By John Hamerlinck
There are more cell phone users in Africa than there are in North America. India has more than 470 million mobile phone users. China has more than 700 million!
Some people refer to mobile phones as a “leapfrog technology,” allowing developing nations to move their communications from 19th century technology to 21st century technology without having to invest in massive infrastructure projects. This is significant for high-poverty nations. Jennifer Openshaw writes in the Huffington Post, about how one application, Obopay, a phone-based money transfer system, can impact the lives of low income people. “In India, where many people don’t have access to an address or a bank account, cell phones are the new means for government or an employer to send payments. Once the money is deposited into the recipient’s ‘account,’ he/she can then remit money internationally, send funds to his family, or pay bills — all right from the phone. Obopay’s system also eliminates the risk of theft in cash-based economies.”
Mobile phones are also serving as critical tools in promoting significant social change worldwide. I’m not just talking about text message fundraising. The site MobileActive tracks social impact through mobile phone use. The site has dozens of stories where phones are a key component in AIDS, literacy, economic development, health and other initiatives. For example, in South Africa, the organization Cell-Life is using phones in multiple projects to address the growing AIDS epidemic.
At colleges and universities in this country where nearly every student has a phone, how might we leverage this simple reality to the benefit of the community? How might we look to the developing world for clues on addressing issues like homelessness and poverty?
On February 12, we’ll be hosting a webinar titled, Civic Engagement: Engaging Students and Communities through Technology. We’ll discuss not only phones, but Twitter (did you know that in Myanmar, thousands of monks took to the streets in pro-democracy demonstrations by communicating through twitter via their cell phones?), Google Maps mash-ups, and many other promising tools for campus-community partnerships. Please join us.
By John Hamerlinck
A recent report from the Kauffman Foundation titled, “The Economic Future Just Happened,” talks about how a lot of very successful businesses (more than half of the companies on the 2009 Fortune 500 list) are born during recessions. As civically-minded people in higher education and community-based organizations cope with leaner budgets, there are tremendous opportunities to develop new enterprises. Now is the perfect time to assess programs and modes of operation that may be less effective than they should be, but that persist because they are in (or were in) budgets.
Entrepreneurship is not a concept limited to business development. We need entrepreneurial approaches in every social sector and in every academic discipline. More than a decade ago, Allan Gibb provided suggestions for creating a climate for teaching entrepreneurship. They included ideas such as:
- Creating and reinforcing a strong sense of individual ownership;
- Reinforcing the personal ability to make things happen and see things through;
- Tolerating ambiguity and allowing mistakes as a basis for learning;
- Encouraging strategic thinking before formal planning;
- Emphasizing the importance of personal trust and “know who” as a basis for management rather than formal relationships; and
- Encouraging informal overlap between departments and groups as a basis for developing a common culture.
If you think about it, those same conditions make for effective civic engagement as well. While many are hunkering down and protecting as much of the status quo as they can, we should look around and see who is seizing the opportunity to innovate and create the future.
By John Hamerlinck
A few years ago Aaron Schutz, who teaches community organizing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, wrote an interesting blog post on “cutting an issue.” Schutz wrote, “The world is full of what organizers call “problems,” aspects of the world we don’t like—e.g., world hunger, or educational achievement. Problems, however, are too big and vague to grapple with in any coherent manner. In fact, just thinking about them can be disempowering.”
Academics love the 20,000 foot view of the problem. It compliments an “expert” model of community engagement as opposed to the crucial, but messier work of organizing. The trouble is that both knowledge and organizing are necessary to create change in communities.
Expertise-driven “programs” too often focus on addressing temporary solutions to issues one person at a time. Community organizing seeks to engage large numbers of people to find collective solutions. It changes the balance of power by creating previously undiscovered power bases.
Partnerships between institutions (like a college and a social service agency) can only produce goods or services. That is what institutions do. Institutions are not so good at mobilizing people who are passionate about an issue to come to a consensus to actively change something. Individuals associated with institutions might be part of organizing efforts. More often than not, however, they are participating on their own time.
If higher education institutions cannot commit to organizing for community change, perhaps we might figure out ways that campuses could support community organizers with the same gusto that they add capacity to other types of traditional client-serving, program-driven nonprofit organizations. This might mean embracing radical notions like a campus-community partnership where the community partner is not a nonprofit organization, but rather, an informal group of passionate and motivated citizens.
If your campus has any effective partnerships with informal associations please share them. If you have ideas on how colleges and universities can support community organizing in general please share those as well.