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Why Civic Power Requires Social Innovation

Power can be exercised to influence civic life through a variety of channels, including legislation, wealth, social networks, and public and private institutions. In the U.S. and many other countries, concentrations of power can lead to seemingly unilateral decision-making about policies in our communities. In today’s market society, where even education and health care are “up for sale,” the very question of what types of power are most valuable in civic decision-making—and who gets to wield it—is essential to understanding how communities gain a say in improving community and environmental conditions.

From Civic Power to Civic Innovation

Traditional approaches to civic power, like advocacy and community organizing, are instrumental to bringing about community change. As Echoing Green President Cheryl L. Dorsey wrote, “Citizens aren’t waiting for institutional or political forces to fix things nor are citizens asking for permission. Rather they are working hard to create and sustain the conditions in which they and more can thrive and drive lasting positive social change in their communities.”

This includes social innovators, who blur sectoral boundaries between the state, the market, and civil society, while building and redistributing power to create new and shared public value. Engaging and addressing market forces yields an expansive and mutually beneficial view of what is possible through social change efforts. Applying this framework while re-imagining how power is used and wielded can lead to a shift from civic power to civic innovation. Echoing Green believes there is a continuum of civic energy that moves toward disrupting the status quo by re-thinking power dynamics:

Civic Participation → Civic Engagement → Civic Activism → Social Innovation

Whereas civic participation (voting, volunteering) has the farthest reach toward influence, civic engagement and activism (organizing protests, petitions, and campaigns) begin to shift and realign power relationships because these actions are initiated and controlled by constituents for the purposes they determine. Social innovation’s ability to engage, enlist, and co-opt those in power is a fundamental tenet of achieving social change.

Civic Leaders Applying a Social Innovation Lens

Social entrepreneurs look at problems and the world in which they exist with a mindset of abundance and idealism. They don’t accept things as they are, and they imagine their solution in a new system and society where “you don’t have to lose for me to win” is possible. They are able to shift reality by transforming long-held assumptions and build from their fundamental consideration of people’s needs, inherent worth, and boundless potential.

When considering this approach as it relates to building civic power, those with a background in social innovation are uniquely positioned to lead communities. Civic innovation—where social entrepreneurs can build on top of traditional methods, like community organizing, will create bolder solutions that re-imagine power dynamics and shared value. There are many examples of these kinds of leaders within the Echoing Green community:

  • Amanda Alexander, 2017 Fellow, founded the Detroit Justice Center (DJC), which works alongside communities to create economic opportunities, transform the justice system, and promote equitable and just cities. DJC was founded on the belief that building cities that work for everyone requires remedying the impacts of mass incarceration. By enlisting in lawyers, community-based organizations, and housing co-ops, DJC’s three-pronged approach around legal aid, economic equity, and innovating the criminal justice system, is transforming Detroit for the better while creating opportunity for its constituents.
  • Alan Khazei, 1991 Fellow, co-founded City Year, a nonprofit supporting schools, students, and civic leaders. Alan led the coalition to build AmeriCorps, uniting more than 1.1 million Americans in jobs to tutor children; build parks and homes; provide disaster relief; restore the environment; and support working families, veterans, and seniors. Alan is leveraging his experience launching the U.S. national service movement as he runs for Congress. Knowing that the most effective way to build civic power is through a social innovation lens, Alan’s work continues to prioritize coalition-building, local service, and nurturing strong partnerships to effect community change.
  • Mark Levine, 1995 Fellow, co-founded Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners, a community-based nonprofit, which has helped thousands of low-income residents in New York City’s Upper Manhattan gain access to micro-loans and financial literacy training. Founding the Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners, which sponsors the Neighborhood Trust Federal Credit Union, laid the groundwork for pinpointing the root causes of financial insecurity. In 2014, Mark went on to represent New York City’s 7th Council district. His experience in social entrepreneurship combined with his public service work in tenants rights; responsible development; and greater equity in schools, transit, parks, and health care, is bolstering Mark’s run for Manhattan Borough President.
  • Lisbeth Shepherd, 1993 Fellow, founded Unis-Cite, the leading national youth service program in France. Unis-Cite engages 2,000 young adults a year in 27 French cities. In 2009, Lisbeth co-founded Green City Force, which engages young public housing residents in New York City to fight climate change as AmeriCorps members while preparing for careers in sustainability. GCF’s “green city” approach is rooted in social, economic, and environmental justice. By training young adults from front-line communities as the essential force for driving sustainable and resilient cities, they are creating economic opportunity for their communities, while promoting a new regenerative and inclusive economy.

Mobilizing Movements through Social Innovation

At Echoing Green, we focus on social innovation as a global social movement unleashing new, disruptive leadership and innovation, new approaches to solving social problems, and community members raising their hands because the current systems are broken. Scale ultimately comes through building out this social movement, and building it through an equity frame. It’s time to explicitly name social innovation as a movement for the public good, especially for underrepresented and oppressed peoples. Expanding mobilization and organizing frameworks to include social innovation will more effectively build power to improve community and environmental conditions.

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