Episode 48: Big Thought CEO Byron Sanders

After growing up in Dallas and getting a private school education, Byron Sanders left his successful career to lead a nonprofit, Big Thought, that mentors kids in a unique way for future success.

He talks about his journey of committing his life to God’s purpose in the world through a very intentional personal mission statement.

And he and George talk about the importance of mentoring kids from under-resourced communities so that they have the imaginations to achieve their own purposes in life.

You can listen to the podcast or read the transcript below, or watch the full video here.

George Mason: What can be done to raise the sights of children of color in Dallas, so that they have an imagination of opportunity? Byron Sanders of Big Thought is going to talk about just that, and the work that they do with their nonprofit on Good God. Stay tuned.

George Mason: Welcome to Good God, conversations that matter about faith, and public life. I'm George Mason, your host, and I'm pleased to welcome to the program today, Byron Sanders. Byron, we're glad to have you with us.

Byron Sanders: It's a pleasure to be here.

George Mason: Thank you. Now, Byron is the President, and CEO of a creative educational enterprise called Big Thought.

Byron Sanders: That's right.

George Mason: Big Thought, and it is a big social transformation organization that we're going to get to talking about after a while a little more, but Byron, I think because this is Good God, we like to talk about people's faith journey that got them into this work, and how it informs your work, and how you connect the dots between your own personal spiritual life, and the work you do. So, tell us something about your self identification in terms of your faith.

Byron Sanders: Absolutely. You know, so I grew up here in Dallas.

George Mason: Right.

Byron Sanders: I grew up a church kid too. Most of my life was in southern Dallas, DeSoto, Oak Cliff, a little bit of Pleasant Grove, but it was kind of the southern Dallas life, and my mother is an educator. She was a teacher for the longest time. She just retired after 36 years not too long ago, and she's doing what all retired teachers do which is teach.

George Mason: Teach, exactly.

Byron Sanders: But still living her best life, right? So, education kind of just was in the atmosphere, right? It was in the drinking water growing up, but what was interesting was I started off in Dallas Independent School District, loved my school. Adelle Turner gave me a really solid grounding in who I was, my culture, my identity, and I learned to love, you know, my blackness.

Byron Sanders: I learned to love history about a culture that I really identify with, and then from there, went to the Talented and Gifted Magnet still in Dallas Independent School District over in Spence. So, went from Oak Cliff, to East Dallas, got a different experience there.

Byron Sanders: Oak Cliff, all black, excuse me, it was an all black school, and then East Dallas, it was a mostly Hispanic school, and then I was in the TAG segment, which was a little bit more diverse, but different environment, met a mentor in my little nerd outlet, which was history day, and history day, Donald Payton told me about this school called Green Hill. So I went, and I visited, loved it, took a tour, there were peacocks walking around. I'm like, 'I want to go to the school of peacocks', right?

Byron Sanders: So, went up there, and I thought I was hot stuff, and I was going to come in, and be hot stuff, because I'm hot stuff. That's what I do in school. This is what I do. Well, I got baptized in a different set of expectations, and it wasn't that they're using different books, or you know, Algebra is Algebra, is Algebra, right?

Byron Sanders: But I was not used to the inquiry that students were expected to have. I thought when kids were talking back to the teacher, I thought they were being disrespectful, as opposed to having an actual conversation, right? You know, it was a completely different cultural reference. Exactly, but I got the hang of it after two years, I got the hang of it, but I would never forget though that I would be patently aware that I was getting something really special at this school.

Byron Sanders: But I happened to be in the right place at the right time, met the right mentor who told me about a school that I'd never heard of, happened to have a mother, and father who were willing to sacrifice. We woke up at five o'clock every morning, so that I could catch the bus in West Dallas at 6:30 at the Boys Club, and then we'd go pick up some more kids in East Dallas, then we'd head up to Addison, and was able to do so with mostly a full ride, and wow, that was a lot of dominoes that had to fall in order for me to have that experience.

Byron Sanders: The kind of experience that allowed me to be on the Dean's list my first year when I got to Southern Methodist University. In school, college wasn't a shock for me, and I was patently aware that every day when I drove back home, and we crossed at Trinity, and I'm passing the neighborhoods that I grew up in, or the neighborhoods where you would take the exit to get to church, and you couldn't forget what was going on with the lives of the folks that were my classmates, or the people that I would play football with, or run track with.

George Mason: So, the goal shouldn't be that you have to get out in order to move up, that you should be able to move up by staying right where you are.

Byron Sanders: Opportunity should abound everywhere.

George Mason: Exactly.

Byron Sanders: And I knew I had to do something in education. I had no idea what I was going to do. Fast forward, fast forward, fast forward, graduate University of Tulsa, come back, I'm working in pharmaceutical sales, and there was a gaping hole in the fulfillment part of my composition.

George Mason: Here comes the spiritual.

Byron Sanders: And went on a really deep search for what that thing was, and I came to a mission statement. Mission of Byron Keith Sanders is to love my God with all my heart, and soul. To be the husband, father, son, and brother according to what pleases him, and to work diligently, and daily in my most sincere efforts to pursue my appointed purpose with honor, character, bravery, and love.

George Mason: Now wait a minute. That's a mission paragraph.

Byron Sanders: It's a powerful tool that helped me know what to say yes to, also helped me know what to say no to.

George Mason: Right.

Byron Sanders: It crystallized my pathway, and became my north star, and it's something that I say every day, I have it stitched into some of my clothes. I mean, it truly is that thing, that anchor that I use to keep my purpose for being on this planet paramount, and forefront.

George Mason: Good.

Byron Sanders: And so, that's what led me on the purpose driven path toward working explicitly in the spaces for education. It started early, I was a few steps in, but that really started once I crystallized with that mission statement.

George Mason: All right, so there's your mission statement.

Byron Sanders: Yeah.

George Mason: And it starts with a very biblical language.

Byron Sanders: Absolutely.

George Mason: All right, so where'd you get that?

Byron Sanders: Well, when I first started it was to be, 'cause I had to start somewhere. I had no idea what this statement was going to be, but it was to be the best pharmaceutical sales rep the world has ever known.

George Mason: It's a long way from love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul strength, and mind, yeah.

Byron Sanders: But you know what? I mean, I just had to write something down just to get the ball going, but what happened was I went through the why exercise.

George Mason: Very good.

Byron Sanders: I kept asking myself, 'Well okay, if that is it, then why?', and I just asked so many why's, studied, prayed, fasted, and it took literally, it took about three months to get there in 2007.

George Mason: Okay.

Byron Sanders: And every single word is intentional, and the priorities even in the statement are laid out when I said to love my God with all my heart, and soul, it's an action word that really is kind of the core constitution of who I am from which everything else flows.

George Mason: Right. Right.

Byron Sanders: And what it became more for me was not just, 'Hey, this is what I'm going to do', it became an identity.

George Mason: Yes.

Byron Sanders: And so no matter where I go, I carry that with me no matter what job I'm doing, that mission statement hasn't changed.

George Mason: So, this is an important thing to say I think for all of us who I think a lot of people do jobs, and they don't get the difference between a job, and a vocation.

Byron Sanders: That's right. That's right.

George Mason: So, I like to say that a job is an occupation.

Byron Sanders: Yeah.

George Mason: A vocation is a preoccupation.

Byron Sanders: That is good.

George Mason: You know what I'm saying?

Byron Sanders: Yeah. No, I get it.

George Mason: That a job is something you can do. A vocation is something you can't not do.

Byron Sanders: That's it.

George Mason: And so when you have a mission statement like yours, then what's happening is, really the particulars of how you carry that out are less important, than whether those are being driven by the main thing.

Byron Sanders: Amen to that.

George Mason: Yeah.

Byron Sanders: When I realized that I didn't have a bullseye that I had to hit somewhere down the line in the future.

George Mason: Right.

Byron Sanders: When I realized that it was much more about who I'm trying to be in this moment, in this time for my God, and being present to the purpose that he's given for me at this moment in time. There's certainly been a trend, but man, every five year plan that I'd written before ends up getting balled up, and tossed out the window.

George Mason: Sure.

Byron Sanders: Because I don't have enough imagination to dream up exactly what God has for me.

George Mason: But the mission doesn't have to change.

Byron Sanders: That's the beauty.

George Mason: Exactly. So all right. So, let's move from pharmaceutical, to Big Thought.

Byron Sanders: Yes.

George Mason: All right. How did you get from one to the ...

Byron Sanders: How in the world did that happen? Yeah, well when I was in pharmaceutical, I was like, 'I'm gonna make a ton of money, then I'll do something later on when I'm like 60, or so.'

George Mason: Hey, your 60's not so bad.

Byron Sanders: 60's a great age. It's a great age, you wear it well.

George Mason: Okay, thanks.

Byron Sanders: But honestly, everybody has a different purpose, and different reason for being here, right? And God puts a different little seed inside of you.

George Mason: Right.

Byron Sanders: For me, it was that I needed to be like you said, for my job, the thing that I was doing the majority of the day that needed to be where I was living my purpose.

George Mason: Me too.

Byron Sanders: Yeah, I can tell right, right? And it comes through. So, I resigned, and went to Group Excellence. It was actually a mentor, and tutoring company that we started when we were undergrads at SMU.

George Mason: Wow.

Byron Sanders: And I came over at the end of 2008 was when I was making that transition, started top of 2009, it was a bunch of mid to late 20 year olds. So we were a social enterprise before we had the terminology, which really would have helped with the capital raise, but our whole premise was using college students as both mentors, and tutors in schools that needed the help, and with lives that needed the support.

Byron Sanders: And we grew, and in 2011, we were in INC 500 companies, so we were the fifth fastest growing education company in the country, and I think we did about 15 million top line revenue, 'cause we were working in all the urban centers, major urban centers in Texas except for El Paso.

George Mason: Okay.

Byron Sanders: And it was a joy, because you had all these purpose driven young people out there working alongsides equally brilliant, but unaware students in marginalized communities, and magic was happening all over the state. I think we worked with about a couple of hundred thousand students that year.

George Mason: Right.

Byron Sanders: And several schools got off the bad list, you know, with state accountability, because of the gains they were able to make. That was Group Excellence, and that started the journey, the first step.

George Mason: Well, and let's just stop there for a moment, and just reflect on what you just said, and that is, when you put these mentors side by side with people in underprivileged educational settings, the magic starts to happen, and this is something I think people who grow up in privileged communities don't understand in the sense that, that's already happening for them.

Byron Sanders: Yeah.

George Mason: I mean, it's just the air they breathe, the water they drink, it's the normal course of life. They have people who look like them, they have people who are successful in their homes, and in their communities, and they aspire to be like that person, but that is not always true in underprivileged, and pretty much generally speaking in underprivileged areas, and so when you do that, you up the human capital imagination, don't you?

Byron Sanders: Listen, you hit on something amazing right there, because we stretch for the capacity that we believe is reasonable, or rational to attain, even if it's somewhat bold, and audacious, right?

George Mason: Right, right.

Byron Sanders: The analogy I always use, if you tell me to go, and make the Olympic four by one relay team, right? I'm actually not going to work very hard for that. It's a little outside of my range, and so I'm like, 'Okay, all right, all right, yeah, sure', right? But if you tell me there's a $500 purse for flag football rec league for 30, to 45 year olds locally in the community, I'll go to practice, I get into shape, I'll stretch, right?

Byron Sanders: I will go, and play for that, because that's attainable. For a lot of our kids in these communities where they haven't had a role model, their parents themselves didn't have a positive experience with the education system, so they don't have the degree, or whatever, they haven't seen things, right? The world is as small as that block sometimes. Well, telling that guy, or that kid, 'Hey, you can go, and you know, be a doctor, you can be a lawyer'.

George Mason: Be anything you want to be.

Byron Sanders: 'You can be anything you want to be. Listen, this is the land of opportunity, go get it'.

George Mason: And that can be crippling, because then when they find out that, that's not really possible for them, now it's their fault, and the self loathing that happens, the loss of self esteem. Let's pick it up there when we come back from our break, because there's so much more that this is gonna pursue. Big Thoughts.

Byron Sanders: Big Thoughts. So, fast forward a few steps.

George Mason: Hold that one here. We're gonna promote Big Thought, and we'll come back, and talk.

Byron Sanders: Cool.

Jim White: Big Thought is a nonprofit organization that works with partners across the city to provide creative learning programs that enrich the lives of young people. With a mission to close the opportunity gap for youth by making imagination of part of every day learning through educational programs, and system wide community partnerships, Big Thought provides access to high quality learning experiences that power creativity, and foster social, and emotional wellbeing.

George Mason: We're back with Byron Sanders, and Byron, we were just talking about Big Thought, and about more generally, the capacity for people in underserved communities really to imagine a future that is both of filled with promise, but realistic at the same time, and how to pull that off, and this idea of mentors coming alongside is a crucial part of it.

Byron Sanders: Absolutely, without a doubt. You know, what a mentor does is it gives a young person permission to succeed.

George Mason: Right.

Byron Sanders: And it gives them permission to dream, it gives them access to a arsenal of dreams that they might not have had access to before just by simple exposure, right? Just 'cause you don't know what you don't know.

George Mason: Right.

Byron Sanders: You can't dream of what you'd never seen, or have any type of conception.

George Mason: Well, and this is actually one of the things that most people don't realize was the negative impact of the school's desegregation in that before desegregation of schools, every black kid, and person of color in their schools had teachers who looked like them, principals who look like them, people who they could look in the eye, could look at them, and they could believe in, they could aspire to, they could see these role models.

George Mason: You desegregate schools, and all of a sudden what you're doing is you're busing kids into white schools, black principals, and teachers don't get jobs, and they're finding other places to be instead of integrating everybody, where now there's somebody to look up to for everybody, now you put black kids into white schools, and who do they have to look up to?

George Mason: But then those of us in the white privileged communities say, 'Well look, they're not achieving, because their family structure is bad', you know, that sort of thing, but they don't understand that there's a whole systemic issue involved in all of this that we're now able to get some distance, and reflect upon.

Byron Sanders: That's right.

George Mason: And in doing so, we're starting to make progress in shifting all of that, but every hand on deck here, nonprofits like yours have to play a role in this too.

Byron Sanders: Absolutely, without a doubt. You know, what you're hitting on is the whole notion of this concept of stereotype threat.

George Mason: Yes.

Byron Sanders: And the risk of it grew when we did desegregation the way we did it.

George Mason: That's right.

Byron Sanders: And I think what's important for folks to know is that desegregation as a goal was the right target, the process that we used was the one that was ultimately shown to have long term, some positive effects in closing the opportunity gap, but the way it did it was traumatizing, and it removed those really powerful, and important role models, and people who had just cultural context, and belief that these kids actually were capable.

George Mason: Well, that's exactly right. I mean there is a kind of cultural intelligence that has to be in play in every context, in order for people to thrive, and you can have all sorts of other kinds of intelligence, but if you lack cultural competence, then there's going to be some irritation, and some failure take place in systems, and so that's what I think we've found in schools that, because we'd never fully got there, and then once we did that, we had White flight.

George Mason: I'm proud of what I see happening in DISD, I think we have some tremendously innovative progress going on there, and achievement just coming back, but that hasn't actually changed yet that the demographic dynamics, and part of what you're talking about here is strengthening, and supporting those role models that I think are gonna make a real difference.

Byron Sanders: Absolutely. You know, and mentoring is certainly a part of our work at Big Thought. You know, another really important part of our work is this notion of social and emotional learning, right?

Byron Sanders: There's a very important body of research, and evidence that is overwhelming, that highlights the effect that trauma has on the life of a human being, and I don't want to limit this to children, because you see it there, but it has long term effects, this whole notion of adverse childhood experiences, right?

Byron Sanders: There was research, it was a landmark studies done in '97, '98, Center of Disease Control Prevention out in the Western part of the country, and what they did is they actually did the study with a relatively affluent population, because they wanted to show that adverse childhood experiences are fairly universal.

George Mason: Ah, okay.

Byron Sanders: But the problem is well, one, they saw that you could actually predict long term health, negative outcomes based on experiences that a child had that would fall in these categories of witnessed maternal abuse, experienced neglect, themself experienced sexual abuse, right?

Byron Sanders: Those types of categories, there were 10 different categories they were looking at, and what they saw was that you can actually predict not just if they're going to have any mental health issues, but if they were going to have diabetes, or congestive heart failure.

Byron Sanders: You're actually able to predict early death based on trauma that a person undergoes before the age of 18. That was powerful research. You can understand the implications in the health care, but you also understand the implications in the education sphere, right?

George Mason: Right.

Byron Sanders: Well, bringing that forward, think about if they saw that, I would say ubiquitous presence of trauma even amongst a relatively affluent population, think about what you see in concentrated poverty, and typically those are communities of color, those are black, and brown communities, and the difference is having trauma does not doom you to having the negative outcomes that come from it, but having trauma without buffers to address it, without a strong, positive, consistent role model, adult role model, without having mental health resources, or being in a place that could be able to provide support, afterschool programs, things like that.

Byron Sanders: In those instances, you're much more susceptible to long term, negative effects of what childhood trauma brings, and you're not able to flip that into turning kind of that resilience into a strength, and it can have a long term, very significant deleterious effect on a young person, and that's one of the main things that we're dealing with in communities that have been under resourced, that again are always, or typically communities of color.

George Mason: Well, and let's talk about what happens in under resourced communities, and their schools. What's the first thing that gets cut in those school programs. It's the support systems, and it's the arts.

George Mason: All right. So, when we talk about what produces healing is the activation of those parts of the brain that music, and the arts, and science, and the like, they create opportunities for people to imagine the world differently. It opens up possibilities for them beyond being locked into where they are, and yet those are the programs that go first.

Byron Sanders: That's right.

George Mason: Because we think for all the good that STEM does, you know, that science technology, and junior year math, because we want people to be able to get jobs, and to work productively and all of that. Nonetheless, the holistic approach to being able to be a full human being, and to be well, and to be a leader, not just an automaton, not just a worker bee, but actually to be a leader, to think creatively, that's where the arts comes in, and it's through the imagination, and whatnot.

Byron Sanders: That's right, the arts, the creative process. Human beings create.

George Mason: Yes.

Byron Sanders: Right? Living in those places of what could be on the frontiers of what's possible, if you have not built your creative muscles that comes through the arts, comes through project based learning, comes through service learning, things where you get to go, and you have to create, then we're doing us as a society, but also the individual a tremendous disservice.

George Mason: Right.

Byron Sanders: The thing that is really powerful about the advance in technology in our lives, in the workforce is that it's really revealing the things that have always mattered most, but it's stripping away those other things that we used to think were the most important.

Byron Sanders: Here's what I mean by that. Automation, artificial intelligence, machine learning, the technology boom that we're in the middle of right now. The Federal Department of Labor is saying that 65 % of kids today in school are going to be working in jobs that don't yet exist.

George Mason: Wow.

Byron Sanders: That's actually a pretty conservative estimate, some estimates are as high as 85 % by 2030.

George Mason: Wow.

Byron Sanders: New, completely just unimagined jobs, right? Well okay, if that's our reality, how in the world are you going to prepare them for that?

George Mason: Right.

Byron Sanders: As educators, as a system right now, how do you prepare a child for a world that's so dynamic, we can't even imagine it?

George Mason: Right, right.

Byron Sanders: Well, what you have to do, and what futurists are saying, what macro economists are saying, what entrepreneurs are saying is that they're actually is going back to the basics. They're saying that we need to teach kids creative problem solving.

George Mason: Wow.

Byron Sanders: The second thing they say is most important, we need to teach kids. Martin Ford has a great book, it's called Rise of the Robots. The two elements that he says best prepare people for this new, and dynamic world. One is how to be a creative thinker, two is how to build complex human relationships.

George Mason: Wow.

Byron Sanders: Because turns out, you talked about automatons. You know who's better at being an automaton than a human? An actual robot, right?

George Mason: Yeah, right.

Byron Sanders: So, all the things that are process-oriented, predictable, repetitive, redundant, things like that, those things are being done by the machines, and they're being done a lot better. So, where is the human beings place in society? Anything that requires creativity, and anything that requires a human interaction, and we actually see this at a macro level as well.

Byron Sanders: If you look at 1975. 1975, you look at the valuation of the S&P 500, you had about 84, and 85 % of that valuation of all of those companies, hard assets, inventory, real estate, the widgets that they made, right? Fast forward to 2015, it's completely inverse.

George Mason: Wow.

Byron Sanders: 83, 84% of the valuation are things that are creative assets: IP, brand equity, the expectation of you being able to do well, right? That's what's even moving our large macro economic systems, creativity, and human beings.

George Mason: Well, and let's just say if we were to think about this in terms of the current dynamics of the workforce in America, that the people who have lived, and worked in jobs that they feel are no longer profitable for them, or they feel left out by this economy.

George Mason: You know, we talk about retraining for new jobs, and all of that, but when you take that entire workforce, and they haven't learned from a young age to think creatively, and solve problems, what are they left with? Well, they're left with fear.

Byron Sanders: That's right.

George Mason: Fear of the future, and when you operate out of fear, then you do things that you wouldn't do otherwise to protect yourself, and that doesn't produce a healthy society.

Byron Sanders: Amen to that. It means that we're not fit for the future, and this is why there's a tremendous sense of urgency that we should have in order to change our systems, and while we're moving, you know, the fairly inertia ridden systems, and not just education systems, I'm talking about healthcare systems, I'm talking about all these different kinds of systems, we have to have really important partners in the meantime, because the kids get one shot, right?

Byron Sanders: They can't wait for us to get our act together. That's why Big Thought's work, and organizations like it is so important, because we come alongside a partner to the K-12 system, and we provide a space that's outside of the accountability based systems that we have to run in our public education.

George Mason: Of course.

Byron Sanders: Right?

George Mason: This is alongside.

Byron Sanders: This is alongside, and we create space for those creative learning opportunities, and we can connect those to explicit career paths that youth get to explore themselves.

George Mason: Wow.

Byron Sanders: If we can build systems that actually encourage youth agency where they're thinking, deciding, and moving of their own accord, then we're better preparing them for a 21st century workforce, because those are the kinds of the jobs that will require human beings where there is agency, forethought, and imagining what's possible, as opposed to waiting for things to roll down hill.

George Mason: Well, Byron, thank you for your leadership with Big Thought, and for helping us understand the big picture of what's going on in all of this. We're grateful for your work. Thanks for being on Good God.

Byron Sanders: What a pleasure.

George Mason: Terrific.

Byron Sanders: Thank you.

George Mason: All right.

Jim White: Good God is created by Dr. George Mason, produced, and directed by Jim White. Guest coordination, and social media by Upward Strategy Group. Here's grateful appreciation to Evolve Technology for location production facilities, Evolve Technology for home, audio, video, and lighting design.

Jim White: Enjoy more, think less with Evolve. See their great work at Evolvedallas.com. Thanks to Wendy Krispin Caterer for guest parking accommodations. Good God, conversations with George Mason is the podcast devoted to bringing you ideas about God, and faith, and the common good. All material. Copyright 2018 by Faith Commons.

Jim White: Big Thought is a nonprofit organization that works with partners across the city to provide creative learning programs that enrich the lives of young people. With a mission to close the opportunity gap for youth by making imagination of part of every day learning through educational programs, and system wide community partnerships, Big Thought provides access to high quality learning experiences that power, creativity, and foster social, and emotional wellbeing.

Good God Project