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After the inaugural Idea Tournament at Politifest in September, I took a look at one of the judge’s scoring sheet for the winning idea.
The judge had rated the winner — Christopher Yanov’s idea for a new cross-border university — pretty well in the “brazenness/innovativeness” category. But in the notes for his second round, the judge wrote a simple phrase:
“Never going to happen.”
Yet, based on the ratings of other two judges and then the audience watching that day, Yanov’s idea won.
To understand why, you have to spend some time talking with Yanov, which I did.
Put simply, he’s not in the business of talking about what’s feasible. He’s in the business of changing reality.
Yanov is the founder and CEO of Reality Changers, a college preparation and scholarship program, which claims to have given more scholarship awards to college-bound students than any other single organization in San Diego since 2006. It’s a gang-prevention strategy that begins with the proposition that gang “prevention” doesn’t work.
He fully admits that putting a college right on top of the border is nearly impossible to imagine. There’s no money. Where would it actually go? Who would build it? Who could attend? How would you handle cross-border security and immigration issues?
What he points out is that the problems on the border seem equally overwhelming.
“The problem is getting bigger and bigger — whether it’s a bigger fence or a longer waiting line to cross the border. We don’t have the right space to figure out the solutions,” Yanov told me.
As Yanov sees it, imagine 10,000 students at a University of California/Baja California. If they each made 10 friends, that’d be 100,000 cross-border friendships. Within 10 years, a million people would have such an understanding of the border they would not tolerate the long border wait times, the lack of cooperation on shared environmental and economic problems and a disappointing infrastructure.
“I’m not proposing a solution to the border’s issues. I’m proposing we create a space that will help to foster these solutions,” he said.
Cheryl Alethia Phelps, one of our judges for the Idea Tournament, told Yanov that it was not at all feasible. But that didn’t matter to her.
“The idea was highly inspirational,” she said. “His goal is to drive the conversations that aren’t happening to tackle these problems.”
That’s really the idea in a nutshell, and it’s a hint of what Yanov can do to a conversation.
In 2009, he stood in front of the San Diego City Council and proclaimed that gang prevention programs “just don’t work.”
“They’ll stop something from happening but they won’t actually be able to accomplish something positive. What most often happens is that these prevention programs just give free advertising to the negative behaviors that they’re trying to take away from society and that reaches a lot more students to normalize the behavior,” he said then.
And that’s Reality Changers. Rather than talk to a student about all of the horrible things that go along with gang lifestyles, you have to surround them with peers who are headed in a different direction, raise expectations for them and inundate them with positive goals.
“Why in the world are we going to middle schools, giving them an hour-long assembly on the dangers of drugs and gangs without at least getting sponsorship money from the drug dealers and gangs? Because we’re advertising their products for free,” he said.
To Yanov, words matter. One of his goals is to put Reality Changers on strong financial footing, avoiding the need to rely on donors to sustain its $1.4 million budget — nine full-time and 11 part-time staff. So the organization packaged its college preparation tutoring system into an online service: College Apps Academy. If the product succeeds, Yanov hopes he can spend less time fundraising.
But during training, he heard one of the teachers testing out a pitch for the product. “I know you could be spending time with your friends, outside or whatever right now, but…”
Yanov said he cut the person off. “Words matter. We’re College Apps Academy! This is the best thing ever! You have to present it that way to create that feeling.”
Reality Changers has no shortage of quotes from famous supporters like U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and former Mexico President Vicente Fox. It’s given out more than $2 million in scholarships and it’s closing on in its goal to get 50 percent of its staff comprised of former students.
Now, whether any of the students will go to a cross-border university someday is hard to say.
But I really wouldn’t bet against this guy.
I’m Scott Lewis, the CEO of voiceofsandiego.org. Please contact me if you’d like at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!):
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