Hannah Beinecke
February 15, 2019

Alumni Voices: The Ongoing Impact of Learning in the World

Hannah Beinecke '12, cofounder Greater Good Solar, shares her experience with Learning in the World's Niswarth program.
by Hannah Beinecke

In her reflection, Beinecke says, "We spend our whole lives pursuing the things that our society tells us will make us 'successful' without knowing whether or not those same things will make us happy or fulfilled." Read on to learn about how Beinecke's understanding of 'a good life,' community, and the world changed during her experience with PA's Learning in the World program, Niswarth. If you're interested in sharing in discussion with other educators about designing effective global learning opportunities for students, you may still register for the upcoming workshop "Niswarth: Process Is the Product," which will take place from Friday, March 15, to Saturday, March 16, 2019. Please contact [email protected] with questions.

We spend our whole lives pursuing the things that our society tells us will make us “successful” without knowing whether or not those same things will make us happy or fulfilled.

I remember going on the Niswarth trip in 2011, the summer before my senior year at Andover and, at the time, the biggest thing on my mind was where I was going to go to college. It was easy to feel like the rest of my life would be decided by where I got accepted and I frequently lost sight of the greater context in which I was being educated. I took for granted the support of the community around me, the access to incredible faculty and facilities, and the opportunity to engage with fascinating academic content every day. Instead, all I could focus my mind on was the need for better grades, better athletic performance, better output and increased productivity to show on an application. Although those feelings of importance attributed to output didn’t go away, they were drastically altered when I had the opportunity to go on Niswarth.

Coming from a place of valuing achievement over all else, I think the most important thing I took away from Niswarth was an ability to question norms and to be discerning about the world around me. While Andover did an excellent job at educating me in academic disciplines, and life lessons on and off the athletic fields, I think Niswarth expanded my understanding of what makes a good life and how to understand my connection to the rest of the world.

That year our theme was on education and each student got placed in a classroom working as an assistant for Teach for India. I was placed in a school in Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia with a population of close to one million people in less than one square mile. Objectively, Dharavi is a place of both astounding economic output as well as gross human injustices. The annual economic output of Dharavi is estimated to be more than $1 billion, but it wasn’t until 1976 that the government began providing water and electricity services, and they still don’t reach all residents. Due to this lack of access to clean water and sanitation, epidemics such as dysentery, typhoid, cholera, leprosy, polio, and tuberculosis are not uncommon.

To say that the conditions of poverty in Dharavi were overwhelming to me at that time would be a gross understatement. The sense of injustice I felt as I stood outside Dharavi looking at the dichotomy of a Mercedes Benz dealership next to a stream of open sewage water that residents used to wash their laundry was larger than I ever thought to be possible. So, too, was the resilience and deep bond of community that I grew to see in the students of Dharavi. In a reflection I wrote in 2011 one thing I noted was that working in Dharavi “has shown me that these people have things that I don't have. Although they might not have the things (sanitation, clean water, reliable education) that I view as necessary, they have things that I have never had. They have intangible qualities that reflect their emphasis on family and community.”

While the sense of injustice was all-consuming, there was also a hint at some sort of misunderstanding within myself of what I understood a good life to bewhat community, success, and happiness meant. I had taken my background of communities: American, coastal, northeastern, predominantly white, educated, privileged, and individualistic as my norm for “community.” I had taken my idea of good grades and high achievement to mean “success.” I had understood that “happiness” meant success in your communityinherently linked to achievement and measured with grades, Facebook friends, shots on goal percentages, college acceptance letters, and eventually jobs and families. However, something in this community made me think otherwise.

Despite having an incredibly loving and supportive family, I had never seen a community in which people treat others’ children as their own. Despite being exposed to an incredibly diverse and kind community at Andover, I still felt individualistic about my success and hadn’t seen the sense of communal well-being that comes with sharing fortunes, both figuratively and literally. For individuals living in technically illegal settlements like slums, they often don’t have access to financial services such as a bank account because of a lack of credit history and identity paperwork. Therefore, to take out a loan they have to borrow and lend money to and from individuals within their community. Because of this, fortunes are both figuratively tied through the bonds that residents make with each other, but their economic prosperity is also literally tied to the success of those around them. This sense of connection and emotional resiliency that I witnessed in my students and their families left me questioning my norms of what it looked like to be “successful” to be “happy” and to truly understand what conditions and resources are necessary to live a “good” life.

I had traveled internationally before Niswarth and I had even been to India once before, so it was not my first time being confronted with stark contrasts to my own circumstances at Andover. However, Niswarth gave me the opportunity to deeply reflect on my own biases and to disentangle my expectations from my reality. This interest both in understanding and improving the circumstances of marginalized and impoverished peoples led me to design my own major in college called International Development. This path took me to internships with nonprofits in energy, policy work with the UN, and eventually to business school to search for an expedited process to create change in the world around me.

Through the study of international development and impact investing I was exposed to so many important issues to work on, chief among them climate change, poverty, hunger, access to healthcare, access to education, gender equality, discrimination, nuclear proliferation, and so many more. But along the path I continually asked myself a question that I had cultivated while at Niswarth: which problems that I was seeing were symptoms, and which problems were root causes?

This question is one that has remained with me for the last eight years and will likely continue to be a cornerstone of how I decide what issues to spend my time on. In fact, it is exactly that question that led me to start the company I am now working on, Greater Good Solar (greatergoodsolar.com). Our model is to promote, organize, and provide financing for low income neighborhoods to go solar. We specifically target low income housing units as well as schools, due to the high energy burden they carry in comparison to middle and upper-income communities. Unique to our model, we seek grants as a part of our funding and send a portion of our profits from these solar installations back into the community to fund green jobs training for residents of the low income housing, as well as educational programming on environmental literacy, mindfulness, and civic engagement.

The framework I had developed in Niswarth of analyzing my own biases and my relationship to what I view as “normal” is something that I use on a daily basis. I could not be more thrilled that Mr. Mundra is expanding this program, because I think that the ability to self-reflect is critical to the development of students (or any human being). Being encouraged to reflect on my own thought process through this program gave me a spark of mindfulness that has been invaluable to my development. Through almost a decade of this sort of self-reflection I have learned that my greatest happiness comes when I am dedicating my time to others, and when I am able to cut through my biases and expectations to see my thoughts and reality clearly.

Register Now: "Niswarth: Process Is the Product"

Educators at Andover and schools throughout the country are invited to join us on the Phillips Academy Andover campus from Friday, March 15, to Saturday, March 16, 2019, for a workshop that will focus on the Niswarth Model as a framework for designing effective global learning opportunities for students. Please contact [email protected] with questions.

Workshop Goals

1. Through the lens of its three core values (humility, empathy, and gratitude), workshop participants will explore the benefits of Niswarth’s “process-over-product” approach to global education.

2. Participants will have access to resources to understand and implement a Niswarth framework that will address the logistics, relationships, and curricular elements necessary to support a community-based, service-learning program.

3. Through reflection and guided dialogue, participants will explore their own global education models and plan future steps needed to strengthen existing programs or design new, values-based programs.

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