Social Entrepreneurs of New Orleans

by Young Che on October 24, 2008

Last night I stumbled into the SENO Launch Party quite unexpectedly. SENO stands for Social Entrepreneurs of New Orleans. I found out about the event from the announcements column in the Money section of the Times Picayune. In keeping with my re-invigorated commitment to networking at all costs during these economically challenging times when I read about the meeting I decided to attend. I’ve got to admit that I initially figured this meeting would be about Social Media and Web 2.0 related topics. I’d heard the term social entrepreneur before but it just didn’t click immediately that I would be in a room full of individuals working to make a difference in our city. I was at Models For Success headquarters when I read about the meeting and shared with Jason and Sed that I would be going. Sed is the one who cleared things up for me and told me that Social Entrepreneurship is the type of company he runs. It started to make a little more sense at that point.

The launch party was held uptown at The Fine Arts Center on Constantinople Street. I walked into the venue and kind of stood back for a moment to enjoy the diverse crowd interacting with one another as if they were at a family reunion. At first I didn’t really know which way I’d go because all of the tables seemed to be reserved for one of the organizations or social entrepreneurs. However, one of the ladies from SENO advised me that I could just pick any table I like and make myself at home because as she put it, “we’re all friends here.”

BE THE CHANGE! Connect. Create. Innovate.

Andrea Chen of the SENO Team opened up citing some of the problems which we face presently and historically in the city of New Orleans. Violence, eroding wetlands and failing schools just to name a few. In addition to showing the world the Third World like conditions many of the citizens of New Orleans have lived under for years, Andrea observed “Hurricane Katrina also revealed how fragile our support systems are.”

She also noted that these circumstances have presented a quite a challenge for this city in particular and that social entrepreneurs are rising to the challenge with innovative approaches.

The excitement in the room could definitely fuel a commercial jet flight from New Orleans to wherever it is you wanted to go and back. Change is definitely in the air. Every direction you turned it seemed like you ran into another believer in the potential for greatness that we possess as a city. For me this is especially encouraging because of my well documented love/hate relationship I have with this great and dreadful city of ours. The evening continued with a panel discussion featuring social entrepreneurs who have been impacting our communities in a positive way. The theme of the panel discussion was: What does it take to support and sustain the social change movement?

INNOVATION!

Carole Bebelle (Ashe Cultural Arts Center) emphatically proclaimed that innovation is one of the most vital components of this social change movement. She pointed out that necessity is the mother of invention and that as far as needs go New Orleans is the Need Mecca. In Carole’s words, “we are in need of almost everything that you can think of for a city to be functional. We have to do almost everything over again and we shouldn’t recreate what we had. We must evolve to something better than what we had.” Carole also talked about the importance of us creating the kind of city that would be conducive to Brain Gain as opposed to the decades of Brain Drain that we suffered as a city. Most of the Brain Drain was a result of our best and brightest young minds being forced to leave this city in order to find employment and opportunities for growth.

Dr. Kyshun Webster (Operation Reach) spoke to the need for people to mature in their understanding of what a non-profit is and what it means to run a non-profit organization. Non-profits can and should earn revenue. Non-profits should model themselves like for profit businesses and operate with that goal in mind. He also expressed concern over the fact that social entrepreneurs have to be legitimized by those outside of the city before they can be embraced locally.

John Thompson (Resurrection After Exoneration) encouraged everyone to stay connected. He works with ex-cons attempting to make the difficult transition back into life on the outside and finds that it helps to stay involved with program participants after the program ends. A lot of times they still need that support and six months to a year may not be long enough so you have to make yourself and your services available. In addition to making your service available part of your service has to be staying connected with those you serve by tracking their life progress long after they have moved on with their lives. It fosters that sense of family and sometimes you may be the only family they have.

Aesha Rashad (Parent Organizing Network) wanted everybody in the room to know inspiration is not just yours. Aesha had so much spirit and high energy that it was definitely contagious. She admitted that she was a little star struck with so many heavy hitters is the world of social change being in attendance but once she started to share her thoughts and ideas you knew instantly that her passion for change could uplift anyone willing to share a few moments with her. She told the crowd that you have to invite others in and put as many ideas on the table as possible. You have to share it for it to grow.

Craig Cuccia (Café Reconcile) shared with the crowd that we have to embrace change. He said, “out with the old and in with the new.” He stressed the importance of learning all you can about what you are trying to do. He admonished the audience to do their homework. He also expressed how important it is to network and to tell your story. “Relationships, Relationships, Relationships.” He also discussed the importance of sharing what you’ve learned with those who are coming behind you by paying it forward. In closing he said that it was o.k. for people to think that you’re crazy. Don’t worry about it and keep pushing forward.

As the panel discussion began to wind down Carole Bebelle mentioned the roles that fear and failure play in the realm social entrepreneurship. She cautioned her fellow social change agents about the people around you who may not understand this feeling in your gut to do what you do. She said that sometimes you even begin to feel like a failure because of your own perceived lack of progress. Its times like these that you have to put your head down and keep going into the wind. If you are doing this work you’re bound to have failures but your failures can teach you as much or more than your successes. The important thing is what you learn from your failures. It’s O.K. to feel fear because it is natural, but do what you set out to do in spite of your fears.

It would seem that social entrepreneurship is alive and well in the city of New Orleans and as one of the panelists noted that we have a good chance to be a model for the world. We have something going for us that other cities may not have; we know how to talk to one another. New Orleans may do wrong what other cities do right but we also happen to do right what other cities do wrong.

Personally I had a very enlightening evening and am looking forward to working with several members of this community for social change in the city of New Orleans. In closing I’d like to leave you with SENO’s vision statement.

Just as Silicon Valley is known as the center for technological innovation, we envision New Orleans becoming known as the hub for social entrepreneurship. We believe in harnessing the power of local diversity and the new participatory mentality to launch the problem-solver into action. A social change movement is currently underway, and SENO will sustain this new energy by supporting social entrepreneurs who are committed to making deep social impact.

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