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Big Ideas Fest: Disruptive and provocative ideas that change the world

We all can change the world, and I recently had the incredible privilege of attending the 2015 Big Ideas Fest in San Jose, California. There I met hundreds of people who are disrupting the educational system under the premise that equity in education is the only way to build a more fair world.  Not equal, but fair, or at least more balanced. The Big Ideas Fest is an annual event in which educators from different parts of the world and background gather to build feasible solutions to improve education in the world.

The 2015 Big Ideas Fest was extremely inspiring not only because the high quality speakers, but more importantly because of the challenging questions that we all posed in search for innovative ways of disrupting the school to prison pipeline, a concept that is either relatively new or non existent in different parts of Latin America.

I grew up in a poor neighborhood in Cartagena, Colombia. When I say poor, I mean poor according to Latin America, not poor according to the United States.  This meant, among other things, living on an unpaved street that was transformed many times into a river when the rain was so heavy. Back home, government support for the poor is almost inexistent, so we only have family and community.

Despite the fact that both my parents didn’t finish elementary school, they had the provocative idea of giving the best possible education to their five children. I remember both my parents always telling me that they had no money or property to pass on to you, but they could pass on their passion for education and hands-on involvement in social issues. I clearly don’t know how they managed to send all five children to private school. With great sacrifices they sent three of their children (two of my sisters and me) up to college.  I grew up witnessing many community meetings where my mom was mobilizing our neighbors to fight for our rights and needs. To this date, at her 74 years, she is still fighting for those who have no voice or whose voice is almost inaudible. 

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It took my mom and many other community leaders 30 years to get our street paved. Asking provocative and disruptive questions is clearly what has guided my mom. One day, she and my dad envisioned that their children needed to do better. All my siblings and I turned out to be good, compassionate people who are involved in social justice issues. Having a healthy and united family that is full of passion and lots of humor has compensated all my parents’ sacrifices. 

Thanks to their hard work, but more importantly to the provocative idea that education is the only way out, I applied during many years to innumerable scholarships so I could pursue my graduate education outside of my native Colombia. Thanks to many scholarships, I was able to complete my master’s degree in Communications in Mexico and my doctorate in education in Jacksonville, Florida, without having any student loans (Yup, I’m proud of that).

I’ve been living in Jacksonville, Florida for the last 10 years and I’m in love with this city. Even though I was encouraged by many of my professors to apply for jobs outside of Jacksonville, I always had the provocative idea of staying here and paying back not only this generous country, but the city I now call home.

When I was finishing my doctoral program, I tortured myself repeatedly with the question about what was next. Back home, I used to be a college professor. Teaching has always being my passion. From informal community action research projects to the classroom setting, I’ve always seen education, not information, as the only way of transforming the world. Yes, I dream big, but when I say the world I envision my immediate context. 

The effects of attending the 2015 Big Ideas Fest is not only permeating my work, but also my personal life. Mobilizing the local community to support a high quality of public education for all children in Jacksonville is my passion and mission in life. When I say I haven’t been able to sleep well it is because of all the excitement of many ideas that keep coming to my mind.

The list of speakers at Big Ideas Fest and their valuable stories was just unbelievable. Such impressive speakers, among many others, included Luis von Ahn, the creator of Duolingo;  Shiza Shahid, Co-Founder & Global Ambassador of the Malala Fund; and Dale Russakoff, author of The Prize, a recent bestseller that shares the story of Mark Zuckerberg’s investment in public education in Newark. The contrast of the stories of Brenda Rusnak, who shared the film Cyber-Seniors to Kylee Majkowski, CEO of Tomorrow's Lemonade Stand, who at her only 12 years is teaching other children how to be entrepreneurs, really stole my heart.

During these three days the 200 participants had the opportunity not only to learn from people who have successfully disrupted the educational system, but to also be creators of some solutions that I’m certain will make education in all its spheres better for everyone. Personally I was inspired, challenged and, more importantly, recommitted to play a more significant role in creating provocative solutions for a world that is in desperate need of humanity. 

I would like to share a personal experience that I can probably related also to this revolutionary and inspiring conference. I celebrate my birthday every year as long as I can. Yup, I create countdowns, Facebook events, reminders, emails, and I bug all my friends to celebrate my life. I’ve been always like that but I became more persistent five years ago, after I almost died of two complicated surgeries. During the last five years, I’ve partied a lot. I always choose a nice big restaurant because none of my friends’ houses could accommodate over 50 people! 

Throughout this year, I have been particularly disturbed with the rejection to refugees in the United States, especially Syrians. During a dinner with two of my good friends, I came up with the idea of asking my friends to donate a gift card for local refugees instead of buying a present to me. The idea grew to a level I never expected: my incredible and generous friends donated $760 dollars in gift cards that I donated to Catholic Charities, one of the organizations who work locally with refugees. That money, during Christmas time, buys more than material things for the thousands of people that every year are forced to leave their countries, their cultures, their lives. A simple but provocative question can change the world of those who are willing to be uncomfortable and experience other ways of living this wonderful gift called life.

Thanks to the incredible team at the Institute for the Study of Knowledge and Management in Education (ISKME) and to the many people I had the privilege of meeting during the conference. I suspect this is just a new beginning for somebody like me who is constantly asking questions. Yes, provocative questions. During my three days at Big Ideas Fest, I was energized, inspired and fed not only in my body but also in my soul. I learned so much about design thinking, engaging community techniques, but more importantly I confirmed that those who are able to ask provocative questions are the ones changing the world.