Sphere College Project

A New World of Learning

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Introducing Sphere’s Social Enterprise

When I started Sphere seven years ago in Phoenixville, PA, I began by assembling two groups of 10 people. We gathered and learned together, and that lasted for about four years. As we begin now in Asheville, we’ve taken a different approach: We’ve spent our time planning, including developing our vision package, which describes what Sphere is and exists for. In some ways, I wish we had just gotten started with courses, as I feel eager to jump into teaching and mentoring, because it’s what I enjoy most. In other ways, I feel thankful for the time that we have spent understanding Sphere, but also the principles by which we operate and make decisions each day. I also feel grateful for our growing advisory group that has counseled us along the way and continues to bring critical thinking to everything, from what courses to offer to what to pay our teachers.

Sometimes, it’s difficult to know where to start: When you have such a wide vision of what is possible in education and so many new concepts for which you are trying to gain consideration, there are any number of places to begin. And then there are the realities, including financial ones. Thanks to insight from our friend, advisor, and team member, Dee Williams, about the needs of the Asheville community related to skill development, we have now decided to prioritize the creation of Sphere’s social enterprise, which will launch alongside the Sphere College Project this January.

Broadly defined, social enterprises are organizations that apply commercial strategies to maximize improvements in human and environmental well-being. There has been a broad movement among 501c3 organizations for several decades now to operate businesses in order to generate revenues and fulfill their missions. Goodwill is a perfect example of a nonprofit with a successful social enterprise: They fund their work-training programs through their retail establishments. They even go one step further to hire candidates from their work-training programs, thereby solving some of the placement issues that can plague some in the underserved or underemployed sectors.

There are a number of reasons a social enterprise is a good idea, among the most important is that the community views us as an innovative, responsive, results-oriented entrepreneurial business. Social enterprises are also practical, as they guard against fluctuations in funding, including government funding cuts to social programs, while building community wealth, which at the heart of our initiative. We believe that providing higher-level learning to all adults who want it in the community will result in the increased wealth of the community: The right amount of high-quality education along with support through mentorship is the key to happier, more engaged community members.

The plan is to launch Sphere’s “Tools for Effective Living” program in the Asheville community beginning in January of 2017. The program, which will include courses and skills tutoring, will be marketed to businesses and organizations for the purposes of improving employee skills and raising employee satisfaction levels. We are incredibly excited about this. Stay tuned for more information on this over the next several weeks.

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Sphere, the Media, and the Elections

When I started Sphere College Project over seven years ago, one of my key reasons for doing so was to illuminate the fact that the media is among the most compelling social force in America today. Why? Because the majority of Americans get their information (synonymous with “education” for many folks today) from these media sources – 55% from television and 21% from the Internet, according to a 2013 Gallup poll.(1)

As I frequently point out in my classes, a good portion of the American media is “owned” and controlled by a few corporations; most sources in a general Google search about the subject point to six organization (GE, NewsCorp (Rupert Murdock), Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, and CBS). The amount of the market the Big 6 own is uncertain – some put the percentage of ownership as high as 90%, which is highly questionable, other analyses point closer to 50%. Without taking time away from the development of Sphere to conduct meticulous research, I’d rather focus on the point at hand: Televised news has an undeniable influence on our perspectives, and its effects are far more reaching than most of us realize.

What most people think of as news is actually “rhetoric” – the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, and it is arguably the most egregious, insidious aspect of the media today. Famed political consultant and strategist, Frank Luntz, described his specialty in a PBS interview as “testing language and finding words that will help his clients sell their product or turn public opinion on an issue or a candidate.”(2) In the same interview, he noted that his job revolves around exploiting the emotional content of language: “It’s all emotion. But there’s nothing wrong with emotion. When we are in love, we are not rational; we are emotional…. my job is to look for the words that trigger the emotion…. We know that words and emotion together are the most powerful force known to mankind.”(3)

If you watched or listened to any of the election news coverage, you well know that the media thrives on emotion; and what sparks emotion more than controversy, divisiveness, and separatism? That’s the point, when we are emotional we are not rational; we become entrenched, closed down, and fixed. Is it any wonder why our society is so divided today?

So what does it take to be rational? In part, a broader perspective that is only available through education. This is what we are up to at Sphere. We believe that through investigation, not rhetoric, and inquiry rather than emotion, along with a little bit of searching into our cooperative nature that there is a whole lot that we could accomplish together, regardless of who holds office.

(1) http://www.gallup.com/poll/163412/americans-main-source-news.aspx

(2) “Interview Frank Luntz”. PBS Frontline. Retrieved 2007-03-23. Sourced from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Luntz

(3) Ibid.

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Welcome to Our Project Manager

As most of you know, I am now actively engaged in reinvigorating Sphere, and damn happy about it. I’m also happy to report that I have hired Lynn Komlenic for our Project Manager position. Originally, I had thought to call this position Project Coordinator; however, given the level of work that we have been performing, “coordinator” just didn’t cut it. Lynn is new to the Asheville area but has a long history of contributing to start-ups with purposeful missions, so please join me in welcoming her. You will get to hear more from Lynn over the next few months as we share the responsibility of this blog.

So, what have we been up to? First, Asheville business coach Jacob Barrocas made clear to us the importance of having a well-defined mission, vision, values, goals, etc. We knew there was power in this, but didn’t fully realize it until we actually dug in. For the past couple of months, we have been working on all of this. Read more here. We have been a little surprised over the past few months how frequently we are referring back to these. They really do impact the decisions we have been making.

In addition, we have formed an advisory committee of some folks (teachers, students, consultants, etc.) – many of whom Lynn introduced to me through 1 Million Cups – Asheville’s entrepreneurial gathering on Wednesdays at RISC Networks – who are very inspired by the possibilities of Sphere. We are meeting weekly on Wednesdays and, with their input, are now planning some community meetings and a “soft-launch,” which will help us in working out the kinks. Currently, we are recruiting course proposals for awesome topics for our session beginning January 2017. If you would like to teach or know of someone who does, see the For Teachers page for more information.

Sphere also now has a toll-free phone number: 844-SPHERE1 (844-774-3731). You may refer anyone who has questions to that phone number, or our email: info@spherecollege.org.

It’s truly great to be up and running, again. Personally, I am eager to share some of the awesome teachings I was a part of a few years back in Phoenixville with the folks of Asheville. We are hoping for a very warm welcome from this community. After all, Asheville is the kind of progressive, artsy, caring and sustainable-minded community that just might latch onto this entirely new way of providing education.