Sébastien Mena examines how community work can reduce social stigmas

New study analyses social enterprise's approach to reintegrating individuals with mental illness into their community while engaging in anti-Mafia work.

Prosocial work that engages the community to advance a social mission can help reduce stigma of certain individuals, say Sébastien Mena, Professor of Organisation and Governance at the Hertie School, and Valeria Cavotta of the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, Italy, in a co-authored study. The paper “Prosocial Organizing and the Distance between Core and Community Work” was published in the journal Organization Studies on 30 April 2022, and focuses on how prosocial organising could help individuals with mental illness in Italy.

The authors found that although research tends to focus more on stigmatised individuals – such as people with mental health issues – working on improving the surrounding community can also help to destigmatise and reintegrate individuals into society. 

Creating durable social change: The case of an Italian work integration social enterprise

The qualitative study looked at the work of Nuova Cucina Organizzata (New Organised Kitchen), an Italian social enterprise that helps people with mental health issues reintegrate into their communities by providing job opportunities in a region of Southern Italy overwhelmed by organised crime. In 2007, the organisation opened a social restaurant to employ people with mental health issues to reintegrate them in the community. Yet, they soon realised the Mafia’s effect on the community was impeding their success and they began to engage in anti-Mafia work.

As Valeria Cavotta explains, “When the social enterprise hired these individuals, the community feared proximity, as individuals with mental illness are typically stigmatised as dangerous.” Nuova Cucina’s strategy was to shift stigma from their beneficiaries to the Mafia, who did not suffer the same stigma despite being dangerous.

The organisation implemented two forms of community work. First, they used properties confiscated from the Mafia as accommodation for their beneficiaries and to host various cultural and recreational activities where community members and beneficiaries could interact. “Due to this work, the local community was attracted to the social enterprise and came closer to the people with mental health illness,” says Cavotta. Second, they involved other firms and organisations, which encouraged solidarity with entrepreneurs who denounced Mafia extortion, the authors explain.

Mena and Cavotta note that the work of Nuova Cucina shows how fostering community can bolster destigmatisation processes and ultimately increase local stakeholder cooperation. Social change can only endure when it has support beyond a single organisation, such as in local communities, the authors argue. 

“We show that in some cases, destigmatisation is about redirecting stigma from one group of people to another that is currently not stigmatised, but should be, such as the Mafia,” says Sébastien Mena. “More importantly, we highlight how this can be achieved by organisations engaging in work that is not closely related to their core activities, such as community and anti-Mafia work.”

Read Sebastién Mena's paper in Organization Studies.


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