Learning Change Agent: Sandee Kastrul

What is your name? Sandee Kastrul

Where are you from? Chicago

What organization do you represent? i.c. stars

What is your job title? Founder and CEO of i.c. stars

What is the mission and vision of the organization?

i.c.stars, is an organization that was founded in 1998, and launched its first training cycle in 2000. Our mission is to use project-based learning and full-immersion teaching to provide opportunities to break the cycle of poverty that limits inner city populations. With training in technology, leadership and business, we prepare change-driven inner city leaders to assume high-level careers in information technology and to become community leaders. Our vision is to have 1000 community leaders, who are active participants and influencers in the global information arena by 2020.

What impact do you think your organization has on learning and education?

Today, when we talk about social justice in the context of developing an educated workforce, we pose the question “How do we provide folks with an an opportunity to get training?” That is all well and good, but from an impact standpoint, I think the real question should be, “What do you do with the training?” I do not believe that it is enough to just get a job; there has to be more. Otherwise, the whole system is one of all take and no give.

You go to this organization, you get your training, you get your job and then you are done. You spend the rest of your life trying to get as much distance as you can from that organization because they helped you. You were their charity and any interaction that you have with them means that you need more help. That you are needy.

At i.c.stars we believe that we need our interns more than they need us. The four months they spend at i.c.stars involve 12 hours per day of engagement. This is a project-based learning environment, so they are constantly challenged. They are challenging themselves and challenging their teammates to deliver solutions to the clients they serve. At the end of the program, they will get a job, build financial capital, social capital, and influential capital.

Next comes the question, “What are they going to do with all that you have gained and how are they going to impact others?”

We learn how to build solutions for our business clients. So, how do we then take that model and apply it to the problems we face in our communities? How do we become “solutioners” for them? The i.c.stars model is predicated on the idea that the thinking process and methodology you learn by doing software development can be applied to the communities you come from, so that you can become an agent of change.

As to the question of the impact of education, we will invest a thousand hours of training in four months for a select group of 20 resilient individuals who have excellent critical thinking skills and a desire to impact change in the community.

But I think the real impact comes from the idea that technology and leadership can support one another. That as we become more experienced and knowledgeable at one, we also stretch ourselves in the direction of the other. There is an impact model; if each one of us impacts a thousand people, there is an exponential impact back into our communities and in our businesses. This approach has created a learning environment centered around resiliency and reciprocity at i.c.stars.

Tell me a little bit more about the communities that you service through your educational program.

We primarily serve folks from the south and west sides of Chicago and even a few from the northern suburbs. One of the questions in our assessment is, “How do you define inner city? Is that a geographic area, a state of mind, or is it a socioeconomic jurisdiction?” I think that the communities we claim and the communities that claim us are sometimes different, but we will serve anyone who is at least eighteen, has a GED or a high school diploma and six months of work experience.

What we are really looking for is people who have overcome adversity and are change-driven. And to us, change-driven means more than wanting to change your own life – it means wanting to change the lives of others. And it’s about a person’s resiliency story more than their geographic location.

What inspired you to get involved in education or this type of work in the field of education?

I became very frustrated that the best-embraced kids with the fewest resources actually did not have opportunities on the other side of a high school education, whether they were higher education or meaningful career opportunities. There was a huge gap in our understanding, and big problems with the actual opportunities provided for inner city folks. People coming from adversity were pigeonholed into manual labor jobs, or roles that didn’t embrace their intelligence and potential.

I spent about 15 years of my career as an educator, and during that time, I kept hearing the same narrative over and over: “Some kids just are not ready for school.” “They can not learn.” “They can not do math” and so on. We have listened to, and walked through this stupidity for years. This narrative was a load of bull. I wasn’t seeing or experiencing those issues with the kids I was working with.

Then again, the more adversity that we face, the more math we live. When you are trying to figure out how to safely get from home to school, feed your little brothers and sisters, and make sure that everybody is dressed and fed — all of that is actually an algebra equation. So, as educators, if we can just see life in the context of algebra, we will learn that our students not only can do math, but that they understand it on a deeper level.

It is a shame that the business communities still don’t really take advantage of this amazing source of talent. In the 21st century, we compete globally, and we really need people who can think outside the box and walk between worlds – people who are creative. But it is a waste to not recognize and utilize this potential workforce for the community. We complain about the significance of our communities and their resources, but do nothing to shift the paradigm. The more time we spend not building paths to true and meaningful opportunities, the worse we make things.

I often say that from the neck down, we are all minimum wage workers; it is what we do with our heads that makes us knowledge-based workers. There are very few programs that teach knowledge-based work in the community, so that is really what got me involved. In the late ‘90s, there were dot-com companies everywhere, but a shortage of technology workers, and I saw a business opportunity there. Then, on the community side, there was a real need for people who would plant a stake in the ground – people who’d ask, “What if, instead of defining success by how many of us leave our communities, we define it by how many of our members invest back into their community?”

If you can change anything regarding education and/or learning, what would it be?

Ultimately, we have to raise the bar in education. Over the each of the last 40 years, the bars have been lowered to the detriment of our youth and our future. It’s not just the education levels – as educators, we’ve lowered our expectations for ourselves as well as our students.

From a micro-stance, we the educators need to raise the bar. Learning is hard and uncomfortable, but that’s something we have to embrace. As teachers, when we say we cannot do something, then we cannot expect our students to do any better. In fact, we cannot expect our students to do anything. We have to raise our own bars, and our own expectations.

From a macro-stance, I think equality in education needs to be addressed, and that doesn’t mean watering it down so everybody can have it, which only makes it worse. We need amazing, powerful, holistic and lead-out education for all of our children. That would literally change the world, and change the future.

What advice would you give to someone who is in the process of learning something new?

 The first part of the process sucks, because we’ll have to really look into the mirror and accept what we do not know. But as soon as we get there and work through it, we’ll get our first little glimpse of something new. For people in the process of learning and educating: let it suck.

It has to be hard, even though we often give up, or simply choose not to do the hard stuff. But we need to embrace the fact that it’s much worse to be bad at something than to do something that’s hard. It’s our egos that are wrestling with us. There is no better reward than learning something, and finally being able to say, “I’ve got it!”

While we have to be patient and gentle with ourselves, we also have to really let things suck for a while, and push through to the other side. Change is uncomfortable, but that’s how we know it’s working.

What does it mean to be a learning change agent?

Education means stepping outside of our comfort zone, doing things that are not easy but are right. It means allowing our students the space to discover themselves, and to discover their power through education. It’s trying new models to accomplish those goals, to expand potential and create opportunities. It is being able to be lean, and to be agile and allowing ourselves to not know the answers.

That will encourage our students. We may not know all the answers. We just have to find the right questions.

Photo Credit: Taylor Glascock via Blue Sky Vault (Dec. 10, 2014)

Learning Change Agents are game changers in education. They are affiliated with organizations that are providing meaningful and passion-driven learning experiences to learners of all ages. The featured Learning Change Agents (and their organization) will be eligible to receive funds from the LEARNtheBrand Impact Apparel. LEARNtheBrand Impact Apparel is a clothing line that consists of limited edition fashion T-shirts that include unique designs that focus on rebranding the perception of learning and education from test-driven and rote memorization to meaningful, relevant and passion driven learning experiences.  Customers and supporters of LEARNtheBrand Impact Apparel and these organizations will select the organization(s) that should receive a portion of the profits received from each collection. Visit and shop the online store hosted by Threadless. Together we are change agents.

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