The Future Project: Helping students change the world with their wildest dreams

This week’s spotlight: all things education.

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Dream Director John-Michael Parker performs with his students at the 2013 RevolutionNYC at Columbia University, a celebration of the impact and growth Future Project students created during the school year.
(photo courtesy The Future Project)

What are your wildest dreams?

That’s the question Dream Directors are asking students in 14 high schools across New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Washington, DC this year as part of The Future Project.

“We want students to be unleashed to follow their dreams. When we think of unleashed, we think of possibilities rather than potential, which is an interesting word but sounds finite,” says National Dream Director John-Michael Parker. “Our Dream Directors push students to be the best version of themselves, and help them realize that their passions give them enormous, even infinite possibility.”

The Future Project started in 2010 when Andrew Mangino, a former speechwriter in DC and John-Michael’s schoolmate from Yale, along with fellow speechwriter Kanya Balakrishna, first dreamed up the idea of giving youth the encouragement and tools to aim beyond getting straight A’s.

Their original plan was to support volunteer coaches at underperforming schools; however they saw an even bigger possibility in more directly unleashing the passions and dreams of the folks right there in the school. Now, their model is all about having paid, full-time Dream Directors at schools that, more than anything, want The Future Project there.

“There’s so much goodwill and so many good ideas that aren’t being acted on because of all the other expectations placed on schools,” says John-Michael. “We realized if we could find the very best folks to put in high schools to do a job that utilizes the incredible resources, energy, and passion that already exists, and be someone that sparks other people to act on their ideas, then that would be an effective way for the Future Project to work.”

The name of the organization is the tool Dream Directors use to help their students make their ideas happen: “future projects” are any ventures that use students’ passions to enact change, like starting a club or launching a school-wide campaign.

At Wilson High School in DC, for example, future projects so far have included everything from a dance-a-thon to an art magazine to a nonprofit that will bring baseball equipment to poor communities in Nicaragua.

Not shy about their love for Ashoka, you might think of The Future Project as a community of young social entrepreneurs in training.


Do you want to help students unleash their imaginations?

While Dream Directors are a little bit of everything—part teacher, part guidance counselor, part performer, part intrapreneur, part coach—there’s nothing stopping you from playing that role in your school right now.

If you’re an educator or school staff member, and proudly have your head in the clouds, here are John-Michael’s tips for drawing out the best in the youth around you:

1. Ask students about their dreams.

What realities do they want to create for themselves, their school, and/or the world they live in? Listen to their answers. Then ask questions to figure out what’s holding them back, and challenge them to take their next step.

2. Tell them about yours.

Share your dream to write a novel or sing in a band or make healthy food widely accessible. Shout it from the bleachers. If you can’t be an example of passion, inspiration, and dreaming, how can you expect them to be?

3. Make it okay to fail.

Let your students know that the worst that can happen from failing is that their ego is momentarily bruised; the best that can happen is they gain a newfound sense of purpose and direction.

4. Work passion into the classroom experience.

Great teachers do this all the time: they create an environment where all sorts of expressions of creativity are encouraged. Allow students to do assignments through the lens of what they love to do, whether that’s drawing, making videos, etc.

And finally, there’s no need to limit dreaming to just the classroom.

“We created something new with this character that is a Dream Director. And we don’t want that to be limited to the means and resources of our company, or the employees we can get,” says John-Michael. “As we look to the next phase, we see a vision where The Future Project offers a way for folks to be Dream Directors in all sorts of communities and institutions: prisons, companies, hospitals, and more. We want it to be an idea out in world that people can take and act on themselves.”

What are your wild dreams to make a better world? Share them in the comments below and at

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