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Key Takeaways:

  • A positive attitude towards opportunities available in America can shift one’s belief in Agency and help them overcome structural barriers.
  • A positive mindset can be achieved through active participation, maintaining a sense of strength and dignity, gratitude, optimism, and a sense of Agency.
  • The four pillars of building “Agency” are family, religion, education, and entrepreneurship. These pillars are crucial for success.
  • Civil society institutions such as schools, faith, and community-based organizations have a greater influence on young people’s development than relying solely on government policy.
  • Entrepreneurship is a means of overcoming adversity and creating change. It allows individuals to take control of their finances and create opportunities for themselves and their communities.
  • Leaders can foster a culture of Agency within their organizations by providing pathways for creativity and risk-taking without penalty.

Executive Summary:

Greetings to all, and thank you for tuning in to the latest episode of the NEGOTIATEx podcast. We are continuing our conversation with Ian Rowe, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who focuses on education and upward mobility, family formation, and adoption.

In the previous episode, Mr. Rowe discussed his book “Agency” and the F.R.E.E. framework, which focuses on developing young minds. He also addressed the true definitions of equity and equality and their implications for addressing discrimination and privilege. Today, he shares his insights on a range of topics from Hamilton the musical to our innate entrepreneurial spirit. 

So, without further ado, let’s get into the meat of the matter.

It’s Important To Have A Positive Attitude Towards The Opportunities Available 

As a grandson of immigrants, Aram asks Ian how his immigrant family background influences their thinking on certain concepts. In response, the latter highlights that his family’s immigrant origins have impacted his ideas on national identity and self-development. 

He mentions that his parents came from Jamaica to the United States for better opportunities and to pursue the American dream. When they arrived, they had to adjust to the new societal norms and the experience of being black in America. 

However, Ian strongly believes that having a positive attitude towards the opportunities available in America can shift one’s belief in agency and help one overcome barriers.

Mr. Rowe then relates this to the hit musical Hamilton, particularly the line, “I’m just like my country. I’m young, scrappy, and hungry.” According to him, this line embodies America’s sense of national identity and kinship, as well as the self-betterment tools that have allowed the country to get better over time. 

For Ian, these same tools exist within each person and can help them achieve their dreams. On that note, he emphasizes the importance of teaching young people about the core principles of America, such as equality of opportunity and individual dignity.

With The Right Mindset, One Can Overcome Obstacles And See Things Positively 

Next, Ian discusses three pioneers who have impacted his thinking: Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. Martin Seligman, and Dr. Albert Bandura. He suggests that his work is highly influenced by Martin Luther, who emphasized the importance of active participation and maintaining a sense of strength and dignity regardless of circumstances. 

Seligman’s work on positive psychology, including gratitude and optimism, also helped fuel the concept of AGENCY. Finally, Bandura’s research on self-efficacy showed that there is a tight relationship between one’s actions and desired outcomes and that mindset and a sense of Agency can be transformative in how individuals view deficits in their own lives.

Rowe also discusses the racial wealth gap, noting that the average white family has about $160,000 more wealth than the average black family. However, he points out that when taking into account factors such as family structure and level of education, the average black married, college-educated family has about $160,000 more wealth than the average white single-parent family. 

Rowe disagrees that racial violence against African-Americans from 400 years ago makes individual efforts to move up in the world today futile. He then argues that mindset and a sense of “Agency” can transform how individuals view their life outcomes.

The Four Pillars of Building “Agency”: Family, Religion, Education, and Entrepreneurship 

Moving on, Ian discusses his model for building “Agency”, which consists of four pillars: family, religion, education, and entrepreneurship. Rowe emphasizes the importance of family as a foundation for success, citing the statistic that 97% of millennials who follow the order of education, work, marriage, and then children, avoid poverty. 

Religion is also important, as young people with a personal faith commitment have lower levels of depression, anxiety, and loneliness compared to those without. Rowe encourages young people to take advantage of this innate source of strength.

As far as the third element, education, is concerned, it is about choice and access to quality education. Rowe notes that in the district where he opened schools, only 7% of students graduate from high school ready for college, but there is a legislative barrier preventing the opening of great charter schools in the neighborhood. Rowe argues for more school choice and policy changes to address structural barriers to education. 

Finally, entrepreneurship is an important aspect of building agency, as it allows individuals to take control of their economic outcomes and create opportunities for themselves and their communities.

Leveraging Civil Society and Entrepreneurship for Creating Change

Next, Ian Rowe emphasizes the importance of enlisting civil society institutions such as schools, faith-based organizations, and community-based organizations to have a greater influence on young people than relying solely on government policy. Rowe believes that these local connections have a stronger impact on young people’s development.

Rowe also discusses the importance of entrepreneurship as a means of overcoming adversity and creating change. He cites Booker T. Washington’s example of building a network of exceptional schools for African-American children in the South during the Jim Crow era. 

Despite limited access to education, Washington partnered with Julius Rosenwald to build nearly 5,000 high-quality schools exclusively for black children. 

These schools, known as Rosenwald Schools, were some of the highest-performing schools for black students in the history of education. The Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision deemed these all-black schools unconstitutional and forced them to close. Rowe sees this as an example of entrepreneurship, where Washington saw a problem, was not bound by current conditions, and wanted to create a different outcome.

Fostering an Entrepreneurial Mindset in Every Child

Aram Donigian finds Ian Rowe’s Agency model inspiring, especially the idea of adopting an entrepreneurial mindset for every child regardless of their background. Rowe agrees and adds that having an entrepreneurial mindset is essential in creating problem-solvers and risk-takers, which are qualities that business leaders should cultivate within their organizations.

He also suggests that leaders should exercise their own Agency and be problem solvers in their own jobs to create an environment where their teams can also be agentic. Ian strongly feels that leaders can help foster a culture of Agency within their organizations if they provide pathways for creativity and risk-taking without penalty.

Embracing Courage and the F.R.E.E. Framework for Empowering Young People

Lastly, Ian highlights the importance of courage in confronting falsehoods and embracing empowering alternatives. He believes that it is important to educate young people on the pathways that exist within their control, despite hearing a narrative of all the things they can’t do because of immutable characteristics like race and gender. 

The author hopes that by embracing the F.R.E.E. framework, more young people can be put on a pathway to prosperity. Finally, Ian thanks the hosts for the opportunity to discuss his work and stresses the importance of practicing what one preaches in their own life.

Thank you for listening! 


NM : Hey everyone, thanks for joining us on NEGOTIATEx podcast. We are continuing our conversation with Ian Rowe, CEO of Vertex partnership academies. If you haven't already checked out part A of this show, be sure to do that first. 

Let's jump on the conversation with Ian.

Aram Donigian : Talking about family in your introduction to your book, you discuss watching the musical hit Hamilton. I love Hamilton. I think it’s such a great, great show, great music, [laugh], and how can it struck you personally as a child of immigrants? I'm a grandson of immigrants. How does your immigrant family origins impact your thinking on  these concepts?

Messages from Hamilton for Young People: National Identity and Self-Renewal [01:34]

Ian Rowe : Yeah, it's very interesting. You know, when my family came from Jamaica, West Indies to the United States, so they came to this country. They weren't running from Jamaica, but they were coming to this country for the opportunity, for the American dream. And I think that mindset really does shift. 

You know, my dad often used to say when he was in Jamaica, he was a man. It wasn't until he came to the United States that he realized that he was a black man and that that had meaning, and that he had to kind of shrug that off. Whereas if you were a black man, somehow that meant you were under some kind of oppressive condition. Though I do think that kind of attitudinal approach shifts your belief in Agency. Like if you think the entire society is organized against you because of your skin color, it's almost inevitable that you're gonna face some barrier where you are now not feeling Agency, that you feel like you're a victim.

And then when it comes to Hamilton, you know, among the reasons that was an inspiring story, there's a great part of a song where he says, “I'm just like my country. I'm young, scrappy and hungry.” Right? Embedded in that is a sense of national identity, that there is a kinship for what America means, that the same tools that exist for the country to get better, like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Amendments, in the same way that the country has gotten better over time by using those tools of self-renewal and self-betterment.

Those same tools exist within each one of us. “Just like my country, I'm young, scrappy, and hungry.”, I just love that line. And that's what we try to teach our kids in our schools, that you live in a good if not great country. That's not hostile to your dreams, that is organized around core principles, which by the way, have allowed the country to get better over time.

We can't ignore the history of things like slavery and legacy of other past practices, which unfortunately did exist in this country, but yet we have enormous confidence in the core principles, equality of opportunity, individual dignity, our common humanity. These are the elements that I thought were embodied in the Hamilton play and what every young person can access today.

NM : Oh, I think that's great. And much of what you're doing is obviously having a ton of impact on youth and their thinking. Kind of wanna talk about the impacts on three pioneers that have really impacted your thinking. Reverend Martin Luther King, Dr. Martin Seligman, and Dr. Albert Bandura. Could you tell us a little bit more how each of these inspired you in your work?

Challenging The Notion Of The Racial Wealth Gap: Education And Family Structure As Factors [04:34]

IR : Most people have heard of Reverend Martin Luther King. To really dive into his work, he writes a lot about Agency. He has this great line, “I refuse to accept that we as a people can just be seen as flotsam and jetsam on the river of light”, you know, just passive players. He said, no, no, no, no, we are much more active participants.

And he said that, you know, black people, you know, during the civil rights era, just because we're being victimized doesn't mean that we should take on a victim mindset, it is really powerful. Always providing a source of strength and dignity regardless of the circumstance. 

And that is what allowed you to have this empowering sense of Agency. Martin Selingman, he was really the pioneer behind the course of study called Positive Psychology. And so he emphasizes things like gratitude, and optimism, and a forward-looking view of the world, actually helps fuel the psychological concept of Agencies.

So, Martin Seligman  again, did great work in this area. You emphasize things like gratitude, like when you express gratitude for what you have, you actually have a more positive view of the world. You value what you have, you don’t pine for what you don't have.

Again, so Marty Seligman's work very powerful. And then finally, Bandura, kind of the Godfather of much of this work, did a lot of analysis on self-efficacy. This idea that there was a tight relationship between your actions and the ultimate outcomes that you desire. For so many people, when they feel powerless or helpless, they think their effort is pointless. They feel like why even bother if there's nothing's gonna change anyway.

And he showed that self-efficacy can be a game changer as it relates to, for example, the racial wealth gap, which is often used as an example of discrimination of whites versus blacks.

So for example, in the 2019 survey of consumer finances, if you look just as race, the average white family has about $160,000 more wealth than the average black family. And for some, that's proof, that's it, that's mic drop, its end of story. And yet if you look at that same data and take into account just two factors, family structure and level of education, the average Black married, college educated family has about $160,000 more wealth than the average white single-parent family.

And so, it's very interesting, because what that indicates then is that there are factors outside of race that are within your control, that can really make a difference in your life outcomes. And yet there are people like Nikole Hannah-Jones, who's the architect of the New York Times 1619 project, who has written; it doesn't matter what a black person does, doesn't matter if you save, doesn't matter if you get educated, doesn't matter if you buy a home, doesn't matter if you get married.

She says, none of those things overcome 400 years of racialized plunder. Mind you, Nikole Hannah-Jones has done all four of those things in her own life to lead a life of prosperity. And I say that because Bandura's research said, if you are hearing messages over and over and over and over again of what you can't do or the futility of your effort, after a while you start to believe it. And so Bandura and Seligman and King all show that; mindset, this idea of starting with a sense of Agency can be completely transformative for how you view whatever deficit you might have in your own life.

AD : So you introduced the model FREE earlier. We've talked a lot about, I think family certainly welcome to invite you to share any more about family, but as a model for a solution or a path forward. Any more you wanna say on the other three pillars of your model? Religion, education, and especially entrepreneurship, because I love how you build to that last one.

Family, Religion, Education, and Entrepreneurship as Sources of Strength (08:56)

IR : The elements that really I think in my view build Agency are around these four pillars. Family, religion, education, entrepreneurship. Family we've talked a lot about and the decision that young people have, yet, 97% of millennials that follow this order of education, work, marriage, then children avoid poverty. That's a pretty strong foundation. Religion is also important. 

Even in an age where religiosity is declining. If you look at the data, young people that have a personal faith commitment, well is at much lower levels of depression, much lower levels of anxiety, much lower levels of loneliness compared to young people that didn't have a personal faith commitment. They're part of real world rituals, much lower levels of all these negative outcomes. And so part of what I want to do is educate young people that there's a source of strength that you have access to, that you should take advantage of.

It's free, it exists. And it's part of the formula for how so many people have overcome adversity. The third element ‘E’ for education is really about choice. I mean, it's by you getting a great education, but this is where a young person all by themself can't be successful, right? Though, for example, in the district in which I've just opened schools, I mentioned that only 7% of kids graduate from high school ready for college.

Well, guess what? In this district there is a cap for charter schools. There's literally a legislative barrier that you can't open a great charter school in this neighborhood. So that's an example of a structural barrier that needs to be addressed. Like a seven year old can't solve that problem. So I do it in my book. I do make a few policy recommendations, and that's one of them where we have to advocate for more school choice.

AD : Before we get to Entrepreneurship, on those last two, religion and education. Is this why you talk about the importance of enlisting civil society; schools, churches, civic… 

IR : Yes.

AD : …Organizations, 

IR : Yes.

AD : …Neighborhoods, local government, perhaps in that, around those two things in particular.

Entrepreneurship as a Means to overcome adversity and Create Change (11:04)

IR : Yeah. And this is back to the Urie Bronfenbrenner, right? What are the institutions that have the greatest influence over a baby's development? And look back at those concentric circles, that Microsystem starts with your family, and then you radiate out. The two that show up much more forceful are schools and faith-based institutions, because these are local connections. You know your local pastor. The data we're relying on, government policy to be the solution. It's necessary, but not sufficient.

So, I lay a lot more responsibility on civic institutions; families, community-based organizations, faith-based institutions, schools to be the entities that have far greater influence on young people. So, that's why, you know, my framework is not called FREEG. Yeah, with the government [laughs].

AB : [Laughs] That's good. All right. Well, tell us about the last E there, the last part of this.

IR : Develop a strong family can have a strong faith commitment. If you've had good access and have morbid entrepreneurial mindset. You know you can always fall back on the foundation that you've built, right? So if you get a job, you're a problem solver in that job, someone who's looking for the next opportunity. But it's not only just in employment, it's also in bettering the outcomes of your own life or your own community. I mean, Booker T. Washington, a hundred years ago when he was the founder of Tuskegee Institution. This was during Jim Crow era when access to education for black kids was horrific. But he didn't allow that to limit his vision.

He said, I want to build a network of exceptional schools. He partnered with Julius Rosenwald, who is the CEO of the Sears, Roebuck Company, and together they built nearly 5,000 schools throughout the south and 14 states exclusively for black children to provide a high quality education.

At John Lewis, the senator, the poet Maya Angelou, they went to these what's called Rosenwald Schools. And ironically, these were some of the highest performing schools in the history of education for black students. And ironically, it's the Brown versus Board of Education, Supreme Court decision that held that separate must mean unequal and inferior that here to afford these all black schools that are actually excellent, deemed unconstitutional and had to close. 

It's one of these unbelievable stories, but  it's a great example of entrepreneurship where Booker T. Washington said, I see a problem. I'm not bound to the current conditions and I wanna create a different outcome.

AD : I find that inspiring. I mean, I find that your entire model Ian, makes sense and resonates. The part that I find inspiring is for every child, regardless of background, if they could adopt an entrepreneurial mindset, this attitude that I can fix problems.

IR : Yes.

AD : The impact on society would be huge. And for those business leaders that are listening right now, those are the sort of employees we want too.

IR : Oh, of course, you want problem solvers. You want folks who don't just complain, who just gripe. So the thing to think about as a leader is how do I cultivate a sense of Agency within my own organization? 

Are there pathways for people to be creative, to be risk takers, to not be penalized if they take informed risks? Are you as a leader, exercising Agency, you operate as a problem solver in your own job? Because if people see you looking at a situation, coming to different conclusions and saying, here's the path, then you've helped to create an environment where your teams will be agentic, right? Will have Agency themselves.

NM : So much of what you've discussed involves the nature of relationships, and your book even has an appendix dedicated to relationship skills. Could you tell us why relationship is so critical to the FREE framework and Agency?

The Importance Of Family Relationships In Shaping Character And Decision-Making [15:16]

IR : Well, you know, agency is individually practiced, but socially empowered, right? That, again, your force of your free will, you can be a lone ranger, but it's all about the relationships that you built that help you shape your character and shape your decision making. And you know, the first key relationships you develop are within your own first family. It all starts from there. 

If you have dysfunctional relationships with the people of closest proximity, then guess what? You're much more likely to form dysfunctional relationships with other people in your life. Which is why we spent so much time in trying to educate young people about some of the most consequential first decisions that they make, which is what's the family they're going to form? What's the relationship I want to be in even before I form my family?

They're fundamental, just as important as strong academics in math and science and English, really help young people understand those steps of entering young adulthood.

AD : Everything you've said fits within the way that Nolan and I think about negotiation, collaboration, problem solving, persuasion, influence, right? Things that we often talk about in a different way. And I think you're shedding a powerful light for a very real application for governmental leaders, business leaders, all of us that are members of this society as a Call To Action, Ian. 

What can people do who are listening and say, I want to, you know, I get the book, read it, buy into this idea, enroll in it. What can we do to help support the work you're doing and help with this transformative mindset that you've described?

IR : So, it is true that purchasing the book would be a great first step. And indeed, we're putting together, we're putting together a curriculum right now that's gonna go associated with the book as well as a discussion guide. Because so many folks are saying, I love this. How do I animate this within my own life?

So there'll be resources coming just in the next few months, and it'll all be free, curriculum as well as discussion guides that are captured by chapter ways in which you can take action.

AD : And by saying it's gonna be free, it's both the model FREE and the price is free.

IR : [Laugh] Right. The price of supplemental material, the will be free.

NM : Yeah.

Confronting Falsehoods and the Courage to Embrace Empowering Alternatives [17:42]

IR : There you go. Well, one thing I'd love your audience to absorb is that even though I call my book, ‘Agency', probably the most important word that they have to think about is courage. We live at a time when it's controversial to say things like, married to parent household is the strongest environment for children. There's some people who react to that and say, oh, you are being oppressive in such a way, and that's a patriarchal view. And or they'll say things like, you're helpless if you're a black person in closing the racial achieve gap or wealth gap. 

And the reason I say courage, that we all as individuals, we're gonna hear these things, we're gonna hear these things that we know are wrong, that are, we have evidence against it. And that maybe even some people are saying it out of fear, but courage is what's gonna get us through this moment.

In some ways, cowardice is what has got us into this moment where all these narratives of victimhood are being perpetrated, but it's gonna be the narrative, courage, the value of courage that allows us to, to emerge stronger as individuals and as a country.

NM : That's great. And, as we start to, to wrap this up, Ian, I'd like to ask you your final thoughts, what you might wanna leave with our listeners with possibly even share your vision for the future generations impacted by your work.

IR : Yeah, I mean I'll just reiterate courage. And if we truly want to inspire a new age of Agency, we have to educate young people on what the pathways are that exist within their control. Young people today are hearing a narrative of all the things that they can't do because of immutable characteristics like race and gender and other things.

It's simply not true, but we have to have the courage to confront these falsehoods, but we have to go further than that. We also have to provide the empowering alternatives. That's why I've crafted the F.R.E.E. framework is something, I think if more young people were to understand the data behind free, the four pillars that they can embrace within their own lives, then that can put them on a pathway to prosperity. And that's what we want for all of our kids.

NM : Absolutely, and thank you so much for everything that you discussed today, Ian. It's a deep topic and it's definitely something that we need to have these conversations with. Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast. Let me turn it over to Aram for closing thoughts.

AD : Yeah and Ian, I'm gonna thank you. I'm gonna echo Nolan's thanks. One, thanks for the thought and, and the work. Thanks for your example too though, because I know that this is very personal to you and that you strive in each one of these four domains, four pillars to demonstrate these in your own life. I think as someone digs into who you are, they see that.

So,thanks for that too.

IR : You gotta preach what you practice [laugh] in your own life, right?

AD : And, it's hard sometimes.

IR : It is hard.

Key Takeaways [20:47]

AD : I hope folks will hear everything you've said. You know, we can be the architects of our own lives, we can craft our destinies. And wherever you lead, wherever you are trying to influence and persuade others, if you can bring team members in who have that transformative mindset. Wow, what an impact.

And, that's the connection I saw as I read your book and dug into just a little bit about amazing things you're doing. This is the future that I certainly want for my own kids and certainly that I want for my country and this society.

IR : A hundred percent, a hundred percent. We're just like our country are young, scrappy and hungry.

AD : [Laugh]

IR : [Laugh]

AD : Thanks, Ian.

IR : Thanks guys. 

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