Kids are Drivers, Not Passengers: An Interview with Susan Crown


I had the gracious opportunity to sit down with Susan Crown to discuss her work with local, national and international organizations. From a holistic and humanitarian approach, her Chicago-based Susan Crown Exchange focuses on strategic partnerships and missions serving underserved youth. A great deal of her work focuses on how kids learn, obtain and process information, especially in the digital age. The Susan Crown Exchange works closely with the David P. Weikart Center Center for Youth Program Quality.

Why is your institution entitled exchange instead of foundation? It's very rare, isn't it?

Yes, it is rare. We called our organization an exchange rather than foundation because we believe in partnerships. We are an institution that learns from others. We are not the experts on every social issue, nor do we claim to be. We work, learn and grow together, while enhancing the best nonprofits' missions and goals. We take great interest in the organizations we work with and are honored to learn from one another. Making a great organization even better, that is our job.

Why did you choose the out of school time space to work with youth organizations?

We believe this is where we can have our greatest impact. Since the public school system is laden with so many initiatives and standards, we have a much greater flexibility and impact in the after school space. Since we work with mostly high school age youth, our programs are also not held to one content area. Some examples of partnerships and programs include art, music, character building, acting, academic improvement and more. Adults, coaches, mentors and even students run the programs.

You are very interested in the digital learning space, can you tell me more about that?

Yes, we live in a completely different world than we did ten years ago. The tools and resources online for youth are simply incredible. We have an opportunity to expand the reach of quality education. We have never had this capability before the digital era. We have the ability to support anytime, anywhere learning to connect our partners and enable the development of 21st century skills for the rising generation. We also work with Common Sense Media to help parents choose appropriate games for their children based on multiple intelligences. This is an unbelievable time to be working in education.

You've spoken about your Social and Emotional Initiative quite a bit. Can you elaborate?

Yes, we believe education; especially at this historic juncture can be broken down into three parts:

ABC: The basic traditional subjects

DEF: Digital education fundamentals

SEL: Social and emotional learning

The first two are important; however, we focus a great deal on SEL (social emotional learning). We believe there is a great need to teach and exemplify areas where we are lacking. Grit, resilience and compassion are important. We also have a great interest in empathy. Empathy is a skill that can be taught and cultivated and we want to take part in building that around the world. We believe that all life success begins with empathy -- at home, with friends, in the classroom to college and throughout adult life and work. Everything builds in a positive way from a strong sense of empathy. We are focused on helping to build strong human beings.

Can you tell me about the SEL Challenge?

The Susan Crown Exchange launched the SEL challenge to identify and partner with organizations working to equip the rising generation with the social and emotional skills they need to thrive. Eight exemplary out-of-school programs from an applicant pool of 250 organizations were selected as partners in the challenge. These grantees collaborated with SCE and a research team from the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality to study social and emotional learning in out-of-school programs. With support from the foundation, the Center analyzed the programs' best practices in fostering SEL development among underserved youth. Their findings are currently published and information can be found below.

Click here to read more information specific to the SEL Challenge.

Summing up, how would you describe your mission in two sentences?

To help kids gain a sense of agency. To make them keenly aware that they are drivers, not passengers in their own lives.

For more information: You can read more about the Susan Crown Exchange by visiting her website.

In addition, The Susan Crown Exchange (SCE) recently launched an SEL field guide that aims to shed new light on ways to help and arm today's youth with the social and emotional skills they need to succeed. It is the first educational field guide of its kind, Preparing Youth to Thrive: Promising Practices in Social and Emotional Learning. The guide is a joint project between the Susan Crown Exchange (SCE), staff teams from eight youth-focused programs around the country and the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality in Michigan.

You can download the full field guide by visiting

About Susan Crown:

In addition to her leadership of SCE, Susan Crown serves on the boards including Illinois Tool Works and Northern Trust Corporation, and as a Vice-Chair of Rush University Medical Center, Director of CARE USA, and Trustee of The Chicago Public Education Fund. She served as Chairman of Steven Spielberg's Shoah Visual History Foundation, until it merged with USC, and is now a Vice Chair of the visiting committee. She took an ad-hoc family foundation and during her 26 years as Chairman built it into an entity that focused on urban education, human services, healthcare, cultural arts, and the Middle East. She served 12 years as Fellow of the Yale Corporation and co-chaired the Yale Tomorrow Campaign.

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