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How do you say “social entrepreneur” in Arabic?

Mohammad Joulany interrupted me near the start of my workshop with Kids4Peace last July. “How do you translate ‘social entrepreneur’ into Arabic?”

He wanted to make sure the Arabic-speaking youth in his delegation of Israeli, Palestinian, and American students fully understood my question as I walked the group through an introduction to social entrepreneurship.

“الريادة المجتمعية” (A-riyaada al-majtama’ya), one of the students replied, roughly translating to “community leadership.”  For many of the students the phrase was new, but the sentiment behind the phrase was very familiar.
As our LearnServe programs wrapped up for the summer, I had the privilege of speaking with four such groups over the course of July:
  • Israeli, Palestinian and American youth coming together through Kids4Peace.
  • Japanese and DC teens in the Tomodachi exchange program.
  • Black and Jewish students from St. Louis’ Cultural Leadership program passing through DC on their annual civil rights tour.
  • Middle and high school students from across the country brought together by Spark the Wave‘s week-long DC program
And earlier this month I facilitated a social entrepreneurship workshop for the winners of the Teens Dream film competition – students from across the US and UK who shared on camera their dreams for themselves, their communities, and the world.

I never assume that students will know social entrepreneurship by name. Indeed, while most native English speaking students can give a convincing definition of entrepreneurship, most draw a blank when the word “social” is added in front.

[Hint: It doesn’t have to do with social media.  It does have to do with applying an entrepreneurial approach to achieving social impact.]

But once they get it, they get it.


As soon as we make the leap from discussing social entrepreneurship in the abstract to asking them what makes them mad, the energy in the room shifts.  It turns out there’s a lot on their minds.

Across so many cities, countries, and cultures, their concerns are strikingly similar: Islamophobia.  Closed-Mindedness.  Apathy.  Gender inequality.  Poverty.  Disparities in access to quality education.  Racism, prejudice and discrimination.  The list goes on.

Even as the Kids4Peace group struggled to translate “entrepreneur” into Arabic and Hebrew, they were quick to express their concerns about the fear and prejudice that has simmered as an undercurrent in the US presidential election and global politics.

I met the Cultural Leadership group in the wake of the Orlando shooting at the Pulse gay nightclub, and the backlash against Muslim Americans that followed.

Visiting students from Japan tried to comprehend the explanations their DC counterparts shared of the racism underlying the killings of unarmed black men by police officers.  They acknowledged that though manifesting differently, discrimination still exists in Japan.

The Teens Dream award winners – selected for their vision, creativity, and ambition – nevertheless found themselves discouraged by the blend of ignorance and apathy that keep their peers from taking these global problems as seriously.
These are heavy concerns.  But these are exactly the topics the students should be wrestling with.  Because if they don’t, who will?
As I reflect on this series of conversations, along with the nascent social venture ideas identified by our newest group of LearnServe Fellows, I am struck by four observations:
1.  Across neighborhoods, countries, languages, religions, and cultures the concerns on young people’s minds are (perhaps not surprisingly) very much the same.  More importantly, this common thread of concern is not lost on the students themselves.
2.  While these macro-level concerns cut across countries and cultures, they play out quite differently in each local context.  The lived experience of each student – and the often very personal reasons they have chosen to address these problems – vary quite a bit.  Only honest, open, and personal conversation of the sort that LearnServe and our “kindred spirit” organizations facilitate help reveal this nuance in understanding.
3.  While it’s exciting to talk about global challenges, I have consistently found that the most effective solutions are rooted in a deep understanding of local values, cultures, resources, and concerns.  There is tremendous power in articulating problems and analyzing solutions across cultures: the exchange of ideas that emerges ultimately makes everyone’s solutions more effective.  Nevertheless, we can’t expect that one size will fit all.

4.  Through my work with LearnServe students, and their counterparts in programs across the U.S. and around the world, I have found a theme that consistently transcends countries, cultures, languages, and socio-economic backgrounds: the passion of people, especially young people, to look big problems in the eye and create a solution.

Their individual solutions will, of course, all look different.  But their passion is a constant.
Whether we describe it in Arabic, Japanese, English, Spanish, or American Sign Language, we must all work to spark, nurture, and channel that passion towards impact.
Scott Rechler
Director and CEO, LearnServe International

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