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Hometown Heroes: Changing the Odds

How Acumen Academy social innovators are returning to the rural communities where they were raised to transform systems and restore dignity

July 11, 2019



For many rural communities, life is characterized by dependence, not dignity. Residents are trapped in a system that does not meet their needs, and are overlooked by people in positions of power. Every once in a while, an extraordinary individual will break out against all odds. We know this story ‘the rose that grew from the concrete’ and as a society, we celebrate it.

But for these five Acumen community members, it’s not just about beating the odds it’s about changing them.
Hear how Shiroi, Akinyi, Emarine, Clara, and Andrés made the journey home with a new perspective and a hopeful vision. The lessons that these five share from their lifelong commitment to bringing dignity to their communities apply to all types of change-making. 

Exercise Grit

Shiroi Shaiza is an Acumen India Fellow and the managing director of Social Ventures at Entrepreneurs Associates, an organization working in the volatile North Eastern Region of India, known as Nagaland. 

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Shiroi is using the microenterprise model to empower young Nagas in setting up their own successful ventures. Through her work she is changing narratives and restoring hope in her community. This year, she was recognized by Forbes India as a special mention for her work in Social Impact in their 30 Under 30 list, but it hasn’t been an easy path. 
Psychologist and MacArthur Genius Angela Duckworth has coined the term ‘grit,’ a concept she explains as, “Having a goal you care about so much that it organizes and gives meaning to almost everything you do. Grit is holding steadfast to that goal. Even when you fall down. Even when you screw up. Even when progress toward that goal is halting or slow.” If curious, you can learn more about building the habits of perseverance inside Acumen Academy's Master Class with Angela.
Shiroi shared an example of how grit has been important in her work as an agent of change:
When I first came back to Nagaland, I was working with farmers on a livelihood program, helping them set up a pig operation. All of the farmers were male, and they were raised in a very traditional, patriarchal society.

“At first, they dismissed and devalued me, but I put my head down and continued to work hard. As the program started to provide for these farmers and their families, they began to show me respect. My hard work had helped them, and they were appreciative. Maybe more importantly, it started to shift norms within the community. The farmers recognized the power of women.”

Get Perspective

Acumen India Fellow Emarine Kharbhih works at Impulse NGO, where she brings the public and private sectors together to create systemic solutions to human trafficking in Northeast India and its porous borders. Emarine comes from the North East of India, where trafficking was a daily part of life it was common for young working class women to disappear.
Her aunt founded Impulse NGO when Emarine was a young girl, but Emarine never imagined she would be working alongside her family on a problem so close to home. She felt the pull of big city life and left her hometown to go to university. She began working at the Asian Human Right Commission, but one night, sitting at her desk, she had an epiphany: 

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Sometimes, it can take distance to get a better sense of the picture. We practice this ability to get perspective with Acumen Fellows with an exercise we call ‘getting on the balcony.’ 
Here, Eric Martin of Adaptive Change Advisors guides you through the exercise:

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Connect with the Community Experience

Clara Ines Hoyos is an Acumen Colombia Fellow and the founder of the Association of Women Entrepreneurs Cimientos del Hogar, an organization that empowers women affected by the conflict in Colombia by promoting the production, processing, and marketing of organic herbs and essential oils. The organization is creating a path to livelihood and dignity for over 50 women today. Clara has also been a catalyst in getting female representation in her local government office.
When violence in her hometown broke out, Clara fled with her baby. However, due to lack of opportunity in the city, she was forced to return, this time with a new perspective and a burning desire to reconnect with her support system the women she grew up with and together, reclaim their dignity. “I live in a region highly affected by conflict. I lost everything. My son was the only thing I lived for, but he was hungry and I didn’t know what to do. It was very hard. Everyday, I was a witness to loss. I would see women arrive with young babies in their arms and husbands to bury. I stood up and said,

'We have to fight, we need to do something. Not just for me, but for all women.'


Find Your Voice

Each of us has a story that can move others to action. 
Sometimes, we don’t trust our voices. Other times, we don’t think our opinions or convictions are valuable.
However, with self-reflection and a supportive community, everyone can articulate a narrative that provides a hopeful vision, speaks across lines, and catalyzes change. 
Emarine remembers her experience at one of the Acumen Fellowship seminars:

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Build a Network

For Clara, building a community meant creating partnerships with other organizations operating in their region.
“The grassroots organization I lead is not the only one working to create a livelihood for people in the community. There are a lot of organizations with the same idea, and, together, we’re going through the same process. We partner and build together to be more productive.”
Emarine echoes this:

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For Shiroi, this network was built into the Acumen Fellowship program. Not only did the cohort become close friends, but they became a support system of informal advisors and truth tellers.

Make it Personal

Acumen Academy course taker Akinyi Awora is the co-founder and COO of Jiwo Paro, a community-based organization in Kisumu, Kenya focused on equipping women with access to capital, education, and entrepreneurial opportunities as well as the skills they need to manage their finances.
What inspired Akinyi to leave her high-powered job in London and return to Kenya to tackle poverty? 
Her mom. 
“I grew up in a place where most families were raised by single mothers due to the AIDS epidemic. My mother was one of these women - she was a self-trained seamstress whose work paid my school fees and put food on the table. My mom was proud of me, I had made it - l had a fancy degree, a fancy job, financial stability. I liked being able to support her by sending money home, but she didn’t like depending on me. I began teaching her basic financial skills, empowering her to manage her own money. She loved it, and told her seamstress group a group of women who sew together and share a table at the market and they were eager to learn these skills, as well.”


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Pave the Way

Acumen Colombia Fellow Andrés Felipe Gonzalez is the founder of Collective Prisioneros de Esperanza (Prisoners of Hope), an entity that leverages community leaders to exercise peaceful resistance to exclusion and marginalization. Working with inhabitants of vulnerable sectors, Andrés has demonstrated that artistic and cultural activities can be effective social interventions that change a community.
And while all of the change agents we spoke with are tackling different problems and working in different geographies, they all expressed a desire to change the system by creating hope, rebuilding from the ground up, and inspiring the next generation. 
Through small, everyday actions in my neighborhood, I can help build my city.

Andrés Felipe Gonzalez

Clara is equally inspired by the next generation.
“My first mission is to be a good mom. I have a 15 year old son, and he is my motivation to continue everyday, to be the seed that our community needs to find reconciliation and make progress. And I want to raise him to be a good person who contributes to building a great society.”

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Interested in applying to become an Acumen Fellow? Learn More

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Kimmy Bettinger

Kimmy Bettinger is the Community Marketing Associate at Acumen Academy where she helps to amplify the inspiring work being done by Acumen’s global community of change-makers. She holds a BA in English & Comparative Literature from Columbia University and is based in Acumen’s San Francisco office.