Diversity Convocation Highlights The Future Project

Photo by Anastasia Caulfield

Ramapo College’s Diversity Action Committee hosted their annual Diversity Convocation, keeping with their initiative to advocate for issues of diversity, equity and inclusiveness at the College.

This time, the feature keynote speaker was Kanya Balakrishna of The Future Project. After the initial remarks by Peter Mercer, the president of Ramapo and a welcome from Stephen Geerlof, the student trustee, and an introduction by Pinar Kayaalp, co-chair of the Diversity Action, Balakrishna went up to the podium and began to recount her days at "Yale Daily News" where she worked as managing editor.

“Despite the long hours and the stress of managing a paper in charge of informing so many people with a budget of $2 million, I loved the newspaper and the diverse team I worked with,” said Balakrishna, reminiscing about her college years.

However, during her time working as the chief speechwriter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, she noticed that her passions lacked direction.

“This lack of direction not only applied to me, but also to a variety of students from various socioeconomic, ethnic and experience backgrounds,” she said.

This was what sparked Balakrishna and her colleagues to create The Future Project, of which she is the president, to nurture high school students’ passions and teach them how they can convert that passion into a personally defined success.

The top priority for the newly formed group was to re-evaluate how schools approach education, and by extension, nurture students to pursue their passions. What they ultimately concluded was that schools were operating exactly as they were designed, it was just the design itself that was not working.

When asked what she meant by this, Balakrishna responded by recounting the development of the United States' school system initially formed under “the conditions of a largely agrarian society with a budding manufacturing industry in the span of the 1800s." She continued, "Thus, schools were preparing students for simple, clear career paths which is simply not the case today.”

The Future Project set out to work with schools initially in Washington D.C., New York City and New Haven, Connecticut, but now include other cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco, to change the curriculum to fit more modern conditions. Their Dream Directors, Balakrishna being among them, work with administration, educators and students to change the school and craft safe spaces where students could explore their passions and drives and turn them into various projects, goals and careers.

The project has enjoyed success, such as in cases like Andrew Leo, who authored a novel about a disabled student to increase representation and motivate that group, and Angelo Hughes, who created an online community called Flutter, for people to share stories about loss and alleviate their grief.

After her parting words encouraging the students to make diverse connects, “as it is where good ideas come from,” Balakrishna opened the floor to questions.

Kezia St. Louis, junior, was the first up asking, "Why did the Future Project go down the road of working with public schools when establishing a charter school would grant them more autonomy?”

Balakrishna cited “the slow exchange of ideas from charter schools to public schools” as the main reason for the approach they adopted.

Meanwhile Gracie Maute, junior, asked how Balakrishna would address the jadedness about such future prospects due to recent events, to which she responded by saying, “Keep doing the good work to establish diverse connections to help everyone achieve their goals.”