Passionate. Inspirational. Transformative. These are just a few of the words used by students of Dr. Arvind Singhal to describe the unique learning experience he has delivered at the Clinton School of Public Service.
“Arvind is one of the best educators I’ve ever had the chance to learn from,” said Mara D’Amico, a 2014 graduate of the Clinton School. “His approach to teaching and social change has been deeply impactful on my life, and his techniques in the classroom brought my classmates and I closer together.”
Singhal has served as the William J. Clinton Distinguished Fellow at the Clinton School since 2010. In the decade since, his teachings and mentorship have registered with students in a meaningful way. His course, Dynamics and Complexities of Social Change, helps students understand social change processes. In Singhal’s words, it all starts with a simple narrative premise: “I you want to understand a community, a culture, an organization, one needs to listen to the stories. If one wants to change a community, culture, or organization, the stories need to change.”
Singhal’s class explores social change through key theoretical undercurrents, strategic frameworks, debates, dilemmas, applications, and case studies. Beyond practical lessons, his instruction equips students with the skills and strategies to step into any situation and create impact.
“The purpose of the seminar is not to transmit information one way about how social change happens, but to purposely create and enable an environment where people can self-discover the dynamic struggles of social change processes, and how one may thread one’s path,” Singhal said. “The class emphasizes the value of paying attention to what is happening between classes through reflections and journaling, and is pretty much self-taught. At best, I help create a safe learning container!”
Three approaches that play critical roles in Singhal’s teachings are Change Narratives, Positive Deviance and Liberating Structures. Positive Deviance is the search for answers to problems by examining positive outliers – those instances where uncommon behaviors overcome the odds and create social proof that local, sustainable solutions exist and are readily available to others in the community.
Liberating Structures (LS) represents an alternative to the conventional teacher-driven practice of one-way transmission of content. Using “participatory structures,” the LS approach distributes control of content among all participants, engaging and including everyone at once. By valuing diversity of thought, it releases creativity within a group, and introduces shifts in the way participants meet, plan, organize, and relate to one another.
“I find his overarching lessons to be more relevant and practical than ever,” said Matt Orr, a 2014 graduate of the Clinton School who now works as an Operations and Technology Consultant. “Invite everyone, be humble enough to realize solutions are not in you alone but are local and equally distributed in a group, focus on what’s right instead of what’s wrong, and look for surprising successes.”
Singhal serves as the Samuel Shirley and Edna Holt Marston Endowed Professor of Communication and Director of the Social Justice Initiative at The University of Texas at El Paso. His full-time responsibilities at UTEP limit his Clinton School schedule to four visits each Spring semester. While some instructors might see that calendar as limiting, Singhal believes the intense nature of the schedule leads to stronger connections and engagement. Once per month, he and his students spend almost 12 hours together over two class periods on Fridays and Saturdays.
“Dr. Singhal’s class completely changed my way of thinking in a way that no other class has ever done,” said Allison Meyer, who graduated from the Clinton School in 2015. “His class offered me something far beyond what can be read in a book or gained from an internship. I transformed into a new person in one semester, and I do not say that lightly. Now, I approach my work by listening to understand and in search of solutions that already exist within communities. My arms are open, not crossed and my workplace is the community, not offices way up in the sky, and that is all because of Dr. Singhal.”
Singhal often invites visitors into his classroom to provide their own unique perspective. A few of his guests have included Liberating Structures co-founders Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless; Barefoot College founder Bunker Roy and CEO Meagan Fallone; and Carina Schmid of PCI-Media Impact.
Through their range of experiences, the visitors have created invaluable mentoring and networking opportunities. Many have helped establish field service connections for students. Singhal estimates he and his connections have helped place some 35 to 40 Clinton School students in International Public Service Projects through their networks in countries like Saint Lucia, India, Peru, Tanzania, and South Africa, among others.
Outside the classroom, Singhal has invited Clinton School students and graduates to co-facilitate workshops across the world, including efforts at the Houses of Parliament in the United Kingdom, the Inland School of Applied Sciences in Norway, and the Jerusalem Hadassah Medical Center in Israel.
Singhal and D’Amico co-facilitated a workshop at the White House in 2015 – “Partners in Health, Aligning Clinical Systems, Faith and Community Assets.” It welcomed more than 60 leaders of hospitals and clinical care systems, faith networks, and community organizations to create actionable plans to increase access to healthcare and preventive services.
“We co-facilitated a workshop on the relationships between faith, community, and health systems to transform community health,” said D’Amico. “It was a phenomenal experience for me and I've actually continued working with that office since that first experience.”
As he prepares to start his 10th year, Singhal says it’s the people – both new and old – that keep him excited to return to the Clinton School.
“While the institution is the same, the experience changes from year to year,” Singhal said. “The excitement comes from engaging with new people, and to rekindle relationships with old colleagues and students who regularly stop by my class. When I come to Little Rock, I am not just teaching a Social Change Class, I’m also re-plugged into this ever-expanding web of public service, and I get to see its rising trajectory over time.”
The Clinton School Speaker Series not only enhances the education of Clinton School students, but also provides a venue for the public to engage in intellectual discussions on the issues of the day.