In a time when it’s common to seek higher and more specified education, students often graduate from academia with a great deal of knowledge. But founders of a local nonprofit say many graduates are without the skill-set to apply that knowledge and relate it to the world around them.
“What people really desire out of their education today is clarity around who they are, how they can match their purpose with a viable vocation with the access to tools, connections, and experiences that will facilitate their intentional development,” says Matthew Abrams, co-founder of Mycelium, a nonprofit school and teaching method.
For Abrams, powerful educational experience is hands-on and connects students with the world and to each other. “There’s life and vitality and messiness and ugliness—but real-ness,” he says.
Ashley Cooper, Mycelium’s other co-founder agrees.
“I feel this interconnected world, and yet I don’t see it playing out in the world around me,” Cooper says. “Instead of what happens inside schools being completely devoid of what’s happening in the world, what would it be like for some of these community folks to just go in and do a little bit inside our schools? And then vice versa for those inside the schools to be working on relevant issues inside our community?”
Spending years as a teacher and then guidance counselor, Cooper made it her mission to teach students the skills to connect with their community. For the past two years, Cooper has been working with Abrams in developing the Mycelium curriculum, which aims to offer participants not only a gateway into their own authentic self, but also networks to cross-pollinate and enact that self.
They call the curriculum a “learning journey.” It is designed specifically for “people who are at a crossroads in their life and wanting to step into the next chapter of their life with intention and integrity; and those who want to create something—purpose-driven creators,” says Abrams.
Literally, “mycelium” is the root structure of fungi, composing a vast branching network in the soil of an ecosystem. It is responsible for spreading information and nutrients among plant species, always taking in information and redistributing it for the vitality of the ecosystem as a whole.
As such, the Mycelium curriculum is all about connection – connected to ourselves and also to each other.
Abrams cites a survey of over a thousand freshmen from the University of California Los Angeles that asked what the single most important factor was in choosing a career. Seventy-five percent of the respondents said, “Working for a cause.”
“Wealth” and “success” is not strictly defined as making money, Abrams adds — people can see a world in need and they want to be seen by that world as a helping force. Abrams feels this feeling is strong with the upcoming professional generation, who will seek purpose and connection in their career choices.
From November 2013 through March of this year, Mycelium officially launched with its beta learning journey — which saw 17 local visionaries, entrepreneurs, students and community members participate in a test run of the program.
“I never found traditional schooling that worked for me as a human at all…and I loved the philosophy of focusing on your own burning question,” says Rosetta Buan, owner of Rosetta’s Kitchen. “My original question was around helping to empower people and what types of systems that required. The deeper that I went into my journey, the more it imploded on me and really… tested me. And it was awesome.”
By first developing their guiding question, journeyers work with a coach, a practice group, and their own personal advisory team, as a support network and web to propel them on their own path.
Mycelium participants are connected to a “catalyst,” or a mentor with a level of mastery in the a field of interest to the student.
“A lot of people just walk around with ideas or passions, but they don’t go anywhere. They stay in their mind as ideas,” says Cassey Barrett, who participated in the November-March cohort group. “By saying yes [to the learning journey] it really sets an intention and there’s something about that intention that really pools everything together.”
Abrams and Cooper have designed the nonprofit to run as a business — in the sense of being financially self-sustaining. Once they get their enrollment numbers up, Mycelium will not need donations or grants, but will be sustained by tuition. For now, however, they’ve just past the tipping point of $20,000 on their StartSomeGood crowd funding campaign— which will be used to launch the next cohort groups and develop scholarship opportunities for those who can’t afford the program.
Though Mycelium will be based in Asheville, Cooper and Abrams have connections all over the world, and the program is designed to be accessible to satellite locations. The pair say they have already been contacted by prospective students overseas, and before they even launched, they were mentioned in both Fast Company and Business Week.
Ekua Adissa, a local writer, community organizer, and healing artist, was one of the 17 in the beta learning journey. “What Mycelium is up to is important,” Adissa says. “In order to do transformative work in the world, we need to be able to do transformative work on ourselves and for ourselves.”