Everyone a Changemaker

Guest post by Sarah Thelen, MPP candidate | Sanford School of Public Policy

Everyone a changemaker. It takes one. These were some of the themes of the Ashoka U conference in Miami, Florida this past weekend. The need for change and innovation at the policy level was a fascinating topic that wove itself through most of the breakout session, best practice reviews and workshops. As an MPP student my eyes lit up, my head nodded and an even bigger smile crossed my face as I heard many speakers bring this up. I kept hearing the idea that social entrepreneurship and innovation could be an important and impactful policy lever. It could be proof that an intervention is needed and that it actually works or doesn’t and more work is needed.

Saturday’s keynote address at Miami-Dade Colllege’s Wolfson Campus focused specifically on what habits of the heart help make democracy possible. A quote that stayed with me was one from Parker Palmer’s keynote:

“The human heart is the first home of democracy. Is it where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly without giving up, ever, trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?”                     – Terry Tempest Williams

I felt an incredible wave of action and motion during the whole weekend. There were over 700 people there doing something about a problem they see in the world. I can’t tell you how heartening it was to see all these active, inspired, incredible changemakers all in one place. It was an incredible supplement to a curriculum based mostly on case reviews, lectures and discussion about past efforts or current efforts. Not much time is spent on what could be and how to work through the process of rigorously figuring that out. This past weekend was devoted to the sharing of ideas, frameworks and best practices to engage more collegiate faculty, students and administrators in social innovation and entrepreneurship. How to translate all this wonderful, inspired energy into future changemakers.

Another idea spanning most of the sessions I went to was a focus on the user as the best way to solve social problems. Call it Human Centered Design or Asset Based Community Development, ethnography on steroids or whatever else you want. The person using the service or product should be the one informing how the service and product is designed. While I may indeed be a student at a top-tier institution, I am not an expert in someone else’s lived social experience. I should have the humility and courage to ask the person that is.

A poem was shared, and we actually all recited it together at Saturday’s keynote, that set a brave, conciliatory and honest tone for the conference and is something I need to remind myself as I go forward into the political morass:

An Invitation to Brave Space
Together we will create brave space
Because there is no such thing as a “safe space”
We exist in the real world
We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds
In this space
We seek to turn down the volume of the outside world,
We amplify voices that fight to be heard elsewhere
WE call each other to more truth and love
We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow
We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know.
We will not be perfect.
This space will not be perfect.
It will not always be what we wish it to be
It will be our brave space together
We will work on it side by side.

I want to thank Duke I&E for the amazing opportunity to attend this conference. It has affected me in very deep, meaningful ways. I will take its lessons with me as I go forward with my MPP degree.