Social change

Why Millennials and Governments Must Prepare for the Industries of the Future Today (Forbes)

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A few years ago, as a member of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, I had the opportunity to meet Alec Ross, a senior advisor on innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. A few days ago, he came out with a new book on the industries that will shape and drive the next economy. I interviewed Ross about the book, the challenges and opportunities individuals will face in gaining jobs in these new industries, and how governments can help us prepare for the future. You can read the interview and review of the book over on Forbes. 

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Cultivating Empathy and Internal Awareness for Social Change

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“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…)

Think Holistically–CSR and Change Depend on It

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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.

As Cheryl Heller explains in her latest piece for Unreasonable.is, this problem may stem from our industrial mindset, and our tendency to work in silos:

“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…)

Open Letter to High School Students

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My friend solicited open letters to high school students for a project for work. Here is what I wrote last Friday afternoon. I found that I was really writing it as reminders to myself based on things I’ve recently been thinking about and learning, so in multiple respects it was a great and fun exercise. 

Dear Reader,

We don’t know each other, but some of the best advice I’ve ever received has been from strangers. In fact, everything you’ll read here I’ve learned from others. There are things I think I know now that I wish I knew when I was in high school. Perhaps I wasn’t ready to really hear it, or I didn’t have the context for understanding its relevance. Here are some of the things I wish I started doing earlier, which are as much reminders to myself to do them now as they are advice to you.

Have empathy. You may have heard the phrase “walk in someone else’s shoes.” Empathy is listening to and learning about someone else, and acknowledging their experience as something real and valid even if it is different from your own or you don’t completely understand it. Empathy is not the same as sympathy—a proactive concern and desire to improve the situation of others. (This great animated video demonstrates the distinction between sympathy and empathy.) We should all strive to be more empathetic, and to be open–really open–to listening and learning from everyone around us.  (more…)

How to Assess a Social Enterprise (Huffington Post)

My article originally posted on Huffington Post Impact. 

A friend transitioning from the corporate world to the social enterprise space recently asked me how to assess a social enterprise. How do we really know when an organization is doing quality work we should rally behind and having a real, positive impact, versus just using the right buzzwords?

The short answer is you can never really know. But there are a few aspects of a social enterprise, beyond their mission and approach, that you can critically examine before deciding to join or support one.

How do they talk about impact?

There are numerous ways to measure impact, and entire firms dedicated to doing so. There is no one “right” method, but the way a social enterprise talks about their impact may be an indicator of their operations and worldview.

Let’s say there’s a social enterprise that uses all the popularly accepted words about sustainable and holistic community development. And then when they talk about their impact they say, “We’ve built 100 schools in five countries in the past 10 years.” Maybe they have a video or slideshow of “people whose lives they’ve changed,” but not much more than general statements, and certainly nothing to prove sustainability or transparency. Maybe it’s just another case of Three Cups of Deceit. Or maybe they’re revolutionary, but how are we to know?

There is nothing wrong with statistics. They’re great. Here is how Educate!, a social enterprise operating in Uganda, talks about their impact:

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Power and Love

“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.”

From Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change by Adam Kahane 

We are the problem, and we create the change

What follows are very incomplete thoughts and reflections on some recent readings. I would love to hear your ideas and feedback. 

The world is a system made of systems, all inherently living–what Donella Meadows defines as “a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time.”

As I’ve come to better understand systems thinking and social change at a cursory level, I’m realizing that change starts within each of us. As we are part of systems, we are part of the problem, and therefore we are also part of the change. That change begins when each of us realize that we create both sides of the equation.  (more…)