By Martha Durkee-Neuman, Jordan Massa, and Professor Sara Minard

From March 2 through March 4, two students and two faculty from Northeastern University headed to Miami to participate in the annual Ashoka U Exchange. The Exchange is a conference where all of the Ashoka U Changemaker Campuses, and other students, faculty and staff involved in social change on their campuses, gather to share ideas, stories and strategies that advance social innovation in higher education. Together they join forces for creative collaboration across a wide range of topics. This year was no exception. With keynote speeches from the Miami Dade College Provost, Dr. Lenore Rodicio, to the renowned interfaith leader Eboo Patel, to higher education visionary and thought-leader Parker Palmer, the three-day event was inspiring, educational, and transformational. Read three personal accounts from the Exchange, by Social Impact Lab designee Martha Durkee-Neuman, by SEI designee Jordan Massa, and by SEI faculty member Professor Sara Minard. These accounts provide a small glimpse into the powerful conversations and connections that Northeastern continues to engage in as an Ashoka U Changemaker Campus.


Interfaith and Social Innovation: What are the Links and Bridges?

By Martha Durkee-Neuman                                                                           

In the work of social change, it is easy to silo and isolate different means and mechanisms for creating change. I had always seen interfaith work and social innovation as separate and unconnected spheres until I witnessed the unexpected positive colliding of these two worlds at the Ashoka U Changemakers Exchange 2017. Sitting in the auditorium listening to the daily opening plenary, I was surprised when a familiar voice appeared. Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), spoke to the conference attendees about interfaith dialogue, the power of working across difference, and the need to engage in grassroots organizing to address social issues.

I was attending the Ashoka Exchange representing the Social Impact Lab at Northeastern which engages in social innovation and social entrepreneurship. I am also on the executive leadership team of the Northeastern University Interfaith Council and just several weeks earlier had been a delegate to IFYC’s Interfaith Leadership Institute summit in Atlanta and had heard Mr. Patel address a very different crowd with very similar remarks. I had not anticipated or understood the intersection of these organizing spaces. How are social innovation and interfaith organizing linked? What does this intersection mean for entrepreneurs and interfaith leaders? What would this work look like at Northeastern?

Through the course of the conference, I engaged intentionally in these conversations with interfaith and social innovation leaders at the conference and was surprised at the connections I discovered. Social innovators and interfaith changemakers both fundamentally seek to challenge the divisive nature of the status quo and respond in community-based, creative, strategic ways that bring together people of difference to work together. Both fields use touchstones of morality, ethics, and values to guide work, respond to social issues, and motivate.

The spheres of interfaith and social innovation are intrinsically connected and we need to see a larger recognition of this. Faith-based voices have a place at the table of social entrepreneurship and provide an important, critical, lens to the movement for social innovation based in philosophies of community empowerment and universal interdependence. These are voices that should be included in the conversation for the future of social innovation to thrive in a changing, engaged environment.

Martha Durkee-Neuman is a third-year Human Services and International Affairs student, Outreach Coordinator with the Sexual Assault Response Coalition, Events Coordinator with the Human Services Program and Social Impact Lab, an executive board member with the NU Interfaith Council, President of the NU Unitarian Universalists, and an organizer with the Sanctuary Campus NU Coalition.


Why Reframing Our Language to See People and Community as Assets, Not Deficits, is So Critical for Social Enterprise
By Jordan Massa

My favorite session at the Exchange was by Mr. Trabian Shorters, Founder and CEO of BMe, an organization that works to build more caring and prosperous communities through recognizing the contributions of black men. Mr. Shorters gave an engaging talk on asset framing in social innovation, and how narratives shape our results in the social sector. For example, media consistently reports on high rates of poverty, school dropout, and unemployment in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, but we never hear about black-owned businesses or number of Black and Hispanic millionaires. We saw this obsession with negativity in the rise of the current President of the United States, with statements like “You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?”

This is deficit framing, or defining someone or something by its flaws. It’s using the phrases “at-risk” and “underserved” to define a community by its obstacles and ignore its potential. Nonprofits and social ventures often use this framing for advertising and fundraising, but it is no way to engage the community and beneficiaries in the issues they seek to improve. Consider the difference between these two missions: “Our program helps at-risk youth in high-crime neighborhoods stay on track to graduate high school and avoid becoming a negative statistic” versus “Our program helps young people who are hungry for an education to overcome obstacles and achieve their dreams for themselves and society.” The sentiments of people who engage in social change must show fundamental respect for everyone involved. Mr. Shorters insisted that these narratives are the most important cultural changes we can make in the fight for permanent equality and inclusion.

Jordan Massa is a third-year Computer Engineering student with minor in Global Social Entrepreneurship. She is preparing for her second co-op at Sikubora, a start-up social enterprise in Arusha, Tanzania, providing solar energy to those otherwise off the grid.


Major Takeaways from Select Ashoka U Exchange Panels

By Professor Sara Minard

Lessons from Edgar Cahn (Ashoka Fellow) and Matt Nash (Professor and Managing Director at Duke’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship) on the overlap between social entrepreneurship and public policy

  1. Take time to get the community narrative from their perspective
  2. Ensure appropriate departmental responsibility for the decision-making process. Build relationships in different departments across aligned goals.
  3. Work at the pace of the community, with realistic guidelines. Appreciate the real life constraints of community. Access to money is only one measure. Expand your sights.
  4. Build more bridges between social entrepreneurship and civic engagement. Make sure resources for social venture creation don’t take away from service learning or civic engagement programs.


Lessons and insights from Daniela Papi-Thornton, Assistant Director, Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford Said Business School

“At Oxford we are educating these elite students to think they have the responsibility to solve problems they don’t understand. Increasingly students are pitching ideas, like apps for Nigerian farmers, when they have never been to Africa and never farmed, but it is not really a joke because this is what we are seeing proposed. There is great intention there that we can harness. And part of this is our fault, as educators, at least in business schools; we are teaching that you take your business, your USP and as you start to increase your market share, your are scaling. We have translated that to thinking that you can solve a problem, by making the business bigger. But social change happens in systems. It happens with governments, with activism, with regulation, and with big businesses that already exist. We need our students to go into all of those things. We need to give our student skills to go into this. We need to give them funding to go into all of these things. Right now the only way students get funding is by pitching a business plan to a business plan competition. What about all the rest of the students who want to go and change the systems that already exist? Where is the funding for these big ideas? Who are we funding? Our real challenge is how do we connect our students with the people who have real lived experience?”


Lessons from Parker Palmer, Author and Founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal

“The state of higher education directly reflects the state of our democracy [and both are in crisis]. The “what” of higher education revolves around 1) Knowing, 2) Teaching, 3) Learning. The “why” in education has been about the formation of human lives. The “ways” we do this are through epistemology, pedagogy and ethics. Every epistemology becomes a pedagogy, and every pedagogy becomes an ethic.”

Palmer continues, “Objectivism is the dominant epistemology, and it is an epistemology of disengagement. This leads to pedagogy where students, teachers and the world become distanced from each other. It creates an ethic of disengagement that turns civic culture into a “spectator sport.” Hitler’s death camps had perfected this distance scholarship, where killers were expert artists, scientists and musicians. Civic scholarship is where engagement is rewarded, and we find echoes of this in the early scholarship by feminists and people of color.”

Social entrepreneurship is a mindset, a way of seeing, and not one way of doing something. In business schools, we have been seeing it from much too narrow a perspective by only seeing business solutions to solve social problems. This is one reason behind why the Ashoka U community has moved away from social entrepreneurship and embraced the more inclusive language of social innovation.

Palmer says that “Habits of the Heart are deeply ingrained ways of seeing, being, and responding to life that involve our minds, our emotions, our self-images, our concepts of meaning and purpose”. He describes five habits of the heart that are interlocked and critical for making democracy work:  

  1. An understanding that we are all in this together
  2. An appreciation of the value of “otherness.”
  3. An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.
  4. A sense of personal voice and agency
  5. A capacity to create community

Palmer ended his talk by stating, “The hidden pedagogy of a course is how it connects students, teachers and society by closing the distance between them; where the focus is on questions and open, critical dialogue. This is the practice that creates the habits of the heart, not regurgitating the official line of the professor. We need to keep in mind that people who are highly educated are not necessarily good citizens. Habits of the heart are not just virtues but pedagogical principles.”

Parker Palmer shared some insightful strategies for everyone in education (faculty, staff and students) committed to social innovation on cultivating habits of the heart both in the classroom and outside the classroom:

  • Develop mentor networks which ensures everyone has the chance to succeed.
  • Teach the ethics of hospitality, welcoming strange and even offensive ideas; what is true and beautiful needs to be challenged in order to be understood and protected.
  • Train on how to listen and respond.
  • Build community and work less on being right and more on being in right relationship.    
  • Educate for the heart and soul.
  • Educate to champion free speech.
  • Educate to provide a platform for a shared moral vision of the good society anchored in the habits of the heart.
  • Have the courage in the classroom to talk about love.
  • Learn to live creatively with tension as the engine of a better social order.


Insights from Jerry Hildebrand, Director, Center for Social Impact Learning, Middlebury Institute for International Studies

The leadership in institutions of higher education have the challenge of “walking the talk” on social innovation. Institutional structures often do not reflect the very strategies we teach on integrative learning, interdisciplinary collaboration or learning-by-doing experiential learning. One way to do this is for universities to make it easier to encourage and facilitate integrated curricula.

Sara Minard, PhD., is an Executive Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Northeastern University. Read her full bio here.