As we move into the home stretch of our first “Semester in the City” internship program and prepare to graduate 14 inaugural Social Innovation Fellows on Dec. 16, I am thankful for the enthusiasm, resiliency, and warmth that has characterized these promising young problem solvers.
While a few among the 14 are a little older, most of our students are 19- or 20-years-old with some serving in their first “real” job outside a Durham, NH ice cream parlor or home town restaurant. For an entire semester, they bypassed traditional classes to instead earn full academic credit from their home college through an internship with a great social change organization and intensive skill-building and reflective workshops we ran on Fridays and Wednesday nights.
They set early alarms to get ready for 8 AM commutes taking them on buses and trolleys to direct service organizations like Freedom House in Roxbury, Codman Academy in Dorchester, and Playworks in Jamaica Plain; to support organizations like the Social Innovation Forum or Boston City Hall’s Department of Innovation and Technology; or to social mission businesses like Green City Growers.
All fall semester for four full days a week, our students reported for duty and immersed themselves in the hard work of social change. They did little things like registering voters, building spreadsheets, tutoring children, or harvesting healthy food. They shadowed their mentors to meetings all over the city, learning by watching and doing and doing again. They dove into special projects, writing grants, revising social media plans, and doing research to develop new programs, new curriculum, and creative new initiatives.
Every week our students reconvened as a team on Wednesday nights for a seminar – the Social Innovator’s Tool Box, skillfully led by my colleague Lisa Jackson. We framed the course around Mahatma Gandhi’s insight that there are three ways to change the world – the Ballot (politics), the Jail (protest), and the Spinning Wheel (direct service). Lisa and I were so proud when Gabby, one of our students proudly told one of our visitors that she and her peers were learning different ways to change the world and that her favored lever for change was “The Jail – or protest and civil disobedience more broadly” – but that other classmates favored different approaches.
On Fridays, students gathered under the inspired leadership of Chief Program Officer Ariel Brooks to reflect on the challenges and breakthroughs of their internships and to build particular skills as problem solvers – with a focus on four skills we named Empathetic Engagement, Data-Driven Insights, Human-Centered Design, and Persuasive Communication. I remember an early workshop when students were asked to tell their personal story. James, a sophomore business major from UNH, shared that he had never before been asked to talk about himself for two to three minutes and that it was a long time. He said he enjoyed the challenge and appreciated that his classmates listened.
I remember many teams of students “speed modeling” all sorts of cool solutions after following an ingenious “human-centered design” process developed by IDEO, the Silicon Valley company that helps develop consumer products like the computer mouse but that is increasingly turning its attention to developing social change products, ranging from foot-operated water pumps to curriculum meant to promote reconciliation or resilience.
Mostly I remember hearing about the internships – both from our students and from their mentors – a tremendous group of social sector leaders who applied to take on one of our Social Innovation Fellow for a semester, knowing it would take a chuck of their time they can’t easily spare but betting it would also bring fresh energy and – over time – waves of new talent to address the particular tough challenges they have devoted their lives to solving.
I remember Zach planning his incubation center for media-related companies and non-profits, Sean wrestling with how to balance the needs and resources of his organization’s corporate partners with the needs and assets of city’s poorest families, and James’ pride at conducting part of an evening community meeting in Spanish.
One of my clearest memories was of Mary – one of our youngest students – who had been placed at Boston City Hall’s award-winning Department of Innovation and Technology. We had worried about the placement because Mary’s mentors, while skilled and committed, were extremely busy. During orientation week, Mary’s mentor was the only one of 14 to miss a key orientation activity, letting us know apologetically that an urgent issue had arisen at city hall.
Mary said she was excited to move ahead with the city hall internship anyway (we had back-ups) and at the end of week one she pulled me aside and said her work was going very well and that she was invited into several big meetings with consultants and senior staffers trying to figure out how to make Boston and city hall more attractive to young people. “I guess it was a really big meeting,” Mary told me. “Mostly I just listened but in the middle of the meeting my mentor asked me what I thought and I asked a few questions about whether we wanted to make to make it attractive to work in Boston or for Boston. Everyone said this was such an important question and later that day my mentor wrote an email to everyone who went to the meeting recapping everything that was said and talking about my question. She said I was the MVP of the meeting.”
On Thanksgiving weekend, here’s thanks for the chance for young college students to develop and share their own stories, to develop a sense of purpose and an understanding of the levers they need to change the world, and a chance to feel even for a moment like an MVP. Thank you to all supporters of College for Social Innovation. We are building something special and we hope you will continue to be part of the journey.
Co-Founder and CEO
Personal Twitter: @ericschwarz1984;
CfSI Twitter: @CollegeforSI