I haven’t found much time to write, but I’ve luckily still found time to read. There were many things I read this year that transformed the way I think about the world and the way I wish to act in it. Here are some of my favorites:
This blog post has been sitting in my drafts for almost two years now. I keep coming back to it every few months–questioning its relevance, comparing it to the rapid evolution of thinking about social enterprise that has taken place since I first wrote this, asking friends for feedback, and then deciding I’m not comfortable sharing it. While our thinking about what “social enterprise” means has certainly evolved over the past few years, there is still room to question its meaning and trajectory. More and more, I’ve been gravitating towards the notion of “organizational values” and away from entities and missions. I wrote a bit about that here, but I wanted to FINALLY share this post below, as a draft, open for feedback and improvement.
Readers: What do you think? What’s missing? Is this even relevant? Are organizations adopting these values, and would those that don’t traditionally think of themselves as social enterprises want to advertise themselves as such if they aligned with the framework below? Add in the comments or message me. I really want to hear what you think and have your help in shaping this concept further.
“That’s a non-profit, it’s not a social enterprise.” People make this comment all too often. The definition of the term “social enterprise” widely varies, but what is often most misunderstood is that social enterprises as entities can be for-profit, non-profit, or a hybrid, and I argue in this piece, even governmental.
We should separate the legal formation of social enterprise from the values and goals of social enterprise. Let’s think of social enterprise as a set of values for an organization. In this sense, social enterprise is a framework of values for change, and we can encourage all organizations to adopt this framework.
What is the social enterprise framework of values? (more…)
“The path is made by walking,” writes poet Antonio Machado. My path has certainly been a winding one–leading from Capitol Hill to a military analysis think tank, from ed-tech in India to a design school in New York. Two weeks ago, I began my newest endeavor–graduate school. A Master in Public Administration degree wasn’t always part of the plan, but after accounting for my experiences and interests over the years, it now seems like it was inevitable.
I’ve been interested in public service and international affairs since childhood, but as I made a shift towards the world of social entrepreneurship after college (which I explained in this essay two years ago) I became determined to pursue an MBA. Business school has become the graduate school of choice for those working in social enterprise. The good and bad (and expensive) reasons to attend any graduate school aside, the thinking goes that a strong understanding of business will enable better business models and management for social change initiatives. As you’ll see on this blog and others, there is a lot of truth to that notion, and many smart, impactful social entrepreneurs with an MBA.
But while working with social businesses in India and New York, I was continually struck by my own lack of knowledge about socioeconomics, despite a BA in Political Science. And I saw how business and its tools–without a dedication to iterating on theories of social change and understanding socioeconomic dynamics–cannot alone solve the complex problems we face. As I explain in this Huffington Post article, “a social entrepreneur can run the most transparent, well-managed, profitable social enterprise in the world, and still not be solving the social problem their business is founded upon.” Furthermore, after seeing social enterprises in action, I realized that policy and social justice, and integration of social initiatives with policy change, is more important than ever. (more…)
In the past few years, the social enterprise space has evolved rapidly from a concept that required explanation to a trend everyone is eager to join. Business schools have drastically increased their social entrepreneurship course and club offerings, and many businesses and startups can get away with calling themselves a social enterprise. While grateful for the rise in people and businesses caring about making a positive social impact, I’m concerned that an over-emphasis on business solutions overshadows the need to address root causes of societal problems.
Social enterprises can become easily distracted building and managing their business instead of focusing on the problem they are trying to solve — even if the solution involves running a healthy business. A strong business model and management-style is critical to success, and I proclaim their value to a sustainable social enterprise as much as the next person. Yet, a social entrepreneur can run the most transparent, well-managed, profitable social enterprise in the world, and still not be solving the social problem their business is founded upon. (more…)
“In societies under stress, where basic systems have broken down and the very social compact that binds people together is under strain, the project we need to undertake is not the bridge—or the road, or the banking system, or the sanitation system, or whatever. The project is the community. The specifics of projects that people undertake in the chaotic coastal slums we’ve been discussing are actually less important than the community cohesion, sense of solidarity, and common purpose that those projects generate. These are not side effects of a successful project—they are the project.”
– David Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla
“Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia—em (into) and pathos (feeling)—a penetration, a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?…Empathy isn’t just remembering to say that must really be hard—it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination.”
— Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams
In what David Brooks deemed an “empathy craze” of the past decade, several bestsellers exalted the values of empathy, followed by a series of widely circulated opinion pieces questioning the limits of empathy. Schools and social entrepreneurs preach the value of teaching empathy. The core of trendy human-centered design is empathetic listening and design. I too, caught on to the hype—seeking to better understand empathy as it relates to my own work in social enterprise and social design. Here is what I’ve begun to understand.
Empathy has a critical role to play in creating positive social change; it will enable us to become more collaborative and respond more thoughtfully to social issues. We can cultivate and teach empathy—with intentionality, or willed effort, not diminishing its power—and we can encourage empathy without requiring action or agreement. But before empathy can achieve it’s full impact in our lives and in positive social change, we must cultivate internal awareness to understand our own context in the world.
Through my exploration of empathy, I remain with more questions than answers, and know that my opinion will evolve and change over time. I offer my thoughts here because this subject is important to the public discourse on social change and personal development, and I hope that others wiser than me will offer their own ideas and feedback in response. (more…)
“So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. To that extent, it can be (for all our good intentions) an impertinent–if not an inappropriate–response. To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may–in ways we might prefer not to imagine–be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.”
We think about the parts instead of the whole, and it needs to change. Thinking about the parts translates into laws and policies that don’t solve problems because they aren’t addressing the issue holistically, and departments in organizations that don’t achieve their purpose because they were never given the mandate to do so. For example, when I hear that the marketing team is handling an organization’s social responsibility initiatives, I see it as a red flag that the organization isn’t prioritizing the work or thinking about social change as core to its mission.
“The industrial age taught us to solve problems by breaking things down into manageable parts, assigning specialists to work on them, then reassembling them into a workable whole. This seemed like a great step forward (Thanks, Henry Ford.), but it’s now an entrenched habit that limits us in both business and life. Compartmentalization might speed things up on an assembly line, but it forces us into silos. And silos destroy creativity, context, and perspective—all things we need to thrive in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a classic example of this. At too many companies, CSR is a department (read: silo) rather than a process. And being able to point to the existence of a CSR department as evidence of commitment ends up being far more important than actually giving that department the authority to carry out real change.”
A must-read article from Pacific Standard, which explores the lack of cultural factors in social science research, shows that psychologically, industrial nations tend to have this siloed psyche. (more…)
I didn’t listen further to the woman stepping onto the 1 Train, assuming I knew the rest of her announcement.
As she made her way towards me—fruit snacks and chips packed neatly in a cardboard box—I averted my eyes to the ground, feeling guilty for rarely giving money. In the corner of my eye I see the graying man next to me frantically digging through his backpack. Scavenging through all his pockets as she continues towards us, I figure he’s looking for his wallet. “If he can’t find it, I’ll give him a dollar to give her,” I tell myself. I know I have one.
The woman stalls in front of us; three strangers united, waiting breathlessly. He finally grasps something with his hand…and pulls out a pack of Orbit. “He keeps his money in a pack of gum? That’s weird,” I think, certain he will be giving her money. He proceeds to pop a stick of gum in his mouth, physically sigh in relief, and do whatever we pretend to do on our phones. She continues on past us, repeating her speech, and my heart sinks.
I’m shocked and disappointed. No, I’m infuriated. What was he thinking? Where was his empathy?! I sat there, judging him.
And then I sat there, judging myself. Am I really any different?
I recently read an incredible book–a series of non-fiction essays–called The Empathy Exams. Here’s an excerpt from the title essay. More thoughts on this book and empathy coming soon.
“Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia—em (“into”) and pathos (“feeling”)—a penetration, a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border-crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?
Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain—it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for another because we know we should, or because it’s asked for, but this doesn’t make our caring hollow. The act of choosing simply means we’ve committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations: I will listen to his sadness, even when I’m deep in my own. To say “going through the motions”—this isn’t reduction so much as acknowledgment of the effort—the labor, the motions, the dance—of getting inside another person’s state of heart or mind.
This confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always arise unbidden, that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intention and I believe in work. I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for our better ones.”
“In order to address our toughest challenges, we must indeed connect, but this is not enough: we must also grow. In other words, we must exercise both love (the drive to unity) and power (the drive to self-realization). If we choose either love or power, we will get stuck in re-creating existing realities, or worse. If we want to create new and better realities–at home, at work, in our communities, in the world–we need to learn how to integrate our love and our power.”
“There is this plague of sameness that is killing the human joy” says Iwan Baan at the end of this talk, which highlights the ways people around the world work within constraints to make their living situation their own.