This blog was written by Guest Author Kristina Saccone and was originally published on the Purposeful Blog on April 19, 2017. Kristina is the Owner and Principal of Partner + Purpose, a strategic consulting company that helps purpose-driven clients make their projects and ideas a reality.
I spoke with Nigeria Segure-Watson and Mark Murphy about GripTape, a new venture that empowers youth to direct their own learning.
Nigeria is a high school senior, a board member at GripTape, and one of the organization’s first “challengers,” meaning she was given $500 and a coach to pursue a passion project. With those resources, Nigeria pulled off a photo shoot, learned about creative direction, and is now a successful young entrepreneur while finishing up her last year of high school. “I am here to spread agency and inspire the youth, to enlighten them on their possibilities in the world,” she says.
Mark is the former Delaware secretary of education. He says that years of going in and out of classrooms opened his eyes to a huge gap in learning: students were going through the motions without the adults actually asking what they wanted or needed. So, he started GripTape, giving youth small amounts of capital and the ability to self-teach a project of their choosing. “I characterize my work as trying to create the conditions that allow young people to pursue their passions. And those conditions include having levels of authority that they have rarely, if ever had, coupled with resources that they have rarely if ever had.”
Mark: There's a great story there.
Nigeria: I'm a part of another organization called The Future Project. One Monday morning, I was on the way to a summer job. One of my friends, who is also part of The Future Project, was telling me that's there's a new organization coming to the headquarters, and they were offering $500 dollars to young people to do whatever they wanted. I was just like, I don't know if this is real, but I'm going to try it.
I went to work, and right after work I went straight to the city; and there I met Mark, and there was an informational session. They were just telling us the ins and outs, but I felt it was too good to be true. He was telling us that, you know, I'm giving you the money to do whatever you want. Any decisions you want to make, it's up to you. And I was just like, really?
So I went forth and decided that I wanted to focus on marketing and advertising. I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do, but I was thinking maybe I can do a photoshoot or something like that. I created a pitch. I used a PowerPoint. A week later, we met back up at headquarters. I had to present my pitch to Mark. I was very nervous.
Ironically, the clothing line that I was going to do the photo shoot for, I was wearing their apparel. Mark complimented the outfit that I was wearing, and I was like, well this is already a plus. I'm going to go in, show him the shirt that I'm wearing, and he's going to like it automatically. So, I presented the pitch, and truthfully, based off of Mark's facial expressions, I didn't think I was going to pass it.
Mark: You never told me that.
Nigeria: Yeah, I really did not think so because he was just like “Hmmm,” and he kept asking questions. So I'm like, I don't think the point is really coming across right. A week later I got a call from Mark, and he was telling me how I was selected to be one of the first pioneer challengers for the group team challenge, and it took off from there. It was a very, very exciting moment, and it definitely led me to where I am today.
Mark: And to pick up on that, I formally met Nigeria at the pitch. This was our first shot; it was a pilot. The deal we made was: “Nigeria, I'm going to let you make every decision, and you're going to get some money.” We had never done this before. And I said, in exchange, you’ve got to let me study you and to study whether this is going to work. So she and I spent a month doing check-in calls, where I would get on the phone and ask her a million questions. Then loop all the way back to last week, and Nigeria asked me for that information because I had taken research notes on what she was doing. I've been in education for twenty years, and I've never had a student say, “Hey can I have all those notes you've taken of me?” So I sent them all to her. But you had an interesting reaction to it.
Nigeria: Yeah, going over the little notes that Mark had taken, it was very raw, very raw. Nothing was edited. So every comment that I made, every gesture that I made – it was on the camera, so it was just like every emotion I was feeling was written down. To me, it just feels like I've grown so much since then. There were points that I wanted to give up, and I read those notes too. And there were points where I felt like this was the best thing in the world. I truly wouldn't change any type of moment while doing the challenge. I wouldn't change any type of decision that I made because they really did help me with the way that I make decisions today.
A lot of us look back on our memories and try to dissect what happened but don't have notes, copious notes, about exactly what happened in the moment. So now that you can look back and read those notes, can you pinpoint where your motivation comes from?
Nigeria: I think that my motivation definitely comes from my failures. That's simply because I am a very determined person. And sometimes I have the desire to prove people wrong. And even while doing the challenge, there were certain things that I committed to in the beginning that I couldn't commit to anymore. And I think that knowing that people are watching me, and I'm doing something that is not normal [for a young person my age], that was definitely a motivation for me to just keep going.
So, Mark tell me a little bit about where you got the idea for all of this.
Mark: I heard it from kids. That's the super simple answer, and the longer answer is that I have been in hundreds and hundreds of schools, and thousands and thousands of classrooms, through a variety of opportunities I've had over the last ten years. About five years ago I started to really question what I was seeing in high schools, especially. I was spending my time working on trying to have great principals and great teachers and a great curriculum and really good standards, both through practices and policies. And yet, I was in schools constantly and seeing teenager after teenager after teenager going through the motions. Yes, those young people were saying education is important, and it's important that I go to college. We have built that mantra in our country. I think we've done a really good job of that. But then I go into biology class, or math class or whatever and I see, even in great teaching situations, kids going through the motions. Literally driving home, I started to think, wait a minute, shouldn't your brains be on fire? Shouldn't we be inspired? Shouldn't we be psyched about this whole thing of learning? But why is it not like that? And started to ask some questions about it, and so I started to listen to kids in a way that I hadn't really before.
The next layer down was that I wound up hearing from young people that school was a disempowering environment. That they were told what to learn when to learn it, who to learn it from, how to learn it, whether they learned it at all. Ultimately they had no agency in that; they had no real ownership in that. And yeah they could choose to do this project this way or this project this way but at the end of the day, they weren't driving these things. And they had all these other passions, and interests that they actually weren't able to explore, especially if they came from a family without a lot of money because they weren't enrolled in ten after-school programs and summer camps and everything else.
At that point I thought, this has to change. In the opening months of GripTape, we literally went to young people and just started asking them questions. What would this look like? What do you need? And they told us all of the raw materials that then created the learning challenge.
What was it like to hear that you could have an experience like that? What was your school experience like – was this a contrast?
Nigeria: Yes. I go to a traditional high school. It's 1-8 periods, starting at 8:30, ending at 2:00. The opportunity to literally make your own decisions and be supported in the same frame was the most shocking part for me. In school, there are certain things that we can decide. We can decide what kind of friends we hang around; we can choose whether or not we're going to do assignments. We can make those types of decisions. But in the end, if the decision is not for the betterment of the school administrators and staff and teachers, then it's just not a good decision. So, because I decide this subject is very confusing so I'm not going to do this homework assignment, to a teacher, that's not the right decision. But instead of just understanding that I don't get the subject, that I'm not interested in it, you know, we're just wrong. And that's unfortunate, so and so I think that's a really big difference.
So if everyone was able to make their own decisions and were supported then learning would be way more fun; way more interesting. People would be able to succeed in areas that they probably wouldn't even know that they could. The decision-making is important, but the support in whatever decision you make is just as important too.
Now that you have been through the challenge, how are you applying the skills that you've learned today?
Nigeria: So I constructed the photo shoot, and it was not working. I ended up connecting with a young lady, actually she's older than me. She's 22. She started a clothing line when she graduated from college last year, and it's called De'fasion New York Clothing Line. Now I co-create-direct her photo shoots. Recently, I co-created directed a visual lookbook for New York Fashion week with her. I met a lot of different people. Now I know fifty more models than I did last summer. I know different types of locations, different types of photographers. I even know the title of what I'm interested in because the whole time I was just walking around saying, “Yeah I like to do photo shoots.” And now I know that I want to be creative director.
Mark: You started with marketing and advertising.
Nigeria: Yeah I started with marketing and advertising, and I was just like, I don't think I want to focus on that part. I liked the whole idea of organizing and finding the models and finding the photographers, showing them how to model and how I want an image to look. And I carried that on. And now I know a lot of people and I'm doing a lot of things.
GripTape draws out passion and encourages agency in some youth who maybe otherwise do not think that way. That is a challenging thing, not just in youth but even with adults. How do you engage somebody who is maybe not accustomed to having these opportunities or thinks they can't identify a passion?
Nigeria: Say I approach someone in the situation you just stated. I would first have them feel comfortable and have them understand that I am their equal. We're both youth, we're both young. And I think once they start to understand that she's just like me, and if she was able to go forth and do a pitch, just because she was able to present, that doesn't mean that she is on a different level than I am. It's peer to peer, you know? We're at eye level. There's not a hierarchy, you know? Once they understand that, then they start to open up more and when they start to open up, I can start to inspire them by talking about the things that I've done. Then I let them know the possibilities that they have, and then after that, I just support them. I encourage them to keep going. That's how it really goes. It all starts with just having them understand that we're the same.
Mark: I believe a shift that's needed in our country is that we actually listen to each other – like really listen. We did that birthday gift thing at design day, it was like, “Nigeria your birthday is coming up, do you like balloons? Oh, you do, right, I'll get you some balloons for your birthday.” Versus “Nigeria, this Saturday, what're are you going to do that you love?” Like, get into what people love, what turns them on, what do they value, what do they think about? In this case with adults and kids, we make all sorts of assumptions about what we think kids like. Because we watch and think, oh that kid's interested in that. But when was the last time you sat down and actually spent time more than two or three minutes asking that kid, do you like doing that? Why do you like it? Why? Why? Why? And really get at the underlying values, which then get at their passions ultimately. But you don't get there in two minutes. You have to listen, and you have to inquire and be really interested.
Nigeria: I feel like once you show interest, and you have a person to the point where they feel like you actually care about what they're saying or what they're thinking, that's when they begin to open up. They start to look within themselves, because they're just like, “I wonder what I do like.” That's a good question. Why do I do that? And that's the most important part.
Is there anything else you want to share?
Nigeria: I'd just like to say that adults should truly begin to let go and just trust the youth and understand that they do know what they're doing if they're given the opportunity they can really succeed.