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Basu: Honorees teach us lessons about involvement

by Rekha Basu | Published on May 5, 2011 in Des Moines Register

We’ve heard it said that young people are not what they used to be. They’re enti­tled, self-absorbed and instant-gratification-oriented, with their cell phones, laptops and other distrac­tions. A gener­a­tion raised on Facebook and “American Idol” has to be narcis­sistic, lacking a baby boomer’s zeal for social change.

But such assump­tions were blown out of the water for me when I recently served on the selec­tion committee for Grinnell College’s Young Innovators for Social Justice prize.

Young people are doing so much smart, impactful work for justice, humanity, peace, economic access and envi­ron­mental respect, that one is tempted to step aside and let the folks under 40 run the world.

We sought candi­dates who were inno­v­a­tive and successful but hadn’t received much recog­ni­tion. On Thursday the college announced the winners: Eric Glustrom and Boris Bulayev, both 26, a team; James Kofi Annan, 37, and Melissa Weintraub, 35.

Weintraub, a conser­v­a­tive Jewish rabbi, has been taking American Jewish leaders to Palestinian terri­to­ries through her project, Encounter, to generate better under­standing and reshape U.S. poli­cies and prior­i­ties in one of the world’s most intractable conflict zones. Testimonials from people on both sides prove it has changed hearts and minds.

Annan, a survivor of child traf­ficking who escaped and taught himself to read, left a cushy bank job to estab­lish Challenging Heights in Ghana. It rescues, educates and reha­bil­i­tates child slavery victims and works to end the root causes of child trafficking.

Glustrom started Educate! at 17 while working with refugees in Uganda, where half the popu­la­tion is under 15 and youth unem­ploy­ment is the world’s highest. He met Bulayev at Amherst College and they’ve built the orga­ni­za­tion to provide training, mentoring and access to capital, so youth them­selves can find solu­tions to prob­lems like poverty, disease, violence, envi­ron­mental degra­da­tion and unem­ploy­ment. Now, Uganda’s govern­ment has asked Educate! to incor­po­rate its social entre­pre­neur­ship course into the national educa­tion system.

Social justice is easy to talk about and hard to achieve. It’s one thing to crit­i­cize some­thing but infi­nitely harder to craft an alter­na­tive. It means being clear-eyed enough to recog­nize what’s not working but visionary enough to imagine what could. The 48 nomi­nees our committee reviewed (out of an initial 900 from 66 coun­tries) have started projects for home­less trans­gen­dered people and for incar­cer­ated youth, launched commu­nity food culti­va­tion programs and rural clinics in depressed areas. Among their projects was an alter­na­tive to prison for immi­grant detainees awaiting hear­ings; a new system to assess disaster-relief work; and audio­vi­sual tech­nolo­gies to mobi­lize commu­ni­ties on prob­lems they face with busi­ness or government.

These projects take courage and creativity. You have to work with, or around, insti­tu­tions that may not be keen on change. You have to find new ways to raise money, as the Amherst pair did, by, among other things, holding date auctions on campus. You have to get commu­ni­ties you are working with to buy in. And you cannot expect much compen­sa­tion or recog­ni­tion because social change work is often neither lucra­tive nor popular.

That’s why Raynard Kington, Grinnell’s new pres­i­dent, created the prize soon after his arrival (he’s being inau­gu­rated Saturday). He hoped the recog­ni­tion and three $100,00 prizes, half of which goes to the winners and half to their orga­ni­za­tions, would help affirm and support trans­for­ma­tional grass-roots projects, and offer Grinnell students alter­na­tive models of lead­er­ship. Kington himself embodies a different model of lead­er­ship. He has a medical degree, is gay, black and raising two young sons with his partner.

And while college pres­i­dents are often picked to bring in money, he’s giving it out, for social change. But that’s entirely in line with Grinnell’s histor­ical mission, and it’s a great way to keep acad­emia socially relevant.

Click here for the orig­inal article. 

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Encounter is an edu­ca­tional orga­ni­za­tion dedi­cated to strength­ening the capacity of the Jewish people to be construc­tive agents of change in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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