Studying History Helps Solve Social Impact Concerns

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Studying History Helps Solve Social Impact Concerns

Have you ever come across a problem or a puzzle where you need a specific fact to figure out the rest of the answer? This would be a problem where knowing one thing is what propels you to the next step or helps you ask a different question. Like a key that opens a new door, history is filled with knowledge and context that possibly unlock better solutions to social concerns.

Every concern has a background story. There is so much social entrepreneurs learn from engaging with stakeholders, including the situations leading to whatever issue needs solving.

What History Does for Society

Society holds onto history to keep a record of what goes on and to commemorate past events. Record keeping helps us to remember notable events. These events can be an inspiration, a cautionary tale, or a chance to reflect. 

On top of this, studying the past allows us to see patterns. Sometimes the greatest thing we can do is notice a pattern since that knowledge helps society predict, adjust, and adapt the current storyline we’re living in.

People even use history for things like foreshadowing. How many times have you heard people attempt to predict recessions? You may find conversations about identifying how a recession officially starts or about the big companies founded during recessions.

In social enterprise, this may show up as learning about the history of harvesting or traditions in the community you hope to help. Stakeholders, especially those with first-hand experiences, have knowledge to reference. They can share lived stories, community content, or official documents with social impact initiatives so the decisions by the initiative are more aligned with what’s helpful for the community.

History Almost Repeats: The Tale of Two Parades

For example, Philadelphia almost hosted a large parade during the pandemic in 2020.

Many people were still excited for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in that March of 2020 until the uncertainty of coronavirus came through. Surprisingly, Michael Bradley, who runs Philadelphia’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, stated on social media that the parade was still happening, and also made jokes about anyone who was nervous attending.

Part of what he said on Facebook was the following:

“We are absolutely on. If you don’t want to come, watch on Fox 29. However, if you are a nervous nelly, please do not go to mass, send your kids to school, go to the grocery store or continue living. Please sit in your bedroom with a poncho on in the corner for the next two weeks.”

However, this of course caught the eyes of society. People on social media started to point out the cliche of history repeating itself and not learning from past mistakes. Social media was not trolling for once, but actually had a solid point to offer.

Here’s why:

During 1918, the world was experiencing a flu epidemic. Philadelphia during that time decided to not cancel the Liberty Loan Parade, even knowing they already had flu cases in the city. The parade was happening in about a week or so, and was meant to be patriotic.

Philadelphia held the parade on September 28, with a crowd of around 200,000 coming to celebrate. By October 1, there were 635 new cases in Philadelphia, according to UPenn (University of Pennsylvania). That first spike was followed by more than 12,000 people dying in six weeks and about 47,000 reported cases. This, along with other factors in the following months, would make Philadelphia one of the hardest hit US cities during the 1918 flu epidemic.

So yes, history and social media discourse became relevant to this 2020 St. Patrick’s Day Parade situation. Nothing officially says the buzz on social media caused a change of heart, but there was a turnaround with the decision.

Later in the week of the “nervous nelly” comment, and after a press conference with the mayor and city government health officials, Bradley would offer a new statement, part of which said:

“After heartfelt consideration and serious conversation with officials from the City of Philadelphia, the St. Patrick’s Day Observance Association has decided to cancel the parade and all events related to the 2020 Philadelphia Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. This decision was made with significant input from civic and parade participants. While this decision is disappointing, we acted with a general concern for the well-being of everyone. In days to come, we will continue with great enthusiasm to plan the 250th Saint Patrick’s Day Parade on March 14, 2021…”

The parade was canceled without anyone having to risk what catastrophe may or may not have happened. You can read about the decision in the “Talk About a Quick Reversal” section of Philly Mag’s coverage of the canceled event.

Philadelphia’s mirrored situations between 1918 and 2020 are proof that knowing history can inform social concerns.

What is Social History?

In fact, people can research history specifically looking at the social aspect of history. Google shares this definition from Britannica:

“Branch of history that emphasizes social structures and the interaction of different groups in society rather than affairs of state.”

So it’s focused on lived experiences and exchanges between communities.

Social enterprises can use a social history approach to gather information and perspective about a social impact concern. Initiatives could put out surveys, do interviews, hold community events, or check archives to learn about an issue. The important thing is to develop a better understanding of the community’s position while maintaining respect.

Disclaimer: Know Your Sources and Motives

Like how a story changes depending on who you ask what happened, history is a subject that can get twisted depending on who’s telling the story. People have moments where history is retold differently, such as who won certain battles or what situation caused an event. Then, there’s also moments where history is skipped completely.

It’s fair to say social entrepreneurs need to be mindful of where they get their historic context.  No one is a mind reader, so taking mental notes on what’s being presented could help filter information. This is more or less about being curious around the motives, representation, and social context of historic events.

The only time it’s nice to have a huge remix and retelling is for stories like multicultural Cinderella fairy tales. (Here are 9 of them in case you’re curious.)

Learn About the Stakeholder’s History

We all have history, individually and collectively. Even in our interpersonal interactions, learning the backstory of what we’re dealing with or who we’re dealing with influences our choices.

Social impact concerns are not always straightforward, which is why context and perspective are great resources for solutions. Studying history provides access to both in a way that improves a solution’s relevance and possibly its longevity.

Studying History Helps Solve Social Impact Concerns
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