Op-Ed: Why not you?

Wednesday, March 30, 2016 - 9:33pm

What comes to mind when you hear “social innovation?” Is it entrepreneurship? Technology? Big ideas? When I hear “social innovation,” I think optiMize. I think unity, trust, family and community — the real things that will inspire people to change the world.

I had one of the hardest days of my life this year. Fortunately, it was a Sunday: the day we always have our optiMize Core Team meetings. I almost suggested cancelling the meeting, unsure if I would be able to avoid crying while reading through the weekly updates. The meeting went on anyway, and, of course, I cried while reading through the weekly updates. The meeting ended, but nobody left. They sat with me; they wanted to know more, learn more and do more. When I did go home, I received an influx of texts, e-mails, Google invites for coffee dates, offers to just sit with me quietly — all from my optiMize family.

You don’t find that in many places — that selflessness. It’s difficult to find a community of people who are determined to make a difference, no matter how simple or seemingly small that difference may be. The optiMize community shares one collective purpose: to make the world a better place. It doesn’t matter if you’re supporting someone in their time of need or doing groundbreaking entrepreneurship work. Everything optiMize stands for can be seen in the daily actions of our community members. The love, understanding, empathy and support that was shown to me on that day may have seemed amplified at that moment, but this was not a singular moment. This was optiMize. Those intangible, positive elements that resonate from the actions of everyone in the community are what will drive change in this world.

The central mission of optiMize is to create positive action by replacing the phrase, “Somebody should do something about that,” with “Why not me?”

The teams in our Social Innovation Challenge have fused their intangible, positive elements with optiMize’s mission to inspire the impact we want to see. We have a team combatting Islamophobia by creating thought-provoking artwork, while another is creating virtual reality games for children with disabilities and another is working with Kenyan farmers to create a sustainable fish feed. And that’s just the beginning. Members of the optiMize community are building their ideas from the ground up, and from the ground up they are aiding in making this world more just, more sustainable and just plain better.

For me, optiMize has served as an active reminder to seek out change wherever change may be necessary. It’s a contagious environment — you discover optiMize, you meet inspiring people who embrace the ability to question and transform, and then, without hesitation, you begin. That’s all it takes — just ask yourself, “Why not me?”

The optiMize Social Innovation Challenge Final Showcase is on April 13 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre at the Michigan League. This event will feature 10 teams from optiMize’s 2016 Challenge, a seven-month-long program that comprises workshops and mentorship opportunities, allowing hundreds of students to turn their ideas for social change into reality. optiMize awards more than $150,000 in funding and summer fellowships, which allows teams to continue working on their startups all summer long.

Erin Johnson is the president of optiMize.