At Big Thought, Gigi Antoni Has Taken a Big-Picture Approach to Out-of-school Learning

Gigi Antoni with students. Photos courtesy of Big Thought

Each year, more than 140,000 children in Dallas take part in creative learning activities coordinated by a nonprofit organization sitting at the center of more than 400 entities, including the city, the school district and a myriad of other institutions, groups and businesses.

Known as Big Thought, “the organization works as an intermediary to ensure opportunities are distributed equitably,” said Gigi Antoni, the group’s president and CEO. After 27 years at the organization, Antoni will move to The Wallace Foundation in May to become director of learning and enrichment.

Big Thought coordinates summer learning activities for 34,000 children in Dallas, 70 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged.

“We are a link. We work to collect, link and distribute learning opportunities to the kids who need it most,” Antoni said.

Big Thought provides creative exploration in the arts, sciences and in service learning, Antoni said.

It grew out of an arts organization, Young Audiences, that started in Dallas 30 years ago. The original focus on imagination has remained primary.

Through Big Thought, kids may develop spoken word performances in the Daverse after-school program, go to theater camp at Bishop Arts Theatre Center, explore aviation at the Frontiers of Flight Museum or build robots in the Big Thought mobile classroom. Hundreds of programs are offered.

“It’s in out-of-school time that kids get to pursue their interests,” Antoni said.

“Using the imagination is a very important skill,” she said. It helps kids become adaptable as they figure out new ways to respond to change, she said.

[Related: A Year of VISTA Service: Five Lessons for Nonprofit Practitioners and Other Service Members]

“Imagination is the way you choose a career path,” Antoni said. “It is, in fact, the missing link [in education].”

Change is occurring quickly and kids must be prepared to adapt to jobs that don’t even exist yet, she said.

In 2014, Big Thought began working with the MacArthur Foundation to create Dallas City of Learning, an online hub where families could find free summer learning programs for kids. Among its goals: help young people discover their talents, interact with friends and prepare for jobs.

Big Thought emphasizes public-private partnerships to create systems of learning.

It makes sure the school district coordinates with the city of Dallas, including recreation centers, libraries and other city departments. It also connects the school district to private organizations such as museums, neighborhood groups and churches.

As a coordinator of many partners, Big Thought provides communication support, technology, evaluation of impact, fund-raising and professional development. In the past year, the organization provided training to 10,000 adults, Antoni said.

Big Thought has relied on a generous nonprofit community in Dallas, Antoni said. And it has been innovative in developing a citywide system, an approach championed and supported by The Wallace Foundation.

At the foundation Antoni will have the opportunity to “develop and implement ideas that will impact millions of underserved youth nationally,” Pat Porter, board chairman of Big Thought, said in a statement.

GO TO OST HUB for resources & materials on designing summer learning opportunities.

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