Jerren Chang: Driving Understanding, Participation and Change in Communities
Welcome back! Spiffy here, your interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth with an eye on entrepreneurs working to make this world more equitable. Jerren Chang, co-founder and CEO of GenUnity, is working hard on UNSDG #16: Peace, Justice & Strong Institutions. Are you ready to be inspired?
Spiffy: Welcome Jerren! Let’s jump right in! Can you tell me what challenges you are addressing through your start-up, GenUnity?
Jerren: Thanks so much for having me, Spiffy. Today, record numbers of young adults (18-34 years old) want to drive change in their communities. But longstanding structural barriers prevent them—particularly those from marginalized groups—from getting involved. GenUnity’s equitable community leadership programs support people to build their capacity to drive change. Our dream is one where every young person, regardless of background, can engage as equals in the decisions that impact their community. A community by everyone for everyone.
Spiffy: That sounds like the kind of community I want to be a part of! What motivated you to address this issue?
Jerren: As a first-generation Asian American, I wrestled with the tension between our country’s stated values of equity and the reality of how our society treats people who are different. While working in Chicago’s city government, I got to peek behind the curtain of how decisions are made, but I also saw how we create barriers to young people from marginalized communities to affect change, perpetuating and exacerbating inequity. Ever since then, it has been my goal to change this.
Spiffy: Wow! And how are you and GenUnity working to create a more equitable world?
Jerren: Right now, we are at a critical crossroads in the fight for racial and social justice. In the U.S., Covid-19, police violence, and attacks on Asian Americans have highlighted urgent and long-standing systemic inequities. Driving structural change starts by activating a generation of young people to build the relationships, knowledge, and skills they need to get involved in their local communities and build more equitable policies and institutions.
Spiffy: Can you tell me about a recent milestone that you’ve achieved? What kind of impact is it having?
Jerren: This past fall we piloted a program on eviction and housing insecurity in Boston with 32 aspiring leaders from the Greater Boston community. Today, nearly every member has gotten more involved in their community. This is because they have a deeper understanding of the issues and have developed the skills and relationships to address them. Some members are now working with the City of Boston to create a central site to access rental relief resources. Others are advocating and volunteering across the community.
GenUnity’s pilot cohort on Zoom. (Image courtesy of Jerren Chang)
Spiffy: Can you tell me about a time when you faced failure and didn't give up. What did you learn from failure?
Jerren: Three years ago, when I first started working on the idea that would become GenUnity, I had envisioned a very different solution—an app that was going to gamify civic engagement. But the more I spoke to the young people we wanted to support, I realized that the solution was designed to meet their needs. I learned that as a social entrepreneur you should fall in love with the problem (not your solution) and have the courage to admit when you are wrong, change your approach, and try again.
Spiffy: Before we sign off, is there anything particularly inspiring that you’ve learned from someone recently?
Jerren: A friend of mine who has exhibited incredible resilience in the face of prolonged medical challenges said recently that, "even the prospect of hope is a small grace." Given all that's happened over the past year, his words remind me to be grateful for the hope that things can get better and inspire me to keep doing what I can to share that hope with others.
Spiffy: Thanks for sharing this inspiration with us, and all the people and communities you are working with! It’s been an honor!
Jerren Chang is the co-founder and CEO of GenUnity, which supports aspiring young leaders to build the relationships, knowledge, and skills to drive change in their communities on the issues they care about. He is a 2021 MBA/MPP joint degree candidate at Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School. (Nominated by Harvard Innovation Labs. First published on the Ladderworks website on May 10, 2021.)
© 2021 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Jill Landis Jha. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. Follow Spiffy’s stories of founders building a more equitable world at www.ladderworks.co/blogs/spiffys-blog