Big Thought Has Big Impact On Opportunity Gap

(Photos courtesy Big Thought)

We’ve talked about it before — where you live in Dallas can impact and shape the kinds of opportunities you get — or even if you get many of them to begin with. One local organization has been working decades to help close the opportunity gap — through programs that encourage children to use their imaginations.

Last year, we told you about The Opportunity Atlas, an interactive tool that confirmed what many who follow opportunity gaps in Dallas have known all along:  Decades of policy have wrought pockets of opportunity gaps throughout the city of Dallas, and that children who grow up in those neighborhoods frequently reach adulthood and have families of their own, and make the same low wages their parents did, exacerbating and perpetuating that gap.

Big Thought’s mission of closing the opportunity gap for area students includes in-school, out-of-school and community partnership programs, with the idea that making imagination part of everyday learning can help achieve that.

The organization also helps ensure that students get high-quality learning experiences (often offered at low-cost or free) that promote creativity as well as social and emotional learning. And its Creative Solutions program, which uses performing and visual arts to re-ignite the imaginations of juvenile offenders also helping them develop skills that will assist them in being career and college ready, has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the state.

Friday, one of the organization’s biggest supporters, The Fossil Group, will host its seventh annual Works of HeART auction and fundraiser to benefit Big Thought. The event, which will be held from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. at Fossil Group headquarters, will showcase original artwork created by company employees, including paintings, textiles, jewelry, and even a 3D printed piece.

Before the event, we took the opportunity to talk with Big Thought CEO and President Byron Sanders about his organization.

Byron Sanders

“Big Thought has been one of those organizations where a lot of people will say, ‘Oh, I’ve heard of Big Thought,’ but if you as them you know, specifically what we do, and it’s like, ‘Oh … you know, good stuff,’” he said, wryly. “And that’s one of the things since I’ve come in, that we’re getting more and more distinct about the fact that there’s an explicit purpose for the organization. And what we’re doing is connecting the dots between the kinds of experiences like the Thriving Minds summer camps, connecting the dots between why those things are important and why they’re more important than ever for a 21st-century world.”

“We’re a 30-year-old organization – this is actually our 30th anniversary, and we have a big event coming up on March 2 at the Bomb Factory. It’s called Big Night.

Three decades ago, when the organization began, it’s emphasis was on arts education, Sanders said. But Big Thought’s focus and programming has grown considerably since then, as has its mission.

“We have multiple, different program lines — we’ve just grown in scope and scale since then,” Sanders said. “There’s through lines, two of things that we’ve held through to our mechanism of action — we are here to help empower youth creativity and to we’re also here to help them build their social and emotional well-being.”

Now, in addition to programming that works directly with the students of Dallas through after-school enrichment, summer enrichment, and with juvenile offenders, the organization also consults with school administrators and educators.

And Sanders said that encouragement to creativity does translate to the classroom and — eventually — to the workforce as students enter it.

“It’s all designed to increase the perception of value as well as the ability for young people to use creativity and I said it’s more important now than it ever has been before, because, in a 21st-century workforce that’s dynamic and ever-changing, it’s vital,” Sanders said.

“Kids today are going to be working in careers that don’t yet exist,” he continued. “Matter of fact, the U.S. Department of Labor says that about 65 percent of kids can expect to work in a job that doesn’t exist today — and that was a fairly conservative estimate. There are some estimates today that saying it’s more like 85.”

Preparing young people for that dynamic and ever-changing world, Sanders said, needs to include helping them be able to create because learning to be creative provides a skill set that will help in problem-solving, planning, and more.

“The thing is we’re actually children were actually born with a lot of creativity, but our systems kind of nudge that out of us by the time we’re of working age, when in fact in the 21st-century world it’s one of the most important things we need,” he said. “So that’s what our programming does, and that’s why out of school time programs matter so much — it gives a new space for young people to be able to build a muscle that they might not always have the flexibility to build in a traditional classroom setting.”

Through programs like Dallas City of Learning, where Big Thought partners with more than 500 different entities to provide creative learning opportunities throughout the city, thousands of Dallas students get access to quality out-of-school time, both after school and in the summer.

And through those programs — and because of the organization’s longevity, Sanders said they’ve been able to amass the data to back up that they’re working.

“We’re pushing ourselves into the future at our organization by building out a platform — actually, I would say right now, because we’re moving on this already, is purposing Dallas City of Learning to be a platform in which young people can suddenly start to build out and have meaningful experiences and pathways toward what they want to be today and later on in life,” Sanders said. “And what that means is working with corporate partners and working with community partners so that we can start to, within our system, build the kind of your skill sets that are meaningful for these employers but do so in an in an exclusive way through out of school time partners.”

“It’s all these different parties working together to create a pathway that has meaningful currency for both the young person on that pathway and for employers in our city and in our in our in our region who are looking for these skill sets that you don’t necessarily always get explicitly taught or practiced in a traditional classroom setting,” he said.

The group’s work with juvenile offenders through its Creative Solutions program is one of its biggest success stories.

“We’re actually entering our 25th year of doing creative solutions and we have historically exclusively done it with Dallas County, where we’re working with young people will come to us on probation from the juvenile system,” Sanders said. “We are one of the few organizations that that doesn’t discriminate on the types of offenses that we will take into our program, so we’re working with a wide range of young people and a wide range of offenses, but more importantly they’ve come from a wide range of experiences.”

“The reason why this program works so well is because it’s a trauma-informed methodology. And what I mean by that is it’s the notion — and I would say it’s gaining more traction in our education and health care circles but it still needs to be lifted up more — that the things that happened to us early on in our lives have a lot to do with how we perceive the world and how we interact with it.”

“Many of our young people have experienced trauma themselves without buffers or ways to really work through and contextualize their trauma, and often you see that show up in not only their actions, but their actual physical health as well.”

The emphasis not only on helping program participants learn to express themselves creatively but also to address those Adverse Childhood Experiences that impact behavior and decision-making is what contributes to the program’s successes.

“If you allow young people wanted to first fully discover who they are in their choice right to acknowledge and learn actually that the things that have happened in their life have affected them and how they how it’s affected them, but then also help them get the skill sets in knowing what to do with that,  in a very real way you can turn what was trauma to triumph,” Sanders said. “They can go on and live their best, fullest life.”

“That’s why you see the recidivism rate, with our five year average of 11 percent, is you one of the lowest in the state.”

“I’ll also say that we’re being very intentionally in this next era of ourselves about taking these methodologies outside of just the juvenile system because it’s absolutely applicable to the all young people — actually, it’s applicable to all human beings.”

Sanders said that Big Thought is currently working with the Wallace Foundation and Dallas ISD to bring more social and emotional learning to out-of-school programming, too.

“We’re in the middle of a social and emotional learning research project where for the next three more years we are going to continue working with Dallas ISD in helping embed social and emotional learning in both the day time and continuously on into the after-school program.”

Programs like that, he said, helps “everybody.”

“It helps the young people — it can help mitigate the long term impact of some of the trauma that our young people are experiencing,” Sanders said. “It helps the employees, and it helps the staff themselves and their own well-being, and it helps them become better teachers because now it’s not about classroom management, it is about self-regulation”

“And it absolutely prepares a young person to step into the workforce and be able to have one of the most important future work skills, building complex human relationships.”

Works of HeART will be held Friday, Feb. 1, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., at Fossil Group Headquarters, 901 S. Central Expressway in Richardson. Tickets are available here.

Bethany Erickson is the education and public policy writer for She is also the Director of Audience Engagement for Candy’s Media. She is a member of the Online News Association, the Education Writers Association, the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, the National Association of Real Estate Editors, and the Society of Professional Journalists, and is the 2018 NAREE Gold winner for best series and a 2018 Dallas Press Club Hugh Aynsworth Award winner. Contact her at