With a divided government, a fragmented social sector, and a business community focused primarily on profitability, we have been faced with some hard truths about reduced opportunities to achieve the American Dream; without a lot of hope about leadership capable of fixing the problems.
One ray of hope can be found among social entrepreneurs and other business, government, and community leaders that partner with and support them who focus on increased access to opportunity for all Americans. These entrepreneurs create practical solutions that blend the best of the private and public sectors. Every year, the respected Boston-based venture philanthropy New Profit pulls many of them together at an annual "Gathering of Leaders".
This year's Gathering held an emotional charge and signaled a broadening of the 'social entrepreneurship' movement that could be a harbinger of good things to come. Attendees asked some hard questions about whether the approaches we've tried are working.
We were challenged to accelerate the pace of change and create solutions at the scale of problems we are trying to solve, while focusing much greater attention on the relationship of race and class to achievement of these objectives.
Four biggest takeaways:
Race is of central importance.
We cannot create a truly inclusive economy unless we recognize and address the role race continues to play in inequality. We need new infrastructure and relationships that result in a critical mass of people of color in leadership in banks to private equity, in technology and the social sector. This is what engenders a sense of belonging for all people at all levels of the economy. We have to prepare the people we serve to deal with the world we live in which is full of conscious and unconscious bias - a painful reality. Not to accept it, but to rise up in the context of it.
We have to build solutions with not for people.
The 'users' of our systems need to be involved in fixing them. Understand your user and you will get it right. If not, you end up with 'discriminatory design' and will not hit the mark.
We need more funders to take a portfolio approach that allows for risk.
Initial capital for start-up and growth is as essential in the social sector as it is in the private sector. Funders like New Profit, and Kapor Capital that have taken an early chance on companies from Teach for America to Pigeonly, City Year to Black Girls Code are essential. The 'marginal gain' and the 'long shot' - we need both!
It's time to recognize different ways to demonstrate work readiness.
The only proxy we have other than specific experience for assessing job applicants are degrees or certificates. However, people can prove their ability to work in other ways - experience in social enterprise, or volunteer service (e.g. Americorps, City Year, Juma Ventures, The Center for Employment Opportunities). "Badges" certify readiness, not only "degrees". We need these channels to offer consistent and reliable preparation, so employers can trust other sources of education and experience that are open to more diverse talent.
These insights challenge us all to take the risk to change and grow in order to build a stronger and more equitable future that includes everyone -- not just some of us. Paraphrasing a Greek proverb quoted by one of the speakers: "A society grows great when we plant trees under whose shade we never expect to sit."