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The Unfinished Social Entrepreneur: Lived Experience, Empathy, and Asking the Right Questions

September 5, 2017

By Tabitha Mpamira-Kaguri - Edja Foundation

As a Rwandan who grew up in Uganda as a refugee and later moved to the U.S.A as a teenager, I spent most of my young life trying to figure out whether I could be considered an insider anywhere. Each of those places shaped me and formed my identity. I was considered Rwandan in Uganda, Ugandan in Rwanda, and African in the U.S. I quickly learned that it matters little what I am labeled. It matters what I know I am.

I realized that as social entrepreneurs, we shouldn’t focus so much on bridging the gap or working hard to be insiders, rather we should strive to know who we really are, and who the next person is. We must connect on that level. I now know that my complex identity and its “outsider” label gives me a unique perspective—one that an “insider” can’t achieve.

Many aspiring social entrepreneurs struggle with how to bridge divides between themselves and the communities they wish to serve, but I think we have been asking the wrong question. We should be asking about the gaps within ourselves. When you are certain about who you are, when you are sure of your purpose, it becomes easier to navigate those gaps between “insider” and “outsider” in your work.

Jonathan Lewis’ new book, The Unfinished Social Entrepreneur, explores some of the most important yet ignored parts of social entrepreneurship, with a refreshing authenticity, humor, and vulnerability. He begins by telling the reader who he is, and who he is not. We peer through the lenses he used to interpret his experiences along a path towards social entrepreneurship. A theme that emerged with particular resonance to me was the complexity of working in communities where one is considered an outsider. Bridging those gaps begins with awareness and acknowledgement of where one belongs.

Knowing who you really are, and accepting all parts of you, makes you a better social entrepreneur. Direct lived experience informs on a level that reading cannot achieve. “Experiential learning replaces someone else’s filter with our own,” writes Jonathan in his chapter “Touch”. The way you empathize changes how you engage with a person you hope to serve.

Once I sought healing for myself and processed my own trauma of sexual assault that I experienced as an 11-year old, it changed how I conducted therapy sessions with victims of trauma. It was my ‘aha moment’. I felt like I was giving pointers to someone heading to a place I know well, rather than reciting directions. My work became authentic. I am not suggesting that only those who experience marginalization can make a difference, but there is great power in saying “me too”. EDJA Foundation is part of me. It’s informed by my being an outsider, insider, victim, and victor.

The biggest pitfall of the position of privilege from which a social entrepreneur can operate is that of the savior mentality, which is not limited to “white saviors.” Some walk into a community with a preconceived notion that they are desperately needed—the best thing to happen to this community in a long time. Also dangerous is the assumption of “insider” status after a few months of living in a community. As “Africans” who do this work in our own communities, we have encountered many a volunteer or donor proclaiming what individuals need or how an organization could learn from practices in their home country.

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I remember a particular incident of a social entrepreneur making a statement that kids in Uganda do not like reading like American kids do, and he would tackle this problem by making books fun, and by encouraging parents to read to their kids more. I had to remind him that in this part of the world an average child struggles to get an education, and most parents are illiterate. Books are expensive. Books are seen as a treasure, not a toy. Most kids in Uganda graduate high school without ever owning a book.

It can be difficult for an outsider to receive criticism. Most beneficiaries will never suggest to their “savior/helper” that what they are suggesting is a bad idea. Even when they know from the beginning that such a project will never work in their community or culture, they often assume that if they speak out, all help might vanish. Most will talk among themselves and ride out the train, but keep the outsider happy. Outsiders often fail to read between the lines to see those signals of trouble. We know of many schools started by western organizations that end up closing when they’ve failed to heed those signs.

“Compassion and conviction are not the same as competency,” writes Jonathan. We must enter this work with more than just good intentions, he points out. When you put the people you are serving first, the best way to bridge that gap is by asking the most important question: “What are your needs?” Secondly, listen to the answer without making it fit your preconceived notions. Then ask how you might be of best service. How might you work yourself out of a job? That’s the first step to bridging those divides—it communicates that you are truly interested in what is best for that community. To paraphrase Jonathan Lewis, a commitment to empowering a community means being there when you’re needed, and stepping aside when you’re not.

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