Social entrepreneurship for social issues

Students with Balinese woman on Balinese culture day.

August 12, 2010

A group of 26 Northeastern University students spent five weeks in Bali this past spring, attending classes and consulting with community leaders, health care workers and spiritual leaders to develop entrepreneurial ideas for solving some of the Indonesian island's social problems.

"They were working all the time," said professor Denise Horn, who led the social entrepreneurship Global Corps practicum through the university's Dialogue of Civilizations program.

Using lessons Horn developed for the new practicum, students spent the first week in cultural immersion, and the next three learning how to identify problems, do field research and build an organization.

Then students were paired with Balinese students, divided into groups and sent out to develop a social entrepreneurship project.

"The meat of it was they had to do it themselves," said Horn. "It was pretty amazing the range of projects students came up with, and it was completely on their own."

The projects addressed anemia in expectant mothers, mental illness, child sex abuse, and HIV and testing, and were designed as real business proposals that could be implemented by the community or organizations within the community. 

Exposure to the Balinese students and to community leaders "to get an inside view of the way their culture works itself out," were among the highlights of the course, said Rebecca Eng-Wong, one of the students in the program.

For example, the students discovered that youth unemployment was particularly a problem for orphans in Bali, so they visited orphanages and discussed entrepreneurial projects and skills with the staff and residents.

Eng-Wong's group created a puppet show, set to music, designed to enable elementary school children to identify and respond to sex abuse.

"It was the most intense work I've ever done in my life," she said.

Students Douce Hunt, Meg Lazar and Jared Sholk's project on mental illness took a "nonprofit spin" that would send trained volunteers or professionals to people's homes to show families how to properly care for a mentally ill family member, with the goal of successful societal reintegration, said Hunt.

Hunt and Sholk saw first hand the human impact that limited resources can have on the mentally ill. While researching the project, they visited families caring for mentally ill relatives. At one family's home, a mentally retarded girl was chained to a wall. "(She) was staring at us through a cracked door as we talked about her condition," wrote Hunt in a blog she kept for the course.

The family had to chain her up, or she'd run away, she said. "It was rough seeing someone in bondage like that," said Hunt. But the family had no alternative.

Student Kathleen Hunt worked on a project to teach basic health education to elementary school children, as a first step toward avoiding sexually transmitted diseases later in their lives.

But getting to know a Balinese student, who spoke little English, was one of the most rewarding of her experiences, Kathleen Hunt said, even though "we felt we were dominating with our loudness" in a country of shy, soft-spoken people.

Listening is an important skill that Horn hoped students grasped through the experience. "It's about teaching the students a little humility," she said. "They can really make a difference if they learn how to listen to people."

Most students learned this lesson, said Horn, because they were embedded in the community, working to create a plan for an organization that would sustain their social entrepreneurship projects.

In the final analysis, she said, "It's not about the grade, it's about building something."


 

For more information, please contact Lauren McFalls at 617-373-5460 or at l.mcfalls@neu.edu.

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