History illuminates the power of individuals and communities who have worked to solve the social problems they have directly experienced. Consider the women’s rights movement; the civil rights movement; Alcoholics Anonymous; or the world’s first safe house for women and children, Refuge, set up by a child survivor of domestic violence. We celebrate stories of leaders with “lived experience,” yet today most of the people receiving social innovation education and accessing leadership opportunities within the wider sector are working to solve problems they haven’t experienced. Undeniably, we need all members of society to feel a collective responsibility to create positive change in the world, but it is worth asking: Is the notion of a “social impact career” a privilege only those of us who have benefited from higher education and/or financial opportunity share? Are leadership opportunities within our sector truly inclusive, or are we supporting the reproduction of—or even perpetuating—social and economic inequality?
To explore how the wider social sector cultivates, develops, and evolves its work through the expertise of communities who have experienced the very issues it seeks to tackle, I turned to social sector leaders in the United Kingdom and the United States working across the private, public, nonprofit, funding, and education sectors. My conversations with more than 80 leaders, in a pre-Brexit era, were lively, and the issue was hotly debated. I found that although most people appear to recognize the intrinsic value of working alongside communities with direct experience of social and environmental issues, many were reticent or apprehensive about including these so-called “beneficiaries” in their organizations’ leadership. Many reported little, or no, awareness of people or communities with lived experience who are leading change in their field. Other conversations sparked discussions about the need to address “heropreneurship”—the sector’s focus on the single, heroic entrepreneur—and a concern about the elite seeking to impose their solutions on others. Overall, an opportunity clearly emerged for social impact educators to better understand the value of lived experience and the benefits of “apprenticing with,” versus “parachuting into,” a problem before launching social impact ventures.
Inspired by leaders who vehemently challenged my enquiry, I decided to interview 12 UK and US funders as a next step, in the hope that their strategic viewpoints would help map the “value” the social sector placed on lived experience and how we currently give those who have lived experience agency within the workings of our sector. Findings from my research have been profound, including debate around the explicit and implicit bias that engulfs the wider sector and the “acceptable” face of leadership we’ve created within our realms. However, below are two findings from my research that I feel are especially important for social impact educators to recognize:
1. Those with lived experience are treated as “informants” not change-makers. People who have directly experienced social problems participate in plenty of focus groups; community, survivor, and customer research networks; and innovation camps and hack-a-thons. But in most instances, they are viewed as mere contributors to strategy or service design, or pulled in to justify need for initiatives through evaluation mechanisms. Even when they are asked to engage more deeply, their time is rarely, if ever, paid.
This imbalance is not for lack of potential leaders who have lived experience. Interviewees in my research commented that there was a healthy supply of people aspiring to create positive social change for their communities; however, demand for their insights and knowledge is low outside of these “informant” roles. And while organizations are increasingly valuing the “voice” of communities and “beneficiaries” through the prism of storytelling—to justify their causes and their very existence—we need to take care when, albeit inadvertently, such mediums devalue the changemaking and leadership capabilities of individuals in society. We must also take care not to focus on pity or rags-to-riches narratives that perpetuate the notion that communities cannot lead change. We must instead aim to encapsulate the wider structural, political, economic, and societal challenges communities face as they also work to tackle social and environmental problems in their daily lives.
2. Opportunities for social change education are currently inaccessible to most people who have lived experience. We know that people and communities with lived experience of social issues are essential to social change, yet we have somehow left them out of our classrooms and organizations. Current opportunities are often inaccessible, requiring high levels of education or high fees for participation. While leadership development programs in universities and elite institutions are gaining popularity, little has been done to offer leadership development opportunities to those in the areas who might be best poised to take on the challenges of their communities. Some question whether universities should teach social entrepreneurship at all.
Contributors to the research recognized that the social sector is not immune to the societal, political, and power structures within which we operate. Indeed, the dramatic political and societal upheaval created by Brexit and recent US election results have caused many within the wider sector to reflect on the mounting divide between our communities and the disengagement of wider society in the causes we pursue.
It is time to hold up a mirror to our own practices, and rigorously challenge our fundamental assumptions about organizational structures and the profiles of social change leaders. We need to see the leadership capabilities, not just the liabilities, of all our communities and begin to level the playing field.
And who better to lead a cross-sector revolution in social change education than social impact educators? Social impact centers, networks, and fellowship providers are increasingly recognizing their role in providing opportunities to all; many are opening opportunities for people who have a viable social change idea, regardless of educational attainment. But while this is a great first step, we need to do much more.
Let’s burst the bubble of privilege that has bounced around, and over, the communities we serve for far too long. Let’s throw down the rulebook and re-draw the map. Let’s explore our implicit biases, recalibrate and re-evaluate current pathways to programs and selection processes, and explore our current learning environments. We can begin by:
Opening our classrooms and extending invitations to people with lived experience to join the learning community alongside other students—not just participate in focus groups or hack-a-thons.
Taking classes out of the classroom to see how we can better support the work of our communities. This starts by asking communities what they need; creating enabling environments aimed at addressing participatory, training and skills needs; facilitating learning to help communities authentically tackle issues of concern to them; providing support packages and advice on the varying forms of “social impact careers”; and opening up our networks. We can take inspiration from the Bertha Centre at University of Cape Town, which has built a facility in a township outside the city that offers university classes as well as courses for local community members.
Flipping the script on “apprenticing with a problem funding”—which provides students with an opportunity to go out into the world and work on real-world social and environmental issues through research projects, internships, or secondments. Instead, we can invest in people and communities with lived experience so that they can “apprentice with solution ideas” for the problems they want to tackle, and forge partnerships across sectors committed to supporting targeted initiatives. These opportunities may launch careers within public and private sector organizations, or help large nonprofit organizations catch up with the notion of “intrapeneurship,” and help cultivate economic and leadership opportunities for communities they serve.
Building cross-sector collaborations that combine resources and expertise to craft innovative learning and leadership opportunities. One example is the “leadership for transformation” program established by the University of Cuenca and the Escuela Superior Politecnica del Litoral. A program that boosts local capacities to aid better regional development and is open to all—including grassroots and community leaders—regardless of previous formal training.
If we educators do not push for systemic change in social impact education, we risk undermining the very communities we purport to serve, and impeding the resources and expertise change-makers with lived experience have to offer. To do this, we need a collective effort; we must come together to rethink how we structure and fund our programs so that they can foster and support a more diverse, more experienced group of social change leaders.