[While mayor of Indianapolis] I engaged in a ten-year battle with the independent school board—and the even more independent school bureaucracy—to reform the city’s public school system. Despite tens of millions of dollars of social programming and countless hours of professional and volunteer service, we could claim nothing but consistently awful results.

Many years later the issue popped up again with a call from the respected innovator J.B. Schramm, whom I knew from my work as chairman of CNCS [the Corporation for National and Community Service]. Schramm, the inventor of the College Summit program, wanted my advice in his effort to bring the program to Indianapolis. College Summit claimed it could help generate enough change to improve the city’s dismal high school graduation rates (at that time less than one-third for young men of color).[1]  I knew Schramm was succeeding in other cities and assumed he could change the future trajectory for many Indy students.

The story of how College Summit ended up in Indianapolis provides hope not only for the city’s youth, but also for thousands of Americans who aspire to make a transformative difference in their communities and in the country. Just after Schramm graduated from divinity school in 1990, he started tutoring students at a teen center in a low-income housing project in Washington, D.C., in the hope that they would pursue higher education. Over and over, Schramm watched capable students fail to matriculate to college for lack of the institutional and family support and social networks available to most middle-class youth.

Like other entrepreneurs, Schramm brought a fresh perspective to a problem others viewed and accepted as familiar. He saw individuals who had potential that could be fulfilled once barriers were removed. Schramm took a new approach to preparing his students for college. He hired a writing instructor and provided other transitional and life supports. And his protégés succeeded. From there, Schramm launched College Summit, which by 2008 had helped 35,000 high school students in ten states.[2]

Today civic entrepreneurs, armed with innovative thinking, a bottom-line sensibility, and a willingness to tackle some of the nation’s most intractable social problems, are tapping into a powerful energy and sense of purpose. This growing cadre of change agents is shattering traditional policy approaches and replacing them with creative solutions and unique partnerships to produce dramatic results.

Yet serious questions must be addressed. How do promising new interventions like College Summit ever flourish in a social service model dominated by top-down approaches, prescriptive government funding, and relationships that all conspire to resist or slow change?

…Innovations in social problem solving offer more cause for hope and optimism than ever before—but only if they disrupt or transform an underperforming system for solving social problems.

These important lessons led me to wonder how we can identify, nurture, and then grow the innovations invented or championed by the J. B. Schramms across the country in a manner which, collectively, creates enough lift for truly transformative social change.

 

Excerpted from "The Power of Social Innovation: How Civic Entrepreneurs Ignite Community Networks for Good" by Stephen Goldsmith
[1] Christopher B. Swanson. “ Cities in Crisis: A Special Analytic Report on High School Graduation. ” Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, prepared with support
from America ’ s Promise Alliance and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, April 1, 2008.

[2] College Summit. “ Results and Metrics. ” College Summit, www.collegesummit.org/aboutus/results_and_metrics/our_reach_and_growth.