“You Can Imagine” – Reframing Mental Health to Brain Health with Dr. Jeremy Richman

“You Can Imagine” – Reframing Mental Health to Brain Health with Dr. Jeremy Richman

I’ve had the opportunity to meet many people in my life that have influenced the way I think about things. However, the day I met Jeremy Richman was different. After telling me that his 6-year old daughter, Avielle, was murdered in her first grade classroom at Sandy Hook, he soon followed with three words…

”You Can Imagine.”

Since that encounter, I’ve learned a tremendous amount from Jeremy and hope you will too. It turns out, I’m one of the lucky ones. My life has been pretty good. I was privileged to grow up and have a childhood without trauma. Dr. Jeremy Richman is a neuroscientist and introduced me to a whole new way of thinking. He shifted my mindset to understand the meaning of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and Protective Factors, which now drives our curriculum at Noble Impact.

Joe Pucci is a young man I met this past summer. He is a New York City native that attends Hamilton College and is very curious about life…especially in relation to education and how he might be able to make a difference. We are years apart in age but very close in how we view the world. He took a leap of faith and joined us this past summer at the University of Arkansas to take part in our Noble Impact facilitation of the Fleischer Scholars Program. Not only did he do great job but he had great interest in our curriculum and wanted to know more. So I asked if he’d be interested in interviewing Jeremy in order to gain further insight. Of course, he said yes.

Below is Joe’s recap of the conversation he had with Dr. Jeremy Richman.

In the brisk, dark morning of December 14, 2012…

20 children and 6 educators were ruthlessly massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Among the victims was 6-year-old Avielle ‘Avie’ Richman. As I prepared to interview her father, Jeremy, I grew increasingly uneasy at the idea of asking him to reminisce on this day. “I don’t want him to have to relive that experience,” I thought. Before I brought it up, he began describing that morning. My core was shaken. A knot developed in my stomach. This is what Jeremy wants. Not because he enjoys my suffering, but because it’s the only way I’ll develop compassion and want to do something with it.

Jeremy needs us to imagine that day — to put ourselves there and to feel the associated emotions. This goes against the common, well-intentioned response, “I can’t imagine…” But we can, and we must. Only then will we begin to care. This is why “You Can Imagine” is the trademark slogan of The Avielle Foundation. When we do this, we are subconsciously building compassion for those in that situation. Ultimately, compassion is what will drive people’s support for the cause, but it is also what will prevent people from committing violent acts.

This is a simple, logical, and powerful progression, but it is one that is uncommon and often deemed an abstract or ‘soft’ approach to curbing violence. Instead, we constantly focus on negative solutions that don’t seek to affect change in the individual.

According to Jeremy, the top three are guns, safety, and brain health. Many people use the term “mental health” but Jeremy reframes to the organ in which it affects…the brain. These solutions don’t ask the important question of WHY someone would act violently.

“We need to have some very serious introspection and open discussions about what responsibilities come with the right to bare arms – we have become very irresponsible in this arena and tens of thousands of Americans have paid a tragic price as a result.”

Banning guns won’t stop people from thinking violently.

Surely our schools should be safe spaces, but vastly increasing protection is a temporary solution. Violent people will still figure out places or ways in which to be violent. And our fascination with mental health doesn’t actually get us anywhere. Instead we need to begin considering the reframe of mental health to brain health, which Jeremy believes to be a start.

“[The word] Mental is intangible and invisible. It doesn’t come with anything of value that you can use as a tool. At best, it’s a label based on symptoms and syndromes. We need to realize that the brain is an organic organ that houses our behaviors, feelings, and memories. If a behavior is abnormal, it must be the tangible, organic consequence of abnormal brain biochemistry or structure.”

With this being said, Jeremy warns us not to get caught up in simple solutions. Analyzing brain health is critical to understanding the roots of one’s actions, but there’s more to it.

“There’s also a fallacy with associating violence with just genetics. For example, if we look at psychopathic behaviors…and see that it existed in their family history, we think that it must be genetic. But it’s also what you learn and know; the experiences you were exposed to. Both are right and wrong. No behavior is just genetic or just environmentally influenced. Behavior is always influenced by both nature and nurture.”

In short, we shouldn’t be focusing on guns, safety, and mental health, but we also can’t get caught up in attributing violence to one thing; it’s complex. Understanding Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACEs) has helped us better realize the environmental influences. It showed that the more one is exposed to physical, sexual, and psychological abuse, as well as neglect and household dysfunction in their childhood, the more likely they are to be obese, smoke, drink, break bones, fail to graduate high school, engage in a risky life-style, and die younger. However, we can add to this foundation if we begin studying the brain and focusing on ways to improve it.

Guns, safety, and mental health fill our discussions following violent events like those in Sandy Hook, or the recent shootings around our country, but something isn’t working. Violence seems more prevalent than ever. To do something about it, Jeremy is creating a paradigm shift in how we approach these situations. A focus on prevention and intervention rather than solely on reaction. The Avielle Foundation believes in “Preventing Violence and Building Compassion.”


It hinges on the belief that compassion can prevent violent memories, feelings, and behaviors from ever transpiring in the first place. It is admirably grounded in positivity and embodies curiosity, selflessness, passion, and resilience. In tying this back to Jeremy, we can see that his story isn’t defined by the tragedy itself, but rather by his response to it.

Jeremy’s unique, resilient approach can be contextualized even from his earliest experiences. His story begins in the “hippy trippy” 1970s in Boulder, Colorado. The time and place made for an open-minded environment filled with a diversity of people, ideas, and ways of life. Although he left at nine years old, its values are evident in him today: The ability to find compassion and optimism in the face of adversity; The interdisciplinary nature of his work; The discontent with the status quo. It’s prevalent in his identity.

His adolescent years continued in the sprawling, then small town of Tucson, Arizona. Jeremy’s isolated, desert home was shared with his mom, an ESL teacher, his dad, a chemist turned technology expert, and his sister. It’s no wonder that his current endeavors span from neurological research to educational implementation – a rarity in the scientific community.

Shortly after moving, Jeremy’s grandfather was diagnosed with a severe form of Alzheimer’s. He reminisces on how misunderstood the disease was and how hard it was to watch his dad deal with his father’s pain, but says that it was ultimately eye-opening. He was deeply fascinated by how our personalities were dependent on the proper functioning of the brain. As he sought to learn more, it dawned on him how little we actually knew about this organ. But that’s what excited him. He saw an opportunity to make profound discoveries in such an unexplored realm, and that’s exactly what he would wind up doing.

This same curiosity however, did not translate to his early schooling experiences. Considering he was already thinking about brain science, this surprised me. But this is often the case in our school system; we tend to squash creativity, curiosity, and fun (see Ken Robinson’s Ted Talk for more on this). But it also didn’t help that Arizona’s education was ranked 51 out of the 52 states and territories at the time. This left him woefully unprepared for college.

Upon entering the University of Arizona, Jeremy described himself as a “long haired party man who thought good grades came with just showing up.” He would go on to achieve successes in molecular and cellular biology, neuropharmacology and toxicology, and meet his wife, Jennifer, where they’d “geek out together,” but long before this, he was on his way to flunking out.

Things only began to change when a friend of his called him out for complaining, and not studying. He took this to heart. He became aware of his short attention span, inability to effectively manage time, and lack of study skills. But most importantly, he now wanted to do something about it. He began attending study primers at the Human Resource Center, going door-to-door of professors at the university, and generally becoming more proactive. This is the Jeremy I assumed filled his adolescence, but it didn’t. So how’d he end up where he is today?

We tend to mistakenly associate profound thinkers with being exceptional intellects in their youth, but studies have disproven this theory. It turns out that having character, curiosity, and determination is much more important than having a high IQ or getting good grades. As Albert Einstein, who struggled mightily as a child, once said:

“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer. Most people say that it is intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.”

This is part of the reason that he was thrilled to partner with Noble Impact – whose student-centered curriculum focuses on purpose driven outcomes. He believes that Noble is “thinking in an innovative, out of the box fashion to build value, integrity, perseverance, and compassion through emotionally intelligent platforms.” Through The Avielle Foundation, Jeremy and his team are providing profound scientific insight into brain health and the importance of compassion, while Noble is using and facilitating that knowledge in its programming for students and teachers.

On top of this, we now know that our brains are extremely plastic – meaning they change in response to experiences – particularly from three-years-old to the end of adolescence. It doesn’t matter whether those times were good or bad, but it does matter that we learn from them. For many people, it takes a large degree of suffering to develop – as was the case with Jeremy. He nearly flunked out, but he responded and came back stronger.

Many years later – with exponentially greater suffering – the same might be said about his response to Avie’s death. In times like these you are tested immensely. Although it was an “infinitely heartbreaking, unforgettable moment,” Jeremy’s character shined through.

Surely, rage was pent up in him, but he translated it into self-growth and an application for greater good. After Avielle’s murder, Jeremy notes, “Jenn and I, literally within days, decided that we had to do something. We knew that it had to be meaningful, prevent violence, and build compassion in any possible way that we could.”

The resiliency it takes to swiftly respond with action that will prevent others from experiencing their pain is unbelievable. It is selfless. It defines strong character.

It’s been five years. It’s been heartbreaking. What have we done? What will we do?

If you ask Jeremy and Jen, the answer is compassion, and I’m sure Avie would agree.

Individual vs. Institution: Who continues the story?

Individual vs. Institution: Who continues the story?

When I was a teenager, I remember my Dad telling me…

“Whatever you resist, persists.”

Professional Development

Last month, we organized a professional development workshop for about 130 faculty, staff, and administrators from eStem Schools. I was excited about the opportunity because I believe very strongly in the importance of acknowledging individual identity in any institutional system…especially education. The fascinating thing to me is the disconnect of this acknowledgement and why every institution doesn’t focus on individual identity to communicate their brand, whether it be a for profit company or non-profit organization.

We had two goals:

  1. Engage participants in activities related to individual brand building
  2. Take professional headshots of every single eStem employee

Over the past several years, I’ve shared numerous conversations about this individual brand idea with professional photographer, John David Pittman (JDP). We went back and forth with ideas and terminology. Call it marketing, branding, messaging…whatever you want. Our collective belief was in the power of controlling your own narrative and being conscious of how you’re communicating that narrative to the world. I believe it to be more important from my position as a high school educator as access into college hinges greatly on judgment that students receive through social media channels. It’s no secret that college admissions officers look at an applicants social media accounts to make judgments regarding acceptance.

Therefore, I believe my professional responsibility is to introduce students to this reality…what Google calls the Zero Moment of Truth – ZMOT (“it’s the new decision-making moment that takes place a hundred million times a day on mobile phones, laptops and wired devices of all kinds.  It’s a moment where marketing happen, where information happens, and where consumers makes choices that affect the success and failure of nearly every brand in the world”.)

In a 2002 letter to shareholders and prior to the Google terminology, Procter and Gamble’s CEO, A.G. Lafley referred to the First Moment of Truth (“when consumers stand in front of store shelf and decide whether to buy a P&G brand, or a competing product”) and Second Moment of Truth (“when consumers use a product and it delivers a delightful and memorable experience – or not and then decides whether to buy it again”). In 2006, P&G employee, Pete Blackshaw created the Third Moment of Truth (“where the product experience catalyzes an emotion, curiosity, passion, or even anger to talk about the brand”). Reference – Keith Ewart | ZMOT, FMOT, SMOT, TMOT

Business Sector Language

A.G. Lafley would probably tell you that all this started with a simple question…

What do our brands need to stand for in the hearts and minds of their strategic target?

Social Sector Language

Translating that to a students, teachers, and schools…

Who am I in the hearts and minds of friends and colleges?

Who am I in the hearts and minds of students and parents?

Who are we in the hearts and minds of parents and community?

As an educator, I’m curious how these moments of truth translate to the education sector. ZMOT, FMOT, SMOT, and TMOT…do they apply to a school, to a teacher, to a student?


Who are we kidding? You want to check out a school…go to the website. You want to check out a teacher…google them. You want to check out a student…check social media. Furthermore, if the teacher isn’t on the website or is represented with a crappy photo and bio, it’s not good! JDP has since redefined that for eStem’s “Our Staff” page.

This is the world we live in and it’s not slowing down. You either adapt or get left behind as an individual and as an institution. The secret lies at the intersection of both. If institutions have individuals that value their brand and control their individual narrative in a healthy way, the institution will flourish. And…the individual will provide tremendous value to the institution by showing people they are a good citizen of the community. Therefore, it makes everyone better. Not just the individual. Not just the institution. Everyone!

Let’s get tangible. What can we do?

As A School

Start with culture and create a culture of communication. Challenge all teachers to post something once a day. One tweet, one instagram picture, one facebook or blog post. Encourage teachers to be themselves while embracing their own voice, their own style, and their own authentic selves. All posts should focus on positive stories being created in the classroom or school. This will drive a healthy school culture.

As A Teacher

Think of your classroom as a brand. What stories are you telling and how are you telling them. If you aren’t telling them, no one else will. Is it through social media? Through emails to parents? Through school newsletters? How are you connecting with parents, with students, with other teachers…these are your stakeholders. The more communication the better.

As A Student

What does your social media account look like? Perform an inventory and see how you’re talking about yourself and others. Based on social media alone, are you someone you’d want to accept into Harvard? What is your messaging to the masses? The majority of students have much more power than any teacher or school because they have more followers.

Change is Hard

The transition from discomfort to discovery is painful and some people never make the transition. When I was trained in the Change Cycle curriculum there was one quote that stood out and resonated:

Image result for socrates the secret of change

As I stated above, we had two goals for the workshop and my job was to engage teachers in what we believed were relevant activities related to identity building. I had facilitated these activities with students and have received great engagement with the majority of students. Last year, I decided to introduce a new activity that had students perform an individual activity, mirroring what Google does on an institutional level, which they call, Ten Things We Know To Be True.

Translating that to an individual basis required students to spend significant time in reflection mode. I was beyond impressed with student results. In fact, many students put their results on personal websites and one student, Bethanie Gourley, even made a video it, which is awesome!

I was very interested to see how teachers would respond to the same challenge and most of them embraced the process while sharing results with colleagues. However, there were some that I just didn’t reach and I put that on me. My fault.

After cleaning up, I was on my way out of the building and came across a paper on one of the tables with the “Ten Things” exercise. My eyes went to #8…

I understand that not all teachers or administrators will agree with me about the importance of individual identity and how I believe we should treat it as a branding opportunity for students, teachers, and schools. I understand that branding can have a negative connotation in the social sector but…the world we live in today is very fast. It’s not a matter of if but when. You might not believe in the “brand” identity approach but every market (business and social) in the world is showing us that “brand” is important and has the ability to control messages, actions, and attitudes towards individuals and institutions. I know we’re not products, but the ZMOT to TMOT approach is now applicable to people. How do we leverage ourselves and our stories for the common good?

As Tristan Walker says, “No one else should be telling my story.”

It’s easy for me to empathize with people that state, “I am not a brand.” I totally understand where they are coming from. This whole social media thing didn’t exist when I was in high school or even when I started teaching. In the whole scheme of things, it’s totally new to me but I’m trying to embrace the change. Innovation isn’t limited to institutions, it needs to happen to individuals and if you don’t innovate yourself, no one else will.

So, let’s reframe. Fine, you’re not a brand. How about this…you’re a story that isn’t finished yet. As my friend Dave Knox told me many years ago, “Marketing is telling the story, and branding is continuing the story.”

If Dave is right, and branding is continuing the story, it begs a couple questions…

  1. Who continues the story?
  2. Who consumes the story?
  3. Who cares about the story?

Embrace it or resist it…your headshot is the first line of your story, and the story continues. What will it be?

Here is what we did. Enjoy!

A new hashtag I’m playing around with…


Tuning In: A Culture of Identity

Tuning In: A Culture of Identity

 John David Pittman is more than a photographer, he’s a storyteller.

I met JDP in the spring of 2014 as we hosted the first ever High School Startup Weekend at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. He volunteered his time that day because of his connection to education and his interest in what we were trying to accomplish over a 3-day period with 80+ high school students. His work was awesome and it made me think about more ideas for collaboration.


Both of JDP’s parents are retired educators. His father was a high school teacher, coach, principal, and superintendent. His mother was a high school english teacher, gifted and talented coordinator, and elementary librarian. And his brother is currently a high school teacher and coach in Gravette, Arkansas. That’s just his immediate family.

When you start talking education with JDP, he has many opinions and also connects his current occupation of photographer to the possibility of utilizing it for the education sector, specifically K-12.

Since our first encounter, we’ve talked about doing projects together that would be mutually beneficial while serving a higher purpose and we’ve managed to do that through a couple different avenues, one being our Noble 301 Apprenticeship Course.

He’s also volunteered his time to provide our students with an opportunity to visit his studio and receive professional headshots of their own. We’ve seen our students use these headshots on their social media pages and in applications for college. 

In addition to projects with Noble Impact, JDP has been a guest speaker in many of our classrooms and his message of being “tuned in” resonates with me every single time I hear it.

“Being tuned in is being aware of yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, your environment, and how you fit into your environment…it’s a sense of hyper-awareness and not just walking through life half on.”

JDP connects the “tuned in” message to photography in many different ways but he’ll be the first one to tell you that it all starts with a professional headshot.

“Whether it be an athlete, an artist, or a teacher, I want everyone to be invested as a human…in themselves and their own identity, which connects to others through story.”

As we embark upon our most recent collaboration, I’m very happy to again focus our efforts on education while attempting to lift the teaching profession to new heights. With a professional headshot as the beginning, we’ll be laser focused on building a culture of identity. We both believe in the power of teachers and we also believe it’s a profession that has been slighted. In fact, one of the problem statements from this past summer’s Noble Summit was this…“The problem with education is that teachers are undervalued.”

The purpose of collaborating with JDP is to put teachers first while making sure that value is communicated at a very high level. A professional headshot signifies the importance of identity building and is an industry standard that most companies adhere to. Why not schools? Therefore, professional headshots for every single individual contributing to the organizational school culture should be non-negotiable. Here are a couple takeaways that connect JDP’s words to the significance of a professional headshot…

“This is important. This is a big deal. Research shows that people make snap judgments about who you are as a person within two seconds of looking at your headshot.”

“Handshake to headshot, people judge everything.”

“I want their ZMOT (zero moment of truth) to be confident and approachable.”

“Your headshot is the first line of your story…that’s the way I look at it.”

As we continue our series of professional development workshops with eStem Schools, the individual identity workshop will add significant value to cultivating a healthy school culture. We believe that individual identities feed into the collective identity, and it starts with valuing teachers for who they are.

As JDP would say, “It’s time to get tuned in.”


Startup Day: Tip of the Entrepreneurship Spear for High School Students

Startup Day: Tip of the Entrepreneurship Spear for High School Students

In November of last year, we had the opportunity to launch our first ever High School Startup Day. In partnership with Junior Achievement and the Innovation Hub, we welcomed over 100 students, 10 teachers, and 10 mentors to engage in the startup process to tackle a social sector issue.

Since beginning in the summer of 2013, our constant experimentation process at Noble Impact has afforded us the opportunity to learn in an environment that embraces ambiguity and organized chaos. Developing new experiences and events for students requires that we do this type work if we want to challenge the status quo while offering entrepreneurial curriculum and programming. Startup Day is just one example of our work, which is supported by our certified curriculum through the Arkansas Department of Career and Technical Education (CTE), which any Arkansas High School may utilize as a program of study.

Startup Day is special in its own right because it introduces students to the dichotomy of “What is…” and “What could be…” while exposing them to new environments outside of the classroom and outside of the school building. My friend Nick Seguin stated it best when talking about how a startup event benefits students. Nick says, “it serves as an access point to entrepreneurship.”

At Noble Impact, our purpose is to increase access and opportunity for every student we serve. Therefore, we are excited to announce that our 2nd High School Startup Day will take place at the University of Central Arkansas within the UCA College of Business. Through this event, our partnership continues with Junior Achievement and we’re also developing a new partnership with the Conductor, which is spearheaded by Jeff Standridge and Kim Lane. We will again be sponsored by Startup Junkie Consulting, who continues to be a champion of entrepreneurial growth and education throughout the state of Arkansas.

Although we’ve been fortunate to accomplish a lot since beginning in 2013, we continue to ask ourselves, “What if?”

And so, it begs the question…

What if we launched High School Startup Days around the state of Arkansas that served as the access point to entrepreneurship for all students?

Answer: Maybe we’d get more feedback and reflection like we heard from North Little Rock Senior, Jayvin Johnson.

If you’d like to know more about High School Startup Day, come out and see it in action…just RSVP!

When: March 16th | 9:30am–1:00pm

Where: UCA College of Business