Graduate Student Spotlight: Transforming Social Activism into Social Innovation

Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre DameA master’s student at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, Adel Nehmeh shares his personal journey from activism to innovation. Adel holds an M.S. in electrical engineering from Montana State University and a B.E. in computer and communications engineering from Notre Dame University in Lebanon. Before changing careers to focus on peace studies, he worked as a field engineer and an implementation consultant. He hopes to build a network of young peacebuilders in the Middle East by promoting social entrepreneurship.

I was born in the civil war, luckily towards the end of it so all that has been imprinted in my childhood memories is a vague image of the bomb shelter close to our house in Karm El Zeitoun, Lebanon.

Wars never end, especially if they end without a victor. Wars live through the memories of those who survived them and through the direct and indirect impact they have on people’s livelihoods, the infrastructure and the economy of the country. Growing up after the civil war presented me with plenty of opportunities to witness how the core grievances that led to the war, manifested themselves in various ways, ranging from massive protests, public space bombings, targeted assassinations, and political ineptitude and corruption.

As a freshman in college, I finally was outside the radar of my parents and I could take to the streets, shout out loud, demand changes, and express my frustration with the status quo. Eighteen years after the civil war, the country was still suffering from a weak political system run by sectarianism, clientelism, and nepotism. The social and economic system that has been developed served only its architects and failed to provide equitably for all citizens. The educational system was in shackles,  with the majority of families having to send their children to private schools if they were to have a better future, and even that was sometimes not enough to prepare students and integrate them into the job market.activism

I was proud of being a social activist, someone speaking out and active in making a difference. As the naive teenage years went by, I learned how to assess the impact of my actions, and realized that being a social activist is not only done through protesting, blogging, and complaining about the system. One has to offer alternatives. As a teacher, I realized that telling someone that his or her method is wrong will not help to correct it. Instead you need to teach the student how to do it right by providing an alternative, one that proves itself to be better than the current practice at hand.

This was an epiphany for me – the idea that the solution lies within social innovation rather than mere social activism. It is important to point out here that the two are not mutually exclusive, for a social innovation is definitely one form of social activism and social activism can be innovative.

Lebanese childrenSo where does social innovation outperform traditional social activism? The answer was always in front me – in fact, a few minutes from my home, where I spent hours benefiting from the youth program offered by the Christian Lebanese NGO, Arcenciel. Arcenciel defines social entrepreneurship as the practice of combining innovation, resourcefulness and opportunity to address critical social and environmental challenges which the government or usual economic actors are not or cannot meet. The objective of a social enterprise is not maximizing its profit, but striking a balance between its income-generating activities to ensure financial sustainability, and the social and environmental impact of these activities. Social entrepreneurship incorporates the following four dimensions:

  • Democratic governance and beneficiaries involvement
  • The sustainable business model
  • The aim of creating a social or environmental impact
  • Innovation (“Make it different”)

Under these principles, Arcenciel was active in promoting and advocating for the rights of people with disabilities (PWD). They had been doing so for years by establishing a responsible fiscal enterprise that catered for the needs of PWD while at the same time generating profit through catering services and equipment to those who suffered from temporary injuries. I could have taken to the streets all day and all night, but could not have offered the PWD any breakthroughs by pumping my fists in the air and damaging my vocal chords.

CRS-supported Arcenciel in Lebanon places people with disabilities, like 28-year-old Charbel Elian, into jobs so they can earn a living.

CRS-supported Arcenciel in Lebanon places people with disabilities, like 28-year-old Charbel Elian, into jobs so they can earn a living.

Arcenciel is not the only organization addressing social issues in Lebanon without depending heavily on philanthropy and donations. Following are just a few more of the successful and operating social enterprises in Lebanon:

  • Mommy Made: Women empowerment and employment through catering
  • AltCity was designed from the bottom up to help facilitate, mobilize, encourage, and support high impact entrepreneurship and innovation in Lebanon and the region. Here are some of the things that guide our work.
  • Lamba Labs Beirut Hackerspace(LLBH) is an interdisciplinary collaboration that provides an open, accessible community space focused on the sharing of knowledge and hands on learning.
  • Seeqnce is startup accelerator that is constantly seeking to provide mentoring and guidance to startups in Lebanon.
  • eTobb whose mission mission is to improve access to healthcare by building the largest network of top doctors in the region and making it accessible to the public through a phone application and a website that seek  to empower people with medical knowledge to help them make more informed decisions when it comes to their health.

The list could go on and on, and I would welcome your additions to this list. My hope is that you too may realize the power of social activism transformed into social innovation, not only in Lebanon, but wherever you are in the world.


Photo Credits: iStockphotoandyworksHouda Kassalty, photojournalist and volunteer at Arcenciel (children); Lebanon Ministry of Tourism (fishing boats); and (young man)


2 responses to “Graduate Student Spotlight: Transforming Social Activism into Social Innovation

  1. Most often, it’s movie stars and sports superstars who have a very high social value. A short-cut to assuming the persona of someone with a high social value is to simply pretend that you’re James Bond, Angelina Jolie or the hottest football, baseball or basketball star at the moment. Silly as it may sound, doing this gets your brain into the right mode to make you aware of how you behave differently than normal. It can be useful for being more conscious of your behavior. However, you need to have a deeper understanding of social value to be able to implement it as a permanent part of your personality. High social value is most often attractive, but not always. In this text, I will explain why …
    If you would like to read more about high social value, you can access to my blog on:


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