Feature: Year Here
The Future of Social Innovation
By Nathan Ardaiz
Published Nov 2015
It’s 10:30 on a Friday night in East London. The 27 Fellows of 2016 and the team that leads them are in the midst of a cava induced dance party in an abandoned shoe store. It’s the cap to 24 hours spent preparing and serving a 3-course pop-up dinner for the community that several of the fellows are a part of. The night is revving down and Jack Graham calls to those of his budding entrepreneurs who remain. “Group hug!” His delight reveals someone who has spent the last two and a half years working for that exact moment. Graham, CEO and Founder of Year Here - a London based fellowship in social innovation and entrepreneurship - has actually spent those two and a half years crafting a world-class, nine-month, postgraduate experience to “test and build solutions to some of society's toughest problems.” The word “experience” is not the reduction of a market based service, but rather it is a lack of terminology for an educational and training program that is yet to exist - except (Year) here. “Bril,” Graham says. Quickly, one learns that “bril” is a good thing. His abbreviated (brilliant) confirmation is a result of, and response to one of his umpteenth responsibilities as coach, mentor, educator, investor, strategist, executive, collaborator, co-conspirator, and most importantly, friend. The Year Here program (“programme” in British English) - now in its fourth iteration - is guided by Graham, the Program Coordinator, Michael Simpson (A Year Here Alumni himself), and their jack of all trades, Jordan Holland. Year Here’s Fellowship is rivaled only by programs like the Design MBA at California College of the Arts - programs with mindfulness and self-awareness at the core, as well as curriculums laden with empathic, customer led design, social centric ventures, and hyper-practical, “real world” simulations. As Nathan Shedroff, chair of the CCA Design MBA says, “Make is the new Think.” They are systems minded approaches to the service of other humans. The thing that may appear to limit Year Here on the surface is the same thing that makes it years ahead of its time - free tuition. Graham explains that the bureaucracy of a master’s degree certification would cost the organization over £7,000 GBP ($10,820 USD) per student, thus inhibiting them from providing a free education. Graham’s foresight, however, has allowed his team to attract disillusioned, top level smarts and talent who otherwise may be swayed by unreasonable fees - something that Simpson may affirm. Graham and Simpson have designed a playful and creative, yet intentional and highly rigorous curriculum. It’s comprised of volunteer placements for each fellow, along with boot camps, coursework, retreats, consulting projects, ethnography, a 24 hour challenge, an entrepreneurship incubator, writing for social change, weekly reflections, workshops, and much more. Year Here is set against the backdrop of a city (and a nation for that matter) in the midst of a housing crisis, a gutted social welfare system, and an ever privatized sector of public services - an “ecosystem” that Year Here is precisely made for. Several of this year’s fellows, in fact, have been placed in a neighborhood in East London - Poplar - that is facing the same ills that many edge communities face in rapidly overwhelmed urban centers. In the midst of displacement and gentrification, all of them are all too aware of their role in the transformation of one of London’s most impoverished neighborhoods. In Poplar, one can smell and taste the familiar narrative of places like the Mission District in San Francisco, Brooklyn in New York City, Kreuzberg in Berlin, and even Bethnal Green and Dalston in London. The 27 social workers, engineers, artists, designers, and world citizens in this year’s cohort reflect the exuberance, humility, and intention of the three men who assembled them. This was no more evident than during the 24 hour challenge that set out to unite a community through food, storytelling, and a shared human experience; and one that culminated in the reassurance and joy of a group hug. First hand, they have been exposed to a purpose as intense as the social challenges they’re all committed to tackle.