Ask any struggling city about the best way to reclaim its former glory and you’re likely to hear about new roads, a refurbished downtown or tax breaks for big, new employers. But these cities rarely consider investments in human infrastructure, in the next generation of residents who will lead the cities’ various institutions and community groups.
That was the big idea behind the GreenHouse Fellowship, which we developed and piloted in East Chicago, Indiana — the archetypal struggling, Rust Belt community. With the Foundations of East Chicago, we recruited a handful of new graduates from the local high school – students described by their teachers and peers as savvy, popular and influential – and gave them a year of intensive training, in community organizing, civic innovation and hands-on community service.
In GOOD Magazine, Andrew Benedict-Nelson laid out the core concept of the program, imagining it as a “third path out of high school”:
“Using community-organizing techniques, a trained staff would help the young people answer the question, ‘How would we make this town different if we were in charge?’ The students would then spend the rest of the year designing and implementing a major initiative to make that change happen. …
“When young people turn 18 in this country, they’re told to head to college and build a life for themselves. But many of them would be well-served by an option that lets them first spend some time building something in their own communities.”
Our engagement with East Chicago initially grew out of School Is Not School, another effort to question the social norms of the American education system.