Last night, I read this op-ed entitled “Are you a socialite or a social change agent?” by Emily Stoddard Furrow, social changer and co-owner of DVQ Studio http://www.ynpngr.org/content/are-you-socialite-or-social-change-agent-0 I also read some responses to it. Some were reflective and some came across threatened or hurt by the comments made. I decided to add this to my blog. I wanted to respond and speak especially to young people in West Michigan...
As someone who has worked many years in GR with nonprofits, I have seen very interesting responses as of lately to social change in our community. There is still heavy lifting happening for very real and tough needs out here but it does seem that some that are providing the funding or who are doing some of the event planning, PR and marketing in the nonprofit world are caught up in making IT "hip and sexy" rather than making IT "stick and lasting". You see, it appears to have become a gimmick or as I hear a lot from individuals in the community, one of the only ways to keep you young people’s attention so you can stay in West Michigan. You see there are some who really think that West Michigan young folks have to have something shiny in order to be engaged in social change. So they support the shiny things hoping they’ve got you involved and you'll stay. I once thought this as well but like others want to attach you to deeper involvement, not just events. These feelings are not malicious, it's not even strategic, it just is an effort at trying to create something meaningful for you all and get you involved in the community. Let’s be honest, nonprofits have to compete with apathy, a lot of bells and whistles, people who need to be entertained in order to engage and an ADHD society.
In my humble opinion, what is missing is more opportunity for young and old a like to be funded and supported in creating social enterprise. I was hopeful a few years back that one of our major institution would finally be a conduit for social enterprise and entrepreneurship in West Michigan. I, along with others were invited in to help with giving some framework to this effort. The overwhelming response was confusion and it seemed some NP leaders felt threatened by what they saw as the new "IT". So under a weak change agent within that institution, questionable motivates, confusion and threats of power being taken away, nothing happened. Status quo and empires reigned. It should be noted, the idea was novel for West Michigan but was happening and being funded in other parts of the country and the world years prior...sort of like the “shiny things” we have been doing lately. Old news in other places.
We will waste so much talent in West Michigan if the only way to support social change is to make “IT” shinny. In fact, it's an insult to young people who are creative and deep thinkers who can offer new and innovative ways to address real and systematic problems. I know it's important to meet people where they are, but if "where you are" is thought to be only in a mindset of drinks and juice boxes and mix-mingles for clothing and food drives, then we are just attacking the issues always at it’s lowest levels...picking at the low hanging fruit.
Don't get me wrong. I support attention getting and the fun stuff that helps to meet focus on and satisfy immediate needs. So let’s set the hurt feelings and egos aside, I am not saying these things are a waste in fact we need the “attention getters” to wake some folks up. We have had some pretty cool stuff happening here in West Michigan and should celebrate it! But here is the “come to Jesus, Buddha, or whatever your deity” moment... When are we going to create, support and give much more public attention to enterprises and solutions that work towards seriously changing the systems that cause the bleeding? What I mean is, truly looking at reducing or eliminating the "wicked problems" in our communities by reaching in and working together to co-create the solutions that stop the bleeding at the source. Yes, this may mean that some nonprofits are working towards to putting themselves out of business but wasn’t eliminating poverty, homelessness, hunger the reason we all got into it in the first place? But really, there is plenty of pain in the world to stop and nonprofits are reinventing and expanding everyday in order to stop the pain. (Note: As of March 2011 there 1.5 million nonprofits operating in the U.S. Source: http://blog.nolo.com/blog/2011/03/28/fun-facts-about-us-nonprofits-1971-present)
I don’t know this young lady, but it seems that Emily Stoddard Furrow’s comments are less on hating and more a call to action for us to see the often invisible systematic issues behind the “wicked problems” and to work just as diligently to help seriously reduce or eliminate the need for the shelter, the food drive, or the juice box.