Changemakers Week kicks off with lecture
Four people who found a way to make an impact on global issues came together during Rutgers University’s Changemakers Week in a panel discussion titled “Shake the World” last night at the Livingston Student Center.
The panel, named after moderator and entrepreneur James Marshall Reilly’s book, emphasized the importance of chasing dreams and seizing opportunities.
Bobby Bailey, a filmmaker who focuses on using modern media to effect social change, said he bought a camera and plane ticket to Africa when a friend asked him to join the trip.
He said he had no formal training in making documentaries, but his experience in war-torn Uganda and Sudan changed the course of his life and helped him make a difference in the lives of others.
“I always felt like development work was … a bit like Sally Struthers with the kid with the flies on his face [asking for donations],” he said. “The people [in Africa] are so full of life, and you should be inspired to do something.”
Janne Kouri, founder of Nextstep, which seeks to extend access to disability health care and rehabilitation, echoed the sentiment that formal training and experience were not a necessary prerequisite to making a change.
Kouri founded a digital entertainment company that grew quickly only to crash in a matter of weeks. Outside his entrepreneurial background, he said he had no experience in running something like Nextstep.
He said he became passionate about the issue of disability health care after suffering a neck injury that left him paralyzed, only to find a severe lack of rehabilitation facilities in California, which forced him to move to Kentucky.
“I always wanted to [get involved], but I never found … the right cause for me. One day I broke my neck and … this [became] my mission in life,” he said. “But don’t wait to get smacked in the face like I did.”
Ellen Gustafson, co-founder of the social business FEED, said she knew she was interested in food even while working at ABC News as a national security correspondent.
She said when someone is passionate about something and wants to learn about it, they have a clear indicator it is something they should pursue.
“I first went into hunger, because that seemed more like a natural shift from national security … and eventually when I got back into the domestic side of things and looking at the connection between hunger and obesity I thought, ‘This all makes sense. I’ve been obsessed with food my whole life,’” she said.
FEED has provided more than 65 million school lunches for children through the proceeds it has earned selling tote bags or clothing. In one case, Gustafson said the sale of tote bags helped to fund the United Nation’s Rwanda food program, despite U.N. members’ dismissal of her idea.
While finding an interest is important, Reilly said flexibility is also essential.
“[I wanted] to shine a light on things that were a little more important than ‘Jersey Shore’ or ‘16 and Pregnant,’” he said.
He said he had no formal training and just chased his idea.
Changemakers Week is about the collective impact of a great deal of small, community-focused endeavors, said Manali Shah, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore.
Shah, who is a Changemakers Week volunteer, said the panel kicked off a week of events that included random acts of kindness and a civic engagement fair.
“[The fair] is a lot like ‘Shake the World,’” she said. “But there are more people, and it’s more involved.”
Shah said the goal of the event is to empower students to spread social change even beyond the borders of New Brunswick.
Dustin Ramsdell, a graduate intern with Changemakers week, said the series of events was meant to inspire people to give back to the community in any way they can, whether it is learning from speakers like those at Shake the World or getting involved in hands-on ways.
“We’re kind of marketing to a niche of students,” he said. “Even just kind of getting a drop [here,] maybe it’ll ripple out and inspire other people.”
Ramsdell said at the end of the week, they would hold a Changemakers bus tour, which would allow students to immerse themselves in community aid around New Brunswick.
“It’s a day long service trip with a community organization that’s doing good work,” he said. “Hopefully it will be a fun atmosphere for people where students can get on the bus and do some active service.”
Ramsdell said a competition featuring a $1,000 grant for the winning social change proposal would be a prominent part of the week’s events as well.
“After the week is done [students can] pitch their big idea for the Changemakers challenge, and if they win the competition, they can get it funded up to $1,000,” he said. “It can be anything from putting on a big benefit concert … to making a sustainable food cart for around campus.”