Dana Mortenson
Ashoka Fellow since 2011   |   United States

Dana Mortenson

Dana Mortenson is preparing students for citizenship and leadership in the 21st century by closing the global competency gap within K-12 education in the United States.
Read more

Check out this video of Dana Mortenson's work:

The referenced media source is missing and needs to be re-embedded.


This description of Dana Mortenson's work was prepared when Dana Mortenson was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2011.


Dana Mortenson is preparing students for citizenship and leadership in the 21st century by closing the global competency gap within K-12 education in the United States.

The New Idea

In order to thrive in an interconnected world, one must learn a number of crucial, non-academic skills such as understanding and relating to perspectives other than one’s own; mastering teamwork, critical and creative thinking; and being an adept problem-solver. Dana, like many others in the field of education, recognizes that such abilities must be taught at a young age. Whereas many schools and organizations today are encouraging teachers to participate in their students’ global education through extracurricular activities, Dana is leading an effort to mainstream global competency in K-12 schools by integrating it into regular class time. She is thus ensuring that students and educators stop relating to global affairs as a separate subject. Instead, she is introducing them to global competency through an interdisciplinary lens with applications in math, science, English, art and history classes, among others. Teaching the skill of empathy is at the core of her work. She is working with hundreds of educators each year to provide their students with project-based learning opportunities that introduce them to the outside world, help them relate to it and facilitate their transformation into global citizens. The business model behind her approach also makes it one of a handful of affordable global competency programs accessible to some of the country’s least-resourced public schools.

Having reached more than 30,000 students and 1,700 teachers in San Francisco, New York, and Minneapolis-St. Paul since founding, Dana plans to achieve national scale by 2016. To this end, she is developing a technology platform that will enable schools around the country to participate remotely in her initiative. In addition, Dana is working on a Global Competency Certification system for educators, while positioning herself as a key contributor to the dialogue on national education standards to support the integration of global competencies across subject matters.

The Problem

Within the context of an increasingly interconnected world and rapid globalization, it is becoming obvious to political leaders, CEOs and the general public alike that global citizenship and global competitiveness go hand in hand. Despite growing awareness about the need to adopt global competency as a core component of K-12 education, in 2009 U.S. students ranked 26th out of 65 countries evaluated for their students’ mastery of subjects essential for global competency. An emphasis on test preparation in the last several decades has produced graduates who are generally less culturally competent, less globally literate, and less prepared to engage with, and think critically and creatively about, the world’s most intractable problems.

Many schools and citizen organizations (COs) have taken on the challenge of better equipping K-12 students with the skills they need to thrive in the global economy. For example, there are now hundreds of organizations that expertly develop teaching materials on issues such as human rights and environmental sustainability. However, these course materials are often deployed to those interested without any training. A host of other initiatives, on the other hand, have recognized the gap in teacher’s preparedness to deliver global studies courses and have specialized in building trainings to address it. Unfortunately, the majority of these programs provides only short-term support to educators and encourages schools to treat global education as an add-on—either by developing extracurricular activities or one-time workshops that expose students to the world. Although many of these programs are making worthy contributions to the education field, past attempts have typically been focused on a “food, flag, festival” approach that exoticizes world cultures and issues rather than helps students see them as critical to citizenship and leadership. Unfortunately, global competency has largely become a separate subject as opposed to an interdisciplinary and integrated set of skills relevant to students’ everyday lives. Accessibility is also an important hurdle: Most global competency programs are affordable only to well-resourced schools and therefore inadvertently perpetuate the marginalization of low-income groups.

The Strategy

Immediately after 9-11, Dana and Madiha Murshed, her co-founder, observed and experienced alarming levels of xenophobia in New York. They began to seriously question whether the U.S. was educating its citizens to be globally competent and undertook a field review study. Their research revealed a critical gap in K-12 education. The solution, they concluded, would have to entail mainstreaming global competency within the U.S. school system.

World Savvy, the CO they established in 2002 to pursue this vision, understands global competency as a set of skills, knowledge, values and attitudes, and behaviors applicable across disciplines. From the get-go, it was clear to Dana that it would not be sufficient for students to know where Iraq is or generally be aware of global affairs. Rather, truly global citizens would have to develop an understanding of the complexities and interdependency of world events; master collaboration, creative and critical thinking as well as problem-solving skills; be self-aware, open to new ways of thinking and empathetic; and take informed action based on issues that matter to them.

Critical to World Savvy’s approach is ensuring that all players in the school ecosystem are deeply engaged with the organization’s goals. Teachers, students, and policymakers are all targeted one way or another.

Dana understood early on that to change the way children learn, she would first have to alter the way educators teach. She sees teachers as her most important allies: They are the program’s biggest advocates and its entry strategy into each school. World Savvy acknowledges that “one-off” isolated workshops on global competency have little to no sustainable impact on teaching practice. Dana and her team have therefore developed ongoing, customized, and differentiated support that models the best practices available with respect to adult learning. World Savvy is a thought partner for participating teachers and prepares them in their transition from stand-and-deliver methods of teaching toward engaging their students in creative and critical thinking processes. This approach offers teachers a rare but needed professional development experience—deepening their love for, and commitment to their profession, and enhancing their skills.

The ongoing trainings make it easy for Math, English, Science, and Art teachers alike to integrate global competency into their lesson plans, without ever having to choose between teaching the prescribed curriculum or World Savvy’s. Although educators have the option of conducting World Savvy programs as extracurricular activities, it is not encouraged. After all, one of the organization’s core goals it to ensure an interdisciplinary and mainstreamed approach to global competency. As a result, 80 percent of World Savvy activities occur during class time. In addition, Dana has devised incentives for teachers to collaborate with one another. Program costs are reduced according to the number of participating teachers in each school, and World Savvy helps educators collaborate across disciplines. In one particular school, for example, a Math teacher teamed up with Arts and History teachers to develop their students’ global competencies. While studying geometry, the youth learned about the flags of the world, examining their different shapes and angles; and, in their art and history classes they were tasked with creating their own flags and identities for these imaginary countries. The goal is for these sorts of linkages to become increasingly obvious to teachers so that after participating for a couple of years in World Savvy programs, the organization’s involvement is no longer critical but its core principles remain at the heart of educators’ teaching methods.

In addition, World Savvy engages students aged 10 to 18 in project-based learning through two core programs: The World Savvy Challenge and the Media and Arts Program.

Every year, World Savvy picks a pressing issue, such as migration or food security, that becomes the focus of the World Savvy Challenge. Students work in groups of up to ten people to research the global theme, identify a problem they are passionate about within that theme and develop actionable solutions at the community, national, and global levels. After engaging in this project-based learning activity for six weeks to three months, they present their research and solution to community judges at a culminating competition that brings all program participants together. Although presentation content is important, the focus of the evaluation is on critical thinking, problem-solving and teamwork skills. The World Savvy Challenge brings together all of the schools from each participating city. The day is divided into four parts: The students’ presentations; the Global Knowledge Quiz—testing their knowledge about current events and the year’s theme; the Collaborative Question—where participants are randomly teamed-up with peers from competing schools to collaboratively choose one of four projects to fund based on a set of criteria; and the Community Connections—which facilitates continued engagement with the issues at hand by providing an opportunity for future service learning with community-based organizations. Dana is enthusiastic about the potential for scaling this program through Do It Yourself toolkits.

The World Savvy Challenge offers a great example of how Dana is concretely building the empathetic skills of school aged youth. World Savvy is teaching them how to relate to world issues by understanding the multiple repercussions at the local, national, and global levels. In addition, teamwork is a central element of all World Savvy programs. One great test of whether they are truly masterful team players occurs during the Collaborative Question exercise where the team they worked with for close to six months is suddenly disbanded and new teams are formed. In a very short amount of time, the students have to demonstrate and apply all the skills they have learned to come to a consensus on a question there is no right answer to, and eventually present their collective decision to a panel of judges.

The interdisciplinary Media and Arts Program gets at the same goals through a non-competitive and less academic approach, thus making global competency more palatable to more students. In this case, art is a lens through which students examine real world global challenges with local impact. Educators spend several months exploring the World Savvy theme within their classrooms (i.e. sustainable communities) while remaining aligned with state standards for each subject area. They invite their students to express their own ideas on the topic by creating something: A play, a newscast, arts-based digital media, and so on. In order to generate community interest and dialogue, all participating students are invited to exhibit their work every spring to large crowds of parents, teachers, the World Savvy constituency, and COs at a city-wide World Savvy gathering.

Dana and her team work with a network of 7,000 teachers and students nationally each year, as well as over 400 volunteers. Cumulatively, the programs have served more than 30,000 students in grades 6 through 12 and 1,700 educators in San Francisco, New York, and Minneapolis-St. Paul. After participating in the World Savvy Challenge, 94 percent of participants are somewhat or highly knowledgeable about international affairs, compared with 37 percent prior to the program. Perhaps more importantly, 90 percent of educators have reported significant improvements in their students’ teamwork and collaboration skills, as well as their ability to consider multiple perspectives. By 2014, Dana anticipates that more than 20,000 students and teachers will be participating in World Savvy programs annually.

World Savvy is beginning to demonstrate through its programs what academics have found through research: Students who learn about global issues are more than twice as likely to personally undertake social action. Although this aspect of the impact isn’t systematically documented yet, Dana shares a few anecdotes of students acting on their new-found knowledge. For example, some students have led a campaign to convince the school administration to conserve energy through simple measures after studying the effects of deforestation. In another school, nine students decided to organize a school-wide campaign to raise money for local non-profits serving refugees as a result of familiarizing themselves with the issue of “brain drain” in Iraq.

World Savvy currently employs eleven full-time staff located in San Francisco, New York, and Minneapolis-St. Paul. The annual budget for the organization increased from roughly $350,000 in 2007 to over $1M in 2011. This growth was made possible by a diverse base of supporters, including individuals, foundations, corporations, and government agencies. Earned revenue generated through customized training programs and consulting to school clients makes up roughly 10 percent of the budget. Dana’s challenge will be to increase the portion of her budget covered by earned revenue to 20 to 25 percent within the next three years without steering away from the core mission. One of the key factors that differentiates World Savvy from other organizations is that it is an affordable program, which makes it possible for students living in low-income neighborhoods to gain the global competency skills they need to thrive in the 21st century.

World Savvy finds itself at an important inflection point. Having perfected the methodology and spread it to three U.S. cities, Dana is now ready to make a bigger scratch on the educational system nationally. Her team is currently developing a technological platform that will allow teachers and students across the U.S. to participate in World Savvy programs remotely, with portions of the project-based modules taking place online. Beyond extending the reach of the programs, the platform will enable greater connectivity among the World Savvy constituency. Bringing teachers into an online space will provide them with a space where they can trade ideas with their peers, collaborate and get feedback from them. The platform will also allow to smart-match teachers with students. In addition, Dana and her team are currently developing a teachers’ Global Competency Certification program to define the standard of quality in this growing field while developing a continuum of professional development. Dana is experimenting with a first step in internationalizing the initiative through a four-week learning trip in Bangladesh that will take place next year. At the policy level, Dana is positioning World Savvy to impact the national dialogue on integrating global competency into teaching and learning by continuing her involvement in the Common Core standards discussion.

The Person

Growing up within the New Jersey public school system, Dana became conscious of the world around her not because of her schooling but because of her parent’s awareness of global affairs. Her father, an educator, lived and worked in Africa, and served as a mentor to her. He helped Dana see the linkages between education and social justice and taught her that learning is a lifelong process. Early experiences with leadership helped to shape Dana. She served as Student Council President in high school and was the captain of her varsity basketball team. Living in a community that wasn’t very diverse at the time, basketball games and tournaments gave her a rare opportunity to interact with different communities and appreciate the connectivity between players.

Thirsty for more exposure to the world, Dana pursued an undergraduate degree in International Relations. During her college years, she had the opportunity to live and work in Costa Rica, India, and Bangladesh. The experience not only exposed her to poverty on a scale she hadn’t seen before, it also showed her how politics seemed to mean a lot more to people there than it did to her peers in the U.S. At the same time, the stereotype about Americans being largely ignorant about the world became increasingly apparent to her. An unrelenting high achiever, she went on to complete a Joint Master’s degree at Columbia University, while also working full-time for Skadden, Arps LLP where she was in charge of human resources for a group of roughly thirty demanding partners. While the experience was invaluable, she had always seen law as a vehicle to social justice and wasn’t entirely inspired by the experience.

It was during her graduate degree that the idea for World Savvy emerged. She and Madiha Murshed—friend and classmate at the time—co-founded the organization shortly after 9-11. Dana says that Madiha is “the person who taught her what truly global citizenship looks like by modeling the effortless linkages made by a person who understands the world and feels a responsibility toward everyone in it.” Seeing how fear and ignorance fueled violence directed at Madiha and thousands of others in the U.S. after 9-11, they decided to address the root cause of the issue. Dana and Madiha partnered with a professor at Columbia University to do an audit of the educational system in the U.S. and understand where American students got their global competency skills. The results led them to create World Savvy. While Madiha worked mainly on the business side of things from 2002 to 2006, Dana focused on program development, mapping out barriers and stakeholders, and building partnerships. Madiha moved on from the organization in 2006 but still sits on World Savvy’s Board of Directors. Dana has been driving the vision forward and expanding it. She is the Executive Director of World Savvy and lives in Minneapolis.

Are you a Fellow? Use the Fellow Directory!

This will help you quickly discover and know how best to connect with the other Ashoka Fellows.