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Social Change and Social Entrepreneurship

Posted by on Wednesday, January 10, 2018 in News, Social Entrepreneurship.

Written by Associate Professor of Sociology Richard Pitt and Professor and Chair of Human & Organizational Development Paul Speer

Nashville’s new “it city” moniker isn’t likely to replace “Music City” in the long-term, but the “it city” label is uniquely reinforced by the net gain of approximately 75 new residents daily choosing to make Nashville their home. What isn’t counted in those data, though, is the number of people coming to Nashville after being released from prison. Although the state’s correctional authority isn’t able to generate that information, it’s estimated that more than 2,000 men and women come to Nashville annually after incarceration. So, what do the formerly incarcerated have to do with social change and social entrepreneurship?

Richard Pitt

Associate Professor of Sociology Richard Pitt

These realities intersect in the work of a Nashville nonprofit called Project Return. Project Return operationalizes the understanding that employment is the primary determinant for leaving prison behind and succeeding after incarceration. Serving more than 700 persons per year, Project Return prioritizes finding employment for them, and provides additional support for a host of related needs, from the basics like food and clothing, to the intensives like medical and dental care, to the imperatives like transportation, paying child support and gaining shelter. The list is extensive, but, critically, encouragement comes through everything they do.

Still, for Project Return, employment is key and everything else centers on that. But locating employment opportunities for hundreds of people a year – who are uniquely determined, but are also destitute, in debt, and severely stigmatized – is challenging. Obtaining immediate employment was taking Project Return three months, on average, to get these motivated job seekers into employment.

Professor and Chair of Human & Organizational Development Paul Speer

Professor and Chair of Human & Organizational Development Paul Speer

This semester, Darrell Hawks, Project Return’s Business Development Director will speak to the students in a new University Course on social entrepreneurship (UNIV 3225/5225). He will share how Project Return took on the challenge of propelling people, against the odds, into employment. He’ll also describe how Project Return launched its own social enterprise, PRO Employment (known as PROe), an entrepreneurial venture that operates as a specialized staffing service and bridges the gap between prison and long-term employment. Through PROe, Project Return is contracting with area businesses (who won’t consider directly hiring people who just got out of prison) to meet their workforce needs, and Project Return is employing the worthy folks who just got out of prison to be the temps. The transitional employees in PROe gain this unique learning/earning opportunity, wrapped around the necessary work attire, door-to-door transportation, daily coaching and more. After 10-12 weeks of working in the real world through PROe, they are proven workers, and transition to regular long-term jobs, with those same employers who would not have considered them otherwise.

As Nashville residents who may never have been in or in any way connected to prison, why do we care? There are many ethical and moral reasons, of course. But pragmatically we care because Project Return generates a quarter of its annual revenue through its social enterprise, and because the lower recidivism of their clients saves the state of Tennessee $2-3M in taxpayer dollars annually. We think it is this kind of impactful innovation, exemplifying energy and creativity throughout Nashville, that earns us the “it city” moniker.

This type of innovation – social enterprise to create social change – is what we will be exploring in our class this spring. We’ll look at social entrepreneurship from many perspectives: building social enterprises from scratch, supporting the work and facilitating the success of social enterprises, running social enterprises in impoverished communities around the globe, engaging community development finance institutions (CDFIs) in capital investments for social enterprises and more.

Many Vanderbilt students are interested in social justice and creating a better world, but have questions about how, practically, to do that, and where one can work after graduation to pursue such goals. We know the appetite for learning and building social enterprises among our students is strong. One indication is the extreme popularity of courses taught by Jim Schorr, a nationally recognized leader in social enterprises and an esteemed Vanderbilt faculty member, at both the graduate level (Owen) and undergraduate level (HOD). We are happy to say that Jim will be a guest speaker for our course as well!

We work at a world class university in a vibrant city where we have a fantastic opportunity to explore these exciting ideas this semester. Most of all, we look forward to hearing which new student ideas and interests will emerge in class.

Be sure to return to our blog page throughout the spring semester to read blog entries submitted by our students.

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