Why and How We Must Educate Solutionaries: An Interview with Communication Expert Haj Carr

We were introduced to Haj Carr in 2018 by IHE M.Ed. student, Cate Waidyatilleka, who had been his English teacher at the Iolani School in Hawaii. On a visit to Maine, Cate told Haj about IHE. He was excited to learn about our solutionary approach to education and wanted to help. Shortly thereafter, Haj joined our Board of Directors. Haj is the founder of Trueline, a marketing, branding, content, and design firm in Portland, Maine. We are interviewing him because bringing solutionary thinking to the world, and making educating the #SolutionaryGeneration the norm in schooling, takes not just excellent teacher preparation, resources, and a critically important idea, but expert communication and marketing.

IHE: Can you share your unique background, and how it has influenced you as an activist, engaged community member, as well as a skilled communicator across many platforms?

Haj: I come from an ethnically diverse family, and my experiences growing up definitely shaped my perspective and eventual exploration of solutionary learning. My mother is (white-passing) Creole with roots in New Orleans, and my father is African American. Even though he was a straight-edge guy, never breaking the rules, I remember watching, helplessly, as he was physically assaulted by police for driving through a yellow traffic light. 

He didn’t struggle; he didn’t resist the police. He just signaled to my mom to follow him to the station. Later, my mom explained that he was roughed up because he appeared to be with a white woman, her. It was a “crime” without a law to support it, but where we lived in Kansas City at the time, an offense nevertheless. And that was just one instance. Many of my family members turned to drugs and crime, trapped in a world where access to jobs was poor and education even poorer.

When we moved to Hawaii to escape this trap, I learned that inequality had no borders. On the one hand, the aloha spirit was alive and well within a rich culture; on the other, there was a declining indigenous population of native Hawaiians, who – despite being the source of so much richness – had been deeply impacted by exploitation and colonization of land, art, and culture.

This experience opened my eyes to other inequalities far away from those beautiful islands. As a child, I remember learning about endangered animals around the world, and how poaching and deforestation affects their ability to thrive. I also recall being deeply unnerved about the clearcutting of rainforests. 

When I went to college, I was preoccupied with how to change the world. I recognized my goal was lofty (to say the least!), so I became fixated on what issues were most pressing and wanted to solve multiple problems at once. It was around this time that I became part of the solutionary movement without even knowing it. Through my research, I learned that my childhood observations were correct: the world is indeed unfair (though it needn’t be). I also grew convinced that uncovering and addressing root causes to big problems is the only way to change things. We don’t just need to solve problems; we need to fundamentally change our thinking and our systems.

As I grew older, I struggled to find people who shared my ambitions. It struck me that, if I were ever to have an impact on anything, being correct was not enough. I had to learn to show other people how to come to similar conclusions. At first I studied sales and communication with the intent to get people to see “my side.” I wanted to fix the world. I wanted to win. I dedicated years of my life to that pursuit.

I now believe that if I can simply get people to engage in basic rational thinking and research, we will all find more common ground. My quest for selling “my side” has been replaced with a desire to negotiate win-win scenarios where all stakeholders in a given situation walk away from the table with the outcome that does the most good and least harm. This is why, when Cate told me about IHE, I knew I had to get involved.

IHE: You joined IHE’s Board of Directors because you passionately believe in educating the #SolutionaryGeneration. What can you tell others who share IHE’s goals and vision about how to communicate the urgency and power of this mission so that solutionary learning and thinking will take hold in schools, among policy-makers and activists, and in communities?

Haj: To solve a problem, people are often told they need to be an expert with a degree, or that they need to be articulate and fluent in the issue. It’s a modern problem you can see reflected in our politics: people need to be “woke” to participate in dialogue that basically affects everyone. Solutionary learning, however, feels more inclusive. The premise is that you need to have a desire to do as much good as possible while doing as little harm as you can. That’s it. And it’s amazing what can happen when people are empowered with this message.

For instance, I watched 5th graders participating in IHE’s solutionary program tackle topics like climate change, racial inequality, inhumane treatment of animals, depression, and obesity. They didn’t have doctoral degrees or even, in some cases, direct experience with these issues. Nevertheless, they were able to identify root causes as well as the systems that perpetuate these problems. From there, they developed and tested solutions.

So when it comes to the challenge of “how” to empower people to become solutionary learners, I think it’s crucial to communicate the simplicity and accessibility of solutionary learning. A conversation might look something like this. 

Solutionary: “Do you want to help solve the issue of climate change?” 

Solutionary prospect: “Yes, of course”

Solutionary: “Great! Can you agree to think about solutions that do the most good and least harm to our planet, people, and animals?”

Solutionary prospect: “Yes.”

Solutionary: “Perfect! Then let’s start gathering and analyzing data to uncover root causes and systems and then start coming up with solutions.” 

It’s really that simple.

IHE: Imagine a not-too-distant future in which the majority of students are learning to be solutionaries in school. Can you tell us what you think will have been the 3 biggest drivers to reach this tipping point?

Haj: Number one: climate change. If we humans want to continue living relatively safe, stable lives, we must acknowledge and address this problem in a radical new way. Why is solutionary thinking the answer? Because few challenges are more multifaceted, global, or interconnected than climate change. What else can cause fires and flooding? Drought and hurricanes? Heating and deeper cold snaps? Mass migration and overcrowding? Taken together, these challenges will need to be addressed with a deeper kind of thinking, and I truly believe that solutionaries will naturally arise as a response, though not without advocacy, training, and education from organizations like IHE.

Number two: inequality. Gender, country of origin, race, family financial profile, and sexuality are a few of the many factors outside one’s control that determine access to resources in this world. If we don’t address inequality in all of its forms, human society will always be plagued by the cycles of conflict, war, and destructive politics that currently divide us.

Number three: millennial momentum. Every generation leaves its mark, but the millennial generation got people thinking about meaning. In particular, this demographic is comprised of people thinking more deeply about who they are and what they stand for. They’re deciding where they work based on meaning, not just financial gain. They’re living according to values, not just their possessions or their image. And they are demanding a higher ethical code from businesses and government. I find this incredibly encouraging, as well as a natural boost for the solutionary movement.