In our cynical times, it is gratifying and invigorating to be with young people whose sights are truly fixed on translating ideals into action. One example is the Global Engagement Summit, a Northwestern University student run enterprise. It has a seven year track record of supporting students in their determination to bring about change and to do it with skill and an ethical foundation.
I was part of their April 2012 Summit that brought together 52 young visionary "delegates," from many corners of the world, in Evanston, IL. Each brought verve and a project they are convinced can make a real difference. The 52 were culled from 700 applicants and they found themselves in an intense environment of short talks, facilitated workshops, skill building sessions and networking events. The Summit is a fascinating blend of community organizing spirit and more raw entrepreneurship. Indeed, a core theme was the challenge of how to bridge the altruism of non-profit and community service and the entrepreneurial spirit of the for-profit world, in what they call the "social change space."
The two 2012 co-directors, Mavara Agha and Sarah Freeman, exemplify the blend of idealism and pragmatism that characterizes the event. Both have devoted many hours of their undergraduate years to preparing the annual summit (a tradition since 2005). The GES involves a student staff of 80, organized in 15 teams, and takes inspiration from many sources, Ashoka, TED and the Interfaith Youth Core among them. Northwestern University lends its support to the effort, which is an important student-led activity. The Summit, Agha and Freeman argue, is a way to channel the energy and dreams that student entrepreneurs have in abundance into tangible and doable projects. You can't do it without skills and networks, but facing difficult ethical challenges is also part and parcel of the effort.
I was intrigued by a theme that ran through the 2012 Summit: storytelling. What did that involve? They explained that it responds to a need to combine the infamous elevator speech (making a pitch in a few short minutes) with branding and skills honed by social media and the world of Twitter. But it also presents a host of ethical issues -- how to be truly passionate but truthful, to hone the story to the audience and context but to preserve its integrity. You can't venture far into the challenges of blending advocacy and mobilization without confronting the kinds of challenges that every savvy young visionary recognizes in the debates swirling around Kony12.
And the projects? They come in all shapes and sizes, with engaging the community as perhaps the most common thread running through them all. Many focus on media and the arts. Ecology, environment and food are also important themes. And of course a lurking issue is finance: how to gain support for noble ideas, how to persuade others to join in a common cause.
The GES was born with an international focus, and with the conviction that students have the desire to work for change but lack the skills and contacts to make it work. The watershed of September 11 galvanized many student organizers to seek to sharpen these skills and to build networks with a global focus. Over time the vision has broadened so that US projects are also in the mix today.
The GES tradition has a long-standing effort to bring together the social passions and focus of faith communities with the social entrepreneurship movement, something that is too often missing. The faith link is frankly a bit marginal to the Summit theme and spirit, and the workshop that I facilitated brought more together more who were curious than convinced. But the way the faith factor is integrated into the design reflects both a welcome openness to diverse ideas and, perhaps still more, a sense that social entrepreneurship is at its core about ethics and social responsibility. Spiritual values and a spiritual quest are thus part and parcel of the vision that brings this diverse group together.
One of the facilitators this year was Sana Rahim, a "graduate" of the student organizing group who now serves as a Tony Blair Faith Foundation fellow. As a Muslim student at Northwestern, she found both kindred spirits and a challenge through the GES. She and another Muslim student highlighted how their paths were shaped by both their personal, student experience and by world events. Two recent crises affected them profoundly: the terrible floods in Pakistan that elicited so little interest in the United States and the Ground Zero mosque turmoil, which seemed a largely manufactured moral crisis that showed the depths of bias and shallow commentary. Both were confronted with the sharply divisions between secular and Muslim perspectives on women's rights. Convinced that the fragmentation and divisions were hurting, not helping women, both were shocked at the difficulty of serious discussion on the topic. The turmoil led Sana to the Faith Acts Fellowship and to a new determination to follow a career that will break old stereotypes and paradigms.
That, the organizers hope, is the spirit the Global Engagement Summit can advance: engaged social action that is built on a realistic vision of the complexities of the issues that face the world today, savvy skills to mobilize and execute, a commitment to justice, and sensitivity to the ethical issues involved. More power to them.