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Original Essays

A Sea of Social Ingenuity

by David Bornstein
  1. How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas
    $7.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "Wonderfully hopeful and enlightening....The stories of these social entrepreneurs will inspire and encourage many people who seek to build a better world." Nelson Mandela
  2. The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank
    $6.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "Bornstein's tale is memorable and often inspirational, and he tells it exceedingly well. Highly recommended." Library Journal
A number of years ago I took part in a weekend program designed to help 40 low-income high school students reach college. It was one of those experiences that causes you to see the world with new eyes. The workshop was held on a campus in Colorado. My job was to serve as a "writing coach" and help five students write college admission essays that would reveal themselves as whole people, not just numbers on a transcript. These were kids who came from families in which no one had ever attended college. While I worked on the essay writing, others would be helping the students choose colleges, identify sources of financial aid and overcome their personal doubts about whether they were, in fact, "college material."

In the weeks leading up to the workshop, I didn't do anything special to prepare for it. My background certainly didn't prepare me for it. I grew up in a middle class suburb in Montreal. Before becoming a writer, I was a computer programmer. I've never experienced poverty. And I had serious doubts about how well I would be able to connect with five inner-city teenagers. But the organization in charge, a group called College Summit, which had been founded by a former divinity student named J. B. Schramm, assured me that all I had to do was show up.

I was to begin working with the students on a Friday morning. The night before, at about 11 p.m., after a four-hour crash training, I met my students: three boys and two girls. Four were African Americans and one was Samoan. The boys towered over me. I would later learn that they had grown up in violent neighborhoods in Los Angeles and Denver and that one of the girls had seen her sister murdered in a drive-by shooting. None of the teenagers was an A student. They scored mostly B-minuses's and C's. But they had all been selected because at least one of their teachers had identified potential that was not captured in their grades. I introduced myself and the teenagers mumbled and stared at their feet. We had five minutes together before curfew — enough time for me to realize that I was in way over my head. I felt so stressed out I didn't fall asleep until 3 a.m.

At seven the next morning, I met with my students again and together we took a walk across the campus to our assigned room. It was a beautiful summer day and passing the library and the grassy lawns, I was hit with a longing to return to college. When we got to the class, I dove into the writing work and within an hour a sense of panic began to rise within me. The students were guarded; their writing was horribly dull. I said to myself: "This is never going to work." But College Summit had been honing its workshops for six years and the night before, I had been reassured. "It may not look like it's going to work, but it will work."

The morning was painful. Something shifted in the afternoon. And by the following day the room had a new, lighter feel. Somehow, by Sunday at noon, my students had produced five essays. Not essays free of grammatical errors, but authentic pieces of writing drawn from their life experiences that gave a vivid sense of who they were. These were essays that at the very least would catch the attention of a college admissions reviewer. I was astonished by how far we had come in three days.

When I returned to my home in New York City, I found myself walking along Amsterdam Avenue in the low 100s, watching the teenagers holding court on the sidewalks. I found that I had an easier time imagining where they came from and what stories they might tell if they were ever motivated to write an honest personal essay.

Before that weekend, I had never thought about how much ability is trapped beneath the surface of our society. Then I learned that there are 200,000 low-income students who graduate from American high schools each year who are capable of succeeding in college, but who fail to enroll. Come September, rather than being on a campus, they're on the streets.

What kind of society can afford to waste so much talent? That three day workshop made me see that there is no reason why so many young people should end up marginalized and defeated, their dreams forever deferred. I saw that it is possible to create processes that unleash talent and ambition — and to do it systematically. Since then, I've served as a writing coach two more times. My wife has done it four times. And I've spoken with dozens of others who have done it as well — and in almost every case the experience is the same, the magic is repeated.

My point is not to explain how College Summit works — there are many moving parts that make this magic happen. My point is to get across the notion that it is possible to solve deep social problems. Here is something that really works; it addresses one of our most serious national problems; it is cost effective; and it works at scale. Somehow, College Summit has developed a kind of "social technology" that gets thousands of low-income students into college at much higher rates than one would normally expect, almost 75 percent higher than the national average for their peers.

College Summit is unusual, but it is not unique. There are many other examples of people and organizations who have unlocked the secret of freeing trapped potential. There is an organization in Poland, for example, called Barka, which runs a network of homes in which former prison inmates, recovering alcoholics, and recently homeless people live and work together, sharing responsibilities and co-managing businesses. You would be correct in thinking that this sounds like a recipe for disaster. Who in this post-modern day and age would imagine that you could bring together a group of so-called undesirables, give them responsibilities for taking care of themselves and one another, and create a cooperative living arrangement that actually works?

When Barka began, people told its founders, two psychologists named Barbara and Tomasz Sadowski, that they might be able to run one of these homes successfully, maybe two, but no more. People said it depended too much on their charisma. But today there are more than twenty of these houses, the Sadowskis are no longer supervising them directly, and the social franchise they've built continues to expand and improve. Somehow, Barka has created, in the ashes of a failed communist society, a system of mutual support that allows people to free themselves from a kind of self-imposed captivity. This system is not built on rules, but on a culture of empathy. It is informed by humor, flexible thinking and a good-natured acceptance of human weakness. And it also works at scale.

In Toronto, there is an unusual organization called Roots of Empathy, founded by a teacher named Mary Gordon, which helps children acquire the skill of applied empathy — the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes and imagine how they feel. Roots of Empathy has assisted more than 70,000 students ranging in age from 3 to 13. Today, there are more than 1,100 classrooms running the program in across Canada and the model is being adopted internationally, and there is desperate need for it in the United States.

The idea is deceptively simple. Once a month during the school year, children receive a classroom visit from a baby, along with the baby's mother and a trained Roots of Empathy instructor. Roots of Empathy calls the baby the "professor." During each visit, month by month, the school children watch the baby develop, from three months old all the way to a year. They try to make sense of the baby's efforts to communicate its wishes and frustrations; they watch the baby's reactions to new foods and new people. In doing so, they have to imagine the baby's feelings, which is a creative act. The instructor meets with the class before and after each of the baby's visits, and through these 27 meetings, the children learn to recognize and name feelings, which helps them to manage their own. Studies undertaken by the University of British Columbia have shown that these experiences significantly improve the students' understanding about emotions and social situations, and lead to less aggression and more cooperation — which frees the children to play and work together.

Each of these organizations — College Summit, Barka, and Roots of Empathy — is an example of the kinds of creative solutions that are emerging around the world today to unleash human potential. They are solutions crafted by citizens — we can call them "social entrepreneurs" — who have taken it upon themselves to build structures that repair society. The growth of social entrepreneurship is one of the least understood and most important corrective forces in the world today. It is an exciting and fast growing landscape of human activity that gone virtually unnoticed by the mainstream media. It has been overshadowed by more dramatic stories — terrorism, the war in Iraq, the culture war, the current administration — but its long-term significance cannot be overstated.

Everyday we hear about the problems that afflict us all — global warming, AIDS, crime, war. If you had to make a list of ten serious problems facing the world, how long would it take? How long would it take you to list ten solutions?

The solutions are out there — hard as it is to imagine, we are swimming in a sea of social ingenuity, particularly in the U.S. and Canada. The solutions are scattered in the hands of self-organizing changemakers. I encourage you to explore this landscape. You can discover it through organizations like Ashoka, Echoing Green, the Skoll Foundation the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurs, and many others. The news won't bring it to you. You have to do a little work to find it. But it is worth the effort. It may inspire you to change your career. It may even change your life.

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David Bornstein is a journalist who specializes in writing about social innovation. His first book, The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank was selected as a finalist for the New York Public Library Book Award for Excellence in Journalism. His articles have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times, and he co-wrote the PBS documentary To Our Credit. He lives in New York City. spacer

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