I’m fortunate enough to be able to travel all over the United States speaking with and listening to students, the tireless teachers who educate them, and business leaders committed to creating a healthier future for the young people they might one day employ. Through these conversations I strive to keep learning about what we could do better, and do more of, with the support of an invaluable network of partners.
As a mom of four school-age children — and as CEO of the national health-and-wellness nonprofit GENYOUth — I find making resolutions for the new year to be an energizing, organizing principle. While often times we can let our intentions for improvement fall by the wayside as the year progresses, I believe that resolutions aligned with a greater purpose are better motivation than almost anything.
Here’s what keeps me up at night and gets me out of bed in the morning. I’ll call them resolutions even though I know they’re so much bigger and more meaningful than that. My question to anyone reading this piece is, what makes you nauseous in the pit of your stomach or sits like a lump in your throat urging you to make things better? Because that feeling of unease, which I experience so often, well, it can change your life.
1. Serve ALL students. With our Spanish-language initiative, Fuel Up to Play 60 en Español, we’re reaching Latino students in schools coast-to-coast, and providing them with the resources and support to get healthier. Diversity is what makes us who we are. With the help of corporate partners like PepsiCo, we’re committed to increasing engagement and better understanding the needs of students and educators from all walks of life. Not being able to access these fundamental resources because we only offer them in English is unacceptable, and there’s more work still to ensure that the materials we create for our programs speak to ALL students.
2. Get out of the way. Sometimes despite our best-laid plans, adults get in the way of young people with their ideas and passion to create social change. I don’t know if they make us nervous (I’m sure in some cases they do), or we know that they will inherit this planet and we’re not entirely certain about what we’re leaving behind. But I find the more room we give them to express concern and share ideas, the better off we all are. This spring we will re-launch our AdVenture Capital program, asking thousands of would-be social entrepreneurs of high school age to solve pervasive challenges like global hunger that our partners including, SAP, Land O’Lakes, Corteva Agriscience, Domino’s and National Dairy Council think about every day. We know that young people want to make a positive difference in this world, and the sooner we give them opportunities to start working on these issues, the more likely they’ll get solved.
3. Entrepreneurship could be the most important skill young people need to acquire. By writing this, I do not in any way mean to diminish the importance of science, technology, engineering, math, and the arts – all worthy and important pursuits in education. But we live in the gig economy and there’s no going back. Creative thinking and skill-building around business will prime young people to face obstacles and inevitable change in any field. And as we hand over more and more work to robots and computer programs that do that work faster and more efficiently, the jobs that remain will necessitate creativity and ingenuity, skills that feel more and more rare and define what it means to be human. Students have to understand that their future playing field isn’t just this country, but the world. I just returned from the World Economic Forum in Davos, where “Globalization 4.0” was the theme. My time there, and all that I heard, only cemented my thinking that we need more opportunities to challenge and stretch students beyond the parameters of traditional education so that they’re equipped with the skills to thrive in an ever-changing global market.
4. Partnership is the only way we can accomplish lofty goals. So many wonderful organizations and individuals have stepped up to contribute to GENYOUth’s efforts in our first decade. Founded by a partnership between the National Football League and America’s dairy farmers, our work has always at its heart been about bringing all kinds of partners together to support our mission of nurturing and uplifting healthy, high-achieving youth. But we know that we’ve barely scratched the surface of the financial support that’s out there among caring companies. As corporate social responsibility gains ever greater traction, we’ll remain unflappable in our efforts to connect and collaborate with both the usual and unusual suspects that can make a real impact only by coming together.
5. Listen more, talk less. This one will test me because I spend my days in meetings or speaking on panels at conferences. But in the quiet moments when my mind and heart are open, I find I learn and grow the most by listening. Elevating the youth voice through our surveys or at events like our annual Student Ambassador Summit is just the tip of the iceberg in giving students a seat at the table. Whenever young people speak, and we actually listen, they open our eyes and offer profound, fresh perspectives on important issues that have been over-talked by adults. Even when we sit around my own dinner table with my four kids eager to share my earned wisdom, if I spend my time listening to what they see and know, I’m so glad I did. And I learn far more in the process. I love being a sponge, listening to their innovative way of thinking.
As parents, I’m sure we could all listen more, and remember that our children are listening and looking to us too. So, eating well and moving more to ensure our own health does not go unnoticed.
If you work with young people as an educator or school administrator the same holds true. We know you came into this field to change the trajectory of lives for the better, and in many ways, your job’s never been harder. But there are organizations out there working on your behalf to help you support students.
Nothing spreads a powerful message faster than sharing a compelling and inspiring story. I live for the stories of schools and communities that are making progress on improving school nutrition and physical activity. I hope that in the years to come we hear more good stories about healthy schools and healthy kids made possible by the vast network of individuals and organizations working to drive change. Until every kid is healthy and nourished, I resolve to keep listening and following that uneasy feeling in my gut to always be doing something about it.
Here’s to a 2019 that makes us uncomfortable — and proud that we did something to change that!