2016 Irish Impact Conference to Focus on Inclusivity

As I wrote in my last blog post, I have the opportunity to work with some of the smartest minds in the country as a result of my teaching. I love my job – because it challenges me; because it is an evolving academic discipline. Sometimes I feel barely a half a step in front of the students. And I know that I have an awesome responsibility in terms of what I teach and how I am helping to shape the next generation of leaders.

But I am also aware that I live in a bubble. Because these students are smart and have access, we are able to dream things that seem un-dream-able.

Hand holding a light bulb front on gears drawing blackboard

What about those who don’t have access – those who don’t have access to education, to financial assistance, to mind-blowing international opportunities, to networks, to internships, to the best jobs?

Thankfully I work for an institution that cares about those things. It doesn’t mean it’s any easier to provide that access. We wrack our brains and try to wrap our minds around solutions that will help to provide that access. And, I’m the first to admit that we may or may not be doing it in a way that is imperialistic. We are a less diverse academic community than we want to be in a less-than-diverse geographic region. How do we help to solve problems in diverse communities without presuming we know more than those communities?

Over the course of the spring semester, several of my students developed a social enterprise plan that would bring jobs to Detroit. It would bring attention to a Rust Belt community that is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. Their plan was to sell a product to a demographic that looks like them. That can afford the product. Their marketing plan was a thing of beauty. If these students were to move forward on their business plan, there is no doubt that they could see it through. Not only was it a good idea, but they have the capacity and the connections to move forward. It doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be difficult or that they wouldn’t experience many sleepless nights getting the business up and off the ground, but they would be the typical investor’s dream enterprise.

If these students moved forward with their idea, employment in a Rust Belt community is a good thing, right? Drawing attention to Detroit? Adding to the tax base? Revitalizing an old manufacturing facility that previously lay (or lie) dormant? Attracting other millennials to this vibrant city? Other millennials from elite, less-than-diverse, socially-oriented schools that look just like them?

One of Diego Rivera's mammoth Detroit Industry murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

One of Diego Rivera’s mammoth Detroit Industry murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Is that enough? Is that “making a difference”? Some might say that it is, and I agree that we need this sort of enterprise to provide employment in an under-resourced community. It means more stability for wage earners and their families. But, and these questions may seem harsh – and I hope they generate comments – is employing an under-represented parent to sew denim enough? Is it enough that s/he has a job? Is it enough that s/he can afford to purchase food for their family? New clothing? Purchase a home? Renovate that same home? Educate their children? So that in another generation or two those same children will be college-educated or can afford to send their children to college? Is this enough?

How do we create that same opportunity – the capacity to start and grow a successful business – for the under-represented? The under-resourced? Minorities? Women? How do we make entrepreneurship more inclusive? What if that same under-represented parent had the same idea? Who would “win”?

I love my job, but I don’t want to teach only students who can afford to attend this institution. How do I/we change that? How do we make it possible for that parent to get access to the same resources? To the same educational tools? To the same networks? To the same human and financial and intellectual capital? How do we build that individual’s capacity? His or her community’s capacity?

I admit that I do not have all of the answers. We’ve already made mistakes in thinking that we do, but I do think we have some answers. And, we know others who have some answers. How do we knit these answers together? How do we fashion a community of inclusive entrepreneurs? How do we create an ecosystem? How do we catalyze human-centric problem solvers? How do we create collisions?

These are the questions that we are grappling with, that keep us up at night. If we truly want to see (social) entrepreneurship achieve scale, then we need to do everything we can to answer these questions, to address these problems. Everyone deserves a seat at the table. Entrepreneurship MUST be inclusive.

Join us on October 27th and 28th for the Irish Impact Conference so that we can further dialogue. We are delighted to bring Amon Anderson, co-director of Acumen America, to campus for the 2016 conference. Acumen is trying to successfully answer these very questions, by investing in entrepreneurs who are addressing financial inclusivity, healthcare, and workforce development, among many other social and environmental issues.  Register today!

Melissa Paulsen is an assistant director at the Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship in the Mendoza College of Business, University of Notre Dame. She serves as director for the Center’s social entrepreneurship program as well as concurrent professional faculty in the undergraduate and graduate programs. For more information about Irish Impact, please visit the Irish Impact website or contact Melissa at mpaulse1@nd.edu.

2 responses to “2016 Irish Impact Conference to Focus on Inclusivity

  1. How do we help to solve problems in diverse communities without presuming we know more than those communities?

    Sandra Sweeney
    To mpaulse1@nd.edu
    Today at 11:00 AM
    Good Morning, Melissa!

    Colleen Wade, a ND grad, posted this your Irish Impact article on FB and I thought you might like to see this article about students from Virginia Tech who were facing a similar problem.


    Also, I thought I’d add my two cents to the discussion. I’m a 1978 graduate of Michigan State University and presently live in the mountains of West Virginia. I am a recent convert to the Mennonite Church, too, which I share because that is part of my input.

    I am a free-lance writer for Christian Light Publication, a Mennonite publishing house in Harrisonburg, VA. The focus of my writing is on students with learning disabilities. That has been my passion in education and I just love working with that student population and their parents!

    Anyway, I attended teacher training at CLP in August to learn how their curriculum is implemented in the Mennonite and other Christian schools that use it. And I’d come with expectations typical, I would imagine, of any college education graduate. How can they teach when the teachers may only have an 8th or 10th or 12th grade education? Quite well, I discovered!

    The focus of a Mennonite school is on God, as one would expect. But I found that to be an enormous advantage to the teachers as well as the students in the schools. With entire communities living for God, seeking to do His will, really implementing Biblical concepts in their daily lives, the focus is completely different than in public or parochial schools I’ve taught at. The focus is truly on bringing out the best in each student. And there are no distractions from this focus – no standardized, high-stakes testing and all the pressure that comes with it, no “politically correct” curriculum additions that take away from academics, no forced inclusion of special days and holidays that take away time from learning (Johnny Appleseed Day, Grandparents’ Day, Halloween, a commercial/Santa focus on Christmas, Valentine’s Day, etc.). It is a much more relaxed, supportive, nurturing environment where all students have the opportunity to thrive. I’d much rather work with a Mennonite teacher and help her develop strategies for helping her students with LD, than contend with all the external pressures another teacher faces! In addition, the Mennonite teachers have a very different aspect than those outside the community – patient, noncompetitive (unless you get them on a softball field and then, look out!), supportive, helpful, kind.

    And while the Mennonites in my local church have not received a college education, they’re all actively involved in work and community assistance. How many carpenters, electricians, plumbers, EMT’s, farmers, auto mechanics, construction workers, roofers, sawmill operators do most folks know? Here, those are all members of my church! We all help each other with tasks; I’m filling in for a housekeeper of one church member’s rental cabins in exchange for carpentry assistance. Last night, I helped friends harvest potatoes – and they offered to give me some. (First, I need to clean out the old root cellar!) As a church, we’ve gathered to split and stack firewood for neighbors who couldn’t do that themselves. In two hours, we had three rows of firewood about 80′ long! And these same hard working church members are also quite well-versed in the Bible, serve as our church’s ministers and bishops.

    My neighbors next door are what one might think of as typical West Virginia mountain folks – and I dearly love them! It is to Bernie and Bill that I turn to for mountain wisdom – weather, sounds of the forest (they can identify any bird call!), using a clothesline to hang laundry (I’ve been used to a dryer!) – what I think of as survival-in-the-mountains stuff. They’d probably feel lost and out of place on a college campus, but they’re right at home in this environment!

    A dear friend of mine used to use old, plastic coffee canisters for storage bins. When I lived in Northern Virginia, I wondered why he’d use that instead of getting Rubbermaid. Well, now I’m the one using old coffee canisters for storage! And I’m using old yogurt containers, too! And cleaning plastic bags and reusing those – when Walmart is an hour away, you save what you have and use what you have on hand. We use rags instead of sponges and Swiffer dusters. We can or freeze what we get from gardens – in the winter here, you don’t just drop into a grocery store within a 5-minute drive!

    Here, we don’t have fast food or drive-through restaurants. No Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts or McDonald’s. We don’t have malls to stroll through or movie theatres to catch the latest movie. We don’t even have cell phone reception! But what we do have more than makes up for the absence of typical suburban amenities. We live a slower-paced life – yes, we are busy with our chores, but the pace is different. We are not focused on TV (Mennonites don’t have TV and I haven’t had one in 22 years), electronic games, the computer, entertainment, or outside news. Instead, we really know our neighbors. We visit with them and cut wood for them and take over food when they’re sick. We don’t need Facebook – we have face-to-face real friendships, real conversations, we share real meals together in our homes, not in the hustle and bustle of a restaurant.

    A friend of mine recently married in the Mennonite church. What a welcome difference from the typical rituals of other weddings I’ve been to. The bridal shower and wedding invitations were made by the bride. At the bridal shower, folks brought typical items to start a new home, along with a hot water canner, canning jars, and kitchenware both new and second-hand. And no one gave a second thought to the second-hand items – they were admired just as much as the new stuff! At the wedding, the focus was on the marriage. No flowers, no fancy reception hall or decorations or store-bought wedding cake. The minister who officiated at the service had also performed the same duties at both the bride’s and the groom’s parents’ weddings! The community pitched in to prepare and serve the reception. Instead of a typical wedding cake, lots of different types of cakes had been made by a host of family members and friends. No band, no DJ, just wonderful companionship, fellowship, food, and a focus on where it really should be – the marriage. I’ve been to some very expensive showers and weddings – nothing tops this wedding, in my opinion.

    For a while after moving here, I helped with a friend’s Black Angus herd. I implemented strategies from Temple Grandin’s research and that was well-received. But when I needed help with a sick calf, it was a neighbor who came to my assistance, bringing his own meds and showing me how to take care of the calf. When his well needed a new pump, I was out there for two days in February, assisting him and another neighbor pull up the old pump and replace it with new. We just pitch in as needed and help one another.

    When my friend purchased a backhoe, he was over helping another man dig a trench on his farm. It’s just like this in the country – as it should be. We look out for each other.

    When I’m heading up the mountain and my path is blocked by a fallen tree, my BA in elementary education (earned in three years, not four!) is of absolutely NO GOOD! However, knowing how to use a chainsaw will come in handy! When I have no money, as is the case now, my awards for teaching won’t help me fix a blouse whose collar dipped into bleach accidentally. But the sewing skills I have will allow me to alter the pattern of the blouse’s collars and create a better blouse – minus the bleach-damaged fabric. Speaking en francais won’t help me eat this winter – but knowing how to blanch and freeze green beans and soybeans and store potatoes in my root cellar will! Here, knowing how to hunt and process venison is a valuable skill; some folks don’t buy any meat in the grocery store. They’ll even butcher a hog and make their own sausage.

    I went to an auction lately. It was a local farm auction, just the other side of the mountain. The items from three generations showed just how independent the family had to be. Up for bid was a grinding wheel, two leather working benches, a cider press, half a dozen farm machines, the contents of a spring house, the contents of a storage shed (which included shoe forms for repairing shoes!), and lots of artifacts that demonstrated how a single family truly could live independently in the mountains year-round. That is not something college teaches us. But if college graduates were forced to live in the mountains, they would quickly discover their education wouldn’t help with the practical skills necessary to survive and thrive here. Those skills, they’d need to pick up from the locals. Yep, the locals wearing work pants and suspenders, driving an older truck with a hound in the back, speaking with a dialect they may not understand at first. The very people the college students might look down upon at other times would be the exact people they would need to learn from in order to live in the mountains.

    What I found is that what I learned in college, what I experienced as an Army officer’s wife, my time in public, parochial, and private schools in Virginia, don’t really apply too much to life here in Seneca Rocks, West Virginia. My friendliness, inquisitive nature, willingness to pitch in and help no matter what, openness to others, are all qualities that have helped me find my niche in this wonderful place I now call home. When the focus is not on me, when it’s on my neighbors, is probably the one thing that has helped me most.

    So, to answer the question you posed about solving problems in diverse communities, I would suggest that you seek out those communities as equal partners in solving a problem that THEY want solved. Dress to fit in, have a smile ready at all times, check any attitude that you might have about a “superior education” at the door, and practice the Golden Rule. Slow your pace; this give all parties a chance to learn about each other, an opportunity to trust each other. When in Rome, do as the Romans do – this is THEIR space, not yours (at least not yet!). Learn from them as you would learn from a guide on a wilderness hunting trip.

    And food always helps! Real food, homemade good stuff.

    I hope some of this helps you in your quest to help Detroit, and to fit in with other communities you encounter.

    Sandra Sweeney
    Seneca Rocks, West Virginia
    Reply, Reply All or Forward | More
    Click to Reply, Reply All or Forward


    • Thanks, Sandra – your advice at the bottom of your comment resonates with us all! “So, to answer the question you posed about solving problems in diverse communities, I would suggest that you seek out those communities as equal partners in solving a problem that THEY want solved. Dress to fit in, have a smile ready at all times, check any attitude that you might have about a “superior education” at the door, and practice the Golden Rule. Slow your pace; this give all parties a chance to learn about each other, an opportunity to trust each other. When in Rome, do as the Romans do – this is THEIR space, not yours (at least not yet!).


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