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Dana Mortenson

Ed. Notes- Many, many moons ago when KIDS was in its infancy and a program of WhyHunger, we were introduced to Dana Mortenson & Madhia. They were in the planning stage for a program that fast forward 20+ years is one of the leaders in Global Education. We are proud to have Dana as a member of our Advisory Board.


MEET Dana Mortenson


Let's start with where you are from and your background?

I was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey while my father was teaching at Rutgers. When I was 5 we moved to Northern NJ because my father got a job as a professor at a college in Madison, NJ. I went to K-12 schools in Harding and in Madison, NJ. From the time I was very young, and given that my Dad was a teacher, I have had a consciousness of the importance of education as the foundation of how we understand the world and how we relate to everyone and everything in it. My father and mother were very political, and so world events and issues sort of surrounded me growing up - in our dinner table conversations and in discussions about what I was learning (or not learning) from school. I was always very involved – in student council, in sports, in activities and my community; it came naturally to me. I also began playing basketball when I was 5 years old, before there were many opportunities (camps, leagues) for girls to do so; and the sport really shaped my growing up experience. I loved being a part of team and basketball introduced me to people from different backgrounds from all over the state and country, as I spent time on traveling teams and at camps across the US. So my awareness of and concern for others in the world beyond the borders of my home community grew as my own experiences through basketball brought me to new places, and allowed me to meet new people.

What interested you in hunger and education?

I grew up in the 80s, in the era of We Are the World, and famine in Africa plastered across every headline; starving babies swarmed with flies was the portrayal of Africa I was exposed to most often. Because my father had lived and worked in Africa as a sociologist before I was born, we talked often about this - the history, the current challenges, and how they were connected. I remember when I first learned about ‘root causes’ of global issues, generally, and of hunger, specifically. It flipped a switch in me when I learned that the problem wasn’t that there wasn’t enough food in the world for everyone, but that people’s access was impacted by so many complex factors. This, and so many other conversations like it, prompted me to explore global issues as part of my academic path, and later, my career path. I went on to study international relations in college and international affairs in graduate school, on my way to what I expected would be a career in international development. Along the way, I met Madiha Murshed in graduate school and we became fast friends. She was from Bangladesh, and had spent her high school years in Singapore at United World College; from the moment I met her, I was amazed by her effortlessly global worldview. She could navigate issues, subjects, and different groups of people with such comfort and ease, and endless curiosity and openness. In the second week of our second year of grad school, 9/11 happened and it seemed that no corner of my world was left untouched. People I knew perished; friends and siblings of loved ones were gone, and a backlash of xenophobic fear was left in its wake. Madiha, like so many other Muslims after 9/11, was targeted for the way she looked. In the weeks and months that followed, Madiha and I thought about how the US - and the world - was changing so fast, becoming more interconnected, diverse, and interdependent. And we considered how little US Americans knew about the rest of the world, and the fear that resulted when people couldn’t understand one another or find meaningful ways to live, work, and solve problems together. We spent a year doing a deep dive into K-12 teaching and learning, only to find that so much of how we learned about the world was presented in silos and in a way that framed issues in a “food-flag festival” framework, separate from us and exoticized as experiences. We knew that we wanted to look at a model that created more resonance than dissonance, and that made learning about the world more integral to learning about everything else. We founded World Savvy as we graduated to work towards systems change in K12 education – a system that ensured every student could graduate with the skills and dispositions required for engaged global citizenship.

What issues do you work on and why?

The current education system is a relic of the 20th Century, when standardized learning and testing was designed to prepare young people to succeed in standardized jobs and largely homogenous communities. This is no longer our reality, and so no longer a viable option for the U.S. or the world. We need an education system that is inclusive, adaptive, and positioned to prepare all students equitably for life and work in the 21st Century and beyond. To tackle this challenge, World Savvy is reimagining K-12 education for a more globally connected world, educating and engaging youth to learn, work, and thrive as responsible global citizens.
Our current programs provide a comprehensive set of offerings to support schools as they integrate global competence into teaching, learning and culture. World Savvy Partnerships, our flagship program, promotes global competence through system-wide change in schools and districts by offering customized support which includes leadership development, workshops and coaching for educators, facilitation of professional learning communities, and program assessment. We work directly with students through our World Savvy Classrooms model, which engages students in project and inquiry-based learning and design thinking to research community and global issues they are passionate about and to design solutions. Students explore issues as diverse as climate change, educational equity, gender equality, economic justice, and hunger. In 2018, our work expanded to include support for rural communities as they navigate change and build future-ready education systems. We’re now working to build a network of 10,000 schools by 2030 who embed global competence into teaching, learning, and culture.

What are the biggest challenges for the issues that you care most about today?

Our current political climate is a constant reminder of both how important and how fragile our democracy is; our work has never felt more urgent. We’re living in a time when cultivating and supporting critical thinkers, creative and open-minded learners, and changemakers capable of addressing our most intractable problems have never been more important. Ultimately, nurturing global competence is about supporting social cohesion in communities – communities that are changing and diversifying. Our work is fundamentally about ensuring that K12 education provides a foundation for learning, for all students, that gives them access to multiple perspectives, respect for difference, and the capacity and agency to affect positive change.

What drives you?

I’m driven by the work of young people, by decades of watching what happens when you get out of the way and let young people lead change. I am fired up about the possibility that education can be different than what I experienced, and we can create a system that actually prepares young people for the world they’re inheriting. There are so many reasons to be hopeful. Educators and students around the country are already rewriting what’s possible, creating classrooms that are student-centered and pivot around real-world issues that connect students to their communities and the world. And, there are so many changemakers in global education on the front lines of building this movement; 18 years ago when we first got started, this work was more fringe than mainstream. Now, the discourse is shifting toward one that prioritizes the whole child, and acknowledges that a focus exclusively on tests and ‘achievement’, narrowly defined, doesn’t help students thrive in life beyond the classroom.

In conclusion, what message do want to deliver to our readers? What do you think your legacy should be.?

I would call on readers to be relentlessly hopeful about our future, and to use every opportunity to advocate for an education system that provides every student with the skills and dispositions for global competence. This is a conversation that started years ago and has gained exciting momentum in recent years. If we’re collectively pushing for a different definition of a quality education, we will see change.

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About us

Kids Can Make a Difference is a program of iEARN (International Education and Resource Network), the world's largest non-profit global network. iEARN enables teachers and youth to use the Internet and other technologies to collaborate on projects that enhance learning and make a difference in the world.

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