As a student of social enterprise, I often get caught in the theoretical. Absorbed with theories of change, business models, impact metrics and scaling strategies, it is easy to lose connection with what pulled you to this field in the first place: a desire to find a way to do good, a way to help communities create positive change, as opposed to the ever present and repetitive introduction of top down or unsustainable solutions.
Coming to RLabs was a much needed reframe in perspective. While RLabs has an innovative business model and scaling strategies to create economic impact, it’s not about that: it is about empowering communities and creating hope. Sitting in the Youth Café in a culture session, discussing personal histories and how one can empower themselves, really brought me back to this focus on hope over business strategy. Everyone calls it something different. When I worked at an organization in New Haven, they called it “the magic,” at Ashoka they call it “drive,” here it is “hope,” but regardless of the name it is the empowerment of people to be their best selves and to care about the world. The youth in the café have limitless potential: they just needed to believe it. This belief in itself, regardless of its economic impact, is incredibly valuable.
After teaching one day of a social innovation class and sitting in the cafes, I began to be fired up about teaching the youth from the Ikamva Youth Program the next week in conjunction with Edugreen. I started a presentation based on what I had already taught, but was most excited to teach what I had learned in my social enterprise classes. The questions became, how do I make it applicable and coherent? How do I stay true to the language of social enterprise but also be clear and understandable? Will the youth even care?
The first day had its ups and downs. I definitely needed to learn to speak slower and use smaller words, but the youth were really excited about root cause breakdowns and understanding community problems better. Where I struggled was getting them to understand how to break problems down into smaller issues, as opposed to back into bigger overarching problems. Also, in building solutions, to get them to think about what they can do in their communities as opposed to what the government can do. I realized no one had ever asked them to think about their impact on community issues, only how to appeal to the government to create civic action. It was amazing to see them think outside the box about how they could create change and to see them speak passionately about solving issues in their community. The youth loved creating the solar powered charger with Edugreen (a start up from the RLabs Incubator) and engaging in a tactile project. I have never seen a group of young people so excited about paper as when they got their certificates. I felt a great sense of accomplishment seeing them successfully engage in design thinking and think about their role in social change for the first time.
The second day was much more of a struggle. Another session was happening concurrently to ours, so about ten young people left within the first ten minutes of my presentation. The youth who stayed engaged in more of a fatalist attitude around social issues. They also struggled a little more with the solar kits, but we ended up with a small group who were really fired up about everything we were doing. Everything felt a little harder that day, but it was good to remember that not everyone will engage in an hour, it’s about empowering people and changing mind sets, and that’s a slow process. As I won’t see them again, hopefully some day in the future what this group of young people learned will click. The times when you struggle make the successes feel more powerful. The small group of fired up young people was our success and now we need to work on ourselves to make the presentation better and more applicable for all.
Business models, scaling strategies and disruptive innovation will always be in the back of my mind. I can never discount the power of that knowledge because it will allow me to find the solutions I most want to identify with; however, I think the lessons learned is that culture and what happens outside your theory of change are equally as important for your outcomes. Life isn’t a linear cause and effect chain. You can never discount the power of hope to change a community, but more than that, spreading a culture of change making will fuel the progress we want to see in the world: we just need to give people a reason to believe they have the power to make a difference.
By: Katherine Dumais