Emilie Schmitt

Ashoka Fellow
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France
Fellow Since 2018
This description of Emilie Schmitt's work was prepared when Emilie Schmitt was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2018 .

Introduction

Today, unemployment is essentially seen as an economical problem with widespread negative psychological consequences. Emilie wants to turn it into a positive “learning life experience”. To equip unemployed persons and society with the core capabilities to seize such an opportunity to learn and grow, Emilie came up with a unique framework for the unemployed to self-organize in local optimist communities.

The New Idea

Emilie is seeing unemployment as an opportune time frame in the person’s life for learning and developing capacities. She wants to change people’s mindset to see and use unemployment as a phase to grow and better equip oneself for how work and society are changing. She identified that this shift first demands tackling the roots of the psychological implications of the unemployment period.

Emilie believes that some specific skills (learning mindset, optimism, resiliency, gratitude, …) are central to both dealing with psychological dimension of unemployment and preparing individuals and society for the future. Rather than only focusing on a result (getting a job), she sees greater opportunity in also focusing on the process of developing these core capabilities. With her organization "Activ'Action", she fosters the creation of local and solidarity-based grassroots communities of "Activ'Actors" where unemployed people gather in fun peer-led workshops specifically designed to develop these core capabilities. “Activ’Actors” are keeping the community vivid by becoming workshop facilitators, bringing in their own knowledge or taking action together and thus developing their skills collectively. Within 3 years, local groups of Activ'Actors have emerged in 20 cities across 7 different countries, reaching 7,000+ unemployed people.

As local groups of Activ’Actors don’t require her constant input to grow and replicate in France and abroad, Emilie is now increasingly putting her energy in connecting with social work organizations, public social agencies and corporate structures. She infiltrates these key actors of the employment ecosystem with her new positive mindset and methodologies to impact the way they work both with the unemployed and people inside their organization.

The Problem

With 7,1% of the workforce being jobless in January 2018 (Eurostat data), Europe is severely affected by unemployment. In France, unemployment periods last in average a year, and the unemployment rate is close to 9% (more than 3.4 million people). Given the fact that this issue is both long-standing and huge, there are already many players and interventions in this field. Nevertheless, they mostly all focus on getting people back to the job market as soon as possible. Unemployment is indeed mainly seen as an economic issue, and this has led to overlook another major dimension, the psychological aspect of this period.

Unemployed people are indeed psychologically impacted: negative feelings, social isolation, loss of skills, confidence, ambition, behavioral changes, are some of the many consequences of the unemployment period as it is today. These psychological implications slow down their ability to go back to work and can lead to heavier health problems: studies show there is correlation between suicide and unemployment rates. This represents significant social costs for the society. At the root of these psychological consequences lies a heavy social stigma: the unemployed are considered as individually responsible for being in this situation. They also feel it themselves as a failure because of the deep sense of self-identification with one’s job, thus leading to “auto-stigmatization” and a vicious circle of discouragement. In addition, unemployment service institutions are designed to work with them as recipients of aid and this doesn’t change the stigma. Between two persons equally qualified, a person currently working is more likely to be recruited than a person who is unemployed. This stigmatization increases loss of confidence and self-esteem, as well as anxiety. It also generates “auto-stigmatization” and thus triggers a vicious circle of discouragement.

What is more, this social stigma holds a special place in a world where unemployment periods will be more frequent. Prospective studies indeed show that future of work should be non-linear. In this context, there is a pressing need to equip the society to see and address unemployment differently at many levels at the same time.

The Strategy

To change mindsets and transform the way society sees unemployment and unemployed people, Emilie has structured a four-fold strategy: building local communities of “active” unemployed people, working with social workers and institutions, influencing corporations and advocacy work.

First, Emilie has built a strong, widespread and very active community of “Activ’Actors”. “Activ’Actors” are unemployed people who either attend or facilitate Activ’Action workshops (Activ’Boost, Activ’Up, Activ’Jump, Activ’Citizen, Activ’Entrepreneur). Emilie based herself on existing research work on positive psychology to design five three-hour collective workshop formats and content to support the unemployed in either overcoming negative feelings, focusing on their strengths and potential, collectively engaging in a civic project, or getting prepared to start up a project of their own. The Activ’Action workshops are freely accessible and follow three key design principles: first, focus prioritizes learning and developing oneself rather than on getting back to the job market. The positive, non-judgmental and empathic posture of the facilitator is designed to encourage initiatives and create a safe space for experiment. Second, the workshop should facilitate peer-to-peer exchanges: they are kept to a maximum of 10 people to ensure qualitative social interactions. The third principle is diversity of the attendees: efforts are made to bring unemployed people with different backgrounds together in the same workshop; the reason for this is that beyond the diversity of their situations, they all undergo the psychological impact of unemployment alike, and this is a great base for learning from each other. Emilie’s strong belief that everyone has the capacity “to bring something”, to be a “co-creator”, underlies these key design principles.

To start up a local community of Activ’Actors, Emilie reaches out to the unemployed both through social media and historical ecosystem stakeholders such as the national unemployment agency or local social organizations working for social and professional integration, who find Emilie’s approach complementary to their action. Through the organization of first collective workshops, Emilie fosters the creation of social ties and solidarity among the unemployed people of a city, who form a local community of “Activ’Actors” capable of taking on the methodology and spreading the solution independently. Indeed, the key to the fast spreading of Emilie’s idea in a very resource-effective way is that any participant can volunteer to be trained to facilitate further workshops for peers. Participants see in this role of facilitator an opportunity to develop new skills, and are seen as legitimate by their peers because they have experienced unemployment themselves. This way, this is an impactful replication process that adds value to the community. Beyond facilitating the existing workshop formats, Activ’Actors can also create their own workshops to bring new skills into the community. For instance, one participant created the workshop “Activ’Theater” around public speaking; another created “Activ’Twitter” on social media management.

To date, 1200+ workshops have been organized in 20 cities in 6 different countries, reaching 7,000 unemployed people. Her key success indicators include an increased self-confidence, developing one’s network, a positive mindset change regarding the unemployment period, acquiring new skills, satisfaction with the new job when found and an increased citizen engagement. According to Emilie’s first impact measurement study in 2016, 85% of the participants consider Activ’Action helped them reducing a psychological risk, and 65% developed at least one new “soft” skill. What is more, 250 persons were trained as Activ’Action facilitators, and endorsing this role has a strong impact on the way they see their own capacities: 90% of the facilitators found a job or created their own venture within 6 months after starting Activ’Action workshops. Demonstrating that the Activ’Action community is a great space for experiment, several of the participants who had created and facilitated new workshops for the community, such as Activ’Theater, then found, or created their own, job as facilitators.

To reach an even more broad and diverse range of unemployed people, Emilie works with social work local organizations and public institutions with the medium-term objective to equip social workers and public agents, who interact with the unemployed, with her new positive mindset and methodologies to integrate more systematically the psychological dimension into their support programs, and see in the unemployed active partners to co-create their path through unemployment. For instance, in Strasbourg, a local association supporting women in underprivileged neighbourhoods included Activ’Action sessions as an integral part of the training track they provide; the public authority of Strasbourg decided to co-develop with Activ’Action a new public program for the unemployed that will integrate Activ’Action workshops. These players see value in Emilie’s approach to unemployment, as it brings a new and missing piece to their work. They pay for it, and thus provide her with a steady stream of income as they benefit from Activ’Action expertise. As her solution is decreasing and preventing psychological risks that negatively impact health and slower the capacity to get back to work, Emilie also identified mutual health insurance companies as key partners. In 2018, she partnered with one of the major mutual health insurance groups in France, Malakoff Médéric (more than 6 million beneficiaries), so that their affiliates can easily access Activ’Action’s community and tools.

Employers are other key stakeholders that need to change their mindset and practices toward the unemployed. Emilie works with corporations with the objective to impact their recruitment process and make sure they prioritize core competencies as the capacity to learn, teamwork or empathy; for instance, to help them see beyond qualifications to capabilities of people, she organizes Activ’Action workshops where both the recruiters and the candidates are participants put on a equal footing. Furthermore, as the quality of their former work experiences directly impacts the psychology of the unemployed, Emilie also works at changing the way companies invest in their own employees. By showing them that developing these core competencies will serve both their organization and the society at large, she is building eagerness for capacity building of core personal skills to be continuously enhanced.

Having built a strong community of affected individuals as well as relationships with institutional and corporate stakeholders, Emilie now plans on focusing more and more on advocacy, to foster a change in public policies and collective consciousness. To convince on the political side, she works at measuring avoided costs for the system to prove the effectiveness and necessity of her solution; she also plans to invest in research to bring in the debate existing and new data about the impact of positive psychology on unemployment. For instance, she collaborates with RAND Europe, a not for profit research institute that aims at improving policy through research, to leverage Activ’Action data on the self-esteem of the unemployed. Emilie wants to push for giving more space to mental wellbeing, core capacity building and empowerment, rather than only job placement, in the way public funds are allocated to support the unemployed. With the objective to include the first concerned in the discussion, she ambitions to tap into the potential of her community to create a committee gathering Activ’Actors, employers and other non-profit organizations to influence political decision makers. On the awareness-raising side, she is preparing a media campaign to share stories of Activ’Actors. She aims at helping the general public to see beyond the unemployed “status” and consider the unemployed as great resources rather than burdens for the society.

The Person

Emilie grew up in a very small French countryside village and pretty conservative environment. Soon willing to broaden her horizon, she convinced her parents to let her leave home at the age of 18, and travelled around the world. This has been a critical learning period during which Emilie questioned what she had learnt so far, increased her consciousness about pressing global social challenges, and consolidated her will to choose a professional pathway in which she could have an impact. After studying languages and business at university, Emilie chose to start a civic service mission for a French non-profit organization: a transformative experience which convinced her to lead impact-driven projects starting in France, the country she knows best, rather than abroad.

But when this inspiring civic experience came to an end, Emilie became unemployed. She experienced how this unemployment period was gradually lowering down her ambition, her motivation, her natural will to interact with others and her overall wellbeing. At first, she could not bring herself to go to the national employment agency, because it was psychologically too hard. And when she finally convinced herself to go to the national employment agency to meet with an advisor, whose first question was: “why didn’t you come earlier?”, she felt like her present psychological state was totally overlooked. During this difficult period, because she had always dreamt of becoming an entrepreneur, Emilie decided to undertake an entrepreneurship training. She had a life-changing conversation with Fabien, future Activ’Action co-founder, who was undergoing the same unemployment situation; he perceived her entrepreneurial quality and they shared their common urge to “do something”. They decided to join forces and develop the support ecosystem they would have dreamt to have during their own unemployment period. After a long phase of apprenticeship through meetings, readings and discussions, Emilie and Fabien identified that the currently missing “mental wellbeing” piece in the unemployment support pathway was far from being just a “nice-to-have” to be able to change one’s own situation, but that it was instead at the core. Reaching out to experts in positive psychology, they structured and field-tested the Activ’Action methodology.

Along with Fabien and a small core team, Emilie then further developed this initial methodology to build a real movement of “Activ’Actors” that keeps growing and now offers any unemployed person the opportunity to easily take on an active role for self and for society. She thus concretely demonstrates that being “active” should not be reserved to people with a job; and envisions a society where unemployment periods can be seen, lived and leveraged as opportunities to develop one’s changemaker potential.