The University continued its long history of social engagement this past weekend, as distinguished alumni, select students, and local leaders flocked to campus for the first-ever Social Impact Summit. The Summit, sponsored by the Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns, kicked off on the evening of Friday, Nov. 13 with four keynote addresses, followed by a period of snacks and networking.
The speakers, all University alumni, each gave a 10-minute presentation. They focused on their work in their respective fields and also provided their visions for social change. Three leaders of the University’s centers for social change introduced the speakers.
Rob Rosenthal, Director of the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life and John E. Andrus, Professor of Sociology, took the stage first.
“There’s a long and glorious history of students and staff and faculty and alums doing this sort of social impact work,” Rosenthal said. “What’s changed over the last decade or so at Wesleyan is that we have begun to really institutionally support that kind of work…. And having made so much progress on campus in this direction, we’ve been thinking about how to extend it, how to bring together many alumni doing social impact work… members of the ‘Wesleyan Do-Gooder Mafia,’ as some might say.”
The first presenter, Kirk Adams ’73, P’13, spent the last 40 years of his career advocating for the rights of healthcare workers and unions. He currently serves as the International Executive Vice President of the Service Employees International Union, where he focuses specifically on healthcare. Adams is also married to Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund. He joked that the only reason he, a white, 65-year-old man, was invited to speak was that she might come with him.
The majority of his speech was dedicated to his visions for the future. As a political activist, he focused his attention toward the next generation of voters and their capacity for impacting social change.
“A lot has been written about the youth,” Adams said. “I just wanted to focus on one particular issue, which is the issue of voting and where you sit in that whole process.”
He explained that the millennial generation outnumbers the baby boomers, is at the heart of many political issues being debated today, and is the most diverse generation to reach voting age in the United States. However, that has not necessarily translated to the voting booth.
“First of all, you’re not as monolithic as you’re made out to be,” Adams said. “[In 2012] 60 percent of this generation who voted, voted for President Obama. Of that, only 44 percent of white millennials voted for Obama…. But really, the biggest defining issue is whether you voted at all.”
In order to bring this number up to its fullest potential, Adams advocates automatic voter registration and potentially online voting as two of the big changes he’d like to see in the future.
The next speaker, Irma Gonzalez ’78, P’09 is an activist and Principal at Zoen Resources, which works on the forefront of domestic human rights advocacy. Makaela Kingsley ’98, Director of The Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship, described Gonzalez as steadfastly committed to the University. In 2008, Gonzalez was the recipient of the Wesleyan University Service Award.
She began her address by recounting the gender inequality she experienced as a child growing up first in Cuba and then in the U.S., where she also experienced exclusion for her ethnicity and status as an immigrant. These early experiences fueled her passion and informed the work that she does today.
“It was really clear that the advantages of white skin really mattered,” Gonzalez said. “These advantages were sources of outrage. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people say truly offensive, disgraceful things, assuming that they knew me, my allegiances, my values, because of the color of my skin.”
She hopes to see a world where data-driven solutions match the goals that are created on the ground, with local citizens serving as experts and consultants.
“That’s the technology revolution I want to dance in,” Gonzalez said.
Her addressing the value of community-driven social change served as a fitting segue to the last two speakers, Kennedy Odede ’12 and Jessica Posner-Odede ’09, co-founders of Shining Hope for Communities Organization (SHOFCO) and spouses. Odede grew up in Kibera, a slum located near Nairobi, Kenya, and through SHOFCO, has worked, along with Posner-Odede, to educate young girls and combat poverty in urban slums.
Odede explained the purpose of SHOFCO, as well as his personal motivations.
“It’s about fixing things,” he said. “You see a challenge, and how do you fix it?… You also have to have a drive; something has to drive us. It’s not about money, it’s about fixing something.”
Odede then discussed the value of hope and collaboration in a vision for change.
“I think hope is very, very important,” he said. “Hope isn’t only for poor people, but hope is good for everybody… You can’t do something alone. It’s all about teamwork.”
For him, the critical partner in this operation was Posner-Odede, who visited Kibera for the first time while studying abroad in Kenya. She and Odede have developed the organization together, which today provides education, community resources, and critical infrastructure for girls and families in both Kibera and Mathare, Kenya.
“It won’t happen overnight, it takes time, but… we’ve seen those girls’ lives improve, their health improve, their families’ livelihood; we’ve seen the ripple effect of investing in a girl,” Posner-Odede said. “This is the change that it is so powerful to be a part of.”
Following the presentation, attendees were invited to chat over snacks in Zelnick Pavilion before registered guests began the dinner and weekend workshops of the Summit.
“We know there is power in bringing together Wesleyan people,” Kingsley wrote in an email to The Argus. “We hope to be able to offer it again in the future. Based on early feedback I have heard from attendees, there is great demand to do it again.”