Alumni Perspective: How Universities Can Create Positive Social Change

This past June, Turner Social Impact Society member Will Slotznick, C’17, traveled to Cartagena, Columbia to represent Penn’s Digital Seeds Program at the Action Research Network of the Americas (ARNA). The convention brought together academic communities from across the Western Hemisphere to share their experiences with actionable research for social change.

Access to contraceptive care for low-resource communities. Empowerment groups for teenage mothers. Campaigns for rural childhood education.

These remarkable endeavors, while diverse in nature and context, all brought forth the same two questions: How do we position resource-poor communities as agentic contributors in development endeavors, and how can students and faculties of higher-education leverage their institutions’ resources for positive social change?

A strong segment of development institutions now tout inclusion, participation, and rigorous evidence as important avenues to sustainable outcomes and impacts. These rhetorical standards, however, are often met with practical and systemic obstructions that preclude their ‘on-the-ground’ realization. Strict processes, inflexible timelines, resource constraints, and asymmetric intra-network relationships limit the depth of ‘evidence and stakeholder-driven’ policies, and as a result, the kinds of partnerships that lead to successful and sustainable work in development.

However, it’s within this mix that we see new opportunities for universities to engage with development – to be nimble, adaptive, and rigorous, to generate new collaborations, and to gather and bring forth evidence for better practices.

The uptake at the University of Pennsylvania for international action-research has been remarkable to observe, and it now occurs in many institutional venues. For me, it’s been most demonstrable through the Digital Seeds research effort – a network of students and professors that support education innovation in rural zones of northern Nicaragua. In collaboration with the Seeds for Progress Foundation, Penn has been instrumental in this tech-education initiative that now supports over 18 schools, 260 teachers, and 6300 students in Nicaragua.

Co-founder Matthew J. Tarditi and I set out to Cartagena to showcase the evolution of Digital Seeds, now in its eighth year of operation. In particular, we sought to discuss the unique organization of our local and international partners – in what we term the Integrated Collaborative Network — and how it contributes to the objectives of respect, trust, dialogue, and transparent and accountable work in development, as well as churns opportunities for school-driven education reform and innovation.

With most of its representation from Latin American universities, this convention brought for me a fresh lens to academic exchange and scholarship. Conference participants were energetic, critical, and ever-reflective, and our debates on the position of academia in social reform led to new questions for our work in Digital Seeds. Of our many takeaways, I think the greatest were on the issues of coherence and representation.

Coherence says that an individual’s or an organization’s value or ideals should match their practices and their actions. We were prompted to consider this for ourselves and for the entities we represent.

For example, in authentic participative action research, local actors (or, beneficiaries) determine an investigation’s objectives, and then gather, interpret, and present the evidence and solutions to those objectives. Here, the role of an outside expert is to facilitate those procedures, but not to influence their rhythms or outcomes.

In our work, we meet that mark to a good extent. While we maintain participative components in how Digital Seeds’ partners with local school communities, other elements of this network operate through more vertical relationships. These more linear structures have grown with the evolution and expansion of the Program, sometimes at the expense of inclusion and collaboration within the network.  We work to arrive at a middle-point between our two motivations (broad participation and efficient production), but in the meantime, we must acknowledge our moments of incoherence and be careful to not over-claim our grounds.

A shorter-term path to inclusion is through appropriate representation.

Our publications and our presentations can and should incorporate the voice of those for whom we work – whether through original excerpts and testimonials, or (even better) their in-person attendance at these events and conferences.

Universities have important roles to perform as the development space continues to evolve in terms of its partners, resources, and objectives. However, we must be cognizant of a representation gap in our often remote work, and continue to strive for deep and authentic collaborations that lead to successful and sustainable impacts for partner communities.

WIll Slotznick

Will Slotznick is a recent graduate of the International Relations program at the University of Pennsylvania. Will has several years’ experience in international education, with regional concentration in West Africa and Central America.  His areas of interest include scholastic monitoring & evaluation, technological integration, and pedagogical innovation, with a focus in participative methodologies. He is an incoming associate at IDinsight in Lusaka, Zambia. Contact him at will.slotznick@gmail.com.