Four Walden graduates share how they’ve reinvented their careers to become social change agents in their schools, businesses, and communities.
By Camille LeFevre
Some innovation is slow and steady, like developing vaccines, new farming methods, or an energy-saving light bulb. But every once in a while, someone breaks with the status quo to create radical change—a disruptive innovation. For Walden graduates, pursuing positive social change, progressive or disruptive, is part of their DNA. Here, four alumni share how they’ve applied the scholar-practitioner model to break with business as usual for the better.
Traditionally, leaders are developed at the top of an organization. Arnita Taylor ’12 has turned this tradition on its head: She develops leaders at all levels of an organization, specifically women she calls “tag leaders.”
“Tag leaders are people who work in their communities to start things on their own whether it’s by joining or forming an organization to address a need or create awareness,” she explains. “I learned about tag leaders in one of my textbooks at Walden.” Although these leaders may not have any formal leadership training, through networking or “tagging” others, they create partnerships that enhance and enrich their communities.
“Research studies show that if women are going to grow as leaders, it needs to be at the hand and heart of other women,” Taylor continues. To become one of those women, she founded Eight Ministries in Keller, Texas, while she was an MS in Leadership student. In the fall of that year, Taylor began holding leadership seminars at the local library. Her attendees have ranged from academics and professionals to stay-at-home moms. Her goal is to help women become better leaders to maximize their relationships and mentor those around them.
Her curriculum for Eight Ministries and its seminars focuses on the four things she believes every leader should know: conflict (“It’s ever-present, and we need to manage it”); change (“Life is an evolutionary process. We need to be able to take ourselves emotionally, psychologically, and behaviorally through the change process”); communication (“Leaders need to be direct and clear, as everyone hears through their own filter”); and character (“Lead from the inside out, from your experiences and beliefs”).
Also part of Taylor’s vision? Enjoyment. “A learning environment should always be fun,” she explains. “The topics we’re covering are serious. We give people a vast amount of information to process during the seminars. Our approach is: Let’s learn. We want to give you the tools to lead and influence so you can take these new skills back home to make a positive impact on your community.”
After a student disciplinary hearing four years ago, a principal in Dr. Laurel W. Olexa’s school district wearily turned to her and said, “We need to find new ways to reach difficult students.” Instead of simply attributing disruptive behavior to a troubled home life or a student’s psychological or physical challenges, he explained, we need new approaches to engage students in more productive behaviors. Olexa, who graduated from Walden in 2001 with a PhD in Psychology, had an idea.
Olexa was already taking her trained and certified therapy dog, a cockapoo named Opie, to nursing homes where he enlivened elderly residents. What if she took him to the Saugerties Central School District in New York where she works as a psychologist? The first day Opie accompanied her “the change was amazing,” she recalls. All of a sudden, the children weren’t slouched or begrudgingly attending counseling sessions. “They were alive, engaged with the dog, and conversing with me and each other,” Olexa says. “I thought, ‘Wow. This really works.’ ”
It works because Opie and Oz (Olexa's other trained and certified therapy dog) serve as curly, fluffy gateways through which the students can “let down their guard and open up,” she explains. “Kids will sit on the floor, hold a dog in their arms, and start talking. The conversation starts out about the dog and then gets into issues they’re dealing with.
“Walden taught me to think outside the box,” she says. After she saw improvements in children who interacted with the dogs, she took the initiative a step further. She now works with special education teachers to teach students to sew dog and cat beds. To date, they’ve made more than 200 beds, which they’ve donated to animal shelters.
“We’re not only teaching the students a skill—and some are now so proficient with a sewing machine they’re doing the whole bed themselves,” Olexa says, “They’re also learning to take pride in how their work makes others happy. And it all comes from their enthusiasm for Opie and Oz.”
Since she started bringing her dogs to school, other staff members have had their dogs trained and certified. Their positive influence also goes beyond her room. Students who rarely speak greet Opie and Oz in the hall. “I walk in the door with the dogs,” says Olexa, “and it’s cause for celebration!”
Clint Berry ’09 wants to see profits that serve people; to do that he launched Experiment Inc. in 2009 near his home in Anaheim, Calif. Through the nonprofit, he’s developing connections between consumers, businesses, and nonprofits for the greater good. The disruptive question he’s asking is: Would you be more likely to shop at a business if you could request that a percentage of the proceeds from your sale goes to your favorite nonprofit? Berry’s willing to bet you would.
Entrepreneurs by nature are more than busy, but he founded the company while an MBA student at Walden. During his studies, he wrote a plan for a café where patrons chose a humanitarian project to receive a percentage of the payment for their food order. He later designed a program to allow customers to present a coupon to support a social cause when making a purchase at a local business. “The merchant would staple the receipt to the coupon and at the end of the month settle up with us,” Berry explains.
But the question still remained: Were these designs simple enough to allow consumers to directly impact nonprofits with every purchase? In 2012, Berry decided to revamp the program, go digital, and launch Experiment’s most innovative project to date: a smartphone app for its project called Mark It Place.
The mobile app connects consumers with nonprofits when they make a purchase at a participating business that has agreed to donate up to 20% of each purchase. As of last fall, more than 40 businesses in the Glendora, Calif., area and 30 businesses in Riverside, Calif., have made a commitment to Mark It Place. The nonprofits involved range from the American Heart Association and World Wildlife Fund to local organizations like Shepherd’s Pantry and Stepping Stones for Women.
“The app enforces triple bottom-line economics: for people, planet, and profit,” he explains. “It teaches consumers to think differently and realize they have power to make businesses become more socially aware and responsible.” Conversely, he adds, “The app is also a great way for businesses to attract new customers!”
In collaboration with his seven-member team, Berry has developed the Experiment website into a tool kit that allows individuals to raise money for their favorite causes in everyday ways. Users can see how much they have donated, nonprofits can sign up as partners and monitor their proceeds, and businesses can participate.
Eventually, Berry wants to nationalize the program. “I’d like anyone who is flying into one of the top 50 cities in the U.S. to be able to find and patronize a business or restaurant that’s part of Mark It Place in support of their favorite nonprofit,” he says.
“Oftentimes, entrepreneurs are willing to risk their time and resources because of potential returns on their investment,” Berry continues. “Our team of social entrepreneurs is unique in that we’re taking the same risks, but the reward is for others. I chose Walden because of its focus on social change, which was already my sole motivation for business. Today, Mark It Place is in perfect congruence with Walden’s values.”
“My school is Title 1, which means 80% of our students live in poverty,” explains Deb House, a 2005 MS in Education graduate who teaches seventh grade in Citrus Heights, Calif. “I started thinking about the factors that separated my students from those in 90/90/90 schools,” schools in which 90% of students live in poverty, but 90% perform at the 90% percentile.
Through her research, House came up with two critical needs: parent involvement and direct feedback to students. In response to the first, she wrote and received a Nell Soto grant for training from the Sacramento City Unified School District’s groundbreaking Parent Teacher Home Visit Project. Her objective? To visit with students and their parents on “their own turf.”
Today, she attempts to visit each one of her 68 students. “Sometimes we meet in the students’ homes, and they show me their family pictures and trophies, and we talk about their hopes and expectations. Sometimes we meet at Starbucks. But every visit makes a difference. They realize I care, that I’ll be paying attention to them. They know they’ll be successful on some level.”
Another outcome from her home visits is that House’s students are rarely disruptive. As a result, they learn more. “Not every student is wildly successful,” she says, “but they’re learning.”
Beyond initial relationship building, the home visits also impact how House makes assignments to students. “I gathered a lot of data that made me realize everyone’s home isn’t a great environment for homework,” House says of the research she did while a student at Walden. “When I started making home visits, I gained even more insight that has affected my classroom policies. We now have homework help available before school each morning for students who need either a quiet place to work or a credentialed teacher who can provide help.”
Once students are in school, House makes a point to continue the personal partnerships by offering tailored feedback.
Three times a year, in conjunction with weekly reviews of items in students’ goal-setting binders, she meets with students individually to discuss test scores, grades, and goals. “Students begin to realize what they’re capable of and what they need to do to achieve more,” House says. “They’re enthusiastic when they see how they’re meeting their goals.
“In the first class I took at Walden, we spent a lot of time reflecting on our lives as teachers,” she continues. “We were asked to write a personal goal statement. I made a commitment to do whatever it took to help my students be successful. Both home visits and goal setting do that.”
House’s positive work has also spread beyond her own classroom. Other teachers in her school have adopted her innovative goal-setting system for their students, and 13 of her colleagues make home visits. House is also a trainer for the National Parent Teacher Home Visit Project.
“I’m highly motivated to continue this work, because I know what a difference it makes,” she says. “When a student makes the leap from basic to proficient and high-fives me or gives me a fist bump and shouts out ‘This is the year!’ ” House adds, “I know that relationship building really does matter.”