February 5, 2014

so·cial in·no·va·tion, n.

by Christina Paxson

In a three-part blog series, we ask members of the Brown community to answer the question: “What does social innovation mean to you?” President Christina Paxson kicks off the series with her recipe for social innovation.


People often use the term social entrepreneur or social innovator to describe an individual with a breakthrough idea for social change. But what does it mean for the university itself to be a social innovator?

Here at Brown I believe we have the three key ingredients of a social innovator: imagination, a passion for making a difference in the world, and a culture of collaboration.

There is a spirit of imagination that runs deep in our community. Our open curriculum flips the traditional structure inside out and encourages students to think critically about not only their course selection, but the bigger story. What is my vision for my education? How will it change, challenge, or open up new ways of knowing? We celebrate these questions and attract individuals with the curiosity, creativity, and courage to explore them. What this creates is an institution protected against complacency, with the ideas and imperative to dream.

We believe in research and education that engage and strengthen the community. Each must inform and improve the other. The Engaged Scholars, a group of faculty convened by the Swearer Center for Public Service, strengthen opportunities for scholarship - teaching and research - that benefits local and global communities. This month we also welcome the fifth class of Social Innovation Fellows - a group of 15-20 students who build social ventures in the community alongside intensive skills training and coursework. We understand that classrooms don’t always have four walls, and students flourish by engaging with the world beyond Brown, whether at D’Abate Elementary School in Olneyville or a health clinic in Zanzibar. Because when academic and real-world experiences mix, we all discover new ways to listen, learn, and grow.

Finally, we value the voices of students, faculty, and community members equally. Collaboration doesn’t mean informing others; it’s including them in every step of the process. The TRI-Lab at Brown provides such a space for undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and community practitioners to dive deeply into a social topic through a year-long seminar, programs, and work groups focused on developing concrete next steps from their collective learning. Together they have asked questions, identified challenges, and explored solutions to the issue of healthy early childhood development in Rhode Island. A truly collaborative and interdisciplinary approach helps us both understand one another and make our work stronger.

The bottom line: social innovation is made possible when we advance our mission through the ideals of imagination, impact, and collaboration that define Brown. With this strong foundation, we can take important steps forward in working together in fulfillment of our mission to serve our community, the nation, and the world.

Later this month, Brown will host the Ashoka U Exchange, which will convene 650 students, university leaders, faculty, and entrepreneurs from over 150 institutions and 20 countries together to explore social innovation in higher education. The theme of this year’s conference is “The New Scholar” - a way to explore both the possibilities for new knowledge creation as well as the collective identity of students, faculty, and practitioners who will apply this knowledge to address global challenges. Learn more.


Related Stories

  • August 11, 2016

    "My name is Gwendolene Mugodi and I am a writer and the founder of Paivapo Storytellers, a movement that aims to provide better access to local, good quality literature to the children in Zimbabwe--and eventually beyond. Our work would not be complete without the help of local artists like Abel Zvorufura who I met through the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. As two different artists we spent about a month and a half going back and forth on this book until we got to a place we were both happy with. I look forward to sharing that full book in a few months, but for now here's a little bit about Abel and why he does what he does." 

    Gwendolene Mugodi
  • June 13, 2016

    Lauren Maunus '19 is starting a bold new venture.

    Its goal: To help eliminate food waste and bring healthy, affordable food to "food swamps" in Rhode Island and beyond.

    Nitya Amalean, Storyteller for Good
  • March 15, 2016

    Yelitsa Jean-Charles studies Illustration at RISD with a a concentration in Gender, Race & Sexuality. She identifies as a visual activist, and believes that artists have a responsibility as society’s image-makers. Her doll company and book series, Healthy Roots, combats internalized racism and colorism by getting to the root of the problem: altering beauty standards and cultviating self-love for young girls through education, diversity, and positive representation. 

    Isabel DeBre and Nitya Amalean, Storytellers for Good
  • March 12, 2016
    An Excerpt

    Mina is a Brown-RISD Social Innovation Fellow. She traveled to her home in Iran last summer and brought back a cultural souvenir: the book she wrote, Taste of Culture. She explores Iranian families, streets, stores and the stories and spirit embedded in the recipes of Iranian food. She hopes to start a conversation about the benefit of knowing cuisines of different cultures to connect societies. 

    This year's class of Brown-RISD Social Innovation Fellows have just begun their yearlong foray into the world of social entrepenuership. Check out their projects here

    Mina Jafarpoor '16
  • December 17, 2015
  • December 16, 2015

    Ria is a 2015 Social Innovation Fellow and co-founder of No Country for Women (NCFW), an internationally-recognized gender education initiative that aims to combat systemic gender-based discrimination in India. Ria and her co-founder, Shreena Thakore ’16, who grew up in India, were awarded the Projects for Peace fellowship and used this grant to launch the project in May of 2014. NCFW was set up to educate the people in India on gender, rape culture, and misogyny through a series of workshops and initiate informed discussions about social change.

    I was inspired by Ria’s story because she was determined to start a conversation about an issue in a country that fights hard to keep such issues silent and hidden. We reflected on Ria’s experiences, her interactions with young people, most of whom had never thought about this obvious form of discrimination before, and her moments of self-doubt and extreme conviction. 

    Nitya Amalean '16, Storyteller for Good