The Future Project Transforms Detroit Public Schools into Playground for Students’ Dreams

2013 BHSI Fellow Andrew Mangino’s The Future Project, co-founded in 2011 with fellow Yale alum Kanya Balakrishna, continues to expand its mission to help urban school students reimagine their schools, communities—and their own futures. With a recent $1 million matching grant from Rock Ventures Founder and Chairman Dan Gilbert—whom Mangino first met at Chicago Ideas Week 2013—The Future Project has put down roots in a new city: Detroit.

2013 BHSI Fellow Andrew Mangino

2013 BHSI Fellow Andrew Mangino shared his vision for The Future Project from the CIW 2013 stage.

Similar to its work in cities like Newark, New Haven, New York City, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., the organization will bring its trademark Dream Directors to the Detroit public school system, where they’ll collaborate with schools’ faculty, administration and students to foster and support students’ passions. Set to be its most expansive city to date, Dream Directors have already started working in five schools, with plans to have Directors in all Detroit public high schools in 2015.

Let’s start back at Chicago Ideas Week 2013. What did you and Dan Gilbert discuss when you met? How did this all come about?
That meeting underscores how much is possible, even in brief encounters, at Chicago Ideas Week. I had hoped to meet Dan because he’s working to revitalize downtown Detroit, and The Future Project has always been really interested in the possibility of moving into Detroit. Right before he was about to speak, we spoke for, I would say, 15 seconds, but in those 15 seconds, we discussed the need for young people to become entrepreneurs, which is what The Future Project does. We agreed that that is what the future of Detroit needed most right now.

And now, it’s just a year later, and The Future Project is in Detroit! What has the reaction been so far?
It’s the perfect city for us to be in, and there’s a great hunger from students, but also teachers and principals, to really focus on how they can play a leadership role in building the future of Detroit.

We don’t think of The Future Project as education reform. We think of it as an initiative to empower people to be leaders and revitalize their city and their country, and for young people to leverage their passions, their purpose and their dreams to do that. Detroit is a city where people have already come together around the idea that it’s going to take their energy and their vision to create the change that everyone agrees is necessary. There’s a real sense of urgency.

It does seem like Detroit is a city uniquely positioned for initiatives like The Future Project. Has that been borne out as you place Dream Directors in schools?
I think there’s clarity about the need to act now in Detroit. With the bankruptcy, with the blight—there are just so many factors that are causing people to say, “It’s now or never.” There is so much reason to believe, and so many amazing people doing amazing things. Young people are the perfect leaders of that transformation because they have all the vision and imagination in the world. Young people in Detroit don’t have any bias that leads them to believe Detroit won’t be in the future what it was in the past. That youthful energy is critical.

What initiatives do you foresee coming out of that “youthful energy”?
There will be thousands of future projects that are born, projects that leverage the vision of students and turn that into tangible actions. It will be organizations, campaigns, movements, businesses and transformations of existing businesses. There will be new social ventures and new products. It will be the birth of a generation of new entrepreneurs.

That definitely seems like a goal in keeping with Dan Gilbert’s ongoing entrepreneurial efforts in Detroit.
I think Dan and The Future Project agree that if we really want to prepare young people for the future, we need to train young people as entrepreneurs, not just as test takers. There’s no better laboratory for that to happen than Detroit.
Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Erin Robertson is managing editor at Chicago Ideas.

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