In his introduction to this article series, DRK Foundation CEO Jim Bildner argues that early-stage social enterprises are the building blocks for profound social change. At Echoing Green, an organization that supports emerging social sector leaders, we know this is true. Our leaders play a vital role in creating social change. They spur new social movements, because they have the authenticity to do so. In short, they mine their personal experiences, hack the current system, and often anchor new social movements via a new organization that drives community action.
When we say these emerging leaders mine their personal experiences, we mean they tap into their own history and context to uncover discrete issues that cause inequity and structural disparity. The tragic death of 27-year-old civil rights activist Erica Garner—a mother of two young children and the eldest daughter of Eric Garner, who died in 2014 from a police choke hold—underscores a complex reality for many women of color across the United States. The cause of her untimely death was a heart attack, and it is hard to ignore the toll activism and inequality can take on health. Public health professor Arline Geronimus coined the term “weathering” to describe the stress-induced wear and tear on the body that increases susceptibility to infection, prods early onset of chronic diseases, and accelerates aging at a molecular level.
This wear and tear is something social entrepreneurs T. Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison knew all too well when they founded their organization GirlTrek. GirlTrek aims to address the fact that Black women are dying at a higher rate than any other group in America from preventable diseases caused by obesity. By mining their personal experiences, Dixon and Garrison were able to detect, name, and address manifestations of structural inequities in new ways. A surface-level fix to address the life expectancy of Black women would be to focus on obesity alone. GirlTrek takes this a step further to focus on ongoing stressors and traumas that jeopardize their health. GirlTrek not only challenges women to get active and organize walking teams. It also tackles weathering head-on through ending isolation and building relationships that encourage communities of women to talk to each other, support one another, and create change.
The result is the largest health nonprofit for Black women and girls in the United States. More than 100,000 women volunteers affiliated with GirlTrek take action into their own hands. They walk regularly in their neighborhoods to improve physical, mental, and emotional health and, at the same time, better their communities through monthly advocacy efforts to improve walkability and street safety. In their 2017 TED Talk, Dixon and Garrison explained how GirlTrek started: “We received a powerful blueprint for survival, strategies, and tactics for healing, carried across oceans by African women, passed down to generations of Black women in America who used those skills to navigate institutions of slavery and state-sponsored discrimination.”
Hacking means altering the perceived limits of what is possible: how we create change and even what change is possible. Exceptional leaders at the helm of early-stage organizations can bring this new imagination to drive transformative social change.
New organizations often emerge because the existing paradigm, where normal frameworks guide well-meaning work, breaks down. These new organizations cannot exist or thrive as part of existing institutions and, as a result, stand to shift the status quo.
Essie Justice Group is a good example. Founder Gina Clayton saw the potential to address the impacts of mass incarceration in the United States in a new way. For a long time, America’s public examination of mass incarceration has focused primarily on how the system affects those who are incarcerated (more than 90 percent male). While she was a public defender in New York, Clayton recognized the lack of supports for women and families whose loved ones are incarcerated. (And this is not a small problem—according to one study, one in four American women have a family member who is incarcerated, leaving them in charge of finances, families, and navigating the criminal justice system on their own.)
So she asked a new question: How is mass incarceration affecting these women and families? Essie Justice Group places these women at the center; they are decision-makers who drive policy and advocacy while providing peer support to one another. Based in Oakland, Calif., Essie runs a Healing to Advocacy program that equips them with tools to lead the advocacy for racial and gender justice on issues, including bail reform. No organizations focused on the experiences of these women in the United States. so Clayton created both an organization and a movement that gives new visibility to women with incarcerated loved ones and tackles the impacts of mass incarceration in a new way.
Anchoring takes place when social entrepreneurs connect to each other and to larger social movements to create a nexus that focuses on the social condition they seek to address. Social entrepreneurs launching their enterprises often represent new, “hot” nodes in broader networks of social change, and the attraction of a fresh approach and voice provides an anchor for broader network efforts. Anchors help organize other members of the network, provide an outlet to push for new and more innovative and radical reforms, popularize novel approaches, and spur others to action.
In 2017, for example, many individuals and groups rose up to participate in the American political process. While there was a lot of energy, there wasn’t an anchor to convene and direct that energy. A new organization, Indivisible, emerged to harness frustrations and enthusiasm, organize, and centralize solutions by developing a digital platform to share grassroots advocacy strategies, thus directing local energy into political action.
The small but fast-growing social enterprises Baltimore Corps and Thread anchored the greater Baltimore community during the civic unrest that followed the arrest and death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, Jr. Baltimore Corps, led by Fagan Harris, recruits and supports social innovation leaders in Baltimore, growing the pipeline of leadership reflective of the Baltimore communities they work in and transforming inequitable systems within the city. Thread, led by Sarah Hemminger, creates a long-term social support structure for underperforming students, in response to concentrated poverty and continued racial segregation. These two enterprises partnered to respond to community pain and imagine a way forward. In early 2017, they joined forces with Invested Impact and the Center for Urban Families to anchor TouchPoint Baltimore, a privately funded network of neighborhood-based community resource hubs. This initiative aligns the resources and strengths of these nonprofits to directly address the needs of the neighborhood. By combining their resources and social capital to offer tailored support to the community on issues such as workforce development and mentoring, this innovation has great potential to scale solutions and impact around the city.
The anchoring effect of early-stage social enterprises like these can help productively channel surges of defiance and discontent in ways that pure populism cannot.
Too many of us look for certainty in the world. In other times, that might be okay. But not today. To change systems that unfairly constrain so many, we must look to and support early-stage leaders who have lived the problems they are trying to solve—and who, through their actions, can change the perception of what is possible for vulnerable communities, governments, and others.