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I went to the Exchange with the burning questions: how can I ensure the impact of my social initiatives is sustainable and empowering the beneficiaries? How do I remove myself from the deed and channel my good intentions to catalyze change within the community?
My grandmother, a woman who has inspired me my whole life, with her infinite and boundless love, showed me the importance of human connection. It was because of her support that I was able to understand the revolutionary and beneficial influences of collaboration. In Eighth grade, she helped me coordinate a trip to a community called City of Happiness, in Esquipulas, Guatemala. This was the first trip I organized to do community service. Based on what I have seen and studied in the past, equality and the supply of opportunities are scarce within most communities. The people of City of Happiness face issues like those seen in other places. Poverty, discrimination, and violence are multifaceted problems exacerbated by the complexity and unpredictability of human nature. These problems cannot be solved by a person who comes in to a novel situation with the intention to fix it. The change occurs through long-term collaboration, with a foundation of empathy and trust. Almost everyone has the intention to help others achieve a high quality of life, however intention without taking the time to understand the problem and people will not lead to a positive long-term impact.
Many community service projects fail due to a lack of previous research, not enough time dedicated to building a relationship of trust and equality with the community, because there is no appropriate follow-up, and due to lack of an assessment. To promote lasting development we have to start by changing the way we work. Changing the ‘something is better than nothing’ premise is the way to begin, because a poorly designed project can cause more harm than good.
At the Exchange I had the opportunity to meet people with the same frustration who created organizations and tools that are helping fix these problems. Daniela Papi-Thornton from the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship participated in the opening Keynote. Her message was clear, people must “apprentice with the problem” before attempting to solve it. This set the tone for the conference.
I was able to attend her session in the afternoon focused on the tools: Impact Gaps Canvas and Abundance Cycle. This fast-paced, interactive session introduced me to two tools I could implement in my own work. Again the message was clear, we must invest time and money into understanding the problem and needs of a community before we even attempt to think of a solution. This is very challenging, because it involves removing our pre-set beliefs of how things should work and listening. It means we have to look for gaps and take the time to understand how we can be most effective and helpful, instead of diving into an initiative that does not build upon existing efforts. The focus should move from creating new social entrepreneurship ventures to generating more positive social impact.
I was also able to learn about tools for measuring the impact of social innovation, a topic that is often neglected and significantly underfunded. The panelists shared innovative frameworks and tools they are implementing to assess the efficacy and impact of their social ventures. They also offered to connect with the audience members to help them implement these tools in their own work. These relationships will be essential to the development of my own initiatives.
From casual, spontaneous conversations to dynamic ‘best practice’ sessions at the Exchange, I was able to meet people who share my same frustrations and incentives. Beyond that, I was able to learn from my peers and take with me a toolset I can apply to my own work. These sessions served as inspiration to improve the way I work, with the aim to advocate for culturally sensitive and sustainable social innovation.