In November 2015, Echoing Green convened more than 150 Fellows in Johannesburg, South Africa for the All Fellows Conference. This annual gathering is not only a chance to connect with colleagues doing groundbreaking work, or to share the latest milestone from a new project. It’s also an opportunity for Fellows to refine and re-energize their leadership.
Echoing Green Fellows are problem solvers by nature, seeking to transform systems and bring sustainable solutions to age-old challenges. Joburg was a powerful setting to see how transformation can unfold. In South Africa, entrepreneurship has clearly emerged as a path to economic opportunity for those previously denied entry – but it’s still a setting with challenges. The Echoing Green community was eager to join a local dialogue about how problems across the world can be dramatically improved, while learning from South African leaders and organizations that are solving their own challenges.
Over the course of the week Fellows were joined by nearly 100 guests, including the United States Ambassador to South Africa Patrick Gaspard who called out the efforts of the change makers in the room and among the “born free” generation of South Africans, saying “there isn’t a social movement in history not driven by the hopes and fears of young people.” As always, the conference is a chance to learn. Here are three takeaways we can all incorporate into our work towards bringing about positive social change:
Surround yourself with, and contribute to, a community that challenges you to think differently.
The U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Patrick Gaspard greets Echoing Green President Cheryl L. Dorsey. Also pictured: Ricardo Michel, director of the Center for Transformational Partnerships in the U.S. Global Development Lab at USAID and Esther Benjamin, Echoing Green board member and CEO of Laureate International Universities’ Africa Operations.
As Ambassador Gaspard shared with conference guests, collective activism produces forward-thinking progress. We created opportunities for this to happen throughout the conference. Fellows participated in Brain Trusts, where social change leaders get hands-on feedback to address a specific issue or to refine a program, and delivered workshops to other Fellows to impart their content expertise. Share in your leadership: one person working for social change quickly turns into a hive mind of dozens, and even hundreds of leaders working toward to mutual gains in positive social change.
It’s not enough to bear witness to a problem. Seek better understanding to inform your actions.
Being part of diverse communities helps us each surface and better understand the intersections of our lives, beliefs, and needs. Change must not happen in a silo–engaging with people who may have experiences and access different from your own is a better catalyst for change than forging ahead on your own. Fellows from different years and different industries met to share their vision for change, but also to challenge each other to think about their work in tandem with issues happening around the globe. As Fellows visited local organizations to understand how they implement programs to address health equity, economic and educational opportunities, and leadership development, they identified new threads that tie their work together. Confront your ideals: working from a place of deeper understanding is crucial to challenging our ideals of equity – and making them better in service of our work and how we walk through the world.
Don’t stop running until you cross the finish line.
At an incredibly dynamic panel on entrepreneurship in South Africa moderated by Esther Benjamin, Echoing Green board member and CEO of Laureate International Universities’ Africa Operations, our esteemed panelists talked about the work still to be done in post-apartheid South Africa. Phuthi Mahanyele, CEO of the Shanduka Group; Refiloe Seseane, founder of 18twenty8; and Rosemary Mokgadi Padi, founder of YaMama Gemmer each shared their perspective on what progress needs to be made to improve access to entrepreneurship opportunities, earning potential for women in the workplace, and infrastructure to support South Africa’s youth. They all agreed that while change has occurred in their lifetime, changing policies alone doesn’t mean justice has been served. As witnesses to this, they’re each doing their part to make new change possible. Stay the course: while the milestones may be far apart, persistence, resilience, and commitment to your vision will help carry you to the finish line.
Beyond these lessons, the 2015 conference set the tone for what it means to be part of the Echoing Green community that goes beyond Joburg. For the leaders within the Echoing Green community, purpose is a core part of what drives them. They are each devoted to using their talents to create good in the world, but not for the sake of being put on a pedestal. They each act because they feel the urgency to act – there’s no waiting for someone else to tackle an issue. Instead, leadership is about elevating the voices of those closest to the problem to implement real, lasting solutions that transform broken systems. We look forward to convening again next year to see how this community has pushed itself further, faster.
The 2015 All Fellows Conference was made possible by the “Priming the Pump” public-private partnership with USAID, General Atlantic, Newman’s Own Foundation, The Pershing Square Foundation, and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.