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Humanities and Social Sciences News

Blog Post: 2020 Reflections

Program Director Elizabeth Benefield shares thoughts from the 2020-21 Academic Year

Image of Elizabeth Benefield
Elizabeth Benefield

I have an aunt who is an accomplished artist in NYC and this week she shared a painting she had done of her “alter ego,” a lone person sitting in a corner of an enclosed room which she described as a stage set with no exit. The face is obscured, and gaze set on a device s/he is holding. She wrote that a few months ago she was overcome by a sort of existential despair, and the painting expressed to her the confinements of the pandemic. After sitting with it for a while, she hung the painting on the wall and mindfully moved on to a more confident future.

This really resonated with me. Even while I steady my days with family, work and life demands, and begin the journey back to “normal,” I find myself seeking to hold and honor the raw despair of this past year. I shared with my aunt that when I start to feel a bit overrun with sadness or feelings of loss, I light a candle and allow myself to sit with the feelings for a while. After honoring the feelings for a bit, I blow out the candle to signal permission to move on. It’s a simple practice, but for me a way to fully acknowledge such feelings and also decide when it feels right to serve as witness.

Elinore Schnurr, EVENING, 2021,

As our world shifts toward yet another period of change and adjustment, how do we honor what we have learned and experienced while at the same time move forward with renewed energy to building a more compassionate and just world? How do those who have lost loved ones to disease or violence endure these losses and remain hopeful? What is required of each of us to engage deeply in the work of real change, beginning with ourselves, in order to create that elusive civil society where all individuals are empowered to live to their full potential? 

Despite the immense challenges of this past year, the brave and earnest students of the 2020-21 Social Innovation Fellows cohort showed up wholeheartedly to practice the messy work of creating real social change. Hundreds of hours were spent meeting with teammates, mentors and venture partners, researching wicked problems, applying new tools and concepts, and designing and redesigning and redesigning potential solutions. They endured ambiguity and the frustration of failed attempts to create a clean “wrap,” and learned the value of asking why before jumping to the how.  A colleague asked me the other day, “What do you mean when you say ‘the work?’” I think the Fellows could describe it perfectly:  courage to ask tough questions and struggle with admissions of fear, uncertainty and insecurity, return repeatedly to seeking a better and more inclusive understanding of problems, and be willing to stumble repeatedly yet persevere in seeking answers. I think they would say “the work” is not about knowing the answer, but rather learning how to find it.

An extraordinary team of mentors including Jane Rogers, Raj Narayan, Brian Speight, Miles Wright, and Jahmal Pullen stewarded their teams through our Discover, Design and Do Good learning pathway with tenaciousness and skill, leaning into spaces of angst, and demonstrating to the students the value of persevering through uncertainty and ambiguity. A line up of exceptional social entrepreneurs from across our state joined the Fellows at our monthly Innovation Labs:

  • Raleigh entrepreneur and community builder, Krystal “DaMuse” Argentin, inspired our students to step out of their comfort zones – establishing an early cohort mantra to WEAR THE RED PANTS;
  • Alum Thomas Armstrong pushed the Fellows to seek and to share their personal journeys of purpose;
  • Renowned filmmaker and documentarian Gareth Gwyn challenged students to explore and tell their stories of growth and resilience;
  • Alum and Red Hat executive, Katie-Gray Altmann, urged the students to- in life and in work – unapologetically practice empathy;
  • Steve Kim and his design colleagues from IBM taught students the skills and importance of stakeholder research and mapping and human centered design thinking.

There were many others, all contributing pro bono time and expertise, with the singular goal of helping our students develop a mindset of curiosity, creativity and confidence to grow as change leaders. 

I could not be more proud of this group of students who thoughtfully and capably took this journey with us over the past year. Every one of you is a super hero! As we all begin to “unmask” literally and figuratively, I hope we will be mindful of the lessons learned, and ever alert to and vigilant in creating a new normal that is more inclusive and just. As my insightful colleague Alisha Brice often says, let’s continue to show one another patience and grace. An outstanding new cohort of Fellows stand ready to begin this important work. I am optimistic and confident in the way forward!

Elinore Schnurr, IMPERMANENCE, 2020,