Igniting the Imagination

Using Creativity to Overcome the Opportunity Gap with Big Thought

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A little boy painting a mural

Dallas City of Learning, a citywide initiative to stem summer learning loss, connects students and families to free and low-cost summer opportunities through a digital catalogue, community partnerships, and series of family-friendly events. Photo by Stephanie Drenka, Big Thought 

According to Byron Sanders, president and CEO of the education nonprofit Big Thought, creativity is not just an important workforce skill; it’s the most important workforce skill of the 21st-century. For proof, he noted that the U.S. Department of Labor has reported that it is most likely that the jobs that will be available over the next five to ten years don’t even exist yet. In other words, creativity and imagination are not only key characteristics of productive members of the future workforce, but are necessary tools for shaping what exactly that work will be. 

Creativity, however, is a skill that must be nurtured. And while Sanders believes we’re all born with “an inherent ability to create, to produce, to do extraordinary things,” it’s also true that we don’t all have access to the resources necessary to achieve our highest creative potential. That disparity between access and achievement is known as the opportunity gap. Big Thought wants to close the opportunity gap by providing gateways for all children—particularly those in low-income communities of color where the opportunity gap is most dire— to participate in arts-based activities that will cultivate their curiosity, their ability to work collaboratively, and, most importantly, their creativity. 

Sanders believes that arts learning is the best way to foster creativity because it teaches students how to be open-ended thinkers. “The reason why art is so important is because you’re starting at a place and you don’t know what the creation is going to be at the end of it,” he said. “[When students engage with] the arts, they use the experimental method, but without any guarantee, so that builds a different framing of their work.” 

Teens lift their hands together before taking a group bow

Big Thought’s youth development programs offer young adults outlets for creativity and places to express the power of their voices. Photo by Stephanie Drenka, Big Thought

Roughly 150,000 students in the Dallas metro area each year participate in an arts activity delivered or facilitated by Big Thought, which partners with school districts, the county juvenile system, other city agencies, and nonprofits to deliver after-school and summer programming. 

One of their projects, Creative Solutions, is a partnership among Big Thought, the Dallas County Juvenile Department, and Southern Methodist University (SMU) that works with young offenders on probation. Over the course of seven weeks, participants—who are referred to as working artists—follow one of three tracks: performing arts, visual arts, or digital arts. They are paid a stipend for their time, and at the end of the program, they are expected to deliver a product, whether that’s a series of visual artworks, a performance, or short video interstitials that are shown as part of the performance. Students learn skills such as set design, carpentry, and digital photography and editing, while also working on their emotional intelligence skills, such as empathy, motivation, and communication. 

Along with directly aligning creativity with workforce development, this focus on emotional intelligence is another aspect of Big Thought’s unique approach to arts education. 

“The core skill sets that macroeconomists, CEOS, futurists are all saying young people need to be learning today are two key things. One, how to channel creativity toward productivity. And two, how to build complex human relationships,” said Sanders. 

To the Big Thought way of thinking, for an arts education program to be truly transformative, it not only has to stimulate creativity, but it must strengthen participants’ social and emotional well-being. This provides a foundation from which to foster so-called “soft skills” such as empathy, which are crucial in building relationships with colleagues, consumers, and other stakeholders. 

“In teaching social and emotional well-being, what we’re doing is we’re laying the foundation for people who can step into a workplace and understand how humans work, and then work together in teams and have more productive economies and things like that,” Sanders said. 

Big Thought understands that raising a generation of creative workers is a big task. For this reason, through their Dallas City of Learning (DCL) initiative, Big Thought extends its reach through a network of more than 500 partners all engaged in the work of providing summertime creative experiences for local youth. The project aims to stem the “summer slide,” which Sanders explained as “this whole notion that kids from low-income communities regress three months over the summer. If that’s compounded, that’s not very good over 13 years [of elementary and secondary education].” 

Supported by a National Endowment for the Arts Collective Impact grant—which funds longer-term, large-scale projects that use a collective, systemic approach to provide arts education to students—DCL is a digital interface that allows users to simply type in their zip code to find a range of free and low-cost creative programs offered nearby. They can also search the platform by broader groupings such as designing and making, performance, and storytelling, among others. The goal is that through a mix of camps and other activities, students will be able to spend at least 30 hours of their summer break working out their creativity muscles. Together, these varied experiences will equip participants with a portfolio of skills that will serve them as they pursue higher education and employment opportunities down the line. 

A little girl builds a structure from colored plastic straws

Learning, creativity, and fun come together in Big Thought after-school programs like Thriving Minds, which offers opportunities that reinforce academic content and instill crucial social and emotional learning skills. Photo by Stephanie Drenka, Big Thought

Offered by groups ranging from the Dallas Public Library to the Girl Scouts to the Dallas Holocaust Museum, and of course, Big Thought itself, the activities offered through DCL cover all aspects of creativity. For example, students can register for Big Thought’s regular field trips to the Dallas Museum of Art, which expose them to different forms of artistic expression while encouraging them to embrace that expression as an everyday part of their lives. Students can also explore areas such as ethics, the environment, and coding, all from a creative and arts-based point of view. 

Big Thought is already seeing results from DCL. According to a study conducted by the SMU Center of Research and Evaluation, students demonstrated higher GPAs after spending a summer participating in DCL activities. Sanders characterized the findings as “an early indicator proving that the hypothesis is true. If you can provide at least 30 hours of high-quality summer learning, then young people will be able to start in an academically stronger place, particularly those who come from low-income communities.” 

To add even more value to DCL, Big Thought is working directly with corporate partners to pin down exactly what creative skills make a candidate a good fit for a particular company, whether for an internship or a full-time position. While this iteration is still in development, ideally students will soon be able to use DCL not only to enrich their summertime learning, but also to plot out specific pathways of skill-building experiences that can lead to careers in sectors such as finance, engineering, and technology. 

Sanders’ hope for the DCL 2.0 is that, “[Students will] now have a digital portfolio that allows them to get access to an internship, a co-op, or potentially even a career right off the bat. It’s not just, ‘I could find a really cool experience.’ It’s ‘I’m finding a cool experience and it’s on a very curated and dynamic pathway toward something for me to have a really high and exciting expectation for.’” 

While it is gratifying to see young people in the Dallas community benefit from its programs, Sanders is hopeful that Big Thought can make an impact far beyond the local area. The goal is to build awareness around the root causes and policy issues surrounding the opportunity gap. One way the organization hopes to accomplish this goal is through a series of policy conversations “with people who have the ability to affect what matters to school districts,” said Sanders. He also wants to work with principals and teachers to help them understand the importance of social and emotional learning and its link to creativity, so they can be encouraged to embed the learning of those skills into the school day. 

“If we can embed these concepts, methodologies, pedagogy in the institution of school itself, or in the juvenile detention system, then we can plant the seed for a legacy that lives and grows much further and faster than what Big Thought itself as an organization can do,” he said. “That’s our big dream.”