Editor’s Note: The below post is part of our new Alumni for Impact series, which features alumni who are making a difference in the social sector, specifically in K-12 education, impact investing, nonprofit supportive services and social entrepreneurship. Radha Ruparell, (MBA 2008), heads the Leadership & Learning team at Teach for All, an education-focused nonprofit organization.
When I was 12-years old, my parents took me to visit the rural village in Gujarat India where our family originally came from. The children we met there were filled with spirit, and yet were running around barefoot, poorly nourished, and out of school. It felt unfair to me that I had more opportunities than them just because I grew up in Canada. I didn’t have the vocabulary then, but I knew it just wasn’t right.
Since then, I have become acutely aware of the millions of children around the world who face limits because of where they were born or how much their families earn. Many days, this feels daunting.
What gives me hope is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Every child is born with enormous potential. Nothing is more exciting to me than a world where every child becomes aware of the unique gifts that he or she has to offer the world. Good teachers can be the switch that turn on this light within a child.
I get especially hopeful when I think about those creative teachers, parents, and school leaders who are reimagining education. The current education system is archaic and broken. We need to imagine something completely different. I’m personally dreaming of schools that help kids discover their own strengths, operate with empathy, work across difference, and become conscientious global citizens.
That’s why I joined Teach For All, a global network of 45 organizations that is working to ensure all children have the opportunity to fulfill their potential. In each country, our network partners recruit promising graduates and professionals to teach in high-need schools, and give them the training and development they need to become effective teachers and collaborative life-long leaders who are deeply rooted in these local communities. This profound leadership experience changes these young people and inspires many of them to stay in this movement for a lifetime as teachers, school leaders, policymakers, advocates, and social entrepreneurs who work to change the system from all angles.
At the core of our work is the notion of collective leadership. This is a critical idea to grasp. In a world where we have grown up equating authority with leadership, and have been overly exposed to stories of charismatic individual leaders, we may need to do some unlearning.
Collective leadership means that people at all levels in society exercise leadership, because the challenges are so complex that none of us can tackle them on our own. On a recent visit to Berlin, I met a German police officer working with members of the Arab community to reduce youth crime; a Turkish convict committed to educating his sons so that they can have greater opportunities in life than he did; and an alumnus of Teach First Deutschland whose prior experience as a teacher now informs her work as an official in Berlin’s state parliament. All of these individuals are leading in different and important ways.
To unlock collective leadership, we must create spaces for people with different backgrounds, perspectives and lived experiences to come together. This work of coming together is hard because it forces us to face differences in our beliefs and values. It also requires those of us in positions of power and privilege to confront our own roles in contributing to today’s inequitable systems. If we want to move forward together, we need to face these hard truths, and develop our skills in working across lines of difference.
We must especially engage those who have the least stake in the status quo, including young people, social innovators, and people who have themselves experienced inequities. Those on the margins often have the greatest urgency to upheave the current state of affairs because they are suffering the most today.
Students can also be powerful forces for change as I discovered while listening to six exceptional students leaders at a global network gathering in Bulgaria. Priyanka, a previously shy kid from a low-income community in India, shared how she orchestrated a 10-day internship for students from around the world to come into her home community. Joshua, a ninth-grade student in the UK, stood up for what he felt was right by building broader awareness about autism.
These students were inspired by their own teachers and now are awakening possibility in their fellow students, reminding us it’s not just enough to exercise leadership ourselves, we must also encourage it in others. By growing our collective potential, we can effect far greater change than what any of us can do on our own.