Diversity and Democracy

Educating for Changemaking

I had to meet only a few social entrepreneurs to become an enthusiast. Mary Gordon's organization, Roots of Empathy, brings babies into elementary school classrooms as "little professors" in a bullying-reduction curriculum. Jane Leu's Upwardly Global helps employers adopt immigrant-friendly hiring practices while preparing highly skilled candidates to succeed in positions that use their expertise. The work of innovators like these lies at the heart of Ashoka, a global association of social entrepreneurs who are finding sustainable, scalable, and systemic solutions to some of the world's most urgent problems.

Social entrepreneurship may seem like a buzz word, but its roots run broad and deep. The most well known contemporary social entrepreneur is probably Mohammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank. But social entrepreneurship was also practiced by Florence Nightingale, who created professional nursing, and by John Muir, who advocated for a US National Parks system. What social entrepreneurs often have in common is a keen sense for how systems work and why they fail. These changemakers locate underlying problems in unexpected places and craft innovative solutions. So what if we could teach that skill?

The idea for Ashoka U—Ashoka's strategy for engaging with higher education—emerged from the realization that twenty-five hundred Ashoka fellows spread across seventy countries could not address the world's unscripted challenges on their own. Facing these challenges requires competent changemakers across all facets of society, in every field and occupation. Given higher education's central role in creating and disseminating knowledge, Ashoka sees colleges and universities as key strategic partners in building a world where every individual has the freedom, confidence, and support to address social problems.

Ashoka U's Changemaker Campuses are a consortium of ten US colleges and universities engaging with each other and with their local and global communities to teach essential changemaking skills. The questions we ask ourselves within the Changemaker Campus consortium are as daunting as our vision is ambitious: How can colleges and universities become more innovative, entrepreneurial environments? How can higher education generate the knowledge we need to solve the world's most intractable problems? How can we most effectively educate and empower the next generation of changemakers? Moreover, what does success look like? Matt Jelacic, faculty change leader at the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU–Boulder), humorously sums it up: "We will know we've had some success when the ubiquitous college question has shifted from 'What's your major?' to 'What's your problem?'"

In line with this goal, the CU–Boulder Changemaker Campus team has developed two Residential Academic Programs (RAPs) focused on topics like sustainability for incoming first-year students. RAP students participate in the program throughout their undergraduate years, taking classes in the field of social entrepreneurship while taking advantage of intentional connections between the core curriculum and the cocurriculum to gain an integrated and holistic learning experience.

Likewise, Arizona State University has seeded a vibrant entrepreneurial culture by creating mini-centers of entrepreneurship across the university. Faculty and students from more than one hundred majors are now using social entrepreneurship as a means to identify local and global needs, to articulate how to meet them, and to implement system-changing solutions.

As I think about how to support aspiring changemakers more effectively, I am often reminded of the work of two younger Ashoka fellows. Derek Ellerman launched the Polaris Project, which works to combat human trafficking and modern-day slavery, when he was a student at Brown University, and Billy Parish dropped out of Yale University to lead the Energy Action Coalition, catalyzing hundreds of campus climate groups across the nation. Certainly most students lack the confidence and skills to abandon college and become leading social entrepreneurs, or to run a high-impact start-up organization while keeping up academically.

But that's exactly the point. How could Derek's and Billy's college experiences have been better integrated with their pursuits to change the world? How could their colleges have supported their immediate impact, as students, rather than asking them to shelve their passions until a future time? What can we do at our own institutions to make sure that students stop equating graduation with "entering the real world" and instead understand that the very purpose of academic life is to contribute to solving the world's most urgent problems?

To learn more about Ashoka U and their Changemaker Campuses, visit www.ashokau.org.

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