Featured Program: 7 Mindsets, Fargo, North Dakota

Youth Take the Lead in Creating a Community Movement

by Yahtzeni Gonzalez, Emma Jackson, and Roberto Rivera

Imagine a community so committed to the empowerment of youth and their cultivation of social and emotional competencies that local funders, businesses, after-school programs, parents, and schools have committed themselves to this goal. Imagine a community where adults realize that their most powerful tool for engaging youth is to model social and emotional competencies in their lives, to incorporate them into their workplaces, and to embody the idea and the dream that social and emotional competence is a foundation not just for education but for life. What we are describing is not some social and emotional learning utopia but the city of Fargo, North Dakota, and a citywide movement that started with youth voice.

In 2010 Steve Johnston, a prominent Fargo business leader, learned about the theory of emotional intelligence. He began to embed the idea of emotional intelligence into the fabric of his business. The business flourished, and when he later sold it he realized that the principles of social and emotional intelligence didn’t need to be relegated just to the workplace. They could also be important to his family and could empower his teenage daughter Stephanie.

After an extensive search for a program that was research-based and emphasized both youth development and human development, Johnston found 7 Mindsets. The 7 Mindsets program, designed by Scott Shickler, a long-time educator and social entrepreneur, is now used internationally. Drawing from the work of Carol Dweck, Angela Duckworth, Martin Seligman, and some of the world’s top business leaders and humanitarians, Shickler developed the concept of 7 mindsets as a guide to positive, healthy living and well-being. At the heart of the program are seven basic ideas and attitudes: (1) Everything is Possible, (2) Passion First, (3) We Are Connected, (4) 100% Accountable, (5) Attitude of Gratitude, (6) Live to Give, and (7) The Time is Now. When Steve Johnston learned about the program, he and his family decided to attend the 7 Mindsets Ultimate Life Summit later that summer.

Part of the 7 Mindsets experience is an annual summit that takes place in Atlanta, Ga., where educators, adults, and youth gather to learn the mindsets and are trained to bring the program’s message and materials back home. The beginning of the week focuses on learning the mindsets and developing a plan of action to apply them to one’s life. The remainder of the week is dedicated to educator training and preparing the participants to share the 7 Mindsets principles with others. The Johnston family stayed for the whole week and came back to Fargo excited and challenged by the prospect of educating and inspiring others.

In a recent interview Stephanie recalled her thoughts at the time. “I was so inspired by the 7 Mindsets that I couldn’t help but wish all my friends and fellow community members could experience the same life-changing event that I had,” she said. Keeping in mind the program’s principle of Live to Give, Stephanie tried to figure out how she could serve her community and bring the 7 Mindsets experience to Fargo.

Finally her chance came. While Stephanie was engaged in a leadership course led by Tim Peterson, associate dean of the College of Business at North Dakota State University, Stephanie saw her opportunity. She and other team members were tasked with raising $1,000 dollars for a nonprofit cause. Working with other students in the class, Stephanie led the charge to bring 7 Mindsets to Fargo. By now a freshman in college, she set up a meeting with the president of the Dakota Medical Foundation, Pat Traynor, to share her dream of making Fargo a socially and emotionally empowered community.

Traynor describes his first encounter with Stephanie as one he’ll never forget. “Normally there are a few checkpoints that someone looking for funding has to go through before they can meet with me,” he says, “but my staff was telling me there was a young woman who had an idea and I had to meet with her.” When Stephanie Johnston arrived for her appointment with Traynor at his office, she began to share her experience at the Ultimate Life Summit and how it had changed her life. “It was clear that this young woman was undoubtedly transformed by her experience,” says Traynor, “and that her dream was to bring it to everyone in Fargo.” Although, as Traynor said, “typical protocol for receiving funding is an application process, interview process, and so forth,” he did something that day he has never done before: “We made a guarantee to Stephanie that we would help her in realizing her dream.”

What Stephanie didn’t realize at the time was that Traynor and the North Dakota Medical Foundation had already decided to focus their attention and resources on improving the mental health of the community’s children. Their logic was that if they could focus on children growing up with a strong foundation for mental health and social and emotional well-being, they would help the community’s youth to build a foundation for life-long success.

Traynor recalls his first experience of the 7 Mindsets program at a gathering in Fargo led by program founder Scott Shickler. “I remember showing up at that gymnasium full of people, and I could see right away these young people were completely engaged with the message Scott was sharing,” he says. “Initially I came to see their response, but then I realized that I could learn from this, and pretty soon I was writing notes on a napkin.” Like the others at the event, Traynor and his team were engaged and enthusiastic. They left determined to establish 7 Mindsets in Fargo by creating a committee that would include leaders from throughout the community—the YMCA, the schools, local businesses, and parents.

The resulting committee has determined that its mission is to make Fargo the best place to live and raise a family in the United States. To fulfill this mission they have engaged all aspects of the community. The school district has implemented the 7 Mindsets elementary program in nearly all its elementary schools and two middle schools. Michelle Weber, the school leader on the committee and a longtime Fargo principal and educator, says, “We have realized that SEL is the foundation of all academic learning. By ensuring that the educators in our schools are applying the Mindsets to their lives, we help to get the culture right so that youth can be engaged and really learn.”

When Ashley and Zeek, two eighth-grade students at Liberty Middle School, were asked about their favorite part of the program, they quickly responded “The Live to Give challenge!” This principle, which incorporates service-learning, encourages youth to find a cause about which they want to raise awareness and take action to make it a community priority. One such service-learning activity was sharing the “Tom’s Shoes” story. As an act of solidarity with poor children in Africa who are so deprived their families are unable to buy shoes for them, the Liberty students organized an event at the school when everyone, including the adults, committed to going without shoes for a day. They followed this with a donation to an organization aimed at countering poverty in Africa.

What made the project successful? “It’s different when you know the teachers aren’t just teaching you something they don’t care about,” says Zeek. “They’re sharing something that is being applied to their lives personally.”

”All the educators have developed their own life plans where they articulate their dreams, and they share them with the students,” adds Michelle. The students in turn share their life plans with the educators, and they inspire each other. Although this program has not been formally evaluated, the enthusiasm expressed by students and community members suggests it is having positive effects.

Lynae Hemming, the coordinator of Fargo’s 7 Mindsets committee, helps to ensure that all the pillars of the community are communicating and working together. “Every YMCA in the city of Fargo uses the program after school,” she says. “We make sure that we’re working in concert with the lessons being taught in the schools.” In addition, she adds, “We do community nights where we empower parents to apply the Mindsets to their lives and provide strategies for how to support their children.”

Teresa Lewis, a committee member representing the business community, says that after presenting the Mindsets to business professionals, people in the audience have been tearful with gratitude. ””It’s often the case that adults never learned these leadership and social-emotional skills when they were in school and they’re grateful that I’m sharing these ideas with them now,” she says. “They realize this can
empower them both personally and professionally.”

Now, in addition to the Ultimate Life Summit in Atlanta, there is one in Fargo, and the attendance has increased every year. The goal of making Fargo the best place to live and raise a family in the nation is moving forward full steam. Adults in Fargo are taking seriously the idea that youth deserve communities where adults work together and model the behaviors and values they want for everyone in the community. Now if you go into a school, business, or community organization in Fargo, you may see pictures or sayings on the wall related to the 7 Mindsets or overhear people talking about putting passion first or working on the next step of their life plan. “Almost weekly the foundation practices a different Mindset,“ says Pat Traynor. His favorite is the Attitude of Gratitude. ”It has transformed the culture of the foundation,” he says. “I don’t know what we would have done if Stephanie didn’t have the courage to meet with me and share her dream and her voice. It has made such a difference in this community.”

Stephanie recently served as manager of community development of 7 Mindsets and is dreaming big as she shares her vision and experience to inspire youth in other cities. “Youth voices really can make all the difference in their community and even the world,” she says.
Yahtzeni Gonzalez is a second-year student at Harold Washington College in Chicago and an award-winning youth leader. She volunteers with the CASEL youth voice council and is passionate about youth voice and justice issues for immigrant students.

Emma Jackson is a senior at Ohio State University who recently completed a semester abroad in Chile. Her studies focus on Spanish and integrative medicine, and she believes that healthy, whole people create healthy communities and that youth voice is part of a healthy educational ecosystem.

Roberto Rivera is a predoctoral fellow in the Social and Emotional Research Group at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is focusing his research on the intersection of social and emotional learning, culturally relevant pedagogy, and youth voice.