Mid-Summer Reflections on Social Entrepreneurship in Raleigh

It’s so hard to believe that it is already July!  This time last year, I was feeling disappointed wih the present and anxious about the future.  Like a lot of young people, I had graduated from college and discovered that the recession I had been reading about in the newspapers wasn’t just notional.  Jobs were scarce and the ones that I could find barely paid the bills and in no way satisfied my desire to help build a sustainable, restorative economy, which I believe is our generation’s calling.  I still volunteered a good deal of my time as a climate justice advocate, but I was stir-crazy for a change in strategy.  I was expending a lot of effort trying to convince people with “more power” than me to change their historically selfish and stunningly short-sighted policies and attitudes so that I could have a secure future along with generations to come. This approach didn’t seem to be bearing change at the speed and the scale that we needed it to.

One afternoon, on an especially gloomy day, I decided to outline the most meaningful, world-transforming vocation I could imagine for myself, the sweet spot between ‘What the world needs,’ ‘What I am good at,’ ‘What I enjoy,’ and ‘What provides for my life.’  I described a vocation in which I would work with girls to advance gender justice, economic justice, and environmental justice.  The injustices perpetrated against girls and women, money-poor people, and the earth itself have proven themselves exceptionally persistent and are fundamentally connected; they cannot be addressed in isolation of eachother.  However, their connection also represents enormous potential – by advancing genuine economic justice, we advance genuine gender justice and environmental justice (and vice versa all the way around).

My vocation would be a combination of some of the ventures I most admire – the Harlem Children’s Zone, a poverty-eradication with a long-term (birth through college), community-powered approach;  the Green Belt Movement, a venture started by Wangari Maathai that addresses deforestation in Kenya by empowering women economically; and the Grameen Bank, which has transformed rural Bangladesh through its world-renowned microlending program.  ‘Full Circles Foundation’ would matriculate girls as kindergartners – specifically girls who have high potential but face big obstacles.  These girls would be paced thorough a long-term series of best practice programs including:

– summer camps and afterschool programming focused on the connections between personal, community, and environmental health;
– a community organizing training program through which they identify an improvement they would like to see in their community and build a campaign around it;
– apprenticeships with local artisans and small businesses;
– and a microventure program that would give the girls social entrepreneurial experience as well as generate resources for summer camps and after-school programming.

This was all just an outline in my journal until I started hearing murmurings about the idea of social entrepreneurship – a strategy of sustainable change that works to leverage the wealth that surrounds everyday people to build the new, restorative economy.  I was so different from the charity and advocacy models I had been working through!  I first heard about this idea from Grand Aspirations (www.grandaspirations.org), an organization working to build social entrepreneurial capacity among young people and to connect them, their experiences, and their models.  I submitted my still-vague outline to Grand Aspirations in hopes Raleigh would be selected as one of their national “Summer of Solutions” sites – cities around the country where young people gather from June to August to get elbow-deep in the birthing of the new, restorative economy.

Looking back, it was a somewhat spur-of-the-moment decision to submit that application – Full Circles Foundation was a crazy dream and it was difficult for me to suspend my skepticism at my own idea enough to even imagine that such a thing would be possible.

But thankfully, I was able to do so long enough to finish and send in our application, and on Friday, July 1, the Full Circles Foundation’s 10-person pilot team wrapped up Strong Home Camp, the first installment of the Strong Camps, a series of free, holistic summer day camps focused on illuminating the connections between personal, community, and environmental health!  We have been working with approximately 20 girls whose ages range from 4 to 15.  Strong Home Camp was focused on fostering environmental literacy through place-based education.  It was an adventure!  Most of our girls had never been on a hike, been on or in a natural body of water, or asked a tree a question – things they were asked to do for the first time during Strong Home Camp.  Among many other great workshops, campers rolled up their sleeves in food labs with whole, local food, learned about the mathematical mysteries found in nature, and made all-natural body lotion. This camp will be followed by Strong Self Camp (creative communication and personal health & wellness) and Strong Neighbor Camp (community health & engagement).

One of the most exciting features of Strong Home Camp was getting to make Flower Bombs.  Flower Bombs are concentrated balls of compost, clay, water, and wildflower seeds, that when dehydrated become virtual “bombs” of perennial flower power!  You can throw them in your backyard, in vacant lots, or on the shoulder of roads, as a way to enliven our communities with color and aroma.  Flower Bombs (and “bombs” of edible plants) became popular through the ‘Geurilla Gardening’ movement – a effort spanning the globe to reclaim public spaces and transform them into beautiful (and tasty!) spots for folks to rediscover community.  FCF campers made over 450 flower bombs – a delightfully messy endeavor!  This project was led by Jenn Hales, an amazing artist and entrepreneur in Raleigh who runs the Patina Collaborative (www.patinacollaborative.com).

After making the Flower Bombs, the campers packaged them in cloth sachets which they adorned with hand-made construction paper tags.  On Friday, our campers and instructors packed themselves and their wares onto the Raleigh city bus and headed downtown for First Friday, a monthly event at which the Raleigh community comes out to celebrate our city center, local businesses, and local music.  This was the first opportunity for our campers to raise resources to support their own summer camp.

It was amazing to watch.  The girls were absolutely fearless.  Even our four and five year-olds were explaining the compelling logic of Flower Bombs to potential buyers in between hopscotch rounds!  The environment was so much fun – there were hula-hoopers, fire-dancers, drummers, and community members of all stripes.  It was amazing to watch our campers absorb the experience.  They had had the opportunity to create something that generated social, environmental, and financial rewards – an opportunity that I didn’t get until I was 24! Moreover, through that experience, they became allies. These aren’t girls whom we are “serving”; these are girls (and families) with whom we are partnering to create an unforgettable summer experience that they want!  At some point during the evening, the thought occuring to me, “This is what health looks like. This is the type of world I am wanting to build.”

Implicit in the exercise of social entrepreneurship is the question, “What does the world I’m trying to create look like?”  The beauty and the weight of social entrepreneurship is that WE have to answer that question.  We can’t just identify a problem and shout at someone “smarter” or “richer” or “more powerful” than us to find a solution.  With social entrepreneurship, individuals and communities can’t ‘outsource’ the question of what our world should look like – we have to decide, we have to explore our potential to realize our decision, and we have to take responsibility for whatever the outcome of our decision may be.  But, this is what it means to self-govern; this is what it means to be human.

by Marcie Hawkins Smith, mhsmith@fullcirclesfoundation.org

2 thoughts on “Mid-Summer Reflections on Social Entrepreneurship in Raleigh

  1. This was a really beautiful way to tell your story and transformation, Marcie! Thank you for sharing and I can’t wait to see you in Raleigh in August!

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