Interview and photos by Jan Osborn.
For more than 30 years, Dallas’ Big Thought has been working to equip youth in marginalized communities to imagine and create their best lives, for themselves and for the world. The organization is now a national model for arts education, after school programs, and juvenile justice intervention. And is now one of six community partnerships in the U.S. helping scale national best practices in social and emotional learning (SEL).
Byron Sanders took the helm of the organization in 2018 and has been building on the organization’s legacy of using creativity to unlock the greatness within his students and his staff.
Sanders is a passionate community leader, sitting on multiple nonprofit boards that are reshaping Dallas’ marginalized communities. When he took on the role at Big Thought, he was well versed in the education space and the need for innovation and creativity to close the opportunity gaps for youth.
“We started working on our ten-year plan three years ago to create a world where young people, particularly those who have been on the negative end, have opportunities. We asked, ‘How do we close the gap?’ and ‘How are we equipping them to imagine to create their best?’”
Big Thought wants to close the wealth gaps for young people by building on students’ creative assets and honing their social emotional learning skills. In fact, the World Economic Forum report of 2020 had “creativity” in its top 10 desired skills sets for tomorrow’s jobs. In other words, while being creative is fun, it isn’t just for fun; it can be a real asset that can be capitalized on later in life.
Although the organization has been around for over thirty years, Sanders knew he needed to get the Big Thought message out there more broadly. That message, combined with the organization’s history of success and its great leadership, helped bring a new audience of supporters. People needed to “understand why Big Thought even existed,” said Sanders.
Through this work, the organization did start to attract new funders, including Mackenzie Scott, who selected Big Thought as one of its donation recipients in the summer of 2021. She donated $1.5 million dollars, which was a catalytic investment for the nonprofit.
“What it did was accelerate our ability to bring on needed team members probably faster and sooner and more sustainably than we had been in the past and certainly faster than we’d anticipated,” said Sanders. “That investment allowed us to look at the org chart and see how we could really staff the organization to ensure it had the best resources and assets to execute the mission well.” In fact, “executing well” was the team’s theme for this year.
The investment also allowed them to bring in powerhouse nonprofit professional, Akilah Wallace. Wallace previously served as executive director for Faith in Texas and was founder of the HERitage Giving Fund, the first Black giving circle serving North Texas.
Bringing someone like Wallace on to the team further underscores the organization’s mission. Everything Big Thought is doing is empowering the creators of the 21st century world, creating these creators as a pathway to a more just and equitable society.
Because the organization has gotten very specific in how they define this, each of its more than 100 community partners understands the end goal. Big Thought calls it the Creator Archetype.
There are five different domains that make up this archetype. The first one is the largest: social emotional learning. These skills are foundational to a person’s wellbeing and ability to connect with the world. The second domain is academics and arts. This domain is typically what students learn during the school day, reading, writing, and math as well as artistic skills. The third domain is digital fluency, a critical skill set to navigate the modern workforce. This can include robotics and coding, as well as data literacy.
Big Thought defines the fourth domain for the Creative Archetype as design thinking. Design thinking is focused on human-centered design, building specific critical thinking skills and project management. Design thinking empowers students to look at the full landscape and synthesize the data.
The last defined domain of the creative archetype is service. This domain helps kids understand that living their best life has an impact on somebody else’s ability to live there. This includes race equity and sustainability. Big Thought creates service projects that give kids the opportunity to flex their civic service muscles.
“We did this Creator Archetype so that we could have the nomenclature, the design map and the language to showcase the value of what all of these experiences are actually providing,” said Sanders. “So if somebody does a theater camp, we’re not saying everybody who goes will become a professional Broadway musical theater actor or actress. But what we are saying is that there are some very distinct 21st century skill sets that you’re building by going to this theater camp.”
And it’s clear the program is resonating. As people are starting to recover from the impact of COVID, Big Thought has seen a huge demand. A demand that they hadn’t even seen in pre-COVID times.
“At the same time as this demand, we are also seeing a lot of economic hardship out there,” remarked Sanders. “A lot of our families are dealing with significant constraints. And because of that, not only is the after school program building those creative assets, but we are also providing the critical needs for families themselves, as they’re trying to get work or working the jobs that they already had. So we’re not only serving youth, but we’re serving the whole family.”
Because of this, Sanders notes that there are many people who can’t afford to pay to attend the programs and Big Thought is focused on raising money to provide no and low cost so everyone can have access to high-quality afterschool enrichment and social emotional learning.
As Big Thought’s leader, Sanders clearly exemplifies the domains of the Creator Archetype and has some big thoughts and ideas for the future. The organization is continuously evolving to meet the real needs of the next generation. In fact in 2022, Sander’s teased that the organization will be engaging academic support in a new and different way. So stay tuned for that.
To learn more about Big Thought, go to www.bigthought.org.