Diversity and Democracy

From the Editor: Social Innovation and Civic Engagement

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed these days by the depth and breadth of ostensibly intractable problems facing the world. Challenges that have loomed for decades and even centuries—from climate change to systemic social inequality—can seem, at times, to have gotten the better of us as we struggle together to build a more just, safe, and equitable society. In the face of the temptation to despair, social innovation—driven by a spirit of entrepreneurship for positive social change—can offer optimism to students, indicating a reason for learning, for doing, and for being. It can give students hope and a sense of efficacy, suggesting that the lessons they learn in college can be applied for the betterment of society.

AAC&U has long advocated for a vision of liberal education that connects academic learning to real-world application, most recently through the LEAP Challenge, which promotes students’ pursuit of Signature Work—projects lasting at least one semester through which students integrate and apply their learning by defining and addressing problems that matter to them and to society (www.aacu.org/LEAP/signaturework/). For some students, such projects may be entrepreneurial in scope, representing key innovations that promise important social impacts. Such innovative and entrepreneurial opportunities for applied learning can take many forms, as reflected in the contents of this issue of Diversity & Democracy.

If social innovation derives its power from the hope that positive and measurable change is possible—and from compelling evidence that existing approaches have not been sufficient to address the world’s most pressing challenges—it may also invite criticism for that very orientation toward the new. As Amanda Moore McBride and Eric Mlyn point out in this issue, while “social innovation values disruption and being the outsider … civic engagement values collaboration and working from within”—and true collaboration, as civic engagement practitioners might point out, requires deep investment of time and resources, often with slowly accumulating results. As McBride and Mlyn argue, then, many tensions exist between practitioners in these two overlapping areas and the movements they represent, despite their shared focus on effecting positive social change.

Concerned with these tensions and their implications, McBride and Mlyn organized a think tank in fall 2015, bringing together researchers and practitioners from a variety of disciplines and sectors to discuss the commonalities and differences in their work. At that event, keynote speaker David Scobey posed an essential question: are the civic engagement and social innovation movements best described as “sibling rivals or kissing cousins”? This issue’s authors, many of whom were in attendance at that event, suggest some possible answers to that question—and some potential paths forward.

McBride and Mlyn open this issue by describing the relationship between the social innovation and civic engagement movements, and by offering “key questions” for practitioners of both as they look “toward a shared future.” Marina Kim and Erin Krampetz, cofounders of Ashoka U, point to the need for “sophisticated changemakers” as they describe a “changemaker toolbox” that students can acquire in college. Sonal Shah argues for experiential education with a civic focus as critical for preparing students to become public sector leaders. Sandra Enos describes the status of social impact efforts at ten colleges and universities, while Amy Schulz shares examples of social entrepreneurship at several community colleges. Other contributing authors describe programs and initiatives built on the tenets of social innovation and civic engagement, and two recent graduates reflect on their own experiences with social entrepreneurship during and after college.

Together, these authors suggest new ways forward for educators working with their students to create social change across movements, disciplines, and sectors—as well as critical points of reflection when forging new paths. We invite readers to consider the practices described here and their potential for changing not only what and how students learn, but also how higher education can contribute to creating a more just and sustainable world.

—Kathryn Peltier Campbell
Editor, Diversity & Democracy


Scobey, David. 2015. “Social Innovation and Civic Engagement: Sibling Rivals or Kissing Cousins?” Address delivered on October 25, “Think Tank on Social Innovation and Civic Engagement in Higher Education,” St. Louis, Missouri.

Kathryn Peltier Campbell is the editor of Diversity & Democracy.

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