Teachers are busy. Curriculums are full. Parents demand results. With all of the academic, extracurricular, and daily logistic challenges accompanied with teaching, the idea of organizing social entrepreneurs to speak to students can seem not only impossible, but also impractical and irrelevant to academic requirements.
However, social entrepreneurs are critical to help students learn about local problems and begin to identify local solutions. Most importantly social innovators, particularly local social innovators, add a depth of knowledge and first-hand experience which allow students to reframe problems that they previously thought were unsolvable and inspire students to draw from their strengths to develop solutions.
Finding social innovators willing to work with students might require stepping outside your comfort zone, away from the classroom and into unfamiliar territory, but is enriching and a rewarding experience.
The Global Goals empower students by giving them permission to believe in a better world and as one Year 5 student taught me, “Our purpose is to care about the earth and each other.” But, taking this idea and helping students translate these new sentiments into action felt like a vague and uncertain journey. While there is much work to do towards achieving the SDGs, as teachers, we are often unaware of the successful innovations that occur in our own community.
I stumbled upon an answer after attending a Young Digital Entrepreneurs (YDE) conference where local youth running SDG initiatives presented their ideas. I learned from these passionate social entrepreneurs determined to bring a more inclusive and sustainable future, one project at a time. I met the founder of Project Be, an incubator for youth to bring ideas and develop projects. I also met the founders of Born to Smile, an initiative helping to educate children living in slums that was created after the founders saw street children treated poorly at a football game.
Our students identified clean water as a key area of need in our community, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Some students wanted to find ways to provide water to rickshaw drivers and another group to disadvantaged families, but finding sustainable solutions proved tricky and complicated as they experimented with the idea of leaving bottles of water outside our school and tried to build water filters from found materials. Limited by time and resources they felt demotivated from this process.
Palash Ranyal, project manager for Pedal Pure, shared an initiative that helps rickshaw pushers, or the individuals who pedal bicycles attached to passenger carriages, access clean water by attaching a device to the rickshaw that filters water as they pedal. Hearing this success story sparked hope and encouraged them to keep trying. Palash also shared contacts for other local innovators, including a professor who distributes plans for a scalable filter at an affordable cost. His story also prepared young innovators to understand the importance of having a close relationship with those you are designing for and he explained how many did not see the benefit in drinking purified water.
Hearing stories from social innovators and how they identified a problem familiar to everyone and developed a solution helps students learn how real-world problems are interdisciplinary in nature and more importantly, solvable. Connecting students with experts can be a mind shift for students. One student, who I saw had incredible potential, but did not always show his capability in the classroom, had an attitude shift after meeting Suranga Nanayakkara, an inventor and MIT alumni, whose team created the Finger Reader, a device that empowers the blind. Suranga was a speaker at our TEDxYouth event and along with his colleague, Roger Boldu, they held a design workshop for local youth where they brainstormed alternative uses for the Finger Reader. Meeting folks from MIT shocked students and following this workshop they adopted IDEO’s core values and created posters for the values that Suranga and Roger shared with them.
Unexpectedly, social innovators were also inspired as they learned about the projects youth were leading at our school, such as Habitat for Humanity (in Bangladesh H4H does not give you machinery; you get a bucket of concrete, a stick, and a ton of bricks), our afterschool art program reaching out to disadvantaged youth and upcycling projects. Many loved learning how we were embedding sustainable education in our curriculum at International School Dhaka and wanted to support our efforts.
Connecting with social entrepreneurs seemed daunting at first, but after stepping outside the classroom and attending events in the community, I was able to tap into a refreshing stream of knowledge and to my surprise, welcomed into the innovation ecosystem. My conviction in a sustainable world grew as I learned from social innovations in our community and alongside fellow inspiring educators.
How to connect with Social Innovators:
1. Reach out to your school community
Many staff at our school have close connections with social innovators, but may not have thought about inviting them to school in order to work with students. Encourage teachers to invite friends, former colleagues, or family to speak to students or lead mini-workshops. Alumni in the community are a wealth of information and support. Sending out a call for experts and identifying potential times for them to come in can help with logistics and make the process simple and fun. Thank you to our alumni, Zuhayr Reaz, who volunteers as a mentor and speaker coach.
2. Step out
Get on Eventbrite or FB events; sign up for community events that center around social innovation, sustainability, or enterprise. In some cases, these experiences can count towards professional development and you can submit the conference overviews to your Director, Principal, or HR.
Put your teacher skills to use in a new environment. I know nothing about marketing, graphic design, or coding, but I know how to write a lesson. I put this to use in developing activities for a TEDx workshop and learned so much about organizing teams and more importantly what areas I need to develop to be a better leader. I also volunteer for Fab Lab Dhaka as their Youth Engagement Coordinator and help connect youth in our community with capacity building workshops we hold at the lab.
Take a Challenge!
It takes time to build a network and find like-minded folks in the ecosystem, but once you do, these relationships and partnerships can set the stage for transformative learning experiences for students and everyone in your school. To take a first step, try a challenge below.
Contact your local TEDx organizer or TED Ed Leader and ask them if they can connect you with social entrepreneurs interested in working with local youth. Hop on Youtube and search for TEDx ____ (yourcityname) for idea sharers who can compliment your school curriculum. I found Shams Jaber, the founder of The Tech Academy, this way, his students spoke at TEDxDhaka. For extra credit, attend your local TEDx event/Salon/Workshop.
Sign up for a Start Up Weekend near you. After attending a SW, you’re qualified to organize your own startup weekend and there is a youth version for students. I attended Start-up Weekend Dhaka and became part of a close-knit startup family. In three days, I saw a group of 116 people form into teams around the best ideas and total strangers collaborate through shared passions and collaborations.
Check out IEEE events. I attended an event for young professionals and connected with many engineers committed to a sustainable future. Here, I met engineers who also are part of a Hip Hop troupe committed to peace and unity. They also are performing for us at our TEDxYouth event in June.
Go to your local coworking space, innovation hub, or makerspace. Find out when their next event is, and be sure you’re there! I went to a talent show organized at Moar and met creative technologists who later ran an inclusive design workshop at our school. At BRAC Social Innovation Lab, I met Anusha Witt, a community development expert who facilitates workshops to help youth express themselves through art. I also was connected with Sharmin, founder of Wreetu. After arranging a meeting with Sharmin and our Year 6 Coordinator, Ian Pietras, they collaborated on a World Menstrual Health Day Workshop and developed a solid partnership between our organizations. My friend Linda Lagunzad, a high school teacher, works with MakerBay in Hong Kong and Makerspaces are great places for teachers and students to learn how to use equipment, software, and get involved in community initiatives.
Make friends with the folks who coordinate accelerator programs in your local community. I attended an event on designing a pitch deck at our local Accelerator Program, Grameen Phone Accelerator Program. Here, I connected with Anup Dutta who later volunteered to mentor students on design and creating slides for a pitch to share an idea.
Learn at Google Development Fest or Google Educator Conferences. Google offers free Certification for Google Educators and Google Development Fest gathers an interesting group of tech pioneers. Also, students can get involved in Google initiatives, like Tensor Flow.
Go online! +Acumen has online courses on Human Centered Design, Social Enterprise, and other entrepreneurial skills. After finishing two courses, you are eligible to participate in a live online challenge in which you will qualify to be a +Acumen Catalyst and organize training sessions online or in your community.
Make a cake! If you feel nervous about attending an event because you’re not sure what you can offer, tell the organizers you’ll bring a cake. Cake is always appreciated.
Go on a coffee date! Reach out to a local innovator and arrange a coffee date over the weekend. Let the conversation flow and see if there are any potential areas for collaboration.
These are just a few of the ways that an educator can connect with social innovators. Teachers can’t transform education alone and no one can reform education without teachers (and shame on those who believe they can). I spent the past nine months attending every conference/workshop/event. I attended any event who would let me in. At first, I felt that others would judge me for being a teacher and wonder why I was at a workshop with them. Most warmly welcomed me and the few that did question my reasons for attending changed their tune after I shared that I was hoping to learn more about innovation to help me better prepare students for the future. I’m grateful for the connections and partnerships our school has developed with scientists, public health professionals, and artists. Together as a community, we can collaborate across organizations and create learning experiences that prepare students to believe a better tomorrow by letting them see beyond the classroom walls and learn about the amazing stuff happening around them.