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by – Dr. Jackie Burns

The Austin 2018 Lilly Conference offered several sessions on student-community based partnerships that I found very informative and encouraging. For the past eight years I have been actively involved in the global social entrepreneurship movement incorporating an “action-based” learning module into my introduction to sociology course. A working definition of action research is, “an approach in which the action researcher and a client collaborate in the diagnosis of the problem and in the development of a solution based on the diagnosis”( Bryman, A. & Bell, E. (2011) “Business Research Methods” 3rd edition, Oxford University Press (https://research-methodology.net/research-methods/action-research/ ”). A working definition of social entrepreneurship is, “Organizations [businesses] that address a basic unmet need or solve a social problem through a market-driven approach” (https://socialenterprise.us/about/social-enterprise/).

Initially, in my first foray into incorporating social entrepreneurship into my classes I identified the issue of a USDA designated food desert and it resulted in starting a non-profit grocery store in a blighted urban area in a historic downtown area of Alton, IL. A key partner in the process was the Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Washington University in St Louis (https://skandalaris.wustl.edu/ ). Returning to Austin Community College as an adjunct professor, I wanted to continue including social entrepreneurship in my introduction to sociology courses.

At the 2018 Lilly conference I was thrilled to learn how Susan Manring at Elon University, NC was also encouraging action-based learning that closely resembled social entrepreneurship from an academic institutional platform. Her presentation was “Student-Community Partnerships for Local Social, Economic, Environmental and Sustainable Development.” While Dr. Manring did not frame her project as a social enterprise, the collaborative partnership certainly fits the definition by addressing “people, planet, and profit”. The presentation reviewed a case study of students working with university and community partners to collect restaurant waste cooking oil which was then processed as biodiesel fuel for school buses. This is an excellent example of a successful alternative way to create community-based learning opportunities for students to engage substantively and holistically with local sustainable development initiatives. It had a learning outcome identical to my social entrepreneurship learning module.

I thought I would share what my module so you can see the parallels with Dr. Manring’s case study. I begin the social entrepreneurship module by having students complete two short case study summaries of a social enterprise from two premier global social enterprise organizations: The SKOLL Foundation http://skoll.org/  and ASHOKA https://www.ashoka.org/en . The case studies intellectually expose students to globally diverse and innovative business solutions addressing social issues. Innovative ideas that are just as applicable to local, regional, and national issues in the United States. The case study rubric is intentionally abbreviated and focuses on the mission, implementation, service area, organizational capacity and business structure. Next, students identify a social issue in their community that is of a concern to them.

Once their social issue has been identified, we spend several weeks conducting research finding three peer reviewed journal articles and writing up annotated bibliographies focusing on concepts that help us understand the dynamics of the social issue. These conceptual frameworks will be used later to measure the social value of their social enterprise. Finally, students create an abbreviated social enterprise plan that will empower the target population and ameliorate the social issue. The business plan emphasizes the social utility and organizational capacity of the business and does include identifying at least one possible source of income stream generated by the business endeavor.

A recent example of a project generated from the assignment, is a student who is a local musician. They were concerned about the number of un-housed musicians in Austin due to unaffordable housing. They were also aware that Austin ISD has numerous vacant buildings and were experiencing budget cuts to their fine arts programs, specifically music. The social enterprise model sought to form a collaborative partnership between Austin ISD, musicians, and local organizations. Austin ISD would provide affordable housing to the un-housed musicians with their vacant building stock in exchange for musical curriculum enhancements across all grades.

The difference between my approach and Dr. Manring’s is that she developed a single project and engaged her students in the collaboration (similar to the non-profit grocery store). However, I found this approach problematic due to time constraints on students. But the learning outcome of finding an alternative way to create community-based learning opportunities for students to engage substantively and holistically with local sustainable development initiatives remains intact. Asking students to work individually on a social issue that is meaningful to them has been a good solution. I provide numerous resources that could and would assist them if they wanted to pursue the idea (http://www.unltdusa.org/; http://www.enableimpact.com/; https://verb.net/; https://kumu.io/UnLtdUSA/austin-social-entrepreneurship#austin-social-entrepreneurship/austin-social-enterprise). Wouldn’t it be great if ACC would get institutionally involved and provide an “urban-lab” that incubated and accelerated these wonderful ideas in our community?