Twenty Questions. Minus Eighteen of Them.

Confession time: I’ve been putting off the book research part of my plan because I’m really unsure of my analytical skills. I don’t know much about history (okay, you got me, I just wanted to quote Sam Cooke), or at least theorizing from it, and my understanding of sociology would barely fill a thimble. So instead, I’ve been working on my own little pilot social enterprise (if you can call it that. There’s no profit involved, so…) and the experience of trying to solve an issue in my community is teaching me more than I’m currently equipped to come up with from data (not to mention it’s putting me on the path to greater humility). It helps that I get to whine about my project to people who know much, much more about social theory than I do.

In a nutshell, I’m trying to give refugee teens the opportunity to create art and oral histories. I’m hoping this will help them deal with the isolation many of them face in school, and the difficulties of adapting to a new culture and language after coming from dire living circumstances. Part of what I’ve reached so far is the conclusion that resilience is truly key: my project is constantly morphing from what I’d originally imagined, stretching and compressing to meet the constraints of real-world logistics. It’s still on really unstable ground, but I also know that at least the demand for it exists, so to me, it is a very, very worthwhile use of time and effort right now. Which brings me to a big idea: the two questions I keep running into in my pursuit of a truly effective social enterprise.

  1. Is what I’m doing worth it? Big question, I know. Let’s break it down into a couple of parts. Most people get into social enterprise wanting to make the world a better place, and from there, they narrow down to a specific cause and an even more specific problem to which they formulate a solution. I think it’s crucial to be honest about the problem, and how urgently it needs a solution. If you’ve ever seen The Trotsky (excellent movie, by the way), Charlie Bartlett, or Drive Me Crazy, you’ll know that angsty high schoolers are pretty bad at this. I’m not going to say that public high schools do everything right (far from it), but I think Leon, Henry, and Chase address problems that kind of don’t actually exist (duh, they’re movie problems, but that’s not what I meant). Yeah, it’s amusing to be recalcitrant towards strict teachers and even more so to make videos comparing high school to a fascist regime, but just think about how much more they could’ve done by deconstructing and addressing the bigger issues of why the high school experience sucks. I’ve spent a lot of time talking and thinking about who needs a relief valve in school, and while the traditional gang of social outcasts comes to mind, I figure they’ve got more access to support. And really, who’s going to respond to a poster that reads “Rejects wanted for an experiment in social theory”? Similarly, I’ve been talking to people who work with kids, especially refugees, to develop my solution ideas and make sure I’m addressing the problem in the right way.  
  2. How do you make this sustainable? Here comes the fun part. I’ve identified an issue, I’ve thought about it and decided it’s worth my time, and I’ve come up with a reasonable solution. I’m still in the experimenting stage, tailoring my project so I can actually get a sense of whether it’s working in practice. In terms of optimizing my impact and making it last I’m also thinking about its lifespan. Some humanitarian organizations go into a village, establish a relationship with the villagers, and carry out their project in a way that allows the village to continue—and increase—its upward climb after the organization leaves. With my project, since the most logical setting for it right now is school, I’m leaning towards making the program itself a permanent fixture. Students cycle out all the time, so there isn’t a fixed community that could take on the process, but handing it off to an older student and someone a grade younger (who will be groomed for the position of leader for the next year) at the end of each year would ensure its existence indefinitely. Making that decision is helping me address the specifics of setting up and running my venture effectively, with the goal of permanence in mind.

Disclaimer (read: please don’t sue me for my arrogance and naivete): Every situation is different. These may not be the right questions for you. But I hope they get you thinking.

This piece made possible by the brains of people many times smarter than I; you know who you are. I owe you a lot of baked goods.


2 thoughts on “Twenty Questions. Minus Eighteen of Them.

  1. Darling Mer – I’m not at all worried about you or the extent of your future success. The mere fact that you can write so intelligently and perceptively is, rather than a step, a gargantuan Olympic-gold-medal-winning world-record-breaking leap towards success in any enterprise you choose to follow.

    As for your idea, chuck ART THERAPY into google and have a little explore. It’s a well-regarded form of therapy used to help people work through trauma of every kind – victims of violence, war, catastrophic natural disasters and so on. It’s primarily aimed at children who do not have the vocabulary or the experience to express their distress verbally. It’s also used for children suffering trauma closer to home – from post-parental divorce dysfunction to terminal illness or recovering from serious traumatic injury. Having said that, it can be a very effective tool for people of any age going through trauma. It’s closely associated with music therapy and drama therapy. All have the benefit of being gentle and non-confrontational. One recent example is the children who lost their entire lives – family, home, everything – in the Japanese tsunami.

    Here’s a start

    I’m a huge fan of art therapy and studied it a little when I did a year of Psychology with the State University of New York. I’m by no means an expert but let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.

    Yours is a great idea. I’m not at all surprised.
    xx Geri

  2. To start with, I actually think that you’ve managed to sneak in many more than 2 questions, but we’ll allow that, given the issues you’re dealing with. Resilience – it’s interesting that you settled on this. One of the psychiatrists I work with has decided that this is also why some people do so much better than others when faced with a serious illness – he’s actually setting up a small pilot study to see whether he can identify what makes a person resilient. I’ll see if he has a reading list. In the mean time, if you haven’t come across the literature on locus of control (horrible term, interesting theory) you might take a peek.
    As to how do you keep it going, that, my dear is one of the 64 million dollar questions in all of organizational sociology (John-san should be able to talk endlessly about this). You definitely want to look at stuff that’s been published on collective action, sub-field problem of generations.
    When there is little or no institutional underpinning (that is, no formal structure supported by funding or the social institution in which it’s embedded – in this case the high school), it’s not only about finding a logical structure of training successors. When something is built on the vision of an individual, the keepers of the flame need to be nearly as passionate about it as the founder. As you might imagine, this passion becomes harder and harder to keep alive the further from the founder you are (hence – generations). In your case, embedding the program in the refugee community (in all those resilient souls that you’ve found) might be a way to overcome this issue (if they truly value it, they will pass it on – with their own revisions).
    In any case, what you’re attempting sound fabulous – keep going, good luck, keep asking the hard questions and next time I’m out in SLC I’ll be expecting baked goods (chocolate, please).

    “The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual. The impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community.” William James (over the elevators in the soc sci building at your mom and dad’s alma mater)

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