Open educators learning from social entrepreneurs

It was an honour to be invited to speak at the International Summit for Social Entrepreneurship held at De Montfort University on 16-17 November. The event was organised by my amazing and inspirational friend Momodou Sallah – Reader in Global Youth Work, National Teaching Fellow, Director of Global Hands and 2015 Times Higher ‘Innovative Teacher of the Year’. In the event, Momodou brought together social entrepreneurs, staff and De Montfort students to understand and discuss the importance of social action and enterprise locally and globally.

Momodou participating in a DMU 24 hour vigil and me wrapped up.

I was inspired by everyone I met. Everyone talked about the importance of people, collaboration and education. As an open educator joining this new community I could see how much our movement could learn from taking more decisive action. I often think we spend far too much energy defining and debating, and not enough energy in actual change.

Practical, Pragmatic and Passionate

It was a joy to hear from Dorothy Francis from Leicester’s Cooperative Social Enterprise Agency (CASE, @CaseCooperative) who are specialist advisors mentoring and transforming people’s ideas into businesses . She talked about taking a “practical and pragmatic approach to changing the earth we live on”. But also the need passion. I learnt from her about the careful choice of words – ‘under-developed countries’ negatively portrays nations that are artistically, architecturally, medically and advanced in so many ways, and I think back to so many lectures I’ve given on global diseases in which I will talk about ‘re-developing countries’ next time. Change is brought about in many ways, not least by the myriad of co-operative groups which she described. The International Cooperative Alliance comprises around 1 billion global people, and reminded me very much of open education and the people it attracts, driven by values rather than profit. It was disappointing to see at the ICA there are 17 men and only 3 women on the board of directors, and it made me wonder how we can affect genuine change and not re-tread old paths if we are not challenging the governance and structures of new ambitious organisations as they emerge.

“If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday”. (Proverb).

Food for Education – Food for Thought

The next example of social enterprise was mind-blowing in terms of speed and scale. Bhawani Singh Shekhawat is the CEO of the UK branch of Food For Education  which provides free school dinners to children in India – and now the UK – based on Ayurvedic principles and providing much needed nourishment. The group provide 2 million meals a day in India, not surprisingly incentivising attendance and helping children achieve. The group are now providing meals in Brent, UK, and I couldn’t help but think how this model could help provide meals for hospitals and care homes.

Changing The World

There were so many great speakers at the event, this blog post does not do them justice. But one more here achieving great change was Andrew Hunt of This was a fascinating talk for me having worked in the food industry myself, and seeing Andrew’s example of finding an amazing natural product and bringing it to market. The basis of the company is for social good not profit – and Andrew explained that unlike ‘Fair Trade’ agreements where co-operatives are provided with an income, his model provides money directly to families. The product – Baobab – a tree from the Adansonia genus and gained fame as the ‘Tree of Life’ in the Lion King produces coconut-like fruits with a  nutritious core. Andrew’s prior work in marketing and knowledge of the retail market was essential for negotiating the scene and getting Baobab into key London stores, plus attracting media attention. I was fascinated how this innocent product became ravaged by the media and translated into the skin-healing, detox-sensation and pseudoscientific garbage that so often reflects endemic journalistic lack of understanding of any semblance of basic science. I did wonder whether the pseudo stuff would ultimately risk the reputation of this enterprise.

Open Educators as Social Entrepreneurs?

In my talk, I tried to connect the work of the open education field with that of social entrepreneurship. We have a shared basis of being values-driven, wanting to change our lot be it education or society in general, and being passionate about what we do. I think the two communities can learn from each other, and I am particularly inspired by their ability to have a clear goal, be passionate and pragmatic, and to have a robust business model behind their work.




The Awesome Jo Brand

This has to be the facial expression of the week for me – a mixture of strength and despair from the wonderful Jo Brand (staking a stance about sexual harassment on Have I Got News For You ). Whilst we all probably agree there needs to be more women on comedy panel programmes, I had an interesting conversation that made me think of how our silence has played such an important part on where we are today “constantly under siege” – or rather, where we aren’t in terms equality.

In the latest allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour, my immediate reaction has been, really? Does this still go on? I think this leads me to part of the problem – generations of mainly but not exclusively women have experienced unwanted inappropriate behaviour from others, but as we develop our armour over the years from those first early jobs, we experience it less? As we develop our armour and confidence presumably we are seen as less easy targets? We remove ourselves from workplaces and situations – I remember a PhD interview where the Professor and Senior Consultant didn’t look me in the eye once. Creep. As we develop our cut-throat witty one liners – it is clear we are not to be meddled with. I’m lucky, I play in bands and drink pints, and I’m pretty convinced that has made my life a lot easier in being one of the blokes and out of the firing line.
Coming back to the generational thing is important. Only recently my 80+ year old mum started to tell me of what life was like getting the tube to work in London and life in the office in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Gropers and meddlers were abound, and flashers on the tube a regular occurrence. As the older children in the family started work, they were told to look after the younger girls and boys – the boys weren’t immune either. She never told me this before, and I’ve still never shared my experiences. Maybe her own experiences meant that we never talked about this stuff in the home. I always put it down to my parents being very Victorian but now I’m not so sure. The moment something mildly sexual came on the telly, my mother would burst forth with a profuseness of tutting, and hail the scenes as “utter filth”. My dad was a hefty man and this was the days before remote controls, but he could get to the telly and change channels faster than Usain Bolt off the starting blocks.
I wonder if each generation probably thinks things have changed and therefore remains silent without doing anything about it.
Of course the problems are more complex than the media portrays, and the rather simplistic binary argument of men versus women is really unhelpful and uncomfortable. I’ve worked in offices with some mortifyingly embarrassing female colleagues, sitting on the knees of directors and going off for private meetings. They were the ones with the power. And as my mum would say “letting the side down”. I’m not surprised that work cultures are confused, although it doesn’t excuse it. We are all complicit in our silence, and society has therefore continued along based on what has not been said.
So we need to talk about it. Mums, nannies, aunts, sisters, talk to your girls and your boys. Hopefully we’ll get to a point where these matters aren’t comedy fodder for men on panel games, and they’ll be able to talk about it too.