• Representing the “Other:” Notes on Trinh Minh-ha’s Reassamblage

     By Editor of SocialBusiness.org

    In terms of ethnographic film, many of the images presented in Trinh Minh-ha’s Reassamblage are conventional. For instance, shots of naked women, babies, women working and food preparation. At the same time, however, Trinh subverts what is considered “traditional” ethnographic film. Trinh asks, “what can we expect from ethnology?” and destabilizes not only what we expect from Reassemblage, but also what we are offered. Trinh does this with sound, narrative voice, and the use of silences. Trinh’s image is dark, with a muted colour palette and a sort of sandy composition. Another way in which Trinh challenges the tradition of ethnographic film is through repetition of statements. Trinh’s use of repetition of phrases like “something else i’ve lost,” “a film about what,” “speak near by” and “first create needs, then help,” draws attention to the norms and expectations of conventional ethnographic filmmaking as an objective and neutral form of description or recording. Trinh stresses the impossibility of assigning and imposing meaning to signs and symbols, which is why the narration never quite matches up with the image. Since there isn’t much narration, and it appears in a fragmented way, Trinh is able to emphasis certain phrases and ideas throughout the use of repetition. For instance, by repeating that she does not intend to speak about, but “speak near by,” Trinh shows how the film is told through her eyes, through her lens, and that there is no such thing as objective truth, or “flat anthropological fact.” Trinh’s use of repetition, in a manner that evokes poetry, also itself subverts the presentation of the film. Certainly, Trinh herself is recuperating, collecting and preserving the phrases she chooses to repeat. It has to be that the possible power disparities between Trinh and her objects of study (which they were indeed presented as objects, not subjects) are raised. Furthermore, the irony in the film may not be fully discernible all viewers. This is very similar to the Into the Heart of Africa exhibit, curated by Jeanne Cannizzo, at the Royal Ontario Museum, which was meant to criticize how Canada (mostly, white Canada) views Africa and attack colonialism. However, the black community in Toronto was outraged and viewed this museum exhibit as overtly racism. Both Cannizzo and Trinh’s work draw attention to the powers (and impossibilities) of representation of an Other.

  • The art of unlearning

    By Editor of SocialBusiness.org

    At the end of November, Business Fights Poverty wrote a post called “Unlearning to innovate: 7 steps entrepreneurs need to know when getting into inclusive business.” I’m not one for New Year resolutions, at least not anymore, but there certainly is something about a new year that brings change, well, at least a desire for change. And, despite my greatest fears, I’m always one for change. However small and also however overwhelming. Dr. Fernando Casado Cañeque, Director, Centre of Partnerships for Development outlined seven steps for unlearning when it comes to social business: “First step: The world is limited. There is only one earth; Second step: Population growth is the biggest challenge in our history; Third step: Profit is not revenue minus costs; Fourth Step: Organizations are obsolete; Fifth Step: The challenge is not to have ideas, but to implement them; Sixth Step: Talent evolves and migrates; Step Seven: Opportunities have moved.” Why is it important to unlearn? Can’t we jsut learn? Or relearn? Cañeque got into why unlearning is an important part of social innovation as a whole:

    It is typically in crisis situations when the absence of political leadership becomes most evident. In such situations, it is also when social innovation becomes most needed.

     However, as a concept, for innovation to be really social, it should challenge current thinking models and recognize that present decision-making parameters have not been adequate for solving global challenges. That is why it is now so necessary to start unlearning as a reflective method for critical inquiry, so we can fully analyze the limits of management promoting transition towards more inclusive and sustainable development.

     We need to unlearn in order to innovate. This proposal presents seven steps that will help the unlearning process towards social innovation, enabling entrepreneurs to generate new business models in times of crisis that are more inclusive and sustainable.

    When it comes to those dreaded “New Year’s resolutions,” they’re almost always individual. And of course, guided by the market, marketing and consumerism. I will go to the gym. I will be kinder. I will eat more local foods. The necessary “we” is almost always lost. But the “we” is what makes things complicated and heavy. A “we” is somewhat dependent on other people, on their actions and non-actions. Unlearning, when it comes to social business, has a communal aspect that requires for a creation and re-creation. There are countless — and I mean, countless — steps that could be added to Cañeque’s list. Some, perhaps, more necessary than others. At the same time, however, what is essential is a mind that is open to throwing certain ways of doing things out in the garbage.

  • Social business and mentorship

    By Editor of SocialBusiness.org

    The social entrepreneurship community — especially online — is intensely tight-knit. On Twitter, Facebook and email, there are copious amounts of exclamation points and thank yous, however genuine.  Pascal Finette recently wrote a piece called “Get Yourself a Mentor… Maybe Two” for the Unreasonable Institute. In it, he writes:

    Intuitively we all know that having a good support network of smart people around us will make us stronger, help us make the right decisions, allow us to see things from a different perspective, and pull us through those inevitable dark moments of being an entrepreneur. Leaders often don’t tend to talk about their respective mentors – but you can almost guarantee that any well-known (and less well-known) successful leader has a roster of other people they trust and rely on. When they do talk about their mentors, it’s often with a voice filled with admiration, passion, and love.

    A good mentor will become your mirror. The person you can be vulnerable with, who holds you up, cheers you on, tells you off when you do something stupid, and generally makes you a better person. And often they are friends for life.

    Interestingly a lot of young leaders don’t have a mentor. It is not due to lack of mentors, or a mentor’s unwillingness to work with people who haven’t cut their teeth in the world of business and entrepreneurship yet. It is because young entrepreneurs don’t ask. Often they think they either know the answer (they generally don’t), don’t want to be perceived as weak and vunerable (a misconception of leadership), or don’t have the guts to ask. Don’t be that kind of leader. You owe it to your idea, your employees, your customers.

    Interestingly, however, I have interviewed a few social entrepreneurs who haven’t been so optimistic about the value of mentorship. Sometimes it seems like more of a rite of passage than an actual source of knowledge and progress and social entrepreneurship. But for many, a mentorship is a valuable process for both or all parties involved. What is more, a traditional or more formal mentorship program is not always the most valuable. After interviewing dozens of social entrepreneurs at all stages of their career, many of them attest to being involved in less formal mentorship activities. For instance, maybe they seek out a friend for advice here and there. Many people also have found advice  through social media and people they’ve only met online. That can prove valuable since it’s sometimes a new relationship and thus, you and your social business gets the advantage of a fresh set of eyes. Have you had any fulfilling mentorship experiences? Or perhaps any horror stories?

  • Race, women and subjectivity: who is at the center of your practice?

    By Editor of SocialBusiness.org

    Sara Suleri’s article “Woman Skin Deep: Feminism and the Postcolonial Condition” explores how marginal groups seek liberation in an arena of competing discourses. Suleri reimagines feminine and racial subjectivities and, at the same time, move away from the limiting binarisms of academia. Suleri dangerously questions the ways in which minority voices rely on race as an advantage in academia. How can women negotiate their personal identities and subjecthood? Who is allowed to speak about, and more importantly, for others? I found this piece to be helpful when it comes to either non-profits or social businesses that aim to support low-income women. As I’ve written elsewhere, intentions aren’t a good measure of outcomes (or anything else for that matter). Suleri seeks to upset the binaries by challenging the unspecificity of the term “postcolonial feminism.” She objects to the privileges given to voices of the “postcolonial Woman” and more generally, “racially encoded feminism.” Suleri goes as far to say that postcolonialism, in its feminist context, is “an almost obsolete signifier for the historicity of race.” Suleri refers to “the coloring of feminist discourse” to point to how understandings of postcoloniality, womanhood and race are blurred. In the way that Suleri suggests that feminist theory, language and discourse are not necessarily appropriate to apply to the racial subject, Senegalese film director Ousmane Sembène uses Africana womanism to specify the lived experiences of African women, namely, Faat Kiné, who negotiates masculine and Western ideologies in order to develop her own self-consciousness. The heroine in Faat Kiné undergoes a transformation in which she is not compelled to hold on to traditional African culture, but also does not need to replicate Western models of femininity and liberation in order to develop her own plural identity. In the same vein, Suleri disputes how feminist minority academics create divisive politics by regularly referring back to whiteness as the cradle of conceptual thought. It is important to know who is doing the work of social business, and more importantly, for what purpose. How do women of color fit into the predominately white world of social entrepreneurship? Suleri boldly claims that “feminist intellectuals like [bell] hooks misuse their status as minority voices by enacting strategies of belligerence that at this time are more divisive than informative.” By referring to “this time,” Suleri suggests that we are now over the issues that pit “us” versus “them” and that we must come together for a unified agenda. Moreover, Suleri speaks of a “political untouchability” that is granted to the Third World Woman grouping. Race allows for what Suleri calls a “claim to authenticity.” Certainly, racialized voices should not be posited as the “first narrative of what ethnically constructed woman is deemed to want,” as Suleri argues against. However, no one should claim to be the dominant speaker on behalf of others. Does Sembène’s Faat Kiné make him less “authentic” or credible because of his position as a male? While Suleri attempts to dismantle the way in which racial and postcolonial oppression is superficially celebrated, Sembène commemorates both Faat Kiné’s complex struggle and the everyday heroism of African women. Suleri argues that feminist academics like Trinh Minh-Ha and hooks use concepts framed within “North American academic terms.” But when literature about black and Third World Women is framed in those exact Western terms, how do you push against that? How can you deny the position and privilege? At the same time, we must not obsess over the racialized (or masculinized body in Sembène’s case) as the point of discourse, history and subjectivity. In many ways, the way in which Faat Kiné negotiates her identity between competing discourses, while not relying on whiteness or masculinity, is what Suleri is looking for in minority academics. Thus, the exploration of “what it means to articulate an ‘identity’ for a woman […] of color’” must be further explored. Both Suleri and Sembène’s critical analyses and disruptions of dichotomies are important in reimagining identities and subjectivities. With so many competing modes of thought, what is essential is that Third World Women seek progress on their own terms.

  • Learning from worker co-operatives

    0218-04By Editor of SocialBusiness.org

    The Take, a documentary created by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein and the  Mondragon Cooperative, show examples of alternative business models located in the less-industrialized world. Let’s look at food co-ops, for instance. In North America, urban food co-ops are typically only available to the middle- and upper- classes. At the food co-op to which my family belongs, which is also worker-owned, you have to put in a particular number of hours each month. You can work as a cashier, write for the newsletter, organize meetings, etc. If you decide not to work, you have to pay a monthly fee. So, you need the time or the money to be able to participate in this program which offers fresh, organic, vegan and vegetarian foods, grass-fed beef, and free-range eggs at lower prices than a normal grocery store. Because the kind of co-op that I’m familiar with isn’t, in reality, open to everyone, I was blown away, especially by the documentary. However, I wondered about what sort of inner problems the co-op faced. The Take presented things as very democratic, but with democracy, isn’t there bound to be some infighting? That just seems like the reality of any group or decentralized democracy (or centralized, for that matter). It would have been beneficial to see how those workers worked through that. “Managing Without Managers” by Richard Semler presented an alternative business model that reminded me of the worker-owned cooperatives from The Take, for example. However, in Semco’s case, the workers were given control rather than took it themselves. A lot of the co-operatives (especially those in Argentina) rose out of a sort of revolution on a small-scale. Part of what is keeping the workers together is that they have an opposed force that they all unite against. Semco presents a different route to a similar goal. I found it interesting that Semler gauged Semco’s success on what multinationals it could sell to, meaning that its products are reliable and competitive. However, doesn’t this continue the same cycle of low-wage labour? And perhaps one day Semco will be bought out in part due to the extent to which it participates in an unequal global exchange. Maybe it’s a catch-22 because to survive as a business, you need to build relationships, cooperate and to use Semler’s words build your “international reputation,” but at the same time, some of those relationships are based on strong power relations. In Semler’s guide to stress management, I found it interesting how one of the myths was that no one else can do it better. I went to a conference last year and one session was about community work. The work should be able to be sustainable without the founder. You have to teach others to do what you do in order to sustain your mission.

  • Optimism and social entrepreneurship

    By Editor of SocialBusiness.org

    Earlier this month, Alison Craiglow Hokenberry, a contributing editor at Ashoka Changemakers, wrote an article for the Huffington Post’s Business Canada section called “How Your Small Business Can Grow Big Ideas“. In it, she writes:

    Readers with even a passing understanding of the term social entrepreneurship understand that it’s about big ideas in small packages that have the potential to effect enormous social change. Social entrepreneurship is about the regional and global impact that can be unleashed if start-up solutions to stubborn, often heartbreaking local problems are given the support to grow, scale-up, and spread around the world.

    Call it the power of small. If small is powerful, what’s the force and fuel that can turn it into something big? How can the local impact of a social solution become a world-changing enterprise?

    But is the insular community of social entrepreneurship too optimistic? Why are things like this written? For clicks? For inspiration? Much of this conversation revolves around scaling social businesses, which is a huge challenge for many small businesses, both inside and outside of the social entrepreneurship worlds. Ashoka’s recent competition called “The Power of Small” works on supporting “entrepreneurs strengthening local economies.” There’s such thing, I think, as too much positivity. At the same time, however, I think one of the biggest takeaways from Hokenberry’s article is the importance of seeking our mentors. She writes and draws from leaders including two of Ashoka’s The Power of Small judges, Joanna Harries, director of international expansion at Endeavor, and Rob Henning, co-founder of ESPartners:

    “Having access to advisors or people who can provide you with resources, people who can give you a key bit of advice at the right moment that’s going to be the difference between going down a path that would lead to failure and one that’s going to lead to success because they have been through it before — that’s critical,” Harries said.

    “Role models are very, very important,” Henning added. “The [entrepreneurs] that are really smart ask, ‘where are the role models in my economy and my peer group?’ They realize that they need help, and they go and talk to people and ask for advice.”

    Harries acknowledged that finding role models can be a challenge for time-strapped entrepreneurs. “Connecting the dots to mentors is sometimes difficult when you’re an entrepreneur so that you’re running a mile a minute and you don’t really have time to step back, or take a strategic view, or see the bigger picture.”

    Henning said that open competitions like The Power of Small also represent a significant opportunity to learn from others. “A big value of competitions such as these is that they allow entrepreneurs to see the progression of businesses to scaling up, and to learn from that.”

    Through my many interviews with social entrepreneur, I found that a majority of people thrive on the networks and community that they have worked to build. But recently, however, I talked to a women social entrepreneur who thought that sometimes these networks that are set up, that is, official organizations that foster mentor support don’t offer as much resources as they could. It all depends on the mentor-mentee relationship, of course. The bottom line is that there is no one-size-fits-all panacea to finding success as a social entrepreneur. Maybe a billion small ideas can help create change, but at the same time, structural change is the key to sustainability. The New York Times Opinionator blog turned the spotlight on “The Rise of Social Entrepreneur” in a piece by David Bornstein. He closes with a the potential he sees in social entrepreneurship, an optimistic potential that is echoed by the community at large:

    We don’t know where the best ideas will come from any more than we know where the next Google will arise. The emergence of social entrepreneurship reflects this uncertainty — as well as a major new opportunity: the fact that the capacity and motivation needed to solve problems is now widely dispersed. The question is, how do we find, elicit, nurture and harness the talents of millions of potential change-makers for the greatest good? It’s not just a question for would-be social entrepreneurs. It’s relevant for policy makers, managers, educators, parents — and ourselves. Many of us have little idea of our own change-making potential. We may be in for a surprise.

  • Politicizing affect

    By Editor of SocialBusiness.org

    How do you escape? Work? Reading? Or maybe love? Have you ever thought about how the ubiquitous feminist phrase “the personal is political” and how it affects professional life? The following is a look at affect theory—a field in which tremendous value can be drawn for social entrepreneurship—and equality. In the article “The politics of love: Women’s liberation and feeling differently,” Victoria Hesford explores the phrase “the personal is political,” which has helped (and, in some ways, hindered) the women’s liberation movement. The “motto” stems from the idea that personal struggles are in fact political struggles, and underlying the phrase is a focus of systemic oppression that creates inequalities in the more personal realms of life, for example in the home or in a relationship. It involves a turn inwards, a refocusing on intimacy, sexuality and love. Love is typically considered to be outside of the political sphere and more of a private aspect of life. Hesford notes key feminists, like Kate Millett who, during the 1970s, encouraged an expansion of the political sphere, one included sexual relationships, romantic love and intimacy. Hesford considers the conception of how love gives us reason to live, and creates something of a sphere of escapism. Similarly, Berlant and Warner explore how love has come to be a “refuge from politics,” in the sense that domesticity and heterosexual normative relationships are then considered “pre-political.” What are the consequences of thinking of heterosexual love as a haven from the public sphere? Who is left out of the equation? The strict distinction between public and private reflects the inequalities of those who are considered privileged enough to engage in politics and those who are not. Feminist politics, at least in its roots, took to examining how the idea of “politics as something you do in public” had debilitating effects that had on women’s political lives (or non-political lives) because they were exiled from the public sphere and confined to domesticity which was considered (and to some extent, still is) as apolitical or nonpolitical. Hesford argues that “the personal is political” has become and empty phrase that essentializes, individualizes and further privileges white middle-class women. How then is the personal transformed to the political? How is intimacy related to political life? Through an analysis of how literature disrupts the binary of personal versus political and public versus private, Hesford  explores how Doris Lessing’s writing makes a call to language and discourse to examine political action. Hesford writes, “While political discourse is portrayed as a highly artificial and obfuscating language, emotions become the propulsive force in the novels.” This made me look at how emotional language is seen as something easier to articulate for most women, something almost “innate.” But, both political and personal discourse is learned. Emotions are given more primacy during the early stages of life, but are subsequently repressed and get fragmented. For example, work and politics remains a space where emotional language is quelled, in exchange for a more “reasonable” language. Hesford recognizes that the problem still exists, of “how a politicization of feeling converts into an effective propulsive force for collective political action.” What is important is to keep open that “critical space” for engaging in discussion on emotions and politics.

  • How random is kindness?

    By Senior Editor of SocialBusiness.org

    People participate in “acts of kindness” every day. Whether or not I see in while I’m on my daily grind, there are some things that do make me stop and think, wow. Just last week, during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, I was walking in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan, which was still without power at this time. It was Halloween, but it didn’t feel like it (despite that I feel too old and apathetic for Halloween). This family, however, was dressed up to the max. A young girl had a bucket of candy and was handing out to whoever. I smiled and thanked her and munched on a childhood-favorite candy of mine, red licorice. A small, thing, yes. It would have been a nice act regardless, but because the neighborhood was going through a power outage, the sense of community anxiety was high. The small things, right? They were not, of course, alone. The Huffington Post published a “Random Acts of Kindness After Hurricane Sandy” slideshow: “No power or water, fuel shortages and limited transportation has made life pretty darn difficult for the East Coast. But it’s usually in times of need that the best of mankind emerges. And so, we’ve been seeing wonderful examples of human kindness and generosity over the last few days — from free pizza in the beleaguered East Villageto a little girl setting up a charging station in Hoboken.” How are these small things, these brief smiles and sometimes anonymous acts, recognized, if at all? Should they be? Kindness in the media often acts as something relegated to a small, local news channel, akin sometimes to the high school “Athlete of the Week.” In a way, these  programs are an attempt to counter the amount of sensational violence, crime, war, etc. in the news media. Thanks to the proliferation of blogs — and the resulting proliferation of every single kind of blog imaginable — there are websites and Tumblrs galore that focus solely on the kind and generous things that everyday people do. I mean, it’s no surprise that Oprah has her 35 Little Acts of Kindness feature. These types of guides exist as if we don’t know how to be nice to other people. And perhaps niceness is an overstatement, a lot of the times, it’s simply the decent thing to do. There are organizations and social businesses that focus exclusively on giving recognition and appreciation to people who volunteer their time or do small things to make a moment for someone. I recently talked with a founder of a social business who said that a lot of volunteers don’t necessarily want public recognition or appreciation. Do people participate in acts of kindness for others? To gain recognition? To make themselves feel like better, more generous people? To feel part of a community? I’m sure there are many, many reasons why people do what they do and I’m not sure so-called “random” acts of kindness are that at all.

  • Sweating the small stuff

    By Editor of SocialBusiness.org

    “Don’t sweat the small stuff” is a saying that gets tossed around quite a bit. How do you decide what’s important and what’s not and to what degree? For social entrepreneurs and CEOs of small businesses, there’s often an added element to this because micro-managing sometimes becomes second nature due to the ways in which their professional lives dip into a wide range of the business’ activities from human resources to business development and social media. It’s no surprise, then, that a book like the 1996 bestseller, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff… And It’s All Small Stuff, gained so much traction (not to mention the general popularity of self-help literature). But perhaps there’s a different way to look at the so-called small stuff. Vini Bhansali of the International Development Exchange seems to think so. iOnPoverty illuminated this in their newsletter released at the beginning of the month: “Vini shared that one of her first jobs after college was doing in-depth research for a city government in Texas. By sweating the small stuff during her research and ensuring accurate findings, Vini was able to save the city millions of dollars each year – money that was applied to insurance coverage for those who couldn’t afford it. ‘That was a huge lesson for me,’ Vini says. The details matter – and can impact social change beyond what you might imagine.” Is there a balance to be had? Personality matters, I think. It’s important to not only know yourself and how you work but understand how your teammates work as well. What is their individual working style? I know that I can get caught up in teeny-tiny details and merely my acknowledgement of this leads to a more effective and productive working style. But it’s a work in progress. In start-up environments, there’s often an emphasis on getting things done and learning from failure. Perfection isn’t always possible and nor is it always strived for. “Go, go, go” is the name of the game, that is, speediness is privileged. At the same time, however, Vini Bhansali makes a good point. “There is power in the details – in the nerdy, boring work,” she said in the video. I’m sure most editors and writers (like me) would agree. But where social enterprise is concerned, good, solid and maybe most importantly, accurate measurement can create positive social and economic outcomes.

  • Listening to Žižek’s dreams

    By Senior Editor of SocialBusiness.org

    Image via Verso Books

    One of the great things about being back in school again (there are great things and also not-so-great things) is being exposed to talks on talks on talks on talks. There are more talks at Columbia than occupied cabs in New York City. But there are some taks that I would forfeit all of the unoccupied cabs in NYC for. And Slavoj Žižek was one of them. I don’t agree with everything he says—who does?! Even the moderator, a Columbia professor, at the talk I went to on October 23rd, admitted he didn’t. And it was obvious that the two longtime friends had more than a mountain of disagreements. But it’s exactly this culture of agreement (of comfort, if you will) that Žižek disdains. And well, I couldn’t agree more.

    Here’s the blurb of Žižek’s latest book, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, from Verso Books, a self-proclaimed radical publishing company (by the way, Žižek admitted to hating the cover):

    Call it the year of dreaming dangerously: 2011 caught the world off guard with a series of shattering events. While protesters in New York, Cairo, London, and Athens took to the streets in pursuit of emancipation, obscure destructive fantasies inspired the world’s racist populists in places as far apart as Hungary and Arizona, achieving a horrific consummation in the actions of mass murderer Anders Breivik.

    The subterranean work of dissatisfaction continues. Rage is building, and a new wave of revolts and disturbances will follow. Why? Because the events of 2011 augur a new political reality. These are limited, distorted—sometimes even perverted—fragments of a utopian future lying dormant in the present.

    Did the year of 2011 change anything in your life? Personally? With your social enterprise? How did these politics—these politics of rage—affect you? During the talk, Žižek talked a bit about his book, but mostly not, mostly points he’d chosen to discuss perhaps the night before. The other panelists had no idea what he was talking about. With that being said, the night was all over the place but I came away with tidbits and pockets of ideas that could spark. I struggle with the structural incompatibility of capitalism and democracy and the way in which liberalism attempts to create an adherence… But in talks like these, someone always asks a similar question. How do we get down to on-the-ground action? We’re all here (and by we, I meant the majority of people there that night, a white, probably middle class audience) and we’re all sort of far removed from, for example, lost jobs and all of the pressures that helped to make 2011 as such a year full of rage. The Left, the panel said, has a fear of governance. We need to get messy, Žižek said. Because what a mess we’re in.