Last April, I attended the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGIU), a yearly meeting “where students, youth organizations, topic experts and celebrities come together to discuss and develop innovative solutions to pressing global challenges.” I was invited for my social entrepreneurship, in recognition of an application called “Uhuru” that I crafted after working for two summers in refugee resettlement organizations in Washington, D.C. and Amman, Jordan. Uhuru, the Swahili word for freedom, crowd-sources the entrepreneurial activity of refugees and advertises them to local customers. Frustrated by unsustainable subsidies to refugees that bred dependency, I saw Uhuru as a mechanism to facilitate refugee entrepreneurship. At CGIU, I was told President Clinton found my application as exemplary of the creative problem solving integral in public service.
Uhuru was recognized at a CGIU plenary session titled, “The Wisdom of Failure.” The development of Uhuru was dynamic, but my social entrepreneurship really grew from failure. Long before I was ever interested in crowd-sourcing, I wanted to start a non-profit. It was a grand idea born from my FOCUS program and my own frustration with the inefficacies of refugee resettlement agencies. I felt that my non-profit, the Triangle Area Refugee Association (TARA), could do better. I spent the fall semester of my first year refining the idea, writing proposals for grants and researching the path forward. I met with leaders in the refugee resettlement field, and I touted TARA to everyone I met. I must have seemed determined and optimistic.
But one day I gave up and stopped trying to make TARA happen. Part of it was the realization of my own arrogance—I thought that I could do better than industry veterans by just reinventing the wheel. I was still frustrated by resettlement outcomes, but I realized the problems were likely more systemic and could not be rectified through a non-profit. Refugee resettlement is hard, and I was naïve for thinking otherwise. It had been much easier to criticize, and much harder to do.
I would like to think that Uhuru is a story of redemption, and I think CGIU saw it that way. But this was not a comeback story. This was a story of opportunity, a chance that presented itself and an endeavor worth pursuing. My motivations made Uhuru different from TARA. I saw Uhuru as a cool idea that I wanted to try, and I saw TARA as a way to impress. I think TARA ultimately failed because creating a non-profit seemed like the standard go-to for college social activists like me who wanted to make a difference.
I still want things to be different, for refugee resettlement to be a better process. But I no longer want difference for difference’s sake, nor do I feel compelled to start a non-profit before I graduate. I am motivated now by the cause itself, a passion that has grown after working with refugees for two and a half years. Last November, I was invited to speak at the Humanitarian Challenges FOCUS program and there I met a group of first-year students developing social entrepreneurship solutions for refugee conflicts abroad. I made a point of emphasizing TARA, and I told them to seek out ideas with potential, not ideas that would provide opportunities to brag about. My advice stemmed from self-criticism—I am still mad at myself for feeling the need to rack up accomplishments for their own sake.
The motivations behind TARA are not unique to me. All too often I see non-profits, initiatives, student groups, mobile applications and other social entrepreneurship endeavors that froth with self-aggrandizement. The go-to for collegiate social causes is the act of creation itself rather than long-term results. We celebrate initiative, when sustainability might be a more apt goal. American campuses are rife with projects that have high-minded names, mission statements dripping with concocted passion and the ever-constant, but often convoluted and unchecked, goal to “raise awareness.”
And that is okay. It is unrealistic for everyone to have completely pure intentions. I have come to realize that TARA, though ill-motivated, was a formative experience. I learned more about refugee resettlement: what services are provided to refugees, how the resettlement process works and where existing refugee communities are located. I also picked up a set of advocacy organizational skills that have already been useful in my more results-driven activities. But, most importantly, I learned a lot about myself. I found out that I am resilient, industrious and driven. I also found out that I am drawn to achievement, self-promotion, and that, at my core, I have a lot of self-doubt. I felt the need to prove myself, to attach myself to a cause and show that I can create change.
We emerge from these seemingly change-driven endeavors with a better understanding of what creates real value in society. We learn these lessons now, so we can enter our post-collegiate life with a more mature understanding of our purpose. We reap wisdom from our enterprises, so we can one day substantively use this knowledge for the service of society.
Patrick Oathout, DSG executive vice president, is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Tuesday. You can follow Patrick on Twitter @patrickoathout.