As the time neared for her return to her workplace, Angie McKee became very sure that she didn’t want to go back and do things the same way. She had spent the previous seven months in the Project Fellowship learning and using creative tools that stretched and reshaped her brain. In a bold move and with a looming deadline for a grant proposal, she decided to include a description of her dream job -- one that she would be thrilled to return to. Angie got the funding for the job, and is returning in April to the San Francisco Unified School District as the Director of Innovation and Strategy for the  Student Nutrition Services Department.  

Seven months ago, prior to coming to Stanford, Angie was working as the Project Manager for SFUSD Future Dining Experience, implementing changes in the school cafeterias across the school district with the goal of create a welcoming environment for students that encourages them to eat lunch. Over 33,000 meals and snacks are served each day in SFUSD. She came into the fellowship in the Fall of 2016 with one simple, overwhelming, frustrating, and challenging question: Despite the positive changes they had made “Why aren’t students eating?”

Angie’s question led her to delve more deeply into the nature of students’ relationships with food. She began exploring the notion of what it means to be hungry and the impact hunger has on students’ lives both in and out of the classroom. “Hunger is directly inhibiting students from being really present in the classroom. If we can get them fed, focused, and engaged then we can get them to become advocates to change their world. Food is the tool that can change society.”

As the months passed Angie began to think like a designer. She experienced what it was like to not be constrained by limited resources and limited time and saw the value of stewing in ambiguity and giving herself space to think. She had many conversations with her peers and teachers about how to create change within a system and learned to challenge her assumptions about what was possible. And in doing so, she learned to be present with the problem and ask herself, “What is here that I am just not seeing?”

One of the most powerful tools that helped Angie look at her question with “fresh eyes” was conducting empathy interviews with teens during her design sprint. This was a struggle for her, but it led to a huge reframing of the problem. She realized that it wasn’t simply about students being fed. It was about how to show respect for the minds and bodies of the students through the food we serve them. “The joyful part of eating is the community aspect -- the ability to eat together, building bonds, the joy a delicious bite provides… I want our students to become joyful eaters. I want get back to the idea of being present and enjoying food and company.”

Learning to create frameworks and to communicate impact through stories were also important tools that helped Angie be present in the problem space. She realized that being able to look at familiar things in new ways really mattered. “Everything I needed to answer my question was already there. I think the biggest thing I’m taking away from the fellowship and giving back to the district is the idea that everything we need to fix the problem already exists -- we just need to reconnect the dots….by being present you take in everything that’s happening around you and you’ll see those different cues and keys that could unlock your problem right then and there. “

As Angie returns to SFUSD  her first exploration is to conduct a big experiment around the ideal meal -- developing the food experience that will evoke a sense of care and prompt students to joyfully eat. She is using design thinking mindsets to do this. “Instead of saying this is our vision, this is where we’re headed, we need to actually figure out what our kids want to eat and then reconfigure the business model around that.”

The fellowship taught Angie tools to amplify the ability to be present; it was a strong reminder to slow down to think, explore, and gain insight. She now approaches complex challenges and says, “Oh -- I see this now -- I see the layers.”  

When you take your attention into the present moment, a certain alertness arises. You become more conscious of what’s around you, but also, strangely, a sense of presence that is both within and without.
— Eckhart Tolle

Written by Maureen Carroll
Founder, Lime Design Associates


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