Interviews & Profiles

“Literary Science” preps high school students for social ventures that address local challenges

New York Nonprofit Media interviews Chidi Asoluka, founder and CEO of the community design studio NewComm.

Chidi Asoluka is founder and CEO of NewComm

Chidi Asoluka is founder and CEO of NewComm Photo courtesy of Horace Mann

Chidi Asoluka is a dedicated and seasoned educator with over 15 years of experience as a high school English teacher and administrator. He currently serves as a Class Dean at the Horace Mann School. He is also the founder and CEO of NewComm, a community design studio that employs, empowers, and rigorously prepares underserved high school students to design and build social ventures that address local challenges. Central to NewComm’s methodology is “literary science,” a practical and professional study of literature pioneered by Asoluka. In this innovative approach, the literary work of BIPOC authors like James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez serve as powerful research and design tools for creating tangible social impact. Asoluka believes that this blend of rigorous classroom study and civic engagement equips those most affected by our unequal education system with the tools, confidence, and network to build transformational futures for themselves and their community. 

NYN Media caught up with Asoluka to discuss what inspired him on his path into teaching, how he started NewComm and his work pioneering the methodology of “literary science.” 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

You’ve had an interesting career path. Can you explain a little bit about what drew you to working in education?

Initially, I never saw myself as an educator. I pitied teachers, actually. Also, growing up as a child of Nigerian immigrants, I was steeped in the belief that success was synonymous with only three careers: medicine, law, or finance. I chose banking, and I pursued it diligently throughout college with internships and a clear goal in mind to take my place upon the successful people. 

However, during a job interview during my senior year in college, an interviewer asked, “What will truly make you happy – working in banking or designing a program that could change the world?” This unexpected question made me pause. I said banking, but the interviewer saw right through me, saying she had a “funny feeling” I would be an “incredible” teacher. She encouraged me to explore teaching, with an open invitation to return if I found it unsuitable. I cried all night in my dorm room. 

Nonetheless, I applied to be a teacher at a charter school in my hometown. For my sample lesson, I taught a scene from “Hamlet,” and I was amazed by how eager the students were, and how hungry they were for what I was saying. In my interview with the principal, he described education as “the civil rights movement of our time, and we, as teachers, are at the front line.” This framing of education resonated deeply with me, shifting my perspective from viewing education as a career stepping stone to recognizing its role in a larger American fight.

Looking back, when would you say you first set out on the path to not only be an excellent and innovative teacher, but also to create a new modality or movement in education? What was the spark? 

In the 15 years since then, I have continuously sought ways to earn my place on those front lines, from starting a podcast series with young Black girls to teaching courses on civic engagement to taking kids to Rwanda to study restorative justice. NewComm, the nonprofit I launched last year, brings together all of this work into a more cohesive unit, tailored to the needs of those who have been historically underserved. I had the opportunity to give a TED talk about my vision for this work and a potential funder immediately reached out to say that if I turned this vision into a reality they would support it. So I made the decision to step away from some of my dean responsibilities to go to graduate school and learn how to do that. For my capstone project, I talked about creating a space where students came together to leverage literary study as a research and design tool for social justice. A few months later, I received my first grant to start our work. What started as just what I thought and dreamed about quickly became a real, living and breathing entity.  

You use the term "literary science" to describe NewComm's unique methodology. Can you explain what this means and why it's important, especially today?

“Literary science” is a methodology we pioneered that leverages a practical and professional study of literature as a catalyst for culturally relevant quantitative study of our communities. This means, all of our study, both in and out of the classroom, is understood through the lens of BIPOC literary heroes like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. I want to say that this is not just a “cute” pedagogic gimmick. I truly believe that studying the architecture of stories, with all of its complexities and nuance, teaches empathy and problem solving skills. In a world that will increasingly be dominated by AI automations, we will need a robust humanities education that can work in true partnership.

So in our program, we have two modules: Literary Studies and Literary Lab. In Literary Studies, students dissect novels and short stories to find four data points: what a character's job is; what their pain points are in achieving this job; what strategies they employ to get around those pain points; and what are the tradeoffs. Speaking in this language humanizes the complexities of our characters and sets the stage for Literary Lab to see where this data is present in real peoples’ job, pain points, strategies, and tradeoffs. We believe this interplay between literary analysis and research is exciting and purposeful ... and sets the stage for projects that have the potential to be truly meaningful and mindful.

What is a piece of literature that has particularly touched your life, informed your path?

I recently read this from James Baldwin, “The place in which I’ll fit will not exist until I make it.” In “Giovanni’s Room,” he also said, “Home is not a place at all, but an irrevocable condition.” These quotes best describe what we are building at NewComm and my personal career journey. We are committed to transcending traditional education goals of merely preparing individuals for jobs. We're moving beyond the era of accepting employment as a mere escape from poverty. Instead, we focus on cultivating a 'maker’s mentality' in our students and our staff. This involves the courage to identify and vocally address personal and societal challenges, coupled with developing sustainable solutions. Such an approach is vital for tackling the political, ecological, and social issues we encounter both locally and globally. 

You launched a pilot program this past summer. In what way did the student participants surprise you? How might this inform the model going forward?

This pilot program was 10 years in the making. NewComm first existed as an English elective at an independent school in Philadelphia. On that first day of that class, I told them my long term vision was to turn this class into a studio where students – Fellows – leverage traditional classroom education to design and build a $10,000 project. Last summer, we accomplished that, and it was one of the most gratifying moments of my life. To answer your question, what surprised me was how this work accelerated the bonds they were creating with each other. Pretty quickly, these strangers became friends, friends who created a group chat and talked about non-NewComm things. 

It’s pretty clear to me that we are living in a cultural moment where young people want to engage meaningfully with their environment. Whenever we put kids in front of leaders, they get engaged thoughtfully, using language they’d acquired from our practical and professional study of literature. When a founder of a bank talked about the power of proximity, all of the fellows lit up because we were just talking about the theme of proximity in “A House on Mango Street.” When it was time to ask questions, it was clear to me that these literary conversations were giving them the fuel to engage in conversations with adults, not only adeptly in a professional setting, but doing so on potentially sensitive topics of race, power and privilege. 

What is NewComm’s vision? What will look different in the world if (when!) you are successful?

Our vision is for our students to pursue college not because their mama told them to, but because they see it as a strategic step to deepen their unique gifts and talents. In this vision, students see themselves not just as consumers buying and selling, but as powerful makers of radical futures for themselves and their community. I think this mindset shift will help students persist through the natural ups and downs of college and life so that they can take up residence at those powerful tables and start asking the questions that matter. And once they have their answers, they have the audacity to build solutions, not just post about them on the internet. If we inspire a new generation of makers not consumers, we create the kind of checks and balances needed to disrupt problematic systems. 

What are some ideas, mindsets or practices that you would love more teachers to adopt immediately? 

That students from underserved communities have assets too, and it would behoove us to approach our learning environments from an asset-based model and not a deficit based one. Early in my teaching career, I would hear teachers tell kids from my neighborhood that, “You need to catch up. The kids in the suburbs are years ahead of you.” And, I know why they would say that – the opportunity and economic gap is real but I worry that it sets a really negative foundation to build transformational learning. At NewComm, we are building a learning environment that is rigorous but affirms their unique stories along the way. I don’t want anyone to feel bad about where they come from. On the contrary, I want them to see that where they come from is a tremendous asset in developing solutions that can have a deep impact. I think we can do more of this in our schools. 

Starting a nonprofit is hard, not to mention a movement! From where do you draw the strength, purpose or inspiration to pursue this path? 

The vision for NewComm is to be a community design studio where underserved students from across New York City dream and build a better New York City. We have been fortunate to incubate this work in Riverdale, an affluent and resource-rich area in the Bronx. Here, we provide our students – who are often marginalized from affluent and resource-rich spaces – with not just access, but also a welcoming environment that they can consider their own. This ownership fosters empowerment and inspires them to apply their insights developed in our program to design initiatives that enhance a sense of belonging and community for others.

The other day, the students were having a Saturday design session, and I noticed how comfortable they felt, how they leaned back in their chairs, how they spoke with confidence. This space, surrounded by multi-million dollar homes and steeped in generational privilege, was temporarily transformed into a Black space, and it was their Black space. How amazing is that? And I thought to myself, "I will do this for the rest of my life." 

Many education reform efforts focus on preparing students for college and the workforce. At NewComm, we embrace this too, but we also pursue a broader, more holistic vision. I draw inspiration from Malcolm Gladwell's interpretation of 'entitlement’ in his book “Outliers.” We strive to create environments where students receive not just an exceptional education but also cultivate a sense of entitlement in its most positive form. According to Gladwell, entitlement can mean feeling significant enough to voice one's opinions and to interact confidently with those in positions of power. By fostering this type of empowered mindset, we believe our students will be equipped not only with academic skills but also with the confidence to effect meaningful change in their communities. It's about instilling the belief that they have the right to exceptional opportunities and the audacity to transform their communities. 

I know early in launching an organization, there are so many relationships to build, from participants to champions to funders to potential staff or program partners. Who are you most eager to connect with or learn from in the coming months? 

Horace Mann said, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity,” and that’s the kind of energy I’m on. I am eager to connect with people–funders, collaborators, and supporters– who have that energy as well. We are living in complicated times and our learning environments must meet that moment, especially for those who have been historically excluded. So, I am looking for partners who are open to doing something new to engage our students and prepare them to meet the challenges at our doorstep head on.

Laurel Dumont is a senior director of strategy and learning with Intentional Philanthropy, through which she serves as staff and advisor to several independent and family foundations. 

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