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School launching Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Clinic

Soon, social work students will have a new collaborative space to pursue ideas for creating change.

This fall, UNC’s School of Social Work will launch the Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Clinic at Durham’s American Underground, a Google-supported hub that houses nearly 250 companies, mainly tech startups. School leaders are partnering with UNC’s Campus Y and its innovation hub, The Cube, to develop the creative space. The site will serve as a field placement for experimental learning in social entrepreneurship and social innovation and support new enterprises. The clinic will also prepare students to serve as consultants for community programs engaged in social entrepreneurship and innovation.

Distinguished Professor Gary Nelson, who has long been interested in community change, social entrepreneurship and sustainable development, is helping to develop the initiative and will focus on creating and launching new ventures through the clinic. Clinical Instructor Robin Sansing with the School’s Field Education office will serve as the clinic’s field instructor for student interns. Sarah Marsh, a social research associate with the Jordan Institute for Families, will help to develop the clinic’s consultation component and Clinical Instructor Michael Owen and Professor Noel Mazade, will use the site to launch a community nonprofit leadership program.

Most important, the innovative clinic will support social work students who are eager to explore new ways of making a meaningful impact on a changing health and human services environment, including through the use of technology, Nelson said. Moreover, students will have the opportunity to tap the tech-savvy brainpower of a network of young professionals from various disciplines who share American Underground’s co-working space and who are equally committed to entrepreneurship.

“Part of our intent is to try to create an innovative space that is not a siloed space,” Nelson explained to about 20 students who gathered on Feb. 2 for an information session on the innovation clinic. “So the idea is that our social work students can go to the American Underground and meet somebody from business or somebody from law or government and work together with those interdisciplinary perspectives to create something together.”

Such collaborative opportunities may also encourage social work students to think more broadly about how best to create sustainable change, Nelson added. For example, how might a for-profit, mission-driven business help solve some of society’s most pressing problems, such as poverty, addiction, and homelessness?

“In many ways, we divide up the world into these kind of camps: non-profit, for-profit and public, as if they were somehow so totally distinct,” he said. “And I think what’s going on is a kind of convergence. There are organizations now that are hybrids that are finding out how you can use profit, which is not a dirty word, to bring about innovation and change.”

Furthermore, a clinic focused on entrepreneurship within the social work field can better prepare social workers for how technology will likely change their own profession, Nelson said. Technology has disrupted so many other industries already, he said.

For example, over the past 20 years, the Internet has transformed journalism and how people access the news. The now-defunct Napster and current music-streaming sites, such as Pandora and Spotify, and even YouTube have altered how people listen to music and how independent musicians introduce their art to the greater public. More recently, Uber’s ride-sharing service has threatened the taxi industry.

“So what we know in social work now, in five to 10 years from now, it’s going to change a lot,” Nelson said. “So what does an ‘Uberized’ social work look like? There is a technology revolution going on, so if you are trying to achieve a purpose and improve the welfare of a kid who is at risk, how might you use technology to do that?”

Although UNC’s 1789 Venture Lab and The Cube are helping undergraduates and grads connect with social innovators and explore how cutting-edge initiatives can solve modern problems, social workers are not often at the table, students attending the information session agreed.

“As social workers, we have an invaluable voice to contribute to the discussion of what the future should look like and how we should get there,” said Abbie Heffelfinger, a student in the dual degree social work and public health program who attended the information session. “If we want our voices at the table, then we need to make a space for ourselves and practice speaking up.”
At the same time, students must also be willing to pursue creative and critical approaches that don’t necessarily embrace traditional social work models, Nelson added.

“If we thought that our approach to solving problems is so good, then why do we have more people in poverty now in this country than when I started (in social work), which was during the ‘War on Poverty,’ ” he said. “That kind of suggests that something is not working. That suggests that we have to reinvent the way we solve problems.”