Sunday, August 30, 2015

Changemaking at USD: Problem-Solving or In the Service of Change?

By Dr. Mike Williams

This is the first Changemaker Blog of the 2015-16 academic year!  To those of you who are returning to USD, welcome back!  And to those of you who are just beginning your journey with us, I am excited for you to become an active member of our USD community. 

USD is one of thirty campuses in the world that AshokaU has designated as a Changemaker Campus.  What this means for you is that we – our campus community - believe it is critical for you to not only become aware of your passions and interests, but also, to take actions that promote social justice and social change.  At USD, we intentionally define “changemaking” broadly so that it can align with your academic and personal interests.  The most important component of the practice of changemaking is providing students, faculty, and staff with the opportunity to utilize what they are learning, teaching, or researching to address a social issue at USD, in the local community, or in the global community.  We want our students, faculty, and staff to be engaged in their communities and to have as many hands-on experiences as they can.  In the end, we know that these experiences will help them become more active and responsible citizens.

There are many ways for you to get involved with changemaking at USD.  Whether you decide to submit a proposal to the Changemaker Challenge, join the Changemaker Student Committee, apply for a Changemaker Scholarship, become a Changemaker Summer Fellow, or incorporate changemaking into your curriculum, you will have an opportunity at USD to address important social issues that require innovative and sustainable solutions.

How you decide to practice changemaking depends upon many factors, including your own experiences, your interests, your intellectual curiosities, and the communities that you know the best. For example, for about twenty-five years, I have been interested in Africa, and specifically, South Africa.  Most recently, I have been fortunate to partner with a non-profit called Sharing to Learn and to work with a group of amazing young adults in the village of Makuleke.  These young leaders call themselves “The Equalizers” because of their goal to address educational inequalities in South Africa, starting with their own education in a rural village high school.  Without question, they are the most inspiring individuals whom I have ever met.  Over the last four years, we have taken students to Makuleke to meet the Equalizers and to collaborate with them on their efforts. 

This year was a particularly meaningful experience because for the second straight year we (the Equalizers, USD students, Dr. Lisa Nunn, and myself) held a USD/Makuleke Youth Leadership Workshop in the village – but this year we had even more Equalizers attend and the feedback we received was overwhelmingly positive.  Of the group of seven Makuleke students who created the Equalizers five years ago, three of them are now at university and earning degrees.  It was easy to leave Makuleke feeling as though there has been considerable positive changes over the last few years and that USD has been part of this process.

The reality, however, is much more complicated.  The truth is that there are deep, systemic constraints in Makuleke that will make the goal of achieving an “equal education for all” extremely difficult.  Even as the Equalizers attempt to implement innovative and new ideas to accomplish their goals – sometimes in collaboration with USD – the sort of change the Equalizers seek will not happen immediately.  This is the sobering reality of working on social issues like educational inequalities – the “results” of one’s work are often difficult to construe.

To practice changemaking does not mean that you will always “solve problems” immediately.  In fact, conceptualizing the circumstances and experiences of communities as “problems” is something that deserves careful consideration – and its own blog post!   The point is that as you think about the issues that matter to you, it is imperative that you recognize those who have worked on this issue before you arrived – whether they are students, faculty, staff, or local community members. Believe me, we have a passionate community at USD and there are many individuals who are committed to addressing the most serious issues of our day.  While at USD, you should build upon these efforts, and where necessary, improve upon them.  The bottom-line, however, is that you will not “solve” homelessness, poverty, or climate change during your time at USD.  Similarly, we will not “solve” the issue of unequal education in Makuleke in the near future, either.  But this should not constrain your efforts – nor mine – because the goal should not be to “solve problems” but to be in the service of addressing social issues that matter to you and exploring new ideas that will have a positive social impact.  “To be in the service of” means that we approach our changemaking pursuits with humility and that we understand that our efforts are linked to those of future generations (the Founders of the United States referred to this as “posterity” – it is in the Preamble of the Constitution, look it up!).

What will you do while you are at USD to be in the service of an issue that matters to you?  Whatever it is, I encourage you to work with other like-minded individuals to make a positive difference for your community and to leave a legacy and a path for others to follow.