Aminatou Sow was living a good life as a digital media strategist in Washington DC, consulting for big brands, media companies, and government agencies. But, she says in one interview: “Every once in a while I would get these articles that were like, ‘There’s only five women who know how to do math! There are seven women who know how to use computers.’” This exasperated her. While she understood the desire to discuss the lack of women in technology, she was tired of it, because those conversations “make the women that are already there invisible.” So she and a partner decided to build Tech Lady Mafia (TLM), a network of women who are already there, working away, and building success.
Sabrina Hersi Issa, an entrepreneur, technologist, and international humanitarian who is listed on nearly every “who’s who of the future” list of powerful people, also looks to solve problems of underrepresentation by building community. “When I look around the room and don’t see people who look or sound like me, I seek them out,” Hersi Issa told the Washington Post in a 2013 interview on women in technology. “With women and people of color, there’s always this community-building backchannel that’s happening at conferences, summits, and hackathons.”
Sow and Hersi Issa are just the latest in a long line of social entrepreneurs who have used dilemmas drawn from their own personal experiences to spur invention, creating solutions for their own communities and making a social impact that goes far beyond their own lives.
When they see a problem, they might raise a little hell, but that’s not their primary problem-solving strategy or what dominates their social change efforts. Instead, they take their most precious resources—their smarts, networks, experiences, and skills, and most importantly, their time, energy, and passion—and invest it in making something useful that can have a long-term positive impact.
Their leadership is a great example to anyone who is struggling to find their way through to the other side of the outrage that’s increasingly defining our nation’s politics and social activism. The problem of increasing polarization and politicization is gaining new attention, with a range of growing ideas for how to resolve it.
CNN contributor Sally Kohn suggests a practice of “emotional correctness” in her 2013 TED Talk, noting, “You can't get anyone to agree with you if you don't listen to them first.” In a New York Times op-ed, Princeton University Professor Christy Wampole suggests using “disregard” to avoid the psychological pitfalls of constant distress, and redirecting “time and efforts wasted on adversaries toward friends.” She advises, “Accrue your energies for better things.” I’ve personally observed that some feminist and social justice activists want to practice compassion and patience instead of just spinning their wheels and going nowhere. Even philanthropy is getting involved: A new initiative from the Hewlett Foundation will focus on “alleviating polarization … a precondition for successfully addressing the other problems that bedevil us.”
These trendsetters are not alone in trying to find better ways forward to more collaborative problem-solving, and it should come as no surprise that social entrepreneurs are leading the way.
In her 2013 TED Talk on Civic Hacking, Code for America’s Catherine Bracey says that to build government, we need to create a “whole new set of ways for citizens to be involved besides voting or signing a petition or protesting.” She goes on to explain that civic hacking is about “questioning existing ways of doing things, and it’s the idea that if you see a problem you work to fix it, not just complain about it.”
In Mexico City last year, the House of Representatives contracted with a software development firm to build an app that would help members of Congress track the progress of legislative bills. The proposed cost of the two-year contract was $9.3 million dollars. Members of the local tech community saw this as an astronomical sum for a simple solution and decided to do something about it. They issued a challenge to community members to come up with their own apps. The winner would claim a $930 prize. Ten days later, the community had submitted 173 apps; it presented five of them to Congress, all of which Congress still uses today. President Felipe Calderón went further, hiring the organizers behind the challenge, including Jorge Soto of Codeando Mexico (Code for Mexico), and launched a new federal office for civic innovation—one of the first such offices in the world.
In the end, Soto said in an interview that his community’s approach to a common dilemma so many cities currently face—increasing demand for government services with fewer resources to meet them—allowed activists to “go beyond angry tweeting to fixing the world on a Saturday night over some tequila.”
The world is full of things to be outraged about, and anger can certainly instigate change. Yet the most influential innovations come from the people and communities who are willing to do something more than criticize, attack, or complain. They take responsibility for creating a solution.
That’s what Harriet Tubman did when she helped organize the Underground Railroad. A former slave herself, Tubman accomplished what Bracey refers to as possibly the “greatest hack of all time,” because “rather than wait for Congress to take up abolition, she and a network of hundreds [of people] freed thousands of slaves by hacking the system.”
Social entrepreneurs are building solutions to the dilemmas that stir them up, and civic hackers are taking responsibility to fix the problems they find. When influential organizations such as Hewlett and nations like Mexico invest in initiatives that shift outrage to action, we all have new opportunities to alleviate partisanship and spark needed social change through invention.