Apr 17 • 6 min read

Q&A with Professor Marilyn Anthony about Solving Wicked Social Problems

IEI PR Coordinator, Matthew Medrow

If you’re like me, you want to make a difference in the world, but don’t always know if your efforts are really making a difference. Plus, as we know now more than ever, some of the world’s problems can feel too big to solve. But according to Professor Marilyn Anthony, you can make a difference—even on those big problems—if you attack them the right way. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Professor Anthony about how her course, Solving Wicked Social Problems (SBM0880, a limited-edition Human Society GenEd running this fall), helps students make an impact working to solve the problems that are important to them. By using history to inform and inspire us, Professor Anthony’s class uses a contemporary perspective to analyze the responses of the past. Read more of my conversation with her below.

[Q] You began your career as a chef, working in restaurants, and have since gone on to become a multi-faceted social entrepreneur; can you tell me what lead to your passion for social entrepreneurship and solving social problems?

[A] Food has always been really important to me. Even though my career has taken many different turns, food has always been central to it. Whether that was working for a for-profit company, like a restaurant or high-end hotel, or making the switch to non-profit and working for farmers, it was always about food. What I came to appreciate in

Professor Marilyn Anthony

moving from a for-profit to non-profit environment was the differences of those entities. I became really convinced that having more control over your revenue generation, like in a for-profit environment, would enable non-profit’s to be freed of some of the obligations, or vulnerabilities they face. Seeing that you could do good and still do well, the more I looked into it, it is so apparent to me that having that business mindset, where profit is not the sole motivator, enables you to accomplish a social goal.

[Q] You’re teaching a course this upcoming semester that dives into various social issues from the last century and the strategic responses undertaken to solve those issues. Can you tell me more about the course itself?

[A] Over the last couple of years, we have all been exposed to tons of information about rising rates of depression, anxiety, hopelessness and even suicide among the youth. The origin for this course was really thinking that, while they are not exact replicas, we as a city, as a nation, and as human beings have faced terrible crises in the past. Perhaps, we could look at these events and see how we survived, who the influential people were, and what strategies and tactics they employed to bring about the change that corrected or completely solved that problem. So we chose to look at events in the 20th century, which is hardly ancient history, but certainly not in the life experience of college students. It’s prior to their awareness. Looking at those events with contemporary, fresh eyes and saying, “okay – this is what was happening then, is there something similar to that happening now, and if so what can we learn about the way people solved this problem before? Can we use some of those same strategies and apply them to our current manifestation of the problem?” Since there is a world of possibilities, we have chosen to focus on things like basic human needs (food, clothing, and shelter) and we add on to that, health and wellness, because without them the rest don’t matter.

[Q] Is there any specific student that this course is aimed at reaching, or any personality type that might excel in this course?

[A] First of all, in moving this course to be a Gen. Ed, the hope was that it would draw students from very diverse backgrounds and disciplines. Because this kind of cross-fertilization of ideas and perspectives will give you a richer pool of solutions. In this course we had people from theater, art, engineering, community development, architecture and business – yay! No two people came with the same set of skills or knowledge, so it is putting those people together and seeing that collaboration and peer learning that comes from that is super exciting. The common denominator is, you should be in the room if you feel that there are problems that need fixing and you want to be a part of the solution. You need to bring energy, openness, and want to make a difference.

[Q] Can you tell me a little more about the specific issues discussed in the class?

[A] We want to stay focused on basic human needs. I am looking at, what do YOU see as a current food problem. And frankly, some of the issues that students have wanted to look at is food access. On the shelter side – homelessness and affordable housing. On the health and wellness side, we are surrounded by it now. And with clothing, fast fashion with all of the inequities and waste, labor practices. And sort-of an overreaching thing some students are looking at is income inequality and that touches on education. I am encouraging students to choose the current expression as long as we stay within the basic human needs of food, shelter, clothing, health and wellness.

[Q] Some of the social issues addressed in the class are large-scale society issues. How will students learn to address them in ways where they can actually make an impact?[A] As we start the process of defining a social problem they want to fix, it’s giant. So the first part of the process is learning, not to simplify, but learning to get to that root cause. Once you get to that root cause, or causes, pick one where you can move the needle, because you’re not going to fix all the problems. I think of it as a kind of funnel in which we start with this giant problem, and we narrow it until they can get their arms around it and understand the dynamics of it, and design something that will fix that or at least move that. So every project goes through that “make it smaller” process. That doesn’t mean it can’t be scalable, but we start with prototyping something small. By starting small, we want to encourage students to pick something they feel they can make a difference in and what will help shepard you to work toward that bigger picture.

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