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By Konstanze Frischen
When I moved with my family to the U.S. from Europe more than three years ago, it was a big adventure in turbulent times. We had to find a home, a school for our children, and new friends. We were anxious. The experience of arriving, though, was wonderful. Our neighbors were welcoming, the teachers embraced our kids, and the community helped us start a life that is rich in relationships. At the same time, though, we were hearing stories about a country divided. We read about gun violence and xenophobia, fear and mistrust.
Luckily, in my new professional role, I have the opportunity to do something few may be able to do during work hours: to look at the country through a lens of solutions. As head of Ashoka in North America with a network of over 250 social entrepreneurs with systems changing solutions in the U.S, and 3,500 globally, I get to look at what works and also what patterns underpin successful social innovations. When it comes to new ideas that help people reach out across difference and work together with those they might initially have regarded with suspicion or fear, here are some of the principles and mechanisms we’ve discovered.
Focus on things we have in common
The first is empathy – or rather: the creation of structured encounters among strangers that draw out empathy. It may sound weirdly esoteric, but it it’s actually very hands-on and practical. Take Welcoming America, for instance, founded by Ashoka Fellow David Lubell. The organization leads over 100 communities across the South and the Midwest (and increasingly internationally) to embrace immigrants and refugees for greater economic prosperity. At the beginning of any community work, Welcoming America creates safe space for a dialogue – where newcomers and long-time residents, each with their own concerns and prejudices, can talk about their fears but also their hopes and aspirations, and grow to a common understanding. As Lubell says: “this is what changes things – when people empathize with each other as humans and build a relationship.”
Or take Arms with Ethics, founded by Fellow Casey Woods in Miami: it brings the police, gun owners and activists from across the spectrum together to work on solutions that prevent gun violence in the community. How is that even possible? The break-through happens, Woods says, when all sides at a table understand that regardless their view on guns, they are similarly motivated by love and fear for their family. When we focus on the things we have in common, as opposed to the things that drive us apart, change is possible.
Give people roles as changemakers
While empathizing with the other side is a necessary, it is by far not the only ingredient for change. Here comes the next one: channeling the energy that emerges from these encounters into action. And more: assigning roles to citizens to play a part in the solution – to be changemakers. Welcoming America recruits leaders from business, unions and faith communities to become champions for a welcoming community; and it draws on them to advertise prominently how newcomers enhance economic prosperity – by paying taxes or setting up businesses, for instance. Arms with Ethics partners with gun owners on peer approaches to preventing gun suicide and with the police and community groups on preventing the illegal flow of guns into communities through avenues such as gun theft.
This also works for other fields. In Baltimore, for instance, Sarah Hemminger’s organization Thread surrounds teenagers in the bottom 25% of their class with up to four deeply committed volunteers who essentially form the supportive extended family unit that those young people never had. Thread commits to being there 24/7, 365 days a year, for 10 years – taking phone calls, driving students to school, providing mentorship, going to movies, and most importantly, knocking on the door even if they’re told to go away. Just like family would. The results are remarkable, with nearly every Thread student graduating high school, and four out of five attending a two or four-year college. And students and volunteers both feel their lives have transformed.
Perhaps the least intentional yet most sustainable by-product of solutions brokered across difference: they create a win-win situation and make everyone involved proud of what they have achieved. David Lubell started his work that would lead to Welcoming America in Nashville, motivated to counter a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment and hate crimes in the early 2000s. By 2015, the city had earned a reputation as one of the most immigrant friendly cities. And research by the local chamber of commerce concluded that “Nashville’s efforts to welcome and incorporate a vibrant, growing immigrant population has helped create tangible economic gains across the city and across sectors.”
Konstanze Frischen is Ashoka’s North America leader. Prior to coming to the U.S., she started Ashoka in her native Germany in 2003 and co-founded The Globalizer.
December 13, 2018 at 07:01PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs