This past June, as a US citizen and social innovator living in London, I found myself surrounded by British colleagues who voted to remain in the European Union. Many of the people they and their social sector organizations try to help voted to leave. Put more bluntly, votes on the “Brexit” referendum separated the “haves” from the “have nots.”
The same type of scenario played out this October in Colombia, where the peace accord between the government and The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia was defeated at the polls. The accord was the work of four years of negotiations to end a 52-year war, Latin America’s longest-running conflict. I was there, attending a global social innovation conference in Bogota, and all of the social innovators I spoke with said they voted on the losing side of the referendum.
Both of these outcomes surprised the pundits, the pollsters, the bookies, and me. But while I was disappointed in the results, I’m taking a few lessons from them to apply in my own work, and I think other social innovators should vow to do the same.
1. Mix it up. Social innovation is an establishment, and we innovators are part of it. But in ways, it has become an “anti-social” establishment, and if we don't break out of it, we’ll never do the things we all aspire to do.
We need to bring all kinds of people into discussions about the state of the world, innovations we’re proposing, and why we’re proposing them. If we talk the talk of “inclusion” and “diversity,” we need walk the walk of sharing power. Ali Wilson, chief executive of the School for Social Entrepreneurs favors students who have lived—have first-hand experience with—the problem they want to solve. That’s a model worth borrowing. The social sector could stand to have a more diverse cast of decision makers at the table. Will it be uncomfortable? Maybe. Will it appear to slow down our efforts? Probably. But we’ll make better choices and attract more allies, so the changes that come out of mixing it up will be easier to sustain.
2. Skip the scorn. “Bremainers” have told me they think “Brexiteers” are daft, or bad; they say people who voted to leave either did not understand the issues and gullibly believed lies, or they’re racist. “Brexiteers” have told me “Bremainers” are elitist and two-faced. Prejudice is having bad thoughts about people we don’t know. Calling people prejudiced when we do not know them is prejudiced, with just a touch of irony. People who have benefited from meritocracy do not look smart when they say people they have not met are stupid.
Curiosity looks (and is) smarter. When faced with opposition on any issue, we need to skip the generalizations and try to get at what’s beneath the anger. We need to ask what the driving problems are, at the root level, inside the minds of individual people and their families. Most people, at that deeper level, aren’t easy to label. What’s more, most have real, and immediate, reasons for their views. Issues such as school choice, alternatives to prison, and immigration can affect us in very different ways.
3. Keep the words short and sharp. Those of us in the business of social innovation often talk in a kind of code that people outside the establishment can’t reasonably hope to figure out. Our verbiage pushes people away, distancing us from potential allies and stakeholders who can help us ensure that the good we intend is truly good and that it can spread.
Sometimes I fear the language of social innovation tries to sound superior. I hate being called a “beneficiary,” even when I am one. I’m nervous about your “intervention.” A journalist remarked to me recently, “You social innovators just like to sound clever, [but] what’s ‘cool in school’ may not make sense on the ground.”
The title of my own organization, Social Innovation Exchange (SIX), demonstrates exactly what I mean. As chair of SIX, I’ve spent too much time explaining what we mean by “social,” “innovation,” and “exchange.” It’s a global network. We exist to connect people working for nonprofits, governments, educational institutions, businesses, and other organizations so that they can share good ideas and help each other address social and environmental problems. As long as I am stuck explaining those basics, I’m not actually doing the organization’s work. I’m not sharing what we’ve learned, nor helping people get what they need. I have fallen right into the “smart talk trap,” where complicated, abstract verbiage can stop action in its tracks.
Plain words have accompanied some of the most powerful innovations. The fight to stop AIDS, for example, gave us “safe sex,” “action = life, silence = death,” and the “STOP AIDS Project.” Short, sharp words can sometimes dumb down issues, but not in this case. These were clear—and unifying; in them, progressives and conservatives could find common cause. Over time, activists, conservative drug companies, and governments worked together to develop and distribute live-saving medicine, and the death rate fell. We can now hope for an AIDS-free generation.
Steve Bediako, founder of The Social Innovation Partnership, remarked to me, “Those that talk about inequality rarely suffer it.” Friends in trouble have asked me to help them find a job, lend them money, or write to the judge when they are in court on a charge. Their problems are more immediate and pressing than the abstraction of inequality. When we use a profusion of mellifluous, multisyllabic, abstract words, we flaunt our privilege and risk alienating people who might otherwise join our cause.
Voting day in the United States is approaching, in what has been—to say the least—a very strange election year. But no matter the outcome, these lessons for social innovators should stand. The world is changing. Some see us ending up on the wrong side of history. Let’s get on the right side by broadening our movement.