Changing the Education Paradigm to Empower Youth

Our children face difficult times.

Simply being a kid can feel hard when there is so much pressure to perform academically. Today’s youngsters have challenging problems not faced by other generations, such as over-scheduling, and unprecedented access to computer/TV/phone screens.

Enter ROOTS TO BRANCHES. It seeks to improve young people’s lives.

The Marin county-based startup wishes to change the educational paradigm by empowering youth. Founded by entrepreneur and educator, Zach Laurie, the organization provides dynamic programs that encourage resiliency through hands-on curriculum, emphasizing humanity’s deep connection with nature and others.

Eschewing our modern age’s obsession with rote learning and continuous testing, Roots to Branches favors rites of passage activities that encourage youngsters to participate in timeless, uplifting traditions, team-building exercises to encourage empathy and leadership, and outdoor exploration to immerse students in distraction-free environments fostering mindfulness.

Zach engaged my company, INK to assist his organization with a grant-writing proposal last year and I was able to personally interact with him through several meaningful exchanges.

As I got to know him, I was impressed by his inspirational vision for empowering young people. Zach’s devotion to bringing needed change to a stifling educational system felt like a breath of fresh air. Below, please find my interview with him. I think you will enjoy hearing his ideas as much as I did.

Q: When did you begin your company and what services does it offer?

A: Roots to Branches began in 2009 as an after school rites of passage program for 7th and 8th grade boys. We then increased our offerings in the spring of 2012 to include in-school community service-learning, social and emotional skill building, and drug/media awareness education for middle and high schools.

Q: What brought you to establish Roots to Branches?

A: As a person growing up when ‘Generation Y’ turned to ‘Generation X’, I witnessed a lot of different pressures placed upon youth than when I was a child. Having a brother 10 years younger helped clue me into these changes as well. Differences include: increased technology access with its pervasive social media use that causes a distorted sense of self, an overall increase in anxiety around test scores and college placement, and increase in bullying, school violence and drug use. Our programs are meant as a way for youth to “let off the steam”, in a healthy way to channel normal day to day anxieties, while also giving them the social and emotional skills to navigate their lives with more awareness on how to regulate their emotions in a more positive and collaborative way.

Q: How does Roots to Branches help young people? Why is it unique from other organizations?

A: We like to supply youth with the agency to take care of themselves and those around them. We do this with hands-on activities where everyone has a role and a voice in the process. By participating in a lesson plan with activities and then sharing our experiences, we can co-create a language of trust and empathy building that the students can translate to other areas of their lives. It is incredibly rewarding to reach a student in a positive way and see their faces light up with “I have it too!” I feel this process separates us from other organizations in its emphasis on “how” we teach rather than “what”.

Q: What is your proudest achievement in regards to Roots to Branches?

A: In quantitative terms, we have reached hundreds of families with meaningful activities that engage youth to take matters into their own hands. Our projects have included community garbage clean up campaigns, creating youth centers, building and handing out homeless youth resource kits, and in-class lessons centered around the impact of drug use and media on the perception of Self.

In qualitative terms I have seen several seriously misunderstood youth on their way to being sent to “at risk” programs, who upon being given responsibility and something meaningful to work on, entered into a more mature and stable state. Now they come back to us and say “I don’t know how you did it, but thank you!”

Q: Do you have a philosophy when it comes to mentoring young people?

A: We believe that youth need to be reached where they are “at”. Most education today tries to impose on youth as if they don’t know anything. As an adult, I may know things, but my job with youth is more to serve as a mirror, saying, “You know things too, and if we work together, just look what we can do!”

Q: What are some ideas and/or people that inspire you?

Any educator that has spent time with someone not for financial or personal gain but because of the sincere desire to help. Working with youth is “rewarding”, but this reward can come with lots of work and struggle to reach students that need reaching.

Q: What can we as a society do to encourage our young people to be more engaged?

A: Spend quality time with youth, working side-by-side. Look for collaborative projects and say, “We can do this together”. Encourage young people to identify their strengths and dreams. Dance and sing. Play games with teamwork built in. Pretty much anything done with youth with a clearly defined goal and intention will help them do the same in their lives. We just need to realize we are painting on the same canvas all the time as humans living together.

Q: What are the unique challenges you see young people facing today that are different from a generation ago and how do you think your organization prepares youngsters to face them?

A: The generational differences I mentioned earlier. At Roots to Branches, we focus on having honest conversations on how things, like media, drugs, peer pressure, conflict, and cooperation help shape or destroy the communities we live in.

When youth have awareness of why things are the way they are, and are engaged in the process, they can become empowered to change their communities for the better. At the very least, we try to build an internal sense of agency by students having awareness ‘why’ things like empathy, conflict resolution, communication etc. are important to building better communities.

Q: What advice would you give other entrepreneurs starting their own company?

A: Do what you love for its own sake, then worry about making money later. Trying to build a business for money’s sake is important for the day-to-day grind, but only by building towards our dreams will we change our society for the better.

Q: What are your short-term and long-terms goals for Roots to Branches?

A: Short: Increase our staff to spread our programs across the San Francisco Bay area.

Long: Integrate our services and lessons in teacher trainings and school projects nationwide as an effort to build social and emotional skills into everyday education.

Q: What do you do when negative things get to you? How do you cope?

A: We like to “practice what we preach”, by modeling the same behavior we ask of students: identify negative emotions by taking space to feel them, breathe into frustration, and understand where it resides in our body, and have awareness that all suffering comes and goes.

Q: What advice do you have for other educators/teachers wishing to effectively reach children?

A: I would recommend educators (and people in general) look at each relationship with youth as unique- if we begin to see that education isn’t about test scores, but more about the quality of our relationships, we can begin building an educational system that teaches the ‘whole child’ rather than ‘core subjects’.

As much as core subjects are important, the truly defining moments when I was a student were how my teachers could relate to me by sharing their passions and life lessons beyond the subject matter.

For more information on Zach and his company, visit his website: or contact him @ (415) 226–9370.

This interview can be found in its entirety at:


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