The Self-Determination Project: The story behind the name

Five Keys is a non-profit that establishes and runs classrooms in prisons. But after prisoners serve their time and are released, educational opportunities are unavailable to them. In their economically-isolated neighborhoods, high school graduation rates are chronically low and many don’t acquire the skills necessary for good-paying jobs that can lift their families out of poverty.

Five Keys was a finalist of the 2015 Google Impact Challenge. Their winning proposal was to convert out-of-commission Muni buses into classrooms that would go to these under-served populations where they live, providing them with educational opportunities otherwise unavailable.  The naming of these mobile classrooms I took on as a pro-bono project. 

It was vital the name appealed to the populations Five Keys served, especially the incarcerated. I honestly had absolutely no idea, no intuition whatsoever what kind of name would appeal to them, so I went to prison to find out. Over two days at San Francisco County Jail, I facilitated discussions and creative worksessions with male and female prisoners to learn about their feelings about education, life outside prison, and names. 

I briefed the prisoners on a mock project: Develop names for BeyoncĂ©’s forthcoming album, whose proceeds would fund educating the incarcerated. This mock project would be exciting and relevant to them, I hoped, and would inspire creative, evocative names. Following this exercise, I asked the prisoners to help me name the classroom on wheels. 

In facilitating these discussions, I learned that these men and women have no agency. Even when not behind bars, their poverty severely curtails their opportunities and life choices. The idea that education empowers people to control their own life inspired the name, The Self-Determination Project. Though I created the name (the prisoners’ names weren’t so great), conversations with the prisoners and understanding their views on education led to it.