Bill Drayton’s army of changemakers

The man who coined the term ‘social entrepreneur’, speaks on why his organisation, Ashoka, wants all teens to be agents for good

July 12, 2019 03:24 pm | Updated 03:24 pm IST

Bill Drayton (pictured) believes that teenagers and children should also be changemakers

Bill Drayton (pictured) believes that teenagers and children should also be changemakers

Bill Drayton has been helming Ashoka, the global organisation that invests in the work of social changemakers, for 39 years now. He also gave us ‘social entrepreneur’, a phrase that describes the work of people who bring market-based solutions to social issues, like India’s Jeroo Billimoria, an Ashoka Fellow who founded Childline, an emergency telephone service for street children in India.

But today, more than ever, Drayton believes that teenagers and children should also be changemakers. When asked why he feels this urgency now, the septuagenarian shares that the world is in the “middle of a necessary but painful historical transition”. This new reality, spurred in part by rapid, technology-fuelled change, he says, can explain why income equality has spiralled out of control.

If you’re able to keep up with this new order, life can’t be too bad. But not for those who are left behind, says Drayton, who describes the situation in the following manner: “If you get up and go into your day ready to play soccer, you’re going to have a terrible time if the game has shifted to chess.” And widening inequality can lead to a culture of “us versus them politics”, he warns. “The successful part of society is, in effect, telling the others, ‘Go away. We don’t need you. And, by the way, your kids don’t have much of a future’.”

To combat this new world order, Ashoka launched the ‘Everyone a Changemaker’ movement in June, an initiative to ensure that everyone can be an agent for good. And today marks the second day of a three-day-selection process in Bengaluru for the Indian cohort of Young Changemakers. Short-listed candidates, who had a chance to meet Drayton yesterday, will hear from Ashoka Fellows, be interviewed by panelists, and even engage in brainstorming sessions about social impact.

The kids are alright

What makes this movement different to Ashoka’s work with its global network of fellows — many of whom have helped shift public policy — is the youth-centric focus. In an effort to help teenagers build their “dream, their team and their changed world”, the organisation will pair the selected changemakers under the age of 20 with institutions, advisors and other partners to help them work on socially-driven projects.

India’s shortlisted candidates include teenagers leading a design company making products for the specially-abled, a non-profit that helps prison inmates upcycle temple waste into sculptures, and an initiative that feeds stray animals. These Young Changemakers, says Drayton, form a vital part of the organisation’s rubric, serving not as subordinates, but as equals to their older (adult) peers. “They are role models of what happens when a young person is a changemaker, and they are the key to helping society see the change that is possible and necessary,” says Drayton.

Defining greatness

Despite the rapid change that our generation has witnessed, Drayton does not believe that a social entrepreneur today has a vastly different role. In fact, earlier examples look very familiar, he claims. “Maria Montessori (the Italian educator and founder of the Montessori system of schools) developed a different and very valuable concept of wiser childrearing. She then created a global movement. Her idea and her architecture are very much still with us.”

But what has changed is the scale, he says. “There are more of us. Since 1980, our field has caught up with business as it became structurally competitive and entrepreneurial. But what constitutes a great social entrepreneur has not changed,” he concludes.

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