Sunday, November 8, 2015

Soraya Salti: Empowering youth against all odds. When education entrepreneurs create eternity.

To say ‘A teacher touches eternity’ conveys that those who devote their lives to cultivate the talents of the young help them make sense of the future. On occasion, educators empower their students to not just make sense of the future, but to create it. When they do this, they do more than touch eternity, they participate in creating it. Soraya Salti was an education entrepreneur who cared deeply about the transformative power of education. She devoted her life to creating entrepreneurship education programs that empowered thousands of youth in the Middle East.

I met Soraya Salti when she participated in a leadership development program as a young global leader of the World Economic Forum about a decade ago. I was leading a session on the urgency to transform the global education architecture, the thousands of schools built over the last seven decades as part of the Global Education Movement to Educate all Children, from their focus on just providing access to gaining basic literacies to institutions that actually helped the young gain the skills to become self-authoring individuals and agents of development of their communities. Soraya was one of the most outspoken participants in that group of about hundred young global leaders. She challenged me and I challenged her back. I loved the exchange which went on for a few rounds. It was the kind of dialogue I treasure as a teacher. No pleasantries or political correctness, just hard honest conversation in search of truth. Some of the participants observed the exchange in silence. One of them came to Soraya’s defense asking ‘why are you challenging my colleague?’. “Because I respect her intelligence too much to not engage seriously with her thinking”, I replied. At the end of the session Soraya came to see me to continue the conversation. I realized then that Soraya was not deterred by challenge, she embrace them just as she valued honest discussion as a way to get closer to the truth.
That afternoon, Soraya and I spent two hours in my office discussing her work as the leader of Injaz-Al-Arab, and organization she had created to bring entrepreneurship education programs to all countries in the Middle East. Soraya talked to me about how she had been transformed when she first discovered in Jordan the program Junior Achievement, a program that provided teenagers opportunities to work with mentors in learning to create a business. She explained that, relative to the schools she had seen in Jordan, Junior Achievement excited her because she thought it could help students develop imagination, a sense of possibility about the future, confidence in themselves, the skills to collaborate with others, deep respect for others and enough trust in each other to learn to collaborate in creating businesses and other institutions that would advance well being throughout the region. This realization had caused her to want to bring this program to every country in the Middle East, in hopes it would eventually help to transform education, so it could truly empower all youth. I understood at that moment that Soraya was a woman of big dreams, and with the courage to put her life in service of goals much bigger than herself.

Over the years I knew her, my respect and admiration for Soraya grew. I increasingly understood the urgency of helping young people in the region she so deeply loved gain a sense of hope and possibility about the future, how educational innovation and serious transformation was essential so that youth would develop the skills and the dispositions to engage in building businesses and other organizations to advance social progress throughout the region. I admire the resolve with which Soraya built public private partnership in 13 countries in the Middle East to create national chapters of Injaz-Al-Arab, and how she grew the portfolio of programs to provide youth such opportunities to dozens of different programs in each country. Soraya was at heart a social innovator, someone always seeking new and more effective ways to serve more students, always asking questions, open to evidence, to learning, always seeking truth. She was deeply interested in producing significant educational change at scale. She once invited me to do an evaluation of the impact of some of the programs of Injaz in six countries in the Middle East. She was interested in and respectful of evidence, she had great expectations and hope in the power of human reason, and of science, to guide human action and social development. She hoped the programs she was working so hard to bring to thousands of youth in the Middle East would help them gain the necessary respect for reason, for science, for evidence, and the skills to work with others so they could collaborate in improving the world.

Soraya was also a generous spirit. I invited her several times to be a guest speaker in my graduate classes at Harvard. She always obliged, often joining us via video-conference when it was late for her in the evening, often on holidays, so my students could see her on a Friday morning at Harvard. She consistenly inspired them, and she inspired me too. It was obvious to all of us that in seeking to transform education in the Middle East this young woman was taking on powerful interests, forces clinging to a past that depends on youth that accept authority without questioning. Soraya was always questioning, she wanted others to learn to question, she lived by Bernard Shaw’s idea thata ‘Some people see things as they are and ask why. I dream things that never were, and ask why not?’.
Soraya did more than ask hard questions, she built things that would not have been without her leadership. She was a remarkable force for change and for good in the Middle East. With her intelligence, determination, charisma, and her consistent optimism and bright smile, she made it possible for hundreds of thousands of young people to gain the skills to understand that a better future is possible, and that it is theirs to build.

I last saw Soraya about a year ago. She was attending an entrepreneurship education conference in Boston, and gave me an impromptu call at the end of the conference. I invited her to join us for dinner with friends who were visiting from Singapore. She came home, her suitcase ready to go straight to the airport. She looked tired that day. She told us it was tiring to keep working with governments to persuade them to sustain their efforts to empower young people. She was tired of having to start and restart negotiations as government turnover threatened lack of continuity and support for the programs she had worked so hard to build. Her concern was not for her, but for the youth she believed it was her duty to serve. Her parents were  aging, she explained, and they had helped with her daughter as she travelled extensively throughout the region, but it was going to be harder for them now to provide that support, as they themselves would need more help. She mentioned she was considering creating another organization to focus on teaching math and science in Jordan so she could spend more time with them. As CEO of Injaz she was always on the road and this was hard on her personal life and family. But she would not do this until she could find appropriate succession for the leadership of Injaz, an organization she had given so much of herself to.

I just learned that Soraya passed away in Jordan with her sister Jumana, in circumstances that are not yet clear. I do not know what demons would cut short the life of such a light for the world. I do know, however, than in the 44 years she lived, Soraya Salti made it possible for many youth in her beloved Middle East to become the architects of their own lives. In the process, she taught them, and so many of us who knew her, that an educator can not only touch eternity, she can create it.

Rest in Peace, Soraya. I am so glad to have challenged you in that our first discussion, and deeply and forever grateful that you too took me seriously enough to teach me.

Cambridge, Massachusetts. November 8, 2015.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Teaching in Pakistan as an Act of Love and Courage

Fernando M. Reimers

I awoke this morning to the painful news that seven cowards had entered a school in Peshawar, in Northern Pakistan, where they had murdered 132 students and 9 teachers and staff. My heart goes out to the families and friends of those teachers and students murdered and injured. I share the pain of those in disbelief who struggle to understand that anyone would intentionally target civilians not engaged in combat, in a school, with the deliberate intent of killing them.

The Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility for the attacks, as a retaliation for military actions of the Pakistan military. Only the Taliban, in a world of delusion, think there is a justification for this gruesome act. No one else in the world shares their view of reality, not in Peshawar, not in Pakistan, not in the world. The assassins who conceived that it was fair game to assassinate hundreds of teenagers and their teachers to achieve some goal are alone in their thinking, they lack reason and soul. I can only imagine the grief of their mothers, of their spouses, of their families, in realizing how far the deep end of reason and reality these thugs have fallen. How their cowardice has robbed them of any sense of identification with country, with religion, with tribe and family, with fellow human beings. These murderers, and anyone else who enabled their crime, have no soul, they are not recognizable as members of the human species.

In their madness, these seven criminals targeted students and teachers in a school, a place where together they worked to advance understanding, to gain the knowledge and the dispositions to better understand the world and to improve it. This crime was committed in a house of light and of love.

It was in response to the atrocities committed by other murderers during World War II that those who crafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights included education as one of the basic rights we should, together, work to provide every person on the planet. The hope was simple, in educating all we would create the conditions for sustainable peace in the world. The hope was grounded in the understanding that education can cultivate the capacities that help a person understand another, and help us bridge divides, find ways to work together to improve the world. This is the reason governments and ordinary citizens have collaborated over the last seventy years producing one of the most dramatic transformations in the history of humanity. A transformation that has provided most children in the world the opportunity to go to school. This work is unfinished, the Secretary General of the UN Ban Ki-moon, has proposed even bolder aspirations for this global movement, the education of global citizens, of people who can understand the world in which they leave, our shared global challenges, our interdependence, an education that can prepare us to collaborate with others in eliminating poverty, reverting climate change, resolving conflicts.
The seven criminals who killed students and teachers did not have the soul to understand how their own humanity binds them to the humanity of others. They could not comprehend how they could make common cause with other humans in addressing the challenges of the world. They were alone in the most desperate of solitudes,  of those who have lost all ties to other members of the human race. Whatever schooling these thugs had received, it had failed them. They feared education, teachers, and the empowerment that it produces for students.

With their horrific acts, however, these cowards have shed a light on the importance of the ongoing work of teachers and of those who support them, they have made evident that teachers who endeavor to educate in places where thugs like these fear them, engage in an act of love and courage. This cowardly act underscores the importance, indeed the urgency, of the cause of education for all which activists like Malala Yousafzai advance, the courage of her father who created a school so her daughter and others could gain an education that liberated them from the shackles of prejudice and intolerance, it underscores the importance of the work of teachers all over Pakistan, or public servants who advance the work of schools, of ordinary citizens who support their work, of international development and charitable organizations who advance the universal right of education. 

Today, as I grieve the 141 who lost their lives, I salute them in their dedication to teaching and learning, I salute them in their love and in their courage, and appreciate even more all others who continue to advance the goal of providing all children an education that helps them become fully human, as they recognize the ties that bind them together with the rest of humanity, above all differences. I invite you to join me in supporting, in whatever way is within your means, those who do this work of love and courage.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Should we bring global education to the core of the liberal arts undergraduate curriculum? In this article I explain why we should. What are your thoughts?

Thursday, April 24, 2014

What do we need to do to foster 21st Century Education?

I am convening today a three day Think Tank to discuss what do schools need to teach in the 21st century, and how do we support teachers and schools in that endeavor. You can follow the opening panel of the Think Tank today Thursday, April 24, at 4pm live here

You can also contribute to the discussion on Twitter at #Askwith or #HGSEGlobal, or @FernandoReimers. I invite you to post your thoughts on this blog.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Educational Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Social Activism

We live at extraordinary times to advance educational opportunity. Skills and knowledge are recognized as important by most people, and there is support for the idea that all persons deserve the opportunity to develop their talent. We also have an infrastructure, based on the efforts of the last decades, that provides all children and youth the opportunity to be schooled. We also face challenges, the challenge of translating such access into meaningful learning. What role can entrepreneurs play in helping to accelerate the pace of innovation in addressing this challenge? Should the ability to produce changes at scale in the 'education space' be a requirement to consider someone an entrepeneur? What is the distinction between an entrepeneurial individual in education and a social activist? These are the topics of discussion in this class

What are your thoughts about these topics?

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Educational Innovation, Entrepreneurship and the Role of Universities.

 There is an excellent article in the Boston Globe Today on the efforts MIT is advancing to foster innovation. Well done President Reif!

Why are these efforts exceptional? Why isn't it the norm for Universities to lead in creating an ecosystem that translates research based knowledge into innovative designs to address important problems? What do you think are the barriers that need to be overcome? Should universities more intentionally play this role?

Here are a couple of short articles on the role of universities in promoting innovation