejects the notion that we must choose between a data-driven, research-focused, large-scale approach to addressing the high school drop-out crisis or a holistic, inspiring, socially and emotionally intelligent effort to guide individuals through a deeply human process of personal transformation. Rather, we have made data and metrics central to our approach to changing the outer world and a culture saturated with idealistic stories, values and myths central to our approach to changing the inner world. Equally important, we have developed a sophisticated model for explaining how these distinct but related processes work together. Our new leadership development model -- called "The Flame of Idealism" -- is explicitly focused on articulating how we integrate our empirical approach to service, our rigorous approach to developing skills and competencies, our Campbell-inspired approach to reflection, and our intentional culture of idealism. It clearly explains how the powerfully interdependent processes of outer change and inner change can be managed in ways that most effectively support and strengthen each other.

We are proud to report that this work was selected for inclusion in a recently published textbook, The Handbook for Teaching Leadership, written to provide a foundational reference resource presenting the current best thinking about leadership education from the private, public, and non-profit sectors. We are honored to see this approach to leadership development appearing alongside that of celebrated organizations like the U.S. military, Harvard Business School, the Center for Creative Leadership, the Aspen Institute, and others with an enduring interest in the effective development of leaders.

In this era of urgent challenges and limited resources, we believe that complex challenges require complex responses. For that reason, we are seeking to combine a disciplined focus on research and data that keeps us focused on the large-scale impact we need to achieve, while simultaneously honoring the central role played by relationships, emotion, and meaning in promoting human transformation. We believe that an innovative approach that integrates these two elements of changing the world in sophisticated and powerful ways unleashes our full potential to make progress on this pressing public challenge.