Andrew, Co-Founder & CEO @ The Future Project
"Change happens when people believe that something is necessary and that it’s possible. You change everything in your life when you say 'I’ve had enough of this, and I am enough to change it'. This is true of society too."
Andrew Mangino is the Co-founder and CEO of The Future Project, a national initiative to unlock the passion and purpose of young people, one school at a time.Launched in 2011, The Future Project recruits, trains, and dispatches transformational leaders called Dream Directors into high schools across the country. In partnership with teachers and community members, Dream Directors inspire and equip students to transform their schools from the inside out by building passion-driven Future Projects that change the world around them – and by providing the school with other services and tools for electrifying culture and the classroom.
Named one of Forbes "30 Under 30" Social Entrepreneurs and a Draper Richards Kaplan Fellow, Andrew worked after college at Ashoka, as the speechwriter for Attorney General Holder, and as a speechwriting intern to Vice President Biden. A graduate from Yale University, he covered the New Haven and education beats, served as the 130th Editor in Chief of the Yale Daily News, and won the Marshall Scholarship to study both education and social innovation at Oxford.
Andrew was interviews as part of our #EdLeader series by RE-ENVISIONED Co-founder and Executive Director, Erin Raab.
Tell me a little about your journey in the world of education.
My journey in education. I should probably start in the third grade because I had this experience of changing a school policy when I was in third grade and it really is the start of my journey in education.
My friend Andy, he’s actually our Creative Director at The Future Project, and I were always picked last in gym. You know, when they were like, “Yeah, we’re doing kickball!” and would split up the teams. This happened over and over and over again, and it just felt terrible to me and to other kids it happened to. So, I wrote a letter to the school to say it was an unjust policy. The principal sided with me, it went up to the board of education, and they changed the policy so that they last few people were assigned teams. Still, today, so far as I know, in our local system you can never get picked last… you can only get picked fourth to last and then the teacher splits up the rest!
The most useful learning experience I had in elementary school was learning you can actually change things in the world.
When you’re in elementary school, everything feels so fixed. You’re just there in this world. You would never question anything. I don’t know what got into me.
Fast forward to high school and I was considering going to a private school because I got a scholarship, or I could go to the public school that my mom had gone to back in the sixties. I was interested in journalism and storytelling and I ended up getting involved in the high school newspaper. I said to myself “I’m going to stick with this.” But when all of the seniors graduated, I was the last person left on the paper.
When I joined, it was a black and white sheet of paper – many kids would throw it out before they even read it! But I stuck with it, and became passionate about it. I went to this high school journalism camp at Columbia and saw all of these high school newspapers that were actually pretty awesome. I got all these awesome newspapers together, put them in my laundry hamper, and brought them to my baseball dugout to try to recruit people to the newspaper. My sophomore year ,we got this team of about 15 people together and we said, “Let’s make this an awesome high school paper and actually make this fun.” Then they went out and recruited some more people and we did this big orientation and about 120 people showed up to it!
From that point forward, my high school experience was centered around building this newspaper.
We said, “let’s make it the best high school newspaper in the country”. We ended up making a 32-page color-edition. It became the voice for the students, the athletes, the writers, and the artists. It was one place where everyone kind of came together. I just thought it was the most exciting thing ever.
We pushed the envelope my senior year. We wrote a story about failings in the school curriculum. The principal protested it and censored it. The ACLU got involved, the Student Press Law Center got involved - we ran this whole campaign around free speech and we got around 800 people to side with us and many to protest. The week that I graduated, we were essentially serving legal papers to our school.! We ended up winning; the paper can’t be censored anymore.
So that was how my journey in education started. Being a part of the system and protesting different things that were happening in my own school experience because that was my universe. Just like any student: that’s your universe.
By actively trying to make things better, and through pushback to my efforts, I was discovering my purpose, my passion, getting excited about things, learning about the real world, and actually making a difference by changing things with others.
It taught me that those things really matter. When I went to college and started pursuing my passion of reporting I was supposed to be reporting on politics, but I just ended up spending much of my time at New Haven Public Schools learning about students and finding that permission to change things - that permission to make the world better while at the same time discover your own purpose, that intersection of the “we” and the “me” - well, it was not happening. There wasn’t true empowerment.
I was reading so much about mayoral control, and was interviewing Cory Booker, and so few leaders were talking about the actual experience of school, which, from my perspective, was disempowering for students and teachers alike. I think that simple insight has been a source of motivation first.
I just want to do a little snap on that “no one is talking about the actual experience of school.” Yes.
So now take a couple of seconds to think about a child you care about, and describe that child to me.
There is this one student – who is a Bangladeshi immigrant in the DC schools. I met him when he was a senior. He’s a really sweet, earnest person. His parents were busboys. His father was a busboy at a restaurant, and the rest of his family was still in Bangladesh in communities that had been devastated by the tsunami there. He had very low scores on all of his tests. He was very shy. I was told, “If you can, help him get into a community college that would be great.” I tried to talk to him about what his college essays would be about, that kind of thing. He went to a DC high school at the height of Michelle Rhee’s school reform work, and he just didn’t really know initially what he could write about or do.
What are some of his strengths?
He is persistent. Once he found the thing that really lit him up, there was nothing that was going to stop him. He would put in whatever amount of work necessary to do that. He was very empathetic for his family, and communities back in Bangladesh. He was curious, and interested in learning about the world.
What’s his name?
Think about what you would have wanted for him for his childhood growing up… what makes a good childhood? What would you have wanted for him as a kid, and his experiences in the world?
It starts with exposure. I would have wanted him to see the world and see what’s even out there in the first place. When I met him, there was a lot of time pressure because he was already a senior and it was the first time he was forced to think about what he wanted to do in life. It sparked his curiosity. You can ask someone a lot of questions and lead them through the self-reflection, but none of that makes sense until you know what actually exists.
I would have wanted him to see hundreds of possible futures for himself, if not thousands.
Two, I would have wanted him to actually create, do, make, innovate at all different levels and have things that he was proud of. I just don’t get it. Those first, crucial, most ripe years… those first twenty years and you often have nothing to show for it but a diploma, which means nothing. That is devastating; I would have wanted him to have a chance to do that.
Third, I would have wanted him to have a group of different kinds of mentors in his life. People who cared about him. By different kinds I mean first a near peer - someone slightly older than him who could really take him under his wing and really stick with him. Second, a content mentor. Someone who was an expert in an area that he was really passionate about. Third, a master or coach to guide him periodically through the big milestones. Fourth, a familial or if not from his family then others, a human-side mentor. So mentor relationships and peer relationships to make him feel like he is supported.
Then finally, fourth, I would have wanted there to have been an intentional and coherent learning experience about life skills. By life skills I don’t just mean the skills for him to navigate life for himself, but also for others. I don’t think it’s one or the other. They’re very symbiotic. But, the formal element that’s important - it’s not just him emerging at age 18 like “oh wow, I can live life” - but to be able to point to “oh, I mastered these 15 things, and I’ve got support and confidence”.
When I met him, he had no confidence, no voice, no sense of himself because the skill he was learning was random parts of chemistry as opposed to how to communicate his ideas. I think those four things would make a big difference. I don’t know if they’re sufficient, but I do think that they are close to necessary and sufficient.
I’m impressed that you were able to just number them off of the top of your head.
So now I want you to imagine that he’s in his 30s or 40s. He’s grown up, living an adult life, done with whatever schooling he’s going to do. What would make it a good or successful life? What do you want for him then?
I think that humans have basically three needs. It’s hard for me to disconnect one person from another person. I just think that everything is so interrelated. In a sense if you were to fulfill all three of these needs, I think that everyone in the world wins. By needs, I mean needs as in “If this X is not fulfilled then you just are not happy.” Basically, I think that the three needs, really straightforward, are survival - if you don’t survive you are not happy! And I think those who don’t want to survive, it’s because of an absence of both of the other needs: second, is pleasure; third, is meaning. I think those are the necessary and sufficient conditions for both happiness and enabling others to be happy.
So the life that I want for him is one where he would be able to find and fulfill meaning, seek and find pleasure in all forms that matter. He’d be able to survive because those essentials were taken care of. And, he would be able to - and this is the key fourth thing - he would be able to constantly be self aware enough to revise any one of these or understand where the deficiency was if at any point something wasn’t working.
In a less conceptual way I’ll boil that down to being able to live a life of passion and purpose.
Passion and pleasure, purpose and meaning, it’s a little bit more of a marketing way of saying it, but a healthy life of passion and purpose. You can’t beat that.
I like that. We have many longer conversations to have at some point.
Is there anything you worry about getting in the way of him achieving that good life that you want for him?
I think that it comes down to a paradigm of success that does not necessarily account for these things that matter. I think that is the first barrier, because people exist in some kind of game.
I think most people are not going to challenge the game. So, people might seek fulfillment, but actually when push comes to shove, they settle for a job that’s not a calling.
Then I would say that it’s a lack of tools. I believe in tools. We’re talking right now, because of this tool that we are using. I think that education sometimes undervalues the power of a good, well-designed tool. I don’t think there’s innovation around tools that would enable him to discover that calling and learn those skills. There are barriers, not just a deficiency: the tool doesn’t exist.
But other than that, no.
Change happens when people believe that something is necessary and that it’s possible. You change everything in your life when you say I’ve had enough of this, and I am enough to change it. This is true of society too.
When you think about even the work that you’re doing at RE-ENVISIONED, there’s the side of needing to create a new space for what school is for or ask those questions about the purpose of schooling, which creates the space to believe change is necessary. Then there’s the other side of it which is, are there tools or products which make it possible? If the desire is there but the tools aren’t then people just get disillusioned. If the tools are there but the desire isn’t then nothing gets done. Those are the two main ways in which there are divisions and barriers.
What would your ideal role have been for schooling in helping him create the good life of passion and purpose that you want for him?
Well first of all, school would have been an incubator for him. An incubator for people - that’s what I look at school as. I’m not a type who gets excited about one framework or one mindset. Sure, each one is an essential mindset for growing someone into a human being. I look at it like - you come out of the womb, that’s your first phase of growth. There’s your early childhood phase. Then you have this third phase where you’re sort of learning a set of foundational skills as to how to navigate life best, whether it’s language or writing or communicating. Whatever those essential skills are that happen in your first years of school.
And then I think sky is the limit. It’s 5 - 8 years of incubating yourself from a generalized human being to a unique one. It’s like that saying by Michelangelo that he had to chip away at the slab of marble to find the David within the marble. That’s how I look at it. Every person is a person, a student.
And what I dislike about our school system today is that it’s just another student. But, the point is actually not to add on lots of subjects. It’s to chisel away until we find the unique calling of each individual. Erin Raab is going to redefine the purpose of school. That’s a unique plan. And then you do that. That’s what school would help you to realize. It would prepare you to go forth and actually succeed and revise as necessary along the way.
To dream and to build. Those two things are what I want school to give students the opportunity to do.
I like that.
By your answer I can guess part of the answer to this next question, but did school play the role you wanted it to for him? If not, why do you think not?
Well, you didn’t ask but it did for me in spite of the school. It did not for him. It was for lack of the kinds of experiences that I had. The game that was being played was “pass class, try to get ready for the SATs, and at some point try to figure out your future”. It was just so utterly incoherent, and not optimized for anything in particular except for survival of the school itself, not the person.
So I think that all of the ingredients that make a person not college or career ready but life ready, which to me is the essence of the readiness side of the equation, were just completely absent. And that, of course, plays out into the outcomes that were being sought after. There was no sense of future readiness at the end of the tunnel.
The whole thing is a lie. Really, that’s what it comes down to is that we’re lying to the students. It’s a racket. The end user is not benefiting, and there’s something going on behind the scenes but no one is talking about it.
So, there’s little to no likelihood that someone without alternative experiences or permission to defy the system could possibly discover their full potential within that system.
Yes. I talk about how I don’t want to level the playing field - I want to change the game. I appreciate how you’re talking about the game we’re playing.
Well leveling the playing field is one of the most problematic concepts in this context because, this might be controversial, but I just think that’s basically saying that there’s something so great that there’s something that some people at one level of the playing field are getting - the upper class, or whatever. That somehow we need to even that out. That’s just giving everyone else some really bad stuff, and no one is going to benefit from that at all. It’s a very dangerous notion, and it’s a small point but it really guided our education reform in our country for 60-70 years, that one idea. I think we missed a massive opportunity of the 20th century to massively upgrade our schools as a result of that idea.
Great products and great solutions do optimize for many variables, but you have to have one massive goal, one purpose. Basically, I think the big purpose to perform for the past years has been to level the playing field – it’s what everyone sort of rallies around - as opposed to redefine what school is and make THAT universally accessible.
Yes. I would say, on top of that, it’s not even “level the playing field” – it’s become more about competition. Like, how do we get poor kids to compete with wealthy kids? It’s not even like we’re going to end up the same. We’re still going to end up really unequal we’re just going to make sure some people can compete in this way that’s incredibly toxic.
So, stepping away from Sumon, and thinking big picture, why do you think we have schools as a society? Why does the government make us go to school? Why school?
Well there are a few questions in that. There’s the descriptive question, which is literally why we have schools. That’s where you genuinely have more knowledge than I do. I’d love to learn everything you learned one day about how this crazy idea emerged. Also, it’s not one idea. High schools were for a reason, middle schools were for a reason, elementary schools were for a reason and then suddenly it became this system.
But, the system itself is a complete illusion. It’s not a system. Every part of it is the system. A teacher is the system. This is what Sir Ken Robinson always tells me is, “you don’t think for the system, you are the system”. Oftentimes the system is literally just your district. That’s what I experienced in my own suburban town. Yeah, the State had some involvement, I guess. They set some level of standards. But essentially, every little unit of the system is different.
Which is to say that the bottom line answer to your question is that I don’t think there really is a reason at this point. I think we lost our guiding light.
I think that people, not you, will complicate this education reform issue because the lack of a reason why is obviously the biggest problem. The incoherence and confusion around it. I don’t think it’s this big disagreement, half of that is marketing and messaging anyway.
If you’re a CEO, or a Howard Schultz, trying to turn around your company. What did he do? He reset the company on its “why”. I think we need a national team. We need a Federal Reserve chair. We need a non-political, national team, who understands that you’re not going to be able to command and control our schools in our country but what you could have is one person that everyone could get around who could say “Here’s the purpose of school. Stop debating it.” Or “Let’s debate it for a year. And now here’s the purpose of school. Now let’s calibrate to that.”
Obviously this person has to have impeccable judgment and wisdom, but maybe they are, you know, Yoda or something. We have to find that type of person who just transcends all this stuff. And they can’t have an agenda. They have to be the wisest person in the country. This national team, we can have a local team too but it has to have a relevance to the context, I think can really actually define that.
Aside from that, I think more of the question that you’re asking is what should the purpose of school be. And I think the answer to that is so simple, . It’s readiness for life. I promise if we do that ONE THING – get young people ready for living an extraordinary life – we ALL will believe that schools weren’t just not failing; they were the source of human flourishing.
The purpose of school is simply readiness for life. We short hand that at The Future Project as Future Readiness.
I would debate anyone for hours on this point. Because, what does a good life mean? That is intentionally, at it’s very best, something that is interpretive at every level. It can change. As the world changes, it changes. If aliens came tomorrow, life readiness would mean, “get ready to fight the aliens,” and honestly, our students would need to get ready to resist aliens. That’s the thing. A good vision allows for interpretation; it’s not prescriptive. And its meaning evolves as the world does. But it still provides that north star.
But there are elements of life that are timeless, and elements of life that are true to you, and elements that are just general to all humans. So that, to me, is the essence of future readiness.
Ultimately, if a school can get someone ready to live an extraordinary, not an ordinary life, it has been successful.
Given your understanding of the understanding of the purpose and problem of school, how is your work at TFP doing to solve these issues?
Let’s boil this down to its simplest. TFP has found that, no matter what the conversation is out in the world, or what the hot policy of the day is, the one thing that nearly every educator, parent, and student agrees with is that school is not successful if it does not develop the intrinsic motivation to learn and to live – the passion, the purpose, the sense of possibility, the creativity, the desire to build another world. And yet there are too few solutions for schools to enable them to do exactly that.
TFP sees itself as a partner of schools across the country, and one day hopefully across the world, that makes it possible to do not what we want them to do but what they want to do. We are building a network of thousands of schools dedicated to these aims and willing to learn from another and test the bounds of what’s possible.
We start by seeing principals and teachers as our allies, not people to change.
Once we do that the sky’s the limit. We provide Dream Directors who work with all students in the school to discover their passion and purpose and connect it to their learning and lives. We work with faculty to help them see their role in new ways and apply new tools; we coach the principal, we help to transform the culture of the school, we help empower student leaders to help transform their own education. More and more we’re working with other partners – there are thousands of micro-solutions across the world – we bring them into our platform so they can have the distribution they deserve.
All of this is in service of our vision of education – which is enabling students to find their passion and purpose while they’re in school.
What is a success you’re particularly proud of?
In the beginning, there were many philanthropists who were skeptical of our solution and whether schools would be willing to accept it. What I’m proud of, because I do believe in the power of trusting in the customer rather than posing a conceptual framework on the customer and forcing them to use it, is that there have been thousands of schools around the world who have asked for what we do. Schools and educators who have been inspired by the stories of students, who have heard about us through word of mouth because we haven’t done much marketing, and who not only want to receive what we do but be partners and contribute to what we do.
That’s what makes me proudest – because it just scratches the surface and shows just how unthinkably large the demand is for exactly what we have to deliver. And the supply is not just ours; it’s distributed across schools and classrooms that are already trying these things. Our job is to bring it all together and, ultimately, transform the norm.
10,000 Stories. One Shared Vision.
RE-ENVISIONED is a national movement to redefine the purpose of school. We believe schools should foster flourishing individuals and a thriving democratic society. But what does it mean to thrive or flourish?
To answer this, we're building the world's largest collection of stories about what it means to live good lives and the role schools should play in helping create them: 10,000 stories from people across the country. We'll use the stories to learn about our shared values and dreams to create a new vision for why we send our children to school.
We work with people like YOU across the country: Catalysts - individuals, classrooms, and whole schools - who interview people in their communities and foster empathy nationwide by sharing them on our website and social media: Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook (@reenvisioned).