In Class with Professor Jerry Irish
In today’s small group discussion for the class, Religion, Ethics and Social Practice, six college students and three residents of Pilgrim Place discuss social entrepreneurship, which combines ideas and practices from both the business and nonprofit worlds to solve problems such as poverty and inequality. The group focuses on whether social entrepreneurs, who seek to create social value rather than wealth, are compromising their values by working within the capitalist system.
Miranda: I’m really interested in exploring the debate about whether social entrepreneurships are a Band-Aid, because you’re working within a corrupted system, or are they about trying to change that system and using the tools effectively to do so.
Eleanor: I just heard a woman over at Pilgrim Place earlier this morning, who spoke about being in China. She said she asked one of the men there, who teaches Marxism at the university: ‘Do you think Marxism has a future?’ And he said back to her: ‘Do you think capitalism has a future?’ I think if there is a possibility of envisioning a future for capitalism, it has to do with something like social entrepreneurships.
Karl: I’ve found out from my younger radical community organizing days that there is a place and a need for Band-Aids; there is a need for cooperating with the system at some point, even if you’re not altogether happy with it, and there is a need for trying to find innovative ways to bring things together that seem to be diametrically opposed—like business and community organizing. I think you come to a healthy understanding of what is the best thing to do for the most common good at the time.
Christian: I don’t see it as a Band-Aid at all. I see business and profit-seeking and these sorts of drivers as extraordinarily powerful tools. Some advancements, such as electricity and drugs like penicillin, have come about because of capitalism, because we incentivize them. If you have the motivation from the get-go to do something for the social good, a social entrepreneurship can be a truly amazing tool that can be used in really cool ways. That’s the way I see it, but I come from a family that is very pro-business, very different from a lot of people in this room.
Irish: In Bangladesh, Muhammed Yunus tried a Band-Aid. He found that for $27 dollars he could relieve 42 women stool makers in Jobra of their indebtedness. But just for one week. And then the loan sharks would come right back. It was his idealism about trying to overcome the poverty gap he saw in this village that alerted him to the fact that he needed to go beyond a Band-Aid. He rallied his students and took them to talk to people in the community to see what they needed. That’s when he got the idea that maybe he could leverage the banks. When he discovered he couldn’t, he created his own bank. Do any of you see in either your placements or project proposals the seeds of something like this in the future? Are there ingredients that you could imagine one day that you would employ or work off of as a social entrepreneur?
Christian: My proposal is trying to understand the adherence to medication in Third World companies. One of the major issues is the way the pharmacological system works. Drug companies send HIV and TB medication to Third World countries as window dressing, without any analysis of what’s needed. It’s extraordinarily expensive, especially when you deal with adherence issues, which means the disease becomes resistant and then you can’t use first-line drugs. And these programs don’t even come close to offering second-line drugs.
Becca: This is about the Coronado Garden project I work on with the Draper Center. It’s an organic garden and a curriculum on food justice and environmental justice at Coronado, an alternative high school in West Covina. The teacher has expressed an interest in selling plants, which could be a way to make the whole project self-sustainable. It would also get merged into a small business class. I’m struggling with envisioning this transition.
Mia: Why do you struggle?
Becca: I think it’s the idea that we’ve been very much trying to cultivate the garden as this safe green space and connect food justice and environmental justice with greater societal injustices and connect that with students’ everyday lives, so encouraging them to use the garden as a tool for money—although it would create a self-sustained project, it feels hypocritical to me.
Miranda: I don’t think that is hypocritical because when you’re incorporating funding into a closed loop, self-sufficient system, you’re ultimately benefiting the project for the future.
Irish: You’re changing the definition of investment, that the capital gets invested in a social purpose. What you’re exhibiting are the skills that are entrepreneurial, and I don’t think some of these skills need to be understood simply in terms of a profit. This gets closer to this issue that you brought up in your reflections, a new kind of citizenship and—I hate to bring in my friend Niebuhr (laughter)—the notion of responsibility to a larger social group.
Christian: You have to play it like a community organizer and trust that people will tend to do the right thing most of the time. By allowing capitalism to inject itself into these social entrepreneurships, we worry about becoming tainted, but it leverages all you can do. If you were to talk about Bill Gates in the late ’90s, you’d say he was completely co-opted by the capitalist system, but look at the way he’s leveraged the funds he produced. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a great example; it does really good stuff and is extraordinarily efficient, much more efficient than any other charity or nonprofit group.
Karen: I’m learning a lot from hearing the stories from the elders and the things that we’ve all experienced about having a vision for some sort of project and then having the initiative to do it. I feel I don’t have a full grasp of all of that yet, but I’m definitely learning. I really like the idea that social entrepreneurship is contagious. You start something and then the people you work with are empowered to do their own thing. I feel like I’m catching the bug here.