This morning, I found myself deeply moved in reading David Bornstein’s description of “social entrepreneur” and his narratives documenting the growth of civic engagement in our society.

During my junior high and high school years in the 1980s, my family lived in Burlington, Vermont–literally a “backwoods” region of the country, yet also one which was somehow (almost humorously) very cosmopolitan. In many ways, the 60s never ended in Burlington: the atmosphere was brimming with civic engagement and social responsibility, and I grew up with the expectation that your career should never be just about yourself, that it was your chance to “pay it forward,” that it was your opportunity to live redemptively in the world. To my peers, this was normal. And so it was a bit of a shock to leave Vermont and find how resolutely materialistic our culture really is. I remember watching Oliver Stone’s Wall Street in high school with awe, wondering if this was, in fact, the way the world really was. It in no way aligned with the sheltered reality that I had been raised to believe.

I began teaching nearly 20 years ago. In the last decade, I have seen the rise of civic engagement that Bornstein describes, the exciting, fledgling emergence of something that we can only hope will eventually become the “new normal” of American middle class youth. The worldview with which I was instilled when I was growing up in Vermont might have been a little ahead of its time (or maybe a long way behind the times?), but now I’m seeing this same interest rising among our young people, and, frankly, it is thrilling. It sent chills down my spine to read this passage from the opening pages of How to Change the World in which Bornstein introduces us to the stories we will read, drawn from the lived experiences of a new class of “social entrepreneurs” among our young people:

There are those, like the people described in this book, who are driven to pursue change at the national or global level. They are relentless and their efforts, in many cases, are truly heroic. But we also need to recognize the heroic efforts that take place in front of our noses. Social entrepreneurship is not about a few extraordinary people saving the day for everyone else. At its deepest level, it is about revealing possibilities that are currently unseen and releasing the capacity within each person to reshape a part of the world. … These stories are not about markets, or sustainability, or efficiency. They are stories of people who cannot stand to watch others suffer, people who cannot stand to see others missing opportunities they should have. They are stories about people who remove shackles, who bring others along. In a world of rapid and unpredictable change, the leading social entrepreneurs and the millions of changemakers with their tentacles and sensors touching every corner of the globe represent a far better mechanism to respond to needs than we have ever had before–a decentralized and emergent force that, if properly financed, governed, and wired together, remains our best hope to construct a framework of solutions that can keep pace with our problems and create a peaceful world. (pages xvi-xvii)

If this is what emerges from the implosion of our society under the weight of manic consumerism, I remain cautiously optimistic about Western civilization. Bring on the social entrepreneurs.

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