Enacting change in a world put on pause

Laura Dennehy, Country Manager of Enactus Ireland, reflects on the changes enforced by Covid-19 and the ways in which students have continued to engage in social issues

The events of the past year have left many of us with the feeling that our usually hectic lives have been temporarily put on hold. No one will deny that the effects of the pandemic have resulted in unprecedented challenges for everyone, regardless of their social status. Yet, there is a sense that some sectors of society, some communities, will be adversely affected to a more considerable degree than others. With this in mind, I spoke to Laura Dennehy, country manager of Enactus Ireland, to learn about Enactus and the work they have been engaged in over the past year, and the ways in which social enterprise has continued to flourish amongst students. Enactus Ireland is a Not-For-Profit leadership and skills development organisation, preparing third-level students for the future of work through social enterprise development.

In terms of a general mission statement, Enactus maintains three principal goals. The primary focus in Enactus is toward “the students themselves, and developing all the skills and abilities that are necessary for the future of work”. Secondly, Enactus recognises that the student’s personal journey in the programme as a social entrepreneur will mean that they are encountering tangible and important issues in our society. With this awareness, Enactus provides the support for this “practical experiential learning, where students are given the time and the space to really understand an issue”. Thirdly, with this co-operation between the student and Enactus, the results are practical outcomes and enablers for positive change: “ideally we create a scenario where social enterprise can flourish.” Emerging from Enactus Trinity, the success of start-ups such as FoodCloud and KeepAppy, as well as Access Earth (Enactus NUI Maynooth), and Thriftify (Enactus DCU), has owed much and been testament to the initial and ongoing guidance and support provided by Enactus.

“The most diverse teams are the best teams, so looking at the different skill base right across campus and getting different people involved is really key.”

Often, people have an image in their head of what kind of person they are allowed to be. In this sense, people often feel enabled or conversely, limited by their college degree with regard to the possibilities it can provide for extracurricular work during their college years, and also the type of work they can engage in once they have graduated. More specifically, students often have an idea of what a social entrepreneur is, though the reality is far less one-dimensional than they imagine. Enactus holds an annual national competition in which colleges all over Ireland compete to showcase the impact of their social enterprise projects, with the emphasis on tangible results and outcomes. Dennehy notes that almost always, “the most diverse teams are the best teams, so looking at the different skill base right across campus and getting different people involved is really key. If your team is very much based in one department the projects often aren’t as developed or as implementable because you need people with lots of different backgrounds and skills.” With a strong emphasis on inclusivity, diversity, and co-operation, Enactus advocates for social change which benefits as many people as possible. In this respect, the work done by Enactus impacts positively on those instilling change as well as those benefiting from its implementation. ‘We All Win’, the Enactus mantra, succinctly encompasses this attitude to social enterprise. Dennehy elaborates as to how “everyone can get something out of this. Our ideal scenario is a world where all businesses are social enterprises. It’s not about not making money, it’s about ensuring that we protect what’s important to us in our lives as we do business. Bringing all those people together can really achieve that.”

Today’s world, barring the recent effects of Covid, is a fast-paced one, with new problems and solutions to these problems being created at a frantic rate each and every day. However, it is important to take a step back and to identify exactly what is entailed in a certain issue, and to reflect carefully on the means to solving it: “The truth is that society’s problems are really complex, and really multi-layered, and they’re steeped in historical situations, in deep inequalities. The very first thing that we want students to do is to really look in depth into a problem, to really understand it, to pause our solution-focused brains, just for a second and focus on what is the issue.” Of course, the solution to the world’s many and complex social issues is not going to be found over the course of an academic year. Yet, students can begin with a focus on one particular aspect of a wider issue, and “ensure that while working in partnership with communities, we can instil positive change, and that’s really exciting and really special”. 

At the same time, an acknowledgement of the complexity of society’s issues should not deter people from engaging with these issues. Dennehy notes that often, the means to get a project up and running and to begin a social enterprise journey is closer than we might anticipate. Students often “forget to look on campus for the answers”, and that no matter your area of interest, it is worth remembering that “there’s research on your campus, there are experts on your campus”. Recognising and acknowledging these facilities can be the first step to making positive change, big or small, with people often surprising each other through their mutual empathy for, and generosity towards those who are handicapped in society and those who are attempting to negate these disadvantages.

“It shows a particular strength of character when students are feeling such stress that they still manage to think of those in a less fortunate position to themselves.”

Prior to the unprecedented events of the past year, many of us were under the illusion that we were the masters of our own destinies. Yet, now, we’ve been forced to contend with the reality of not being able to plan something as simple as a holiday or a trip to the pub on a Friday night. Reflecting on the challenges that have come with adapting to the effects of Covid-19, Dennehy says that “the last year has shown us how small we are in the world, how little we can control.” However, in spite of this loss of agency, Enactus has not found students to be wanting: “The best thing the last twelve months has been seeing the resilience of the students.” Though students have had a hard time, particularly over the previous six months with the return to online learning, Dennehy has recognised that students “are still doing the most incredible things”. Added to the resilience shown by students, she has been further impressed by the high standards that have been maintained as well as the rate at which they have continuously managed to be innovative, giving little indication of the difficulties that have been endured: “One thing that I would have to say about the last few months is that we haven’t seen the amount of ideas decrease, people are still coming up with the ideas. We have been really pleased with what we’ve seen and how students have continued with their responsibilities on top of all the pressures they’ve had.” Indeed, it shows a particular strength of character when students are feeling such stress arising from the lack of certainty with regard to assessments and career options that they still manage to think of those in a less fortunate position to themselves.  As an example, Dennehy remarks on the adaptations made by students in UL to convert workshops online to adhere to social distancing guidelines enforced by Covid-19, and the work done by students in UCC to continue to deliver materials to Direct Provision centres in a manner that is Covid-safe.

Though many people may feel as though their lives have been suspended for the past year, for some, the best way to cope with this lack of agency has been to engage even more actively in social issues: “To create some sort of change allows us to exert some sort of control over our lives. Where we’re setting the plans, we’re setting the targets, and it allows us to hope for something better. And they’re both things that we’ve really needed in the last twelve months, some sort of power and some sort of hope for a better future.” With this, Dennehy notes the importance of perspective, and the ways in which different sections of society have been affected in different ways by the pandemic, both in terms of the severity and likely endurance of the negative impacts. For many of us, our lives will return to “some sense of normal”, and we will be fortunate to look back on this as a very tough period in our lives. However, the sad reality is that “for huge sectors and swathes of society, they’re going to be semi-permanently, if not permanently negatively affected”. In an attempt to counter this in some way, Enactus is currently running their Uplifting Youth Programme, which “aims to overcome the double disadvantage that Covid-19 has created for so many in our communities”. In addition, during the pandemic Enactus has also launched their Live Like Never Before programme, “aimed at promoting a healthy lifestyle and positive well-being for young people aged between 16 and 25 years across Ireland”.

Being mindful of others, seeking solutions for society’s problems are goals that should continue right into everyone’s careers.”

Enactus has a strong Alumni group which aligns with its philosophy that social enterprise should be a lifetime commitment, with people engaging and contributing in any capacity that they can manage. As Dennehy says, “Enactus isn’t just about now being a student having an understanding of society”. Being mindful of others, seeking solutions for society’s problems are goals that  “should continue right into everyone’s careers whether you are managing partner of a big firm or whether you’re a teacher or working in finance in a bank”. Regardless of the path one takes in life, we should maintain “this consciousness that people are really important, people are not just customers or clients. That needs to stay with us beyond Enactus and into the rest of our careers.”

For those interested in learning more about the work done by Enactus Ireland, you can find more information on their website.

Cian Dunne

Cian Dunne is the Student Living Editor, and a Junior Sophister student of English Literature and Russian.