At Powderhouse, our mission is to give youth a say, enabling critical participation in the most important conversations of their lives.
We do this by working with youth to develop creatively, intellectually, and technically ambitious projects centering three themes with lifelong relevance:
Our work comes alive through the community publications we create with youth, where we invite others to bring fresh perspectives connecting our projects and pieces to our community's collective moment.
Doing this well demands two, essential ingredients:
This work offers a foundation for a novel institution, one combining invention and advocacy, animated by a vision of a world where learning and living are reunited and the full range of people's backgrounds, interests, and aptitudes is reflected in our educational institutions (much as it already is in our institutions of speech or worship).
But, no one has demonstrated how to operate the kinds of learning environments we imagine equitably and affordably. This means invention is necessary. And insofar as that invention (and the expansion of access to its fruits) is at odds with School-as-it-is, our work calls for advocacy.
Since 2009, we've been developing functional prototypes of our vision. At first as sprout & co, we developed programming with youth and adults in Somerville and throughout greater Boston. Over time, we found new tools, materials, and adult development were required to do this well, so we branched out into curriculum and professional development. Eventually, we found the limited time we had in evening and out-of-school programming deprived our work and relationships of the depth they deserved and required.
So, we decided to start a new, in-district school at the invitation of Somerville's Mayor, with the support of many of the families with whom we'd worked for years. That effort was later torpedoed by Somerville's Superintendent, but not before we had the opportunity over six years to pilot a novel design and grapple firsthand with the legal, political, and cultural obstacles to in-district change.
Troubled by the structural issues we saw showcased in Somerville and informed by our work building learning environments and communities around the voices of youth and families, Powderhouse is now building the kind of institution needed to invent the future of learning and make it salient to public education.
PARC researchers insisted on not only building but using their creations as their main computing systems. And in doing so, they were able to invent everything from ethernet and the laser printer to the whole paradigm of personal computing, including peripherals like mice and features like the graphical user interface that we take for granted today.
The Mayo Clinic runs an actual hospital. And in doing so, they were able to innovate freely in everything from management to medicine, creating the first multi-specialty group practice and integrated medical record system, inventing the G-suit, discovering cortisone, and performing the first hip replacement.
Though informed by what happened outside their walls, these living laboratories' sizable impact has depended on inventing new things within, choosing carefully which of today’s priorities and constraints to adopt when inventing the future.
In this tradition, Powderhouse is devoted to realizing the future of learning in practice. Our output is not academic research, but a place where we work directly with youth to demonstrate the very best our community could provide young people, right now, with enough imagination.
But this work requires more than invention; advocacy is needed.
For many, School doesn’t work, with severe consequences. Our experience—and the sector's largely failed attempts at structural reform over the past two centuries—tells us that a great idea (even when implemented successfully by teachers in their own classrooms or even school leaders in their own buildings) isn't enough to change this. Novel strategic thinking about the financial and legal activism required to foment change is needed.
Here too we take inspiration from outside education.
In 1983, Evan Wolfson wrote his Harvard Law School thesis on the constitutional right to marriage. Throughout the 1990s, he worked alongside others at Lambda Legal pursuing full recognition of the LGBT community's civil rights. In 2003, Wolfson launched a purpose-built vehicle to achieve equality: Freedom to Marry. Twelve years later, after years of community organizing, the Supreme Court recognized the right to marriage for same-sex couples in 2015, affirming the arguments initially outlined in Wolfson's thesis more than three decades earlier.
Powderhouse's mission and approach rhyme with Wolfson's.
Like Wolfson, we are devoted to expanding the pluralism a public institution (learning) offers a now-disenfranchised group (youth). Like Freedom to Marry, our work will be multi-year (not overnight), multi-state (not boutique), multi-partner (not a single school), and multi-method (combining research, design, and advocacy targeting pedagogy, financing, and policy).
Freedom to Marry took concrete violations of real people's rights and legally activated them, complementing activism with messaging work to shift public opinion. Powderhouse's work will take our demonstration of viable, radically different alternatives as a starting point for analogous legal, financial, and cultural activism.
Though we rightly invest in buttressing School-as-it-is, we have no infrastructure for inventing School-as-it-could-be. Where will new things come from?
In a generation, we aim to have a world-class, public answer to that question.