Unlock the American Dream

Update: this originally appeared on the IDEO website back in 2015/16, and since been taken down. Here is a PDF saved of the original for reference.

How might we reimagine higher education to improve our outcomes as a society?

Education does not equal social mobility | How might we change that?

Growing up in a wealthy town without any wealth of my own made it easy to see what my peers had, and what I may never have.

The inequality was in my face on a daily basis. Why should I bother trying to compete when my peers already won? I thought we were all equal, yet, it seemed as though my peers were born at the finish line while I was still looking for my sneakers.

Brand new cars. Mansions. My mother told me not to worry — this was going to make me a stronger person. She was right, and I love her for it.

We never had much, but we always had enough. My parents divorced when I was about three. I don’t see much of my biological father. Not sure where he lives. It’s been about seven years now.

Looking back I can see I had little-to-no new opportunities, but at the time I did not even know the difference. If I had opportunities in the past then I may have missed them if they were suddenly gone.

In high school, I did not take my SATs, I was never prepared for college, I did not know I was supposed to apply to college, the leadership in my highschool must not have thought I was college-material, and since I had performed poorly academically it meant that I was not allowed to go to college. My inability to showcase my talents in memorization had ruined my opportunity to become something in the world. It was not until after I graduated high school did I realize all my friends had left for college. Why was I still home? Wasn’t I good enough to go to college? What did I do to cause myself to be born into this cycle?

I went to the local county college for one semester, earned high grades, transferred to a school in Massachusetts, and moved out of the house permanently. I realized I might have a better opportunity to access the resources I needed if I was not in the same environment that enabled me to be unprepared for university. I did everything on my own for the next decade. It was overwhelming at times. Especially that first time I had to go from office to office on a college campus with each person telling me I have to go back to the place I was previously. The basic life skills in how to manage these things were all knew to me.

I majored in sociology because I was interested in learning more about inequality and social problems and what I might be able to do to fix it. After four years, I came to the realization that I was not going to be taught how to solve social problems. We talked about them a lot. I could describe them and give you the definitions. However, nobody looked at me and said, “Daniel, this is how you get involved with your community and start resolving some of these issues for yourself and your fellow Americans.”

As I was preparing to graduate with no job, no marketable skills, and no future, I was beyond disappointed. I used money I didn’t have to pay for tuition that didn’t result in the outcomes I had hoped. I did not know that getting a degree in sociology was useless unless I was staying in school to get my PhD. I should have met with an academic advisor on the first day, and continued to meet with an advisor frequently throughout the course of my college career.

In 2007, I had 118 credits complete. I needed two more credits to finish my bachelor’s. It was obvious that my degree was not going to do anything for me. I made the decision to drop out and not finish the last two credits.

After many phone calls from my mother, in July 2009, I decided it was time to finish. I went online to register for a random summer class. I wanted something that would be quick and painless. I was excited to sit in the back of the classroom, keep to myself, and sleep through most of it.

I could never have expected what was about to happen next.

Teaching the Action Horizon

Through this immersive academic experience I learned how to use new media to analyze complex social problems.

I walked into the classroom on the first day, and I was presented with a surprise. There were no desks. There were about 16 chairs organized in a circle. Multiple video cameras were set up to record the circle of chairs from every corner of the room. So much for sleeping through this class.

Somehow, I registered for a pilot class that had just been invented by the Executive Director of the Writing Program, Dr. Richard E. Miller. The class was sponsored by Apple, we had an Emmy nominated backpack video journalist, Bill Gentile, train us during the second week, and I learned how to use the internet for something other than a distraction.

I knew, on the first day, this was the moment I had been waiting for. I immediately knew that I had finally found what I was missing.

Through this immersive academic experience I learned how to analyze complex social problems using new media. I have come to find this skill to be worth great value as it may be the key to a door that leads to an opportunistic future for humankind. Look for me in the video…you can see/hear me say “This has to come with me.”

Reconnecting With My Humanity

This class reconnected me with my humanity. Something magical happened to me when I was collaborating with my group on our project. We had to research the gray area of a particular issue. It took at least a full eight hour day for me to understand that the research we were doing on the laptops in class was not necessarily looking for any one thing in particular. I must have raised my hand ten times asking one of the teachers or mentors, “Is this right? How about this? Should I do it this way?”

Typically, we were told to memorize things in school, and match the letters up with exact answers. This type of testing did not prepare me for the realities of the economy.

In this class, we were working on a project from day one. We were told what the end goal was — a video. We were given tools and skills through short lessons provided by the professor at the beginning of the course. It was up to us to work together to determine who was going to do which parts of the project and to figure out how we might best leverage the collaborative power of working with four people.

Each group was to have completed their video by the last day of class. I had never interviewed someone or edited video or created anything close to this project. I had to make decisions about which direction to take my research in. I was given the agency to make these decisions myself. Filming the various stakeholders in the community as they voiced their emotions and voiced their concerns I absorbed their presence and listened with intention. To see how appreciative these people were that someone was willing to listen to them and create access to information showcasing their story was incredibly moving. This is what life is all about. Socializing. Helping. Seeing the joy in someone’s eyes.

Image titThank you for everything, Julia.le

This is when I began to establish the relationships with community members who helped me sew myself into the cultural fabric of the city.

Immersing myself in the community

After the class was over, I utilized those relationships. I immersed myself in the community. I had never done anything like this. “Getting involved in the community” was not something the “cool kids” would do.

The first person I followed up with was a community organizer who was working in local city politics. I quickly learned there was no access to information in the city. Residents had almost no way to find out what was going on unless they attended the city council meetings for themselves. This was nearly impossible for most who worked various jobs to support their families.

I began filming city council meetings to provide a window into the way things were running.

That led to me filming the board of education meetings for mothers who would call me because of a situation happening with her child.

After working in government, politics, and education, I naturally moved into the art and culture scene. In the following video, you will see an event I hosted at my home — that’s my apartment in the video — ArtHouse can take place in any home, apartment, building, or available space.

The organizers will come to the home the night before the event and transform the space into an art museum, spoken word poetry performance, and basement show with bands from the local area.

I settled into the art and culture scene.

I enjoyed it the most. I felt most welcome. Perhaps there was less need for the oversight, checks, and balances that don’t seem to exist in society at-large.

One of the videos was a 45 minute documentary for an all ages arts and music event known as, Hub City Revival. Here is the trailer:

I filmed, edited, and produced about 10 videos for local organizations over the course of the year. Each project allowed me to deepen my sense of empathy for others. Especially the Haiti Tribute in Highland Park:

I would soon be invited to teach my own 16-week undergraduate course while simultaneously building my first business.

I ran new media, social innovation, and entrepreneurship workshops with several departments, and was grateful to be an instructor for 18 months as I continued to refine my creative skills and build my business.

Another notable ethnographic project of which I immersed myself in were for the Rutgers School of Social Work’s Summer Housing Internship Program.

Transformative Learning Experiences

Something happened to me in the class. That “something” I refer to is one of the transformative learning experiences we now offer our scholars in Action Horizon Institute. I realized if we offer this training early in the program, then it will cultivate their empathy at the earliest possible moments of their education.

If we are able to grow empathetic students, and citizens at-large, the future of our species may be bright. Additionally, empathy will drive the decisions the students make as they move through their life.

As it did for me, it will recalibrate the scholar’s mindset, reconnect her with her humanity, and cultivate a deep sense of empathy.

Growing humans to build businesses that SOLVe Social Problems

Today, we suffer from the same unsolved social problems which have existed for centuries. We participate each day in a system that perpetuates the existence of the same unsolved social problems which have plagued this great nation for centuries.

I did a little card sorting to understand the thoughts in my mind.

I turned this process into the Social Enterprise Ecosystem Methodology and rolled out the first iteration in Princeton, NJ (2015):


Thinking through some of the data to support why I took the actions I did…

1. Prove the existence of unsolved problems

If you follow the news, you will have noticed the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) set by the United Nations.

Do not be fooled by their fancy colors.

We have a serious problem. Or, shall I say, we have at least 17 serious problems.Each requires creative solutions.

Do you think we are educating people to become creative problem solvers?

2. Prove that the social problems I validated in #1 are in existence because of the way business is done in this country

It has been 239 years since we said, “All men are created equal.” That was signed and declared by our founding fathers who owned black slaves. The slave labor was how the founding fathers made money and upheld their position in the economy. Has anything changed since then?

“This debate, of human rights versus economic profit was the leading cause of Jefferson’s Slavery passage being omitted from the final copy of the Declaration of Independence. The United States’ Declaration of Independence underwent a series of revisions before it was finally signed…
I wanted to get a little more validation to help us make the connection between social problems and business. Here is Michael Porter, Harvard Business Professor:

In recent years, business has been criticized as a major cause of social, environmental, and economic problems.
Porter goes in great depth about the need to fundamentally shift the way we think about and build businesses. Look up the term “shared value” and investigate the topic when you have time. For now, let’s move to the marketing sector to hear what they have to say about the problem:

Somewhere along the way, people got the idea that maximizing investor return was the point. It shouldn’t be. That’s not what democracies ought to seek in chartering corporations to participate in our society.
3. Prove the connection between business and education

This is where it gets really good. I needed to figure out how to make the connection between business and education outside of my personal assumptions. I was browsing through the Labyrinth Bookstore and randomly purchased three books – Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, Machiavelli’s The Prince, and Susan Nussbaum’s Not for Profit. To my delight, Nussbaum became the key to this puzzle by bridging the failed education system with the dire outcomes of the economy:

“A declining emphasis on the study of the humanities could lead to a world of useful profit makers with no imaginations.”
There are a variety of passages that can be cited to prove these points and make these connections. If you do a quick search for any of the people I mention above you will likely find even more. Let me know if you do!

It is important to note here that I am not saying education or business are to blame. No person or institution is to blame. If you unhappy about the state of affairs the only place to look is the mirror.

4. Prove the opportunity is emerging in the gap of disconnected youth, unfilled jobs, and the incentive for taxpayers to get involved.

Why should you care?

The following stakeholders are involved whether they want to be or not.

Youth: 5.6 million Americans ages 16–24 are neither employed nor enrolled in school.
Taxpayers: $34 trillion dollars will be paid by taxpayers unless we reconnect this cohort with the ability to participate and contribute in the economy.
Businesses: 5 million jobs are currently unfilled because of unskilled workforce
Do you want to make the decisions of how your life turns out, or do you prefer to leave those decisions to chance?

Clay Shirky, nationally distinguished author who attended Yale and is now a professor at NYU, writes about the social and economic effects of internet technologies. He says,

The number of high-school graduates underserved or unserved by higher education today dwarfs the number of people for whom that system works well. The reason to bet on the spread of large-scale low-cost education isn’t the increased supply of new technologies. It’s the massive demand for education, which our existing institutions are increasingly unable to handle. That demand will go somewhere.
Learn more at danieldalonzo12-23-2021.tempurl.host

I appreciate your time, and look forward to connecting with you


Daniel D’Alonzo

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

First, we shall cultivate a deep sense of empathy in our students to reconnect them with their humanity. In doing so, it will empower them to make mission-driven, purposeful decisions in regards to their profession. It will also reactivate the masses into the long lost art of being American citizens.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *