Skip to content

Guest Column: Exchanging sparks of social innovation in New Orleans

Ashoka U, 2016

By alumna Ali Fraenkel and students Alex Vipond and Becky Darling

In partnership with the dynamic host community of New Orleans and Tulane University, Northeastern University was recently welcomed into an entirely new community: the Ashoka U Changemaker Campus network. Over the historical backdrop of post-Katrina revitalization in New Orleans, leaders worldwide came together for the 2016 Ashoka U Exchange to share and celebrate social innovation education.

Northeastern sent a delegation of students, alumni, faculty, and staff to the Exchange to accept our new Changemaker Campus designation—a recognition of Northeastern’s commitment to driving social innovation within higher education. Students Becky Darling and Alex Vipond and recent alumna Ali Fraenkel were part of the delegation in attendance.

With eagerness to portray the diversity across their experiences, Ali, Alex, and Becky each recount their lasting impressions of the Exchange and time in New Orleans in the following reflections.

Ali Fraenkel, SSH ‘16

It takes a special group to convene several hundred perspectives, experiences, and pathways in a way that encourages its members to embrace both their unique differences and common missions. Upon participating in this year’s Exchange, I recognize how meaningful Northeastern’s designation as a Changemaker Campus will be in evolving our commitment to social innovation.

My impression of the Exchange encompassed this “special group” reality—I felt as though each best practice in review and every story shared, no matter how contextually different they were, fused along a steadfast commitment to new avenues for social innovation. While I valued the opportunity to bring changemakers together in a physical space, I more deeply relished the chance to bring our minds and hearts together along a common thread.

What were some of these common threads? (1) We are inextricably linked—our obligation in social change is to tap into our moral imagination and ensure no one is left behind. (2) Our community partnerships ought to be reciprocal in nature, with a commitment to shared passion, presence, and possibilities. (3) Many emerging social innovations through education will sprout alongside paths to democratize and customize educational opportunities. (4) Lead with love, learn through empathy.

As we illuminate new pathways for Northeastern’s social innovation, may we all keep in mind not simply the innovations that have earned us this designation, but step courageously forward in supporting communities across the world in acts of changemaking.

Alex Vipond, DMSB ‘16

As a musician, I have always appreciated New Orleans’ jazz players—Louis Armstrong and Stephen Colbert’s bandleader Jon Batiste are among hundreds of talents from the city. But it wasn’t until this visit, seeing New Orleans through a lens of social change, that I realized how lucky we are to have jazz at all.

Jazz emerged during a period of social change after the Civil War. Southern American and African societies were extremely segregated, yet against all odds, the societies mixed in New Orleans, and one of America’s greatest art forms was born.

Societies change often. They change when wars start or end; they change when economies boom or bust; they change when the climate heats up or cools down. These changes are not always easy to manage, but if I learned one thing at the Ashoka U Exchange, it’s that social change gives us the opportunity to erase the arbitrary lines we draw between each other, lines based on skin color or income level or faith.

Once those lines are erased, we are free to create new art forms or invent new sciences, and we can be sure that what we leave behind for future generations is the best we have to offer.

Becky Darling, SSH ‘16

There is something exceptional about being surrounded by a group of people who share a common passion. Whether experiencing live music with a crowd of fans, contesting legislation by protesting with your community, or discussing opportunities for social innovation with fellow changemakers, the energy can be contagious. Attending the Ashoka U Exchange with the Northeastern delegation created this type of energy for me. We witnessed the passion with which educators, administrators, and students are crafting curriculum and programs in order to motivate the next generation of social changemakers.

Each workshop, panel, and site visit depicted the creative ways that universities across the globe are engaging with local communities and helping students create solutions to difficult problems. Throughout these sessions, I thought back to Northeastern and the ways we can apply these best practices to our challenges. For example, Tulane University has worked extensively with their community in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in order to rebuild and restore opportunities in New Orleans’ most disenfranchised neighborhoods. This work includes innovations like urban farms supporting healthy food education in elementary schools and human-centered architectural design that builds off of community buy-in.

Here at Northeastern, I look forward to building off of the knowledge gained at the Exchange and working with students, staff, and community members in order to create a more socially just world.

More Stories

NGOs Awards Announced


Human Services Social Impact-athon for COVID19

Northeastern logo

Northeastern University’s Social Impact Lab names Sam Vaghar as inaugural Global Community Engagement Fellow