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First Power's Donna Morton teaches marginalized youth social entrepreneurship

Donna Morton, Ashoka Fellow and CEO of First Power, speaks at Social Venture Network about her vision for SunDrum.

I interviewed Donna Morton – a BC-based social entrepreneur, Ashoka Fellow, and chief executive of First Power (a Certified B Corporation and clean energy company that puts ownership and skills in the hands of communities) -- to talk with her about her new project: SunDrum.

SunDrum is an alternative education program that teaches inner city, at-risk, and on-reserve youth about social entrepreneurship through art, culture, and games. Through the program, marginalized youth are empowered to solve community problems using the tools of business and creativity.

During my interview with Morton I asked her what she believes her chief characteristic is. Her instantaneous response: “Artist.”

Some wouldn’t imagine this to be the dominant trait of a successful business person, but Morton is actually in good company. Steve Jobs was famous for standing at the intersection of technology and the arts. “It’s technology married with liberal arts…that makes our heart sing,” Jobs said

His approach in turning technology from utilitarian objects into artwork seems to have resonated with Morton, who stated:

“Steve Jobs making telephones and computers really beautiful has inspired what we’ve done with First Power. We believe that the technology in the wind tower, and the technology in the solar panel are not particularly beautiful objects…. And so whenever possible, [First Power] turns solar panels into canvasses that carry art, that carry culture, that inspire people. And we take a lot of pride that at several of our projects’ unveilings people actually cry because they feel what the technology means.”

That is, Morton and First Power have made ‘hearts sing’, as Steve Jobs put it. 

First Power marries clean, renewable energy technology with art. Above: First Nations art is engraved onto solar panels that now tell a cultural story for generations to come.

Just as First Power combines art and technology, Morton conceived of SunDrum as a program that combines art and education. And this program, with its focus on teaching social entrepreneurship through art and games, is coming into being at the perfect time. Modern research is showing us that the conventional way in which we educate our children is severely flawed and outdated.

In his now-famous series of TED talks renowned education expert, Sir Ken Robinson, affirms that “[t]he dominant culture of education has come to focus on not teaching and learning, but testing. Tests are important…but they should not be the dominant culture of education.”

Robinson says that this increasing emphasis on testing means, “by the time they become adults most kids…have become frightened of being wrong [because] we stigmatize mistakes.... The result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.”

And this is precisely the time when creativity, above all else, is needed to solve the pressing global problems facing the world today. The world needs people with the ability to do something new, fail, learn from it, and try again. The world needs social innovators – social entrepreneurs.

This is exactly SunDrum’s aim: to produce a community of creative doers prepared to learn from failure, instead of a group of disinterested, uncreative test-takers who have been taught to fear failure. Morton, being an entrepreneur, knows a thing or two about failure.

“[F]ailure is one of the things we talk a lot about in the SunDrum program.  We say, ‘if you do really hard things, you will fail.’ Our society teaches that failing is falling down…and that’s actually messed up.” When I asked Morton about her greatest failure she replied, “I think I failed the worst when I didn’t think of failure as lessons, and that failure is a gift if you use it.... Nobody – none of the people I’ve met who have done extraordinary things – they’ve never done any of those big things without monumental failure, as society defines it.”

But I still had to ask Morton why she thinks art is the best way to teach social entrepreneurship. Her answer was striking:

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