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Building on a History of Black Social Innovators

Over the last 25 years, Echoing Green has invested in many black social innovators doing important work to continue the legacy of social change in the black community, including Earl Phalen (’93, pictured), Van Jones (EG ’94), Orlando Watkins (’95), Rise Wilson (’04), and Rafiq Kalam Id-Din (’07).

In 2011, this commitment grew deeper through our partnership with Open Society Foundations’ Campaign for Black Male Achievement. Through our Black Male Achievement Fellowship (BMA), we’re demonstrating our shared belief that investments in social innovators can create and scale solutions to issues facing our communities and, most importantly, to seed the next generation of social innovators transforming our country.

As we entered into Black History Month, I asked two of Echoing Green’s current Black Male Achievement Fellows, as well as Echoing Green Fellow Anthony Jewett (‘06) to look back at America’s civil rights history and reflect on the evolution of social entrepreneurship in the black community. They pointed to a movement of innovation fueled by an appreciation of those who came before them, and the eager adoption of new tools to scale impact.  

A Legacy of Impact

“The Civil Rights Movement, in my opinion, was the greatest period of social innovation and change for African Americans in the past century,” Donnel Baird (BMA ’12) replied. “The impact of their work being school integration, the Civil Rights Act, voting rights act, affirmative action, and minority set-asides in government contracts.”

As Donnel conveys, this legacy of impact and innovation is not lost on the current generation of social change makers. Many like Donnel have a deep understanding of challenges many of their predecessors faced and how they persevered to create such lasting impact. Donnel shows that he and his peers feel that the baton has been passed to them to identify problems and challenges facing this generation and to create and innovate in order to make a better society for the generations that will come in the future.

A Shift in Attitude

“The concept of black male achievement really didn’t exist when I was growing up in the 80s and 90s,” Anthony remembers. “Instead, at the time I think prevailing logic saw some kind of ‘pathology of failure’ inherent in black manhood. That same logic explained away the positive examples and success stories of black men and boys by labeling them as “gifted” or some kind of “anomalies.” They called me an anomaly. I remember it well. I think they thought it was a compliment; but it wasn’t. I had to get all the way to Morehouse College before I stopped thinking of myself in that way.”

But the work of activist and social innovators is making a profound difference on expectations and acceptance of people like our Fellows. “The conversation shifted from one in which the pathology was thought to be inherent in black men to one that actually sees the pathology as inherent in social systems. That shift was, and still is, a very big deal,” Anthony continues. “That shift gives us an opportunity to examine and recreate the spaces where black and brown boys grow up so that those spaces (and the people who work in them) recognize and celebrate their immense potential rather than their deficits from the very beginning of their lives.”

New Opportunities

“During the public launch of the World Wide Web, my early connections to social issues were primarily in the form of negative images and ‘deficit’ mentality applied to social change. Today, with the growth of access to technology, it is clear that there is a shift towards increased awareness of achievement and opportunities to create and scale innovative solutions to our communities’ problems,” Jessica Johnson (BMA ’12) explained. “There is an opportunity to merge our reverence for past civil rights successes with a renewed commitment to continue working to create equality and success by launching innovative efforts.”

Anthony adds, “Social media has changed the way we live, learn, and communicate more radically than anyone could ever have imagined. In contrast to the first iteration of the web where you could just retrieve information, the technologies that came with Web 2.0 have allowed for discourse amongst multiple parties. Now we have the ability to talk about very important things — like black male achievement and institutional racism — right out in the open in front of millions of other people who are free to comment as well. Social media allows us to vehemently disagree in public or to have our own thinking profoundly influenced by someone else who is a million miles away from a radically different background.”

Donnel sees other new opportunities to allow us to innovate, as well. “What is next is declaring African Americans’ role in the economy, and the emerging trends towards ‘impact investing’,” he predicts. “The rigor being applied to philanthropic investments will move us away from a place where institutional failure and mediocrity are common, and towards a focus on producing positive economic outcomes in the African American community.”

Challenges Ahead

The civil rights figures that came in generations before did not have the tools, or live in the society, that these entrepreneurs do today. I can imagine if A. Philip Randolph, central to planning the March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King gave his famed “I Have a Dream” speech, had access to crowd-sourced funding, online productivity tools, and the proliferation of social and mobile technology. The March on Washington culminated with over 200,000 people gathering on the Lincoln memorial and arguably paved the way for the Civil Rights Acts of 1964. What now is possible?

Social entrepreneurs like Jessica, Donnel, and Anthony are fueled by a commitment to learn from their predecessors, and make an impact on issues affecting the black community proportionate to their increase in access to new communications tools and strategies for social change. Jessica professes, “I’m excited about the opportunity to cultivate these new possibilities into greater and sustained impact.”

“I think we are definitely more active and having more impact on the issue. But, we’re not necessarily more organized because all of the efforts are still too disparate and fractured,” Anthony thinks. “Figuring out how to have some collective impact seems like the right next step.”

Whether you are just starting out, or been working for decades, stop and think about how your work builds upon, and is made possible by, the generations that came before you. How do you show respect for those who paved the way for you, while harnessing new opportunities or technologies to further what they started?

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