Laura Hirshfield's passions for fusing education with youth leadership development and social justice became fueled by a fellowship at Cal Poly Pomona’s Ahimsa Center studying nonviolence; from there, she co-founded a program for teachers to spend 3 weeks in India studying this practice and how ahimsa, or nonviolence, applies to the personal and professional lives of teachers. In 2014, she moved to Los Angeles, where she first taught and then moved into leadership of local YouthBuild programs, applying the powers of love and opportunity to create transformational experiences and career pathways for underserved, opportunity youth ages 16-24. Now she serves as the National SolarCorps Manager with GRID Alternatives, overseeing their fellowship program that seeks to diversify the clean energy industry by pipelining underrepresented individuals into the growing clean energy industry through an 11-month apprenticeship. We sit down with Laura to talk about her journey and life mission.
What is one industry book that a newcomer must read?
One non-traditional industry book that changed my life was Hind Swaraj by Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi wrote this text as a Q&A regarding how India can gain its independence. While in some ways it was a book about strategy, in other ways it was a book that reimagined critical concepts like freedom, independence, war, and civilization. Because education is all about thinking about the world, how we live in it, our history, and how we can be better every day, this book is a must read for anyone reflecting on these ideas and their impact in the classroom.
What is one thing that inspires you?
One thing that inspires me is the vast range of people doing all different kinds of meaningful work to bring us closer to the world we want to see. It’s so complicated and there are so many parts, but that’s the beauty and critical importance of individuality. We all have different lived experiences and strengths and passions, and when we all find our place to apply them, it’s pretty incredible what we can accomplish. I have friends that do important advocacy work seeking to change things at an institutional level, and while I deeply admire the work they do, I know I could not contribute in that way myself. However, in working directly with individuals and communities impacted by injustice and helping amplify voices and create opportunity, I know I am serving a valuable role too. A quotation that has inspired me for years is Martin Luther King Jr’s reminder that
Everybody can be great...because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.
What drives you to give back?
What drives me to give back is human potential and the incredible joy and progress we collectively make when people experience being the best version of themselves. There is transformative power in the combination of love and opportunity, and it’s been an honor and a privilege to be able to bring this into my personal and professional life. I’ve worked with young people who were expelled from school, formerly incarcerated, justice-system impacted, and in some awful ways cast aside. And I’ve seen the incredible things that happen when people believe in them, are curious before critical, and use their privilege to help open doors for them that never should have been closed in the first place. Love and opportunity are incredibly powerful forces, and seeing the transformation that occurs when these are offered inspires me to give back each and every day.
What’s an urgent issue facing education?
An urgent issue facing education is equal access to high quality opportunities for all young people to uncover and develop their passions and strengths and be exposed to a broad range of meaningful career pathways. When some communities are marginalized in terms of what is taught and what opportunities are offered, the effects are seen on multiple levels and in multiple places. One ripple effect is the lack of diversity and representation we see in many sectors of our economy. One industry that is teeming with opportunity but lacking in diversity is the clean energy sector, and our vision at GRID Alternatives is a rapid, equitable transition to a world powered by renewable energy that benefits everyone. To facilitate this vision, we offer workforce development opportunities (and so much more) that center equity and inclusion and model a diverse workforce, offering people of all backgrounds family-sustaining careers, bringing wealth and more to their communities.
How did you end up where you are today?
I ended up where I am today by listening to myself and following what energized me. In 2011, I took a chance in applying for a fellowship that I didn’t think I had a chance of being offered. The Ahimsa Center at Cal Poly Pomona took a chance on me and offered me a fellowship, and while there I listened, learned, and did the work. I came home inspired and energized, and used that energy to create a program that I wished existed. I researched, talked to like minded people, and let that passion push me forward and fuel my development of a summer program for teachers to learn about nonviolence and decide for themselves if and how they wanted to bring the ideas back to their own classrooms. That experience sparked new passions, and I ended up where I am today by continuing to share the love that I have for what I do, and creating opportunities for growth if none exist.
Share one teaching strategy that worked.
The most important teaching strategy I learned was the power of restorative/transformative justice. The framework of “Accept, Correct, and Move On” changed both my personal and professional life: seeking to understand before being understood, finding common ground through mutual education, giving people the opportunity to repair harms, and coming back together has had endless positive effects on my work in classrooms and communities.
1000 Spotlights: Why We Give reflects our mission of giving back, to mentor and to inspire those around us. Through a series of interview questions, we explore intrinsic motivations behind why we give, and talk with those inclined to make a difference in the lives of others. If you are involved in charitable activities, volunteer and paid academic engagements or in community service, we want to talk to you.
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