Week 13: What is social impact?

Last week, our social ventures team at Not For Sale released our impact report for 2011.  After viewing the report, I felt inspired and thrilled about how it showcases Not For Sale’s exponential growth in the last year.  The metrics send a clear message:  our international projects are truly creating new futures for survivors of human trafficking and vulnerable communities throughout the globe.

In the wake of the report, I found myself wondering:  what is ‘impact’?  How do we define it, measure it, perceive it?  My mind began wandering back to a time in my life when my own definition of ‘impact’ changed forever: during my last three months as a university student.  I had spent the final semester of my Human Justice degree as a practicum student at a non-profit organization in rural Mexico, where I ended up learning far more than I bargained for…

When I first arrived in Mexico, I thought I was on the precipice of a momentous academic enterprise.  Hardwired to pursue academic success, I expected my three months as a practicum student to be one that would afford me the opportunity to build professionalism, engage in work of significant consequence, and achieve tangible, powerful results.

However, I was skeptical—and even slightly disappointed—when I found out that my supervisor had assigned me to work in a “learning centre” for children with special needs.  I always loved a challenge—which would certainly be the case here, given that I had no training in teaching, Spanish, or special needs.  Yet this wasn’t the sort of challenge I came to Mexico to pursue.  My intention was to make measurable contributions to justice that the academic community would embrace, respect, and value.

As I moved into my role as a teacher and caregiver, I wondered how working with these children would make me a better scholar.  I began stressing out about the thirty-page final paper I would have to write and present to my fellow practicum students and university faculty members back in Canada.  Basically, I had to return with my own impact report … but was I actually making any sort of impact?

Julia I can’t pinpoint the exact moment that everything changed, but I do know the cause of my shift in thinking—her name was Julia, a beautiful six-year-old girl with Down’s syndrome.  She completely captured my heart.

While the rest of my peers back in Canada were writing policy, gaining practical experience in victim services, or being trained to become a professional in the criminal justice system, I was teaching Julia how to ride a bicycle.  Every afternoon, the two of us would venture out into the macadamia nut orchard to practice.  But as my time in Mexico began running out, I began worrying that she would not learn how to ride her bike by the time I left.  (In her defense, though, learning how to pedal a bike through sand in the desert of Baja California would be a formidable task for any beginner bicyclist…)

JuliaAll her life, people had underestimated Julia.  Somehow, having Down’s syndrome equated to being ‘disabled’.  But on one of my last afternoons in Mexico, Julia suddenly took off on her bike all by herself, leaving me behind a cloud of dust.  And was she ever beaming.  With a face that radiated pure joy and pride, Julia proved her capability and independence to everyone.

As for myself—out of all the papers I had written, all the projects I had invested my time and energy into, nothing could compare to the overwhelming happiness I experienced that day.  Maybe it didn’t translate to another bullet point to add to my resumé … but seeing Julia shine that day was worth more than any satisfaction I could gain from an academic achievement.

I returned to Canada with a recalibrated perspective regarding social impact.  Unfortunately, though, I knew that teaching a child how to ride a bicycle didn’t quite meet my university’s criteria for my final paper, didn’t align with the sort of “academic impact” my peers had been engaged in during their practicum experience.  Quite frankly, there was no prestige in the work I did in Mexico.  But did that mean my work had no value, no impact?

Of course not.  As humans, it is in our nature to assign value to everything in the social, cultural, economic, and political sphere, but we don’t necessarily assign value in the best way.  For example, we pay higher salaries to plastic surgeons, professional athletes, and sales managers than to pastors, farmers, and those in the non-profit industry.  But is an anesthesiologist more important than an elementary school teacher, just because he/she earns a higher salary?  Is a parent whose child is attending an Ivey League school more successful than a parent whose child calls home every weekend from their community college to say “I love you”?  Is a country with a higher GDP better off than a country that treats its citizens with respect and dignity?

Non-profit organizations, too, tend to measure impact in terms of what is quantifiable, such as the number of donors or the size and popularity of their projects.  Of course, examining the return on investment, the metrics, the quantifiable data is necessary.  But it is only part of the story.  What about the college student struggling with student loans and cannot donate to Not For Sale, but instead chooses to promote ethical sourcing on his/her campus?  What about the pastor who encourages his/her congregation to seek social justice as a vocation?  What about the workplace that brews fair trade coffee at work, instead of purchasing coffee that was made by slaves?

Julia Social impact is more than what is tangible, what creates immediate results.  It is more than what looks impressive on paper.  It may mean creating large-scale, long-term change for an entire community in Thailand or giving hope to a marginalized child in Mexico.  Regardless, every effort made in the name of justice has worth.

One response to “Week 13: What is social impact?

  1. Spot on! We need to create new futures, challenging and changing society, but how we do this is important. We love people. In big and small ways from kids in Mexico to corporations to entire faith communities, we create new futures one person – one thought – one action at a time.

    Jill Morris said, “Look closer; love deeper.” That’s right.

    Frederick Douglass said, “God and one make a majority.” Katie, you and God are a majority and are rocking the world for freedom! Thanks for all you are and all you do.

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