Jeff Leitner

Leitner is a founder and managing director of GreenHouse, The Center of Social Innovation. He is also Innovator in Residence at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, Bretton Woods II Fellow at New America, and founder and director of UX for Good, Leitner founded and ran Insight Labs and social sector initiatives related to job training, youth development, public policy and basic human needs. He also founded and ran private sector consultancies oriented to public affairs and cause marketing, worked for fourteen years as a political strategist, lobbyist and public affairs consultant, and worked for seven years as a political and government affairs reporter. A more detailed bio is available here.

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.

Movement makers

Today, the relationship between design and social good is old hat. There are ever-increasing numbers of social impact design agencies, conferences and even college degrees.

But we – GreenHouse and Jason Ulaszek – helped launch that movement, when we kicked off UX for Good, the first to marry user experience design and social problem-solving. At the time, it was somewhat heretical; the first piece written about us suggested we were “bullshit” and suggested we stick to solving more conventional problems.

The first challenge was staged in Chicago, where we convened 50 designers from around the country to tackle problems like homelessness, urban violence and mental health. Later challenges took us to New Orleans, where we addressed musicians’ quality of life; Vancouver, where we took on mindfulness education; and Rwanda, where we took on the effectiveness of genocide museums.

The initiative was honored by the user experience industry and has inspired several similar initiatives in the U.S., Europe and Asia.

Cocktails required

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There is an entertaining story about GreenHouse, plans for a global network of high net-worth philanthropists, a professional intuitive, a renowned scholar and a ski chalet in the French Alps. But it’s the kind of story from which very little useful can be learned and that requires a leisurely evening and cocktails.