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Agency for Social Impact

Today’s paradigm shift focuses on the concept of agency. I’ve been reading Leila Janah’s new book “Give Work,” a beautifully written and brilliant treatise on reversing poverty through job creation rather than charity. The way that Janah articulates the concept of agency and the value of work over charity motivates me to re-visit some issues I’ve previously explored in the light of agency. Let’s see how re-tuning the language around some of these ideas can shift the perspective, build empowerment and increase the potential for positive change in these areas.

Flipping the Charity Model

By now most of us have heard of flipped learning, the idea that students listen to lectures at home and do homework in class. But have you considered flipping the charity model--a scenario where instead of providing food, you provide work? In her introduction to Give Work, Janah quotes Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1964 Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture of their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.

Dr. King challenged our apparent complacency over hunger and further gnawed at our conscience by bringing in the other essential rights of education, culture, dignity and the rest. He wasn't telling us anything we didn't already know.

No matter how inured we may seem, it's impossible to fight the urge to help. For hundreds of years, the go-to solution to poverty has been charity, something that Janah sees as a stop-gap measure that really addresses the symptoms rather than the cause of poverty. Instead, she has fought for the development of ImpactSourcing, a social impact outsourcing model that trains and places people in digital work. The organization she started in 2008, Sama Group, has moved nearly 30,000 out of poverty through this model.

We know it makes sense, we even get that it is more sustainable, but it is a different way of doing things and may take extra effort. Janah, and others like her who are involved in the work of social impact, social enterprise, and job creation are taking a well-intended social paradigm--helping others through charity—and rewriting it for the better in the form of increased agency.


For many people, the travel paradigm includes a scenario where about 25 people get off a bus, haul out the 35mm or cell phone and line up to watch someone weave local textiles, prepare a local dish, or play a local instrument, etc.; they then bring out the local dollars to purchase our trinkets, get back on the bus, and head to the next stop, the beach, the hotel, etc.

To many people, this has been the definition of cultural exchange. This is changing with and the concept of impactful travel. According to

There are some 50,000 non-profit organizations worldwide that build awareness of local culture in such scenarios. Out of every $100 spent, only $5 goes to these organizations. is the brain child of Michal Alter and Violaine Pierre. The group works with local non-profits to provide authentic social impact travel experiences ranging from urban gardens in the Bronx to sea turtles in Athens. There are rain forest tours, museum visits, and volunteer opportunities. Activities can last a couple of hours or several days and require varying degrees of exertion. Each visit falls into one or more categories, including women’s empowerment, animals, economic empowerment, environment, agriculture, culture, education, and human rights.

The social impact visits are add-ons to whatever travel someone may be planning and cost nothing for the organizations to join. helps design the visits, posts the itineraries on their site, and receives a booking fee from the traveler. The cost of the trip itself goes directly to each organization. The visits are designed to foster more interaction between the local organizations and the visitors.

The benefits seem mutual. partners earn revenue and disseminate local culture and improved cultural understanding while travelers gain a window into behind-the-scenes or hands-on experiences that may otherwise not be available to them. is busting the paradigm of tourism and building agency amongst groups whose cultures were benefitting others more than themselves. Travelers are no longer dependent on tour organizers for their selection and scheduling of visits.

Our Eagles, Ourselves

No paradigm confounds me more, in terms of agency, than education. We have struggled as a nation with equity. And we have struggled to release ourselves from an outdated paradigm of schooling. There are thousands of software developers, content providers, architects, and very talented teachers reworking what happens in the classroom. It's a very impressive effort.

But it’s actually the fact that there is a classroom at all after all these years that is the problem. So, for today’s educational paradigm buster and builder of agency, let’s go outside the classroom and visit the Earth Conservation Corps (ECC).

One of the greatest benefits of the work Bob Nixon did in the early 90s when he formed the ECC was not the cleaning up of the Lower Beaverdam Creek of the Anacostia River (as unbelievable as that was), and not the reintroduction of the bald eagle to southeast D.C. (as incredible as that was), but the agency he developed along with the community in and around Ward Eight. All the while, those involved were learning about the ecosystem of the river, about the hacking of bald eagle nests, and about themselves.

Nixon arrived in 1992 and started working with nine young men and women living in the Ward’s Valley Green public housing community. This was and still is the poorest and most violent district in D.C. In their 26 years of existence, the ECC has lost one member per year to that violence and poverty. Yet, what has emerged is something greater than what can be measured by any state test, SAT, or ACT. Team members have gained their dignity, learned valuable skills, and continue their work to revitalize the community despite persistent poverty. In addition to the work they do with keeping the river clean and new eagle release, the ECC has been involved in building educational centers, parks and river walkways, has participated in program such as Guns to Roses, which turns firearms into works of art, and now the Wings Over America program, an alternative schooling program that pairs adjudicated students with injured birds of prey.

In earlier writings, I’ve referred to the work of the ECC as experiential learning, which it is. But it is also a working example of agency, wherein youth in one of the most troubled neighborhoods of our nation’s capital are doing to work to save the river, save the eagles, and save themselves.

These paradigm busters are rewriting their own story of urban decay, violence, and despair into one of emerging hope and sustainability. That is some powerful learning.

Models of Agency

As with the stories of the GiveWork, Visit.Org, and the ECC, stories of change are ongoing and need to be told over time. Paradigms are inherently hard to break because people think they are doing the right thing for the right reason.

  • Charity makes sense to people because you are feeding people when they are hungry. Why should I make people work for it? We know that this is not sustainable.

  • There are certain boundaries that should be kept between travelers and locals out of respect for the culture. These boundaries have kept local cultures from controlling and benefiting from their interactions with potential visitors.

  • Learning belongs in school, where curriculum is focused on achieving core objectives that will be measured by standardized tests at the end of every school year. That’s how it’s always been. Outside of the buildings, with more interaction with the real world, more responsibility, more exposure to the natural world, many kids thrive. There are many ways to do this, and the ECC is only one story that must be told.

Leila Janah, Michal Alter, and Bob Nixon are all paradigm busters who have questioned the way things get done and suggested alternative pathways. And in so doing, in building agency among the people struggling, short-changed, or endangered, they have pointed the way to empowerment.

Links 4 further thought


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As of January 2024, Rewriting Paradigms is back and I'm writing about today's  issues, those that most test us and our humanity.

Designs2Learn blogs were originally published on a separate site devoted solely to educational issues. 

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