Guest blog by Jo Holton, Program Lead at MasterCard Foundation at the University of Edinburgh. Originally published at Medium.com
This past month, I was lucky enough to share the stage with some amazing speakers (including the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon) to share our reflections on supporting young people as part of the launch of the Fire Starter Festival. The Festival is a wonderful space to celebrate and ignite creativity and innovation in the public service and the launch was definitely in this spirit. In the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, the morning took a silent disco approach — speakers were perched in spots throughout the museum and their reflections were being streamed straight into participants’ headphones as they explored the space. It was definitely a new way to present but it felt comfortable, authentic and rooted in the message.This talk came at a powerful time for me as we are waist deep into Year 2 of the Scholars Program, in the midst of recruiting our third group of students, and I am preparing for maternity leave and my first baby — I am feeling deeply reflective on my work, my childhood, and my future. There have been numerous threads throughout these reflections — one being a note of wisdom from my mom. I wanted to share my talk here.
“When I was a teenager, I dreamed of being a professional volleyball player.
I spent hours in the gym, took any chance I could to play, and put my heart and soul into my dream. During the regular season with my local team, my coach stopped playing me with no real explanation. Despite weeks of trying my best, I came home from training one night heartbroken and discouraged. On telling my mom about it, she looked me square in the eye and said ‘so what are you going to do about it?’. From there, she helped me map out a plan to talk to my coach and think about things I could do in my training program to get better.
The next day, my teenage self (terrified and shaking) approached my male adult coach to tell him how much I wanted to contribute to the team and asked him what I needed to do to play.
Years later I would go on to be an All-American volleyball player, captain to a top-ranked volleyball team, and a three-time Final Four player.
On reflection, that moment with my mom changed everything. She didn’t tell me what to do or offer to do anything for me. She didn’t brush me off, patronise me or make me feel silly for my feelings. She gave me something that I had all along without realising it — she gave me agency, she gave me power, she gave me control of a narrative that I didn’t know was mine. By challenging me — she supported me and stoked a fire in my belly I didn’t realise was there.
That fire would invite an eclectic & entrepreneurial adventure that would take me all over the world.
To the country Georgia working in refugee camps and collective centres.
To a legal aid clinic in downtown Kingston.
To being an viral internet sensation where we not only launched a product to get women cycling in skirts but brought awareness to the experience of women on the roads.
To connecting with 50 cities worldwide through CycleHack — a global movement giving everyday citizens a chance to improve their journeys.
To Edinburgh where I spent years exploring new ways of working with young people in a learning environment.
Which led me to my current role with the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program at Edinburgh University.
Now this is a dream job. I get to spend everyday working with young people from Africa who are firestarters to the core.
The Mastercard Foundation believes that education is the way for young people to change their destiny and make a difference in their communities. Through their Scholars Program, Edinburgh University has received funding to provides scholarships to Africans with great potential but few educational opportunities. Over 7 years, we will welcome 200 students to Edinburgh to study on full scholarships on academic programs across the University. Currently in our second year, we have had 33 Scholars on the Program and 6 graduates with a majority of the Scholars being women.
Central to the scholarship is the idea of transformative leadership — how your values, beliefs, and principles enable you to make a positive impact on your community. On top of their studies, we run a leadership program that helps Scholars understand, practice and embody transformative leadership. It includes a holistic support structure, reflective touchpoints, and experiential learning opportunities such as placements in the UK and the continent and summer schools with community partners in and in Kampala.
The more I reflect on our role, we are the scaffolding for their leadership journey — they are the architects that build and navigate their learnings and experiences to prepare them for the transitions they will face for the rest of their lives.
Their journeys to Edinburgh have been full of dedication, triumph, heartbreak, resilience, and fire-starting passion.
A man wanting to change the way his country addresses female genital mutilation while raising two young girls of his own.
A woman who uses the spoken word to empower young women to see the value in themselves in her community.
A man who lost family members to terrorism and launched his own organisation in the country to rise up against terrorist groups
A woman who slept on the streets with her heart set on getting an education so she can help make a change in her country.
Education and enterprise to them is answering the question ‘so what are you going to do about it?’. It’s finding where their skills match the needs of their communities and countries.
And my mom’s question has woven its way through the design, delivery and content of the Scholars Program at Edinburgh. Through each step of the journey — we strive to give them agency to understand themselves, shift their narratives, stand up and practice leadership, and create a road map for going forward based on their values.
And it’s important right now — our young people in Harare, Zimbabwe to Aberdeen, Scotland are preparing for a complicated world which requires resilience, creativity, systems thinking, and a whole lot of confidence in managing uncertainty with little resources. It needs authentic transformative leaders who know when to stand up, when to lead, when to follow, when to wait and when to walk alongside.
The lessons of my journey and the Scholars Program don’t necessarily give me answers today but instead — provocations. As educators, civil servants, designers, parents, mentors, role models, neighbors, active citizens and firestarters — what are we going to do about it?
How might learning journeys prepare young people for all the transitions they will experience throughout their lives?
Oftentimes the greatest lessons we learn are not in the classroom, but are experienced by rolling up our sleeves and taking our learning out into the wild. Be it the volleyball court, in internships, through volunteering, or getting a chance to actually work with a community on a problem — deep transformative learning happens in real life where we can play, practice, fail, and collaborate without hierarchy.
This idea of wild learning builds experiences that young people can draw from for the rest of their lives as they navigate their careers, opportunities and challenges.
This isn’t just about young people getting jobs — but being active, engaged, and compassionate citizens of their communities.
How might we create ecosystems which nurture confidence?
We talk a lot about authenticity and vulnerability on the Scholars Program. One Scholar told me she had enjoyed being on a program that valued her whole self, not just her as a student. She said it helped her feel brave and bold.
To create a community of leaders, they need to be able to understand who they are and where they are going — they have to be confident in their authenticity and vulnerability. I would argue that this requires a great deal of reflection and spaces where we can give feedback to one another. How might we design learning journeys that include these components to help our young people feel brave, bold and confident?
And lastly, how do we be our own product? How do we lead by example?
We talk a lot about this within the team — if we are cultivating a space of transformative leaders, how are we ourselves practicing that? How are we taking risks, collaborating, failing and getting up and trying again. How are you modeling this behavior to show young people that change is possible, we don’t have to operate within the box.
The reason my mom’s question was so powerful to me is because time and time again — I saw how she answered that question. I saw what she did about it. Through her job, through decisions she made in her life, through her role as a mother, partner, friend, and neighbour. I saw her fight for social justice and be an advocate to those who were vulnerable and couldn’t stand up for themselves. I saw how her faith led her to take compassionate action.
As the Scholars Program grows, as today is a launch of countless firestarting events all over Scotland — I look forward seeing how our Scholars and how this room & those across the country respond to the question — so what are you going to do about it?”