Social Entrepreneurship: The Best and Brightest

I had a class last night where these concepts were in play.  Here’s a quick and dirty writeup, actually prepared for a different purpose, of the part about how a successful social enterprise should . . . well, I’ll just let it speak for itself.

* * * * *

The idea emerged most clearly in one of the professor’s statements on her PowerPoint.  It said, “Mission alone is not enough:  Hire people that are better than you; do not accept mediocrity.”  I was thinking about this from the perspective of organizations that work with people with disabilities, and the elitism that is pretty obvious in this prof and in the people she has brought in to speak.  (We’ve had one guest speaker each class session.)

Case in point:  last night’s speaker was a woman who was there to talk to us about her own social enterprise, a community garden kind of place in a nearby town.  She talked a mile a minute, virtually nonstop, for maybe 45 minutes to an hour.  I kept thinking of that phrase from an old Elton John song referring to “solid walls of sound.”  In part, of course, she’s relatively young (32) and is just excited about her project.  And good for her.  But she knew she talked too fast:  she asked us, specifically, whether she did, and one of the students responded that yes, she was talking pretty fast.  It didn’t change anything; she just kept it up for another 15 or 20 minutes.

There is this experience that we’ve probably all had, or have seen in others, where we are part of the cool people and what we do is right just because we are so cool.  It felt like that.

It’s not that we literally cannot understand the words as fast as she can spit them out.  I think it’s that we can only just barely get them – that there’s no time for anything resembling processing, where we take them in, chew on them, talk about them, and integrate them with what we knew before.  She definitely was not an engaging speaker, if “engaging” means that people are engaged.  She’s thinking of running for mayor next year, she says.  I’m thinking, what?  You think voters are going to be turned on by this?

But that arrogance, or cluelessness, or whatever it would be, was not the main example I meant to offer regarding her PowerPoint.  I meant to be saying that we, in social work, do actually have to deal with society’s rejects and misfits and losers.  We ought to hire them, if we can, and let them show that everybody can have – everybody needs to have – a way in which s/he is a winner.  And yes, the speakers we have had in this class have all been your typical corporate road warriors, all around the professor’s age, all white except one guy who was, I guess, at least partly of South Asian heritage.

I’m thinking, there, of a YouTube video that actually made me cry, when I saw it last night, about a high-functioning autistic high school kid whose basketball coach finally let him play during the last four minutes of the season’s last game, and who scored 20 points in those four minutes.  Or like when I worked on a ropes course, and we would have people come through there who were not nearly as athletic as us, and how fantastic it was not to interject ourselves as these superior climbers, but rather to make that day about them.  We had people with disabilities working with us – not in any formal sense, but in the sense that climbers would remain on our staff and could limp through group work even when they had broken bones, torn ACLs, etc.  Nor did we have to be the best climbers, ourselves.  I certainly wasn’t much of a climber compared to some of our students.

The professor’s concept seems to be that you serve the down and out, but you do it by hiring only the best and brightest.  The reason is that this is what it takes to survive, as a social enterprise, in the fiercely competitive corporate world.  And I say that may be fine for some people and some purposes.  But as an operating principle, it is just the opposite of an attitude that says we all need to slow down and make more time for people who want or need to think about things more carefully (as we needed to do, last night).  A different example:  let’s change the world so we can all enjoy our meals, incorporating conversation and making it a pleasant experience rather than a chore.  That’s certainly what our first student presenter favored, last night, when he mentioned the Slow Food Movement during his presentation of a local family that invites people over for a nice breakfast and encourages them to drop $10-15 into the bucket for a local charity – which happens to be, ironically, the very same community garden described above, which is supposedly employing the best and brightest.

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