Q&A with Anthropology Professor Marcy O’Neil


Faculty across disciplines are using SolutionsU to expose their students to 21st century problems through the lens of solutions. Marcy O’Neil is assistant professor of Anthropology at Michigan State University, and advisor to the Peace and Justice Studies program. Like many educators who find their way to SolutionsU, Marcy combines her academic research and teaching with social entrepreneurship. You can see her syllabi and assingments on SolutionsU Teaching Resources. We talked to Marcy as she was developing her syllabus for a new course she is teaching this fall.

How did you learn about SolutionsU?

MO: One of the courses I teach regularly is “Slacktivists, Activists, and Social Entrepreneurs.” This spring, I was using “An Introduction to Social Entrepreneurship” in the class for the first time, and I reached out to the author, Teresa Chahine, to talk about the impact the book had on my students and myself. She told me about SolutionsU and I took that opportunity to start exploring the platform.

Did you use SolutionsU in that class?

MO: No, I didn’t learn about it until the semester was almost over, but it is a great compliment to Teresa’s book, and I will definitely be using both her book and SolutionsU when I teach this course again in the spring. The book is organized such that the reader begins with a challenge and really gets to know how the community experiences it so that they can understand the potential for positive change. A key factor in that is co-creation with the community before designing the solution. I had my students work through the chapters, so that by the end of the semester, they had produced either a business plan, a grant or a case study of a social innovator. Several students wound up volunteering at the organizations they found during their work for the class.

What inspired you to want to integrate solutions journalism stories into your teaching?

MO: A lot of students are super idealistic about the way the world should be and because they haven’t had a chance to be out there working yet, they often believe that solving a particular problem is going to be much easier than it actually is. They can get frustrated and overwhelmed. They start out with this great idea, and they are excited about creating a solution, but then at a certain point, they realize that even the best idea is going to be difficult to implement. In Teresa’s book, students are asked to map out their theory of change, or the steps needed to go from the problem to the long-term change. This was the part in the process where students began to feel frustrated or overwhelmed. It wasn’t as easy as they thought. But their attitudes started to shift when they were asked to identify competitors. In the social innovation world, these people and organizations compete for a share in the space, yes, but they are also a community that may share the same theory of change.

Students were surprised to learn how many people were out there trying to make positive change. They had typically heard about the problems and not the solutions. When they learned that a community already exists that they can be a part of, and that they can learn from — that made all the difference. Solutions journalism stories can help deliver this powerful message in problem-solving courses like Slacktivists, Activists, and Social Entrepreneurs, but in other courses, as well.

Are there particular features or ways to search on SolutionsU that you anticipate might be particularly useful for your students in this class?

MO: One aspect of the SolutionsU that I really appreciate is being able to search for stories by Sustainable Development Goal. To be able to select a particular problem that people around the world are trying to solve, and immediately find several examples of the different ways people have tried to tackle it, is very powerful.

Will you be integrating SolutionsU into the class you are teaching this fall?

MO: Yes, I am working on that now. The class is the Anthropology of Social Movements, and it is going to be a large class with about 80 students, and I plan to use both SolutionsU, as well as story collections. In terms of the SolutionsU itself, one way we will be using it is to find stories that highlight different strategies people use to create social movements. I am dividing the course into “buckets” of social movements, such as political, economic, human rights, environmental, so I might have the students work in groups of 10 to explore how these movements designed their solutions. Across these movements, we might explore, for example how an unusual cross sector collaboration helped advance immigrant justice and then explore how a similar strategy might be useful to activists in the sanctuary city movement. Or, we might look at strategies of past social movements, and how these strategies are or aren’t applicable today. Searching by “Success Factors” surfaces stories that will help the students understand what makes people act, and how people form groups based on their interests.

And how do you plan to use story collections in this class?

MO: I am developing assignments built around story collections that include an interactive element. So, for example, when I first introduce the concept of environmental movements, I plan to show the video Building Better Cities on Al Jazeera in class to get the discussion started, and then I will ask the students to read and discuss the stories I have in the collection on their own, maybe working in groups or posting answers to particular questions on D2L. Or, I might show the video in class, and then ask the students to create their own story collections and discussion questions and report back. Either way, the visual element will be really helpful in getting the conversation started, more so than just asking students to talk about an article they have just read.

You are engaged in social change work outside of the classroom. Can you tell me about your work in this area, and how it relates to teaching from a solutions perspective?

MO: Globalization and Justice is a class where I had my students partner with an organization I work with in Benin, in West Africa. Together they all worked on a project to create seven storybooks based on folktales. The folktales were told by community members in Benin and my colleagues there transcribed them by hand, and then translated them into French. Two of my students were bilingual, so they translated and storyboarded. Then they corresponded back and forth, the students in Detroit with those working in Benin. Eventually we created a website, and everybody in Benin acted out the stories and filmed it, and sent it to us over WhatsApp. It was like study abroad without going abroad because of technology, because they would communicate and try to speak to each other across cultures. It was this really great exchange! (More information about Marcy’s work in Benin can be found here and here).

Are you an educator who wants your students to learn about how people around the world are working to solve society’s toughest challenges? Visit SolutionsU for collections of stories with discussion questions, assignments, syllabi and teaching modules.

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