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

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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

  • Maria

    She has also obviously missed We Are Visible on FaceBook.

  • Janet Rechtman

    Bravo, Rick, for your thoughtfulness on this issue. When young people ask me for advice about starting a nonprofit in a field like homelessnes where there is already a bunch going, I suggest they first get a job (or volunteer if they can afford to) to get the lay of the land. For example, Ms. Choi could get first hand experience of the relevance of social media in giving voice to homeless drug addicts vs. pay-check-to-paycheck families that are homeless because someone got sick and they couldn’t pay the rent. This is an important dialog: while we don’t want to discourage social entrepreneurs, we also don’t want to dis the sometimes grim realities of our work.

  • Daniel Jones

    Do we have any advice? Sure. My advice (and I only work for a homeless shelter, so what do I know…never went to Harvard): Go be homeless…better yet, take your family out for a homeless experience for a couple weeks and see if what you’d really like is eyeglasses or a great youtube video…or a hot meal, a shower and a safe, permanent residence.

    Resources to rise above? Interrupting and correcting an inter generational cycle of chronic homelessness takes a vast array of services and resources. Masterful youtube videos and wonderfully written articles are not among the things on that vast list…

    Perhaps her heart is in the right place – wanting to create change to benefit the homeless. Your advice to have her go find existing organizations and contribute her skills to them – make them better – is well placed indeed.

  • Margot H Knight

    A well-meaning young woman who didn’t do her homework and is engaging in what I call I-got-mine philanthropy. But the fault is not completely hers? The organizations bestowing honors and awards need to take a careful look at their judging criteria. Do they want a serious approach to addressing an issue? Do they want to reward creative eleemosynary behavior in a specified generation, hoping to generate MORE contributions to the common good? Do they want to reward eloquent essays? The problem is even MORE exacerbated when grantmakers reward these types of proposals with money that has no chance of moving the needle beyond a handful of anecdotes.
    On other hand, I have seen youthful exuberance such as Ms. Choi’s crushed by bureaucracy and all the “you can’t” statements she might have faced if she had connected with another organization with which to partner.
    It IS a dilemma, Rick. Thanks for the piece.

  • Rina Saperstein

    Well, I’d like to think these students are more naive than arrogant. (you’d think harvard would require a little more research than this indicates).

    Still i don’t fault this young person’s discovery of a cause we all know well, nor her proposed solutions so much as this being awarded a Social Innovation prize. As we know, while both the problem and solutions she suggests are real, there is just nothing INNOVATIVE about her proposal. I’m guessing that Forbes may think it’s innovative solely because it involves internet and technology, and that is sad.

    On a related note, do you perceive a tension: social innovation vs. best practices? The standard we are looking for is NOT starting from scratch, NOR churning difference for the sake of difference, but also NOT status quo or merely incremental. As a community of practitioners, I think we want to build something better and substantially more helpful from the best of what already exists. We want to leap forward from where we already stand.

  • Jeni Jenkins

    I am thrilled that any undergraduate student has the aptitude to create such an organization. She isn’t missing the mark completely as the mission of her new organization is exactly what we do at the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless and have since 1984. We have the Streetvibes newspaper; a Homeless Congress and the Voice of the Homeless Speaker’s Bureau all of which are designed to give the voiceless a voice. Lest we forget, all of us who work in the field were filled with visions of change when we were young and ALL of us were naive. If we weren’t we might not be doing the work we do because the reality of working in this field can be so grim. My goals with my education programs on poverty and homelessness are to reach students like Choi and get them involved in the movement for change. She seems to have came to this on her own so she’s two steps ahead which means by the time she is working in the field 10 years she’ll be even more advanced to handle these deep seated issues. Also her concept validates the work I do, even if the Harvard elite didn’t realize we already exist!

  • Terry Fernsler

    And that’s the issue, isn’t it? If you already exist, what is innovative about the proposal? Although the student did not do thorough research, the award is more a reflection of Forbes being out of touch with what actually is happening in America to alleviate social injustice.

  • Tony Wagner

    This is a generation that very much wants and needs to make a difference in the world. They are innovators by disposition. For them to be most effective, however, they will need guiding from adults. But what I have learned in researching my forthcoming book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, is that parents, teachers, mentors, and employers will need to work with this generation in very different ways in order to be effective and to be heard by them. This is a generation that also needs a very different kind of education