Today, teachers, administrators, professors, companies, and nonprofits promise to equip students with the skills they need: Innovation, leadership, and entrepreneurship. Rather than trying to mold young people into critical thinkers and active citizens, higher education especially has pivoted towards a different paradigm of individual success and service. Each person has become an entrepreneur of her professional success and “brand.” Younger Americans are taught to believe that the market—and not the public sphere—is the appropriate place to pursue change.
Part and parcel of this shift has been the rise of social entrepreneurship, a trend that views the creation of new businesses as the means for pursuing desired social goals. Certain social ventures have made it easier for individuals to choose to do good. Many campaigns prove effective at wrestling local problems; a bevy of start-ups like Imperfect or Spoiler Alert seek to reduce food waste in U.S. cities, and Lifestraw has distributed low-cost water purification systems to people in crisis around the globe, bringing safe water to the survivors of the Haitian earthquake and the Pakistani floods in 2010.
Part of our hope in launching Scalawag followed a similar logic—the South has long had a proliferation of great stories that are both socially and politically important. We felt that the current media landscape made it difficult for Southerners to find quality writing about their own communities. We welcome the charge that social entrepreneurs can do great work by finding spaces where people want more infrastructure, a new platform, or a service.
But we also have to ask whether the lionization of social entrepreneurship leaves out something fundamental about the messy, contested process of fighting for social change.
When an entrepreneur decides to tackle social problems through a new app, she tries to change the world not by organizing people, but by providing a piece of technology. Too often, startups claim to fix engrained problems so simply. Businesses like Tom’s or Zady.com make it easier for individuals to continue to pursue their own interests as consumers while also doing something for the greater good. For better and for worse, the social entrepreneur tries to harness the market to redress injustice and disadvantage.
But the market logic that entrepreneurs deploy is captive to individual interests and preferences. It too often elides the harder work of political debate and action. How we ought to relate to each other, how we live together, and which sorts of political, economic and social institutions mediate our common world cannot be solved with an app.
How different, then, is the model of the active citizen to that of the social entrepreneur. The citizen focuses not simply with how to maximize her own indices of individual success, but seeks to ask critical questions about what people ought to do for one another.
Perhaps, to continue in sweeping terms, what we need to combat the growing economic and social inequalities that characterize the contemporary American South is to reengage with the idea that we ought to be active citizens. Rearticulating the ideal of citizenship in an era of dark money politics and politically manipulative budgetary paranoia is clearly no easy task. But we hope that telling better stories about how and why we ought to engage with our communities as citizens is at least a place to start.