Public practice

Increasingly, organizations tackling society’s most pressing problems are run by executives trained in business schools, where they receive no education related to social challenges, social dynamics or the social sector, generally. In response, GreenHouse helped design, develop and launch the nation’s first doctorate in management, leadership and social innovation – at the University of Southern California Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

The professional doctorate requires students to complete coursework in social and public sector leadership, social sector finance, public discourse, program design and evaluation and social innovation – predicated on GreenHouse’s original work in this area. Students are required to substantively address one of 12 grand challenges facing society, ranging from the human cost of climate change to the impact of stigma.

In its capacity as Innovator in Residence, GreenHouse also developed curricula and content, including casebooks and videos, which are used by faculty and students throughout the program.

Determinedly social

It’s no secret that health care providers need a far better understanding of social factors – like cultural differences, poverty and stigma – just to do their jobs. But to date, these essential factors have been an afterthought in their professional education.

That’s why we worked with the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work to develop and launch the first graduate program in nursing oriented toward these factors and the kind of inter-professional collaboration necessary to effectively address them.

The program was shaped by findings in Health Plus Social, a publication we developed to explore the interplay of social determinants and professional education. Dean Marilyn Flynn wrote this in the foreword: “Conditions of poverty, injustice, and broken human relationships provide the etiology for gunshot wounds, delayed development, late-stage diagnosis, and lack of access to care. … Our experts here note that nursing may have more potential than other health professions in bringing power and authority to the idea of social determinants and incorporating this content into training and professional perspectives.”

As Innovator in Residence, we were part of the new graduate nursing program from its inception through the admission of the first cohort of students in August 2016. Our work continues in exploring how these social factors can inform a new research agenda for nursing science and new forms of doctoral education.

Inhuman capital

Everybody wants school reform. But decade after decade of public debate hasn’t brought us much closer to substantive change. It appears, at least to us, that the problem might be with the debate, itself.

That’s the conclusion we drew from a project called School Is Not School. We drafted and posted online an original, incendiary manifesto, which suggested the role for school ought to be building community. We collected a week’s worth of online comments, then analyzed those comments to see what we could learn from what well-intentioned people thought about the idea.

What we learned is that it’s nearly impossible to divorce the idea of school from human capital development, from preparing individual students for college or career. The social norms related to the purpose of school are pervasive and fixed.

From our report: “Right now, even advocates for greater community involvement in schools tend to view community as a mere external resource that supports schools’ essential activity of adding to students’ skills and knowledge – this human capital development is seen as what the school ‘is.'”

Hearts of children

Virtually everyone agrees that children would benefit from mindfulness training – learning how to be calm, attentive and aware of their thoughts and feelings. But virtually nobody knows how to squeeze mindfulness training into already jam-packed school curricula.

That was at the center of a challenge posed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who in 2004 told a crowd in Vancouver, Canada that the time had come to “educate the hearts and not just the minds of children.” A year later, followers launched the Dalai Lama Center for Peace + Education, which has been trying ever since to integrate mindfulness and public education.

We took up the challenge through our initiative UX for Good, which GreenHouse developed with Jason Ulaszek to enlist top user experience designers from around the world in solving social challenges. Interestingly, the answer we found was unrelated to school curricula and related instead to classroom management. Teachers had independently discovered that they could use mindfulness techniques to more effectively manage disruption and disciplinary issues, leading to quieter, happier classrooms. They were more than happy to share these insights with their colleagues.

This insight led to the Center’s development of Heart-Mind Online, a resource launched to facilitate the sharing of mindfulness resources among teachers and parents.

We have also deployed UX for Good to tackle challenges facing genocide memorials and the livelihood of professional musicians in New Orleans, for which the initiative won the user experience design industry’s top award.

Day one

Innovation is hard work, particularly inside organizations that aren’t equipped to have disruptive ideas or to bring them to life. But that work gets even harder when the instigator has no organizational authority.

That’s why we developed the COBI Fellows Program, a pilot at the University of Southern California Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work to prepare graduate students to lead innovation on day one of their careers.

In its first year, the program won the SAGE/CSWE Award for Innovative Teaching in Social Work Education. From the award announcement: The program “provides a framework for infusing innovative practices in organizations, and engages participants in an interactive experience designed to drive change in social service organizations.”

We developed the program in our capacity as Innovator in Residence, basing the curriculum on our original framework and methodology for social innovation.

Food, sunshine and love

There’s a movement today that argues the arts should occupy an equal place with math and science in school curricula. But in work we did on behalf of the Creative Coalition, we came away with a radically different perspective.

We concluded that enthusiasm for the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering, and math — runs so high on the education scene not just because those subjects lead to high-profile jobs, but because student performance in STEM is easily measured in objective terms. If that’s the scorecard, art doesn’t stand a chance.

But what can be objectively shown is that humans need art to thrive, in the same way they need food, sunshine and love. Therefore, schools must absolutely fight for art’s place within their walls — just not in the same way they aim to raise SAT scores.

“In today’s schools, no curricular subject (even STEM) claims to increase quality of life metrics — there isn’t even a place to declare victory if they do,” our report read. “But social programs do, from school breakfast programs to mandatory vaccination plans. These programs ultimately succeeded when the benefits they provided were viewed as every child’s right — researchers track what happens when kids don’t get a measles shot or a hot breakfast. We should start talking about art’s impact with the same urgency.”

We were enlisted for this work by Tim Daly, president of the Creative Coalition. It is one of several projects in which we’ve untangled the social norms related to art, including those in hospitals and corporations.

Insight into the unknown


Society is vastly underestimating the potential of the humanities to help solve its most difficult problems. Worse still, the social norms of universities persuade the best-trained humanists that they can only work on problems that perfectly match the narrowest version of their expertise.

We did our best to blow up this myth at the Humanities Without Walls pre-doctoral workshops in 2015 and 2016, working with humanists from 15 research universities to tackle society’s wicked problems, including electoral reform, the social impact of driverless cars and the American way of dying.

After our work together, a participant captured our perspective beautifully, writing that the humanities “give us access to how we think about things. Humanities are adept at giving us insight into the unknown, allowing us to make decisions in the face of the unknown. Having an advanced degree in the Humanities also means that you have dived deeper – in short, the deeper you go, the better you are at navigating the unknown.”

The workshops emerged in part from work we did with the state humanities councils of Illinois and Indiana. The content is based on our original framework for social innovation, which we’re integrating into a range of professional education – most notably the nation’s first doctorate in social innovation at USC.

More broadly and more assertively

In 2014, GreenHouse was enlisted to be the first-ever Innovator in Residence at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work – the first-ever in a school of social work, the first ever in the social sciences and one of only a handful in any field in the U.S.

Here’s why we agreed: society desperately needs social workers. More precisely, society needs the kind of things social workers know about social context and human systems applied more broadly and more assertively.

The challenge was that social workers were ill-prepared to play that larger role. Overcoming the challenge required a culture change — in the field and in its professional education.

So far, so good. Recruited for this role by Dean Marilyn Flynn, our partnership with the school has been highly productive. Together, we have developed and launched the first-ever doctorate in social innovation, the first graduate program in nursing within a school of social work, and an award-winning masters fellowship in social innovation.