March 18, 2020 — Did you know that women who are incarcerated sometimes have to bargain with prison guards to get enough sanitary pads when they’re menstruating? Or that sex education for youth is rare in rural Asian communities? These are among the problems that students in NMH’s Social Entrepreneurship program are trying to solve.
After months of research and planning, the enterprises developed by seniors in the two-year program are taking shape in a public way, through online presentations, social media outreach, and services delivered to target audiences. This is despite numerous COVID-related constraints that changed how the course operates. “Students have had to collaborate across time zones, or they aren’t on campus at all this year, or they can’t host in-person events, or visit organizations to talk with other like-minded folks,” said Assistant Dean of Faculty Grant Gonzalez, who teaches the Social Entrepreneurship course. “The students have been innovative, resilient, and persistent in trying to pull off what they had in mind.”
Last year, as 11th graders, the students learned the ropes of the social entrepreneurship industry. As 12th graders, they’ve developed and launched enterprises of their own — five altogether. Cycles promotes menstrual health and equity for women who are incarcerated by distributing products to several correctional facilities and sharing information through a newsletter. ECOnomy focuses on sustainable living, and designs personalized “action plans” for people seeking guidance on topics such as how to compost without a backyard or how to break a fast-fashion habit. YOU(th) Should Know is collaborating with OB-GYNs to develop sex-education curricula for students in rural China and Vietnam. BYOC is a youth-centered discussion forum that is currently hosting monthly online events that aim to build political agency. And the Rainbow Project is raising awareness about LBGTQ issues in China by publishing informational videos on the social media platform WeChat.
The pandemic has limited the students’ efforts in some ways, but it’s also opened a few doors. Linh Dinh ’21, of YOU(th) Should Know, said, “A lot of our expert advisors are in different parts of the U.S., and we probably wouldn’t have been able to take trips outside of school to go meet with them. We wouldn’t have connected with as many people as quickly without the new virtual world that has opened up.” Layla Hay ’21, who works on the Cycles enterprise, agreed. Before COVID-19, she and her partners would likely have visited a local correctional facility, and might have concentrated their efforts there. Instead, “we’ve had to expand our reach and reach out to facilities outside of Western Massachusetts,” she said.
Savannah Byrne ’21 added that social media promotion has led ECOnomy to highlight digital services rather than in-person community events that were made impossible by COVID restrictions. “We’re making action plans for individuals, and one of the questions we ask is where they live. We’ve had people from Hawaii and California and Washington fill out our form,” she reported.
Getting these initiatives off the ground requires attention to dozens of details. When the entrepreneurs take a step back, they wonder what big-picture impact their work is having. While seeking feedback from their target audiences is built into the course, “it can be hard to really see if we’re actually helping anyone,” Hay said.
But there are moments, she added, like the one this week, when she and her partners got on the phone with a new Cycles contact, a formerly incarcerated woman who is now an author. “She told us about her experience in jail, and then she said, ‘What you’re doing is definitely impacting people. Even if you don’t know it, people appreciate what you’re doing.’ I think that is what keeps us all going. That’s why we took this course in the first place — to create change. Even if it’s in very, very small increments.”