I’ve lived in Manila for a total of one year, on and off since 2011. This visit being my fourth (far from the last!), represents one way I continually seek to know myself. I explore my own Filipino American identity in many ways, the most significant of which is by sharing the process of exploration with others. Managing the Kaya Co. fellowship has given me opportunities to see and shape our fellows’ ability to grow as leaders, in the ways they first seek to know themselves. Thinking about social change starts from how one person thinks about it. The idea of intersectionality plays an important role in transformation: how the diverse aspects that make up who you are interconnect, forming unique layers of personal history, identity, and continuing narrative. The fellows we look for have a track record of community leadership; a blend of service, empathy, and initiative that makes up a large part of who they are. In other words, they are already thinking about ways they affect social change in their day-to-day lives, whether they realize it or not. Our pursuit is to cultivate this; considering not just each fellow’s identity, but more importantly the critical points where ideas and sentiments overlap in conversations among the entire cohort. In this way we reach common ground to think about social change in the collective, providing a foundation upon which to more deliberately take action.
Taking action stems in large part from who we are, but if we choose to stay only within the framework of our own minds, we also fall prey to our own limitations and biases. The learning dynamic between thought and practice, between reflection and action, lies at the heart of our work. In the Philippines our participation in changemaking occurs mostly alongside our 15+ partner ventures, whose advocates span across sectors that include educational innovation, agribusiness, and even good governance. In these diverse contexts, questions grow more complex with the issues involved – our fellows realize early on that there are no easy solutions, no hidden answers that local leadership can divine through analysis alone. By applying a human-centered approach we seek not only to understand context at the ground level, but also to involve ourselves with those who are taking meaningful action. A growing subculture around the concept of human-centered design (HCD) emphasizes empathy, rapid ideation, and even failure, to develop and implement problem-solving approaches. Our partner ventures represent just a small portion of a rapidly-growing social entrepreneurship ecosystem that, in itself, is a microcosm of HCD. The tight-knit nature of networking in the Philippines, combined with the sheer plurality of organizations, necessitates that social entrepreneurs experience intimately the nature of the change they seek, the multiple pathways to achieve it, and the taste of failure in the pursuit of doing so. Through the past three years we’ve seen some ventures scale and some atrophy, some adapt and others stagnate. No one characteristic determines success or failure; rather, much relies on an understanding of complexity: coming to know the system in which they operate while exercising a critical lens inward, adapting according to knowledge derived from reflection and will derived from action.
The broad end-state of social change demands a mindset shift take place among a critical mass of people, beginning at a threshold, or ‘tipping point’, where new thinking and new practices gradually begin to replace the old. Reaching this point is not a self-sustaining process, or merely a matter of time; these movements start with how one person thinks in an innovative way about social change. Taking action based on new thinking, whether intentional or spontaneous, is naturally disruptive to a system. In addition to partnering alongside ventures whose stated purpose within the system is disruptive through the ways they affect policy, shape popular opinion, or scale impact, we’ve engaged with a growing culture of Filipino citizens who are aware such initiatives even exist. Change is coming to the Philippines, from the civil society and grassroots level all the way to policymaking. However, if not intentionally set up for others to meaningfully contribute, disruptive action may not achieve the desired mindset shift. Disruption can be planned more strategically among a multitude of civil society organizations if the end goal becomes common ground (i.e. consensus on what reaching the ‘tipping point’ looks like). Coming to know the system first as a collective, working toward appreciation of context, action, and consequence, lays the groundwork for strategic disruption. In this way, having a purpose and direction (based on identity) tempered by a holistic understanding of the ecosystem (based on experience) is the first step toward creating a foundation for social change.
The work of Kaya Collaborative parallels that of changemakers in the Philippines, seeking a transformation that will be visible from the micro all the way to the macro level. My role is to help others experience and understand the transformation in reverse, from a systems-level back down to who they are at their core. In doing so, I am constantly learning by engaging in community, joining others in a continuous, collective journey of self-discovery.