A Social Innovator Contest Winner: We’d Like to Understand Her Idea on Homelessness a Little More

January 8, 2012; Source: Forbes.com | Harvard undergrad Jessica Choi is one of three students to win the 2011 College Social Innovator Contest sponsored by the Harvard College Social Innovation Collaborative and the “Common Good” column at Forbes.com. Choi submitted an award-winning essay describing the organization she and two University of California at Davis students (Thomas Ma and Brian Ma) have created, called “Beyond the Cardboard”. “Beyond” is aimed at “helping the homeless in two ways, by giving them a voice and providing them [with] tangible resources to overcome homelessness,” as stated in Choi’s essay.

Choi deserves congratulations, to be sure, as there were probably many competitors, but the social enterprise she is launching next month seems to have missed an entire infrastructure of homeless service providers and advocacy organizations working with the homeless. A reasonable question that the Forbes and Harvard contest sponsors might have asked is whether there were other networks of organizations doing some of what Choi proposes. This isn’t to knock Choi’s heartfelt commitment to the homeless, but rather to suggest that as “social innovators” think about solutions to problems such as homelessness, they might want to make sure that they are tapping the infrastructure that currently exists.

For example, in her essay, Choi talks about what she wants her new organization to do: “We wanted to share their stories and give them a voice so they could be heard. We wanted to change how homelessness is perceived and also provide the homeless with resources to rise above their situation. No existing organizations had this focus. That was when Beyond the Cardboard was born.” That’s a pretty hefty statement—that no organizations exist to give homeless people a voice or offer resources for the homeless to change their circumstances. If Choi were to leave Harvard Yard and go around the corner to the very accessible and historic Old Baptist Church, she could visit the offices of “Spare Change”, the twenty-year-old Cambridge-based newspaper written by homeless and formerly homeless people for the express purpose of providing a venue for their “voices.” It may be that Choi is designing an initiative to address a niche that is not being addressed, but she is a bit off the mark with her “no organizations exist” statement.

Beyondthecardboard.com will serve as the platform through which we empower the homeless with a voice, sharing their stories and raising awareness about the reality of homelessness,” Choi continues. “While our main target is the transiently homeless, we hope to have a portfolio of resources to help those who do not belong in this category-mainly those who are substance abusers and mentally unstable. We will upload video interviews and write feature articles of homeless people with stories of their experience and aspirations. We also want our visitors to get involved and join the Beyond the Cardboard movement by uploading their own interviews of homeless people in their community or using social media networks to share beyondthecardboard.com.

We “hope to distribute self-adjustable eyeglasses to the homeless as one of our offerings,” Choi added, like the self-adjustable glasses that have been developed for people in developing countries. She says that she and her partners “are negotiating with several organizations to become a distributor of adjustable eyeglasses.”

Choi’s essay concludes with a statement that somewhat shifts the target goal, from benefitting the homeless to educating other potential social innovators and activists: “The Beyond the Cardboard movement is a re-envisioning of what it means to give a voice to the voiceless. Through powerful social media technology and innovative cost-effective practices, we are hoping to educate a new generation of activists who understand the truths surrounding homelessness, perhaps one day taking action themselves.”

Our society needs more young people like Jessica Choi who want to tackle seemingly intractable social problems, but people like Jessica need to be prodded to see who else and what other organizations are doing what she is proposing to develop from scratch, and to figure out where her energies might fill a gap rather than imagine gaps that may not exist to the extent she describes (at least in the version of her essay printed in Forbes.com). Do NPQ Newswire readers have any suggestions for an energetic social innovator like Choi, interested in and hopefully dedicated to eradicating homelessness, for building on the array of programs, services, and organizations that are already making tremendous headway in serving both transient and chronically homeless populations?—Rick Cohen