Creating a Globally Competent Generation: An Interview with Dana Mortenson

Creating a Globally Competent Generation: An Interview with Dana Mortenson

Dana Mortenson of World Savvy

Introduction: Dana is the Co-Founder and CEO of World Savvy, a national education nonprofit working to educate and engage youth as responsible global citizens. World Savvy supports change agents in K-12 education to create more inclusive, adaptive schools that ensure all young people can develop the skills and dispositions needed to thrive in a more diverse, interconnected world. World Savvy programs provide support at three critical levels to deeply integrate global competence into teaching, learning and culture: student engagement, teacher capacity and school and district leadership support. Since 2002 she has led the organization through significant national expansion, reaching nearly 750,000 middle and high school youth and more than 6,000 educators across 38 states and 28 countries, from offices based in Minneapolis, San Francisco and New York. Dana is an Ashoka Fellow, was named one of The New Leaders Council’s 40 under 40 Progressive American Leaders, and was winner of the Tides Foundation’s Jane Bagley Lehman award for excellence in public advocacy in 2014. She is a frequent speaker on global education and social entrepreneurship at high profile convenings nationally and internationally, and World Savvy’s work has been featured on PBS, the New York Times, Edutopia and a range of local and national media outlets covering education and innovation. We are honored that Dana also serves on our Advisory Council at the Institute for Humane Education.

Zoe: What motivated you to choose the system of education as your focus for creating change and building a more just and sustainable future?

Dana: I grew up in a family where education was highly valued, and so I always saw it as the foundation for everything else in life. My Dad was a teacher. He was a college professor when I was young, then moved into K-12, providing coaching and professional development to educators. He was on the School Board of my K-8 school. He lived, worked, and taught in West Africa before I was born, and my house was filled with artifacts from that experience (books, games, art, furniture). From very early on, I recognized education as a system and saw it as foundational to everything – how we develop our worldviews, understand how to interact with others and in community, and how we get a sense of what’s happening around us. I was aware that my K-12 experience siloed learning about my community and the world, and didn’t engage in discussions which could build global and cultural competence, including the telling of our own history in the U.S. For instance, this month is the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre. I never learned about this massacre in school, or about myriad other critical lessons that would have helped me understand the world. Those were conversations I was having outside of school, and this always seemed odd to me. So, years later, when Madiha (my co-founder) and I connected in graduate school in NYC, it felt like an inflection point to do more to address this. We were studying international affairs when 9/11 happened, and a xenophobic backlash followed. The need to build more awareness, understanding, and skills for global engagement felt urgent and acute. Knowing that our K-12 education system in the U.S. was doing very little to develop graduates who were ready to thrive in a diverse, interconnected and complex world, or even within our multi-ethnic democracy at home, the leap into founding a systems-change approach rooted in education was a natural next step. And so World Savvy was born in 2002.

Zoe: Has your strategy shifted over the 19 years since you founded World Savvy? If so, why and how?

Dana: 19 years into this work, so much has changed even as much has remained constant. At our core, we’ve always believed that the approach to change needed to be holistic and systemic. Workshops and festivals alone, isolated from deep, integrated learning, could not significantly change the K-12 system. So our aim has always been to support stakeholders at multiple levels – students, educators, school and district leaders, and communities. Schools have struggled to remain relevant and engaging, particularly as we’ve focused on defining achievement exclusively through test scores for so many decades. We’ve always strived to build programming that broke down the constructed walls between school and community, and to find ways for students to be actively engaged in learning that mattered to them in their own communities. The connection to “global” was always an extension of first examining our own identity, then the community, then the broader world. And our strategy has always been rooted in understanding global competence as a journey, something that is never complete but is aspirational and lifelong (our matrix shares this framework well). Finally, we have always been driven by a deep belief that young people have agency and capacity to contribute to and lead real change. Their potential isn’t confined to a future time and place, or when they’re “old enough” to make a difference. 

That said, our approach to delivering programs and services has changed dramatically over the years. We are focused now on school as the unit of change, and so support schools holistically in broad and deep ways, as opposed to work on an isolated program that one or two educators in one or two grades participate in, in any given year. 10 years ago, you would have come to us and seen a menu of programs, all of which were incredible and impactful – Media and Arts Program, our World Savvy Classrooms, our Educator – but the integration of these as separate endeavors into a school community wouldn’t have the sustained impact we were seeking, which was to transform teaching and learning to center global competence. Now that’s central to our strategy and the decisions we make about partnerships. We’re on track to build out and support a network of 10,000 schools by 2035 that are emblematic of the ‘future-ready” schools we think the world needs, and the learning is something we are excited to share to a broad set of stakeholders envisioning how to re-imagine K-12 education. 

Zoe: Can you paint us a picture of what thriving schools and students look like and how they support and serve the development of thriving communities?

Dana: At World Savvy, we see thriving schools as places where community is not separate, but central; where students feel a sense of belonging and agency in their own learning and can connect it to the real world, in their neighborhoods, communities, and across the globe. We see thriving schools as anchor institutions that are culturally responsive, inclusive, and future-focused and that always keep student’s needs at the center of the conversations about change. 

What will the world look like in 50 years? How will our graduates need to be prepared? The focus here is not on content knowledge or test scores alone, but on the dispositions and skills that that future world will demand of us all such as adaptability amidst significant change, cross-cultural communication and collaboration, critical thinking about complex issues, perspective-taking, and empathy to name just a few. 

For students, school would feel like a place to build them up, center them, value their identities and trust their capabilities, a place that nurtured them as changemakers and leaders with the enormous responsibility of addressing the challenges of the 22nd century. Students would feel that the learning experiences they had access to were connected to the issues they saw around them and in the world, and that it prepared them to be informed and engaged citizens. Most of all, it would reinforce and support their identities as not only citizens of their community, but as powerful changemakers connected to and inextricably linked with communities around the world. 

Zoe: As we both know, the education system generally changes slowly, and education itself is a relatively slow means for creating change. Yet the need to change what happens in schools – for the sake of children and the world – is more essential than ever. What do you think it will take to speed up the process of transforming what happens in schools?

Dana: I did not coin the phrase, but have seen its truth first hand: change moves at the speed of trust. At the end of the day, systems are people, and K-12 is no different. We all know that the fatigue for educators and school leaders is real, and that every one of those individuals enters the profession with a desire to truly help students. The inertia of the system has often made that difficult, since students are so infrequently the center of the conversation or included in decision making. Teachers are also more aware than any other stakeholders of how the system fails students and of the immense and complex challenge of initiating change. 

We’ve seen real change occur when we are connecting with these educators and leaders and tapping into that motivation, but also listening to what they see as essential to their communities. They are our thought partners to help not only envision that change, but to prepare members of their school community to implement it. There are so many intrapreneurs in K-12 education: those inspiring individuals inside the system who lean into moving things forward, even without positional authority. We don’t know their students or their school community better than they do, so our approach has been to center relationships and trust – to learn with them, even as we provide training and support. 

I don’t believe in best practices; this implies there is always a correct approach, absent context. You can’t drop an education program into rural Tennessee and urban Los Angeles with different populations of students and communities represented and expect the same result. What we’ve learned in order to scale change is that knowing and sharing effective principles are key, but there must be opportunity for those with the most knowledge and understanding of the community to contextualize these as they are applied, and that includes student voice.  

I am more hopeful now than I have ever been about the potential for change in education, if only because we’ve arrived at an inflection point where inequity and failures have been so exposed. There is no turning back to “normal” pre-pandemic. We see education leaders taking risks, re-centering whole child approaches, asking hard questions about what young people need to be prepared for the world. I don’t know if K-12 education will exist in its current form in 50 years – brick and mortar buildings delivering stand-alone, subject-specific instruction – but the conversation about re-imagining learning in profound ways is underway, and I don’t foresee backward momentum.