* This post first appeared in the blog of the Stanford Social Innovation Review *

Aminatou Sow was living a good life as a digital media strategist in Washington DC, consulting for big brands, media companies, and government agencies. But, she says in one interview: “Every once in a while I would get these articles that were like, ‘There’s only five women who know how to do math! There are seven women who know how to use computers.’” This exasperated her. While she understood the desire to discuss the lack of women in technology, she was tired of it, because those conversations “make the women that are already there invisible.” So she and a partner decided to build Tech Lady Mafia (TLM), a network of women who are already there, working away, and building success.

Sabrina Hersi Issa, an entrepreneur, technologist, and international humanitarian who is listed on nearly every “who’s who of the future” list of powerful people, also looks to solve problems of underrepresentation by building community. “When I look around the room and don’t see people who look or sound like me, I seek them out,” Hersi Issa told the Washington Post in a 2013 interview on women in technology. “With women and people of color, there’s always this community-building backchannel that’s happening at conferences, summits, and hackathons.”

Sow and Hersi Issa are just the latest in a long line of social entrepreneurs who have used dilemmas drawn from their own personal experiences to spur invention, creating solutions for their own communities and making a social impact that goes far beyond their own lives.

When they see a problem, they might raise a little hell, but that’s not their primary problem-solving strategy or what dominates their social change efforts. Instead, they take their most precious resources—their smarts, networks, experiences, and skills, and most importantly, their time, energy, and passion—and invest it in making something useful that can have a long-term positive impact.

Their leadership is a great example to anyone who is struggling to find their way through to the other side of the outrage that’s increasingly defining our nation’s politics and social activism. The problem of increasing polarization and politicization is gaining new attention, with a range of growing ideas for how to resolve it.

CNN contributor Sally Kohn suggests a practice of “emotional correctness” in her 2013 TED Talk, noting, “You can’t get anyone to agree with you if you don’t listen to them first.” In a New York Times op-ed, Princeton University Professor Christy Wampole suggests using “disregard” to avoid the psychological pitfalls of constant distress, and redirecting “time and efforts wasted on adversaries toward friends.” She advises, “Accrue your energies for better things.” I’ve personally observed that some feminist and social justice activists want to practice compassion and patience instead of just spinning their wheels and going nowhere. Even philanthropy is getting involved: A new initiative from the Hewlett Foundation will focus on “alleviating polarization … a precondition for successfully addressing the other problems that bedevil us.”

These trendsetters are not alone in trying to find better ways forward to more collaborative problem-solving, and it should come as no surprise that social entrepreneurs are leading the way.

In her 2013 TED Talk on Civic Hacking, Code for America’s Catherine Bracey says that to build government, we need to create a “whole new set of ways for citizens to be involved besides voting or signing a petition or protesting.”  She goes on to explain that civic hacking is about “questioning existing ways of doing things, and it’s the idea that if you see a problem you work to fix it, not just complain about it.”

In Mexico City last year, the House of Representatives contracted with a software development firm to build an app that would help members of Congress track the progress of legislative bills. The proposed cost of the two-year contract was $9.3 million dollars. Members of the local tech community saw this as an astronomical sum for a simple solution and decided to do something about it. They issued a challenge to community members to come up with their own apps. The winner would claim a $930 prize. Ten days later, the community had submitted 173 apps; it presented five of them to Congress, all of which Congress still uses today. President Felipe Calderón went further, hiring the organizers behind the challenge, including Jorge Soto of Codeando Mexico (Code for Mexico), and launched a new federal office for civic innovation—one of the first such offices in the world.

In the end, Soto said in an interview that his community’s approach to a common dilemma so many cities currently face—increasing demand for government services with fewer resources to meet them—allowed activists to “go beyond angry tweeting to fixing the world on a Saturday night over some tequila.”

The world is full of things to be outraged about, and anger can certainly instigate change. Yet the most influential innovations come from the people and communities who are willing to do something more than criticize, attack, or complain. They take responsibility for creating a solution.

That’s what Harriet Tubman did when she helped organize the Underground Railroad. A former slave herself, Tubman accomplished what Bracey refers to as possibly the “greatest hack of all time,” because “rather than wait for Congress to take up abolition, she and a network of hundreds [of people] freed thousands of slaves by hacking the system.”

Social entrepreneurs are building solutions to the dilemmas that stir them up, and civic hackers are taking responsibility to fix the problems they find. When influential organizations such as Hewlett and nations like Mexico invest in initiatives that shift outrage to action, we all have new opportunities to alleviate partisanship and spark needed social change through invention.

*This first appeared under Inspiring Voices on The Women Take Over*

There are few things I enjoy more than the discomfort and ambiguity that comes with discovering a new dilemma. When I find a one, I know that opportunity, invention and change are right around the corner.

I first learned about the power of dilemma after I had my abortion and was surprised to find that the only places that provided emotional support came from those who advocated against abortion. There was nothing available from the other side. That dilemma showcased a previously unmet need and I saw the opportunity in the obstacle: to build a place of nonjudgmental support. I co-founded Exhale, the nation’s first organization designed by and for women who have had abortions, with a mission to change the social climate from one of judgment and shame to one of support and respect.

Fourteen years later, because of Exhale’s services and the broader social impact of our mission, thousands of women and men have found the comfort and connection they need after abortion, and more advocates and organizations across the entire political spectrum are doing their part to promote emotional well being after abortion. Continue Reading »

* This was first published on Huffington Post Impact *

Michelle Goldberg’s cover article for The Nation, “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars,” details what many of us have already seen — or personally experienced — online: judging, shaming, marginalizing attacks couched as credible “feminist critique.”

The consequences of such behavior have been so debilitating to the cause of feminist power and influence that even some of the entrepreneurs of “online feminism” have looked for new ways to make a difference. Anna Holmes, founder of Jezebel, notes in the article that the blogosphere “feels like a much more insular, protective, brittle environment than it did before. It’s really depressing,” she adds. “It makes me think I got out at the right time.”

While the pain and hurt that many feminists have experienced as a result of our online interactions with each other is quite real, I hope it is not the end of our story. Continue Reading »

* This first appeared on the blog for the Stanford Social Innovation Review *

Even engaged citizens in Oakland, Calif., didn’t know the city had a Public Ethics Commission, let alone what its purpose was, when I joined its ranks three years ago. And people who did know about it didn’t have many nice things to say: Local blogs sneered at its lack of power and few politicians feared its oversight. Created in 1996 as a watchdog organization responsible for opening up city government, the commission had become just another element of Oakland’s cumbersome, opaque bureaucracy.

It’s easy to see why. Technology and media have dramatically changed our expectations for what defines transparency and accountability. For example, in the past, walking into City Hall, making an official request for a public record, and receiving it in the mail within two weeks meant good, open government. Now, if an Internet search doesn’t instantly turn up an answer to your question about local government, the assumption often is: Government’s hiding something. Continue Reading »

A member of the Oakland Public Ethics Commission, a year ago, I initiated a subcommittee to review Oakland’s Transparency practices. A final report on our activities was published today and I couldn’t be more proud and excited about it’s depth, breadth and  potential to strengthen Oakland’s culture shift towards more innovation, accountability and transparency.  Last night was my final Public Ethics Commission meeting: I hung up my hat as Vice-Chair and ended my three years of public service.

I encourage you to read the report – Toward Collaborative Transparency.

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My last meeting with my fellow Commissioners:




*This was first published on HuffPo Impact*

2013 revealed a promising new political trend: A renewed interest in listening, connection and acknowledgment of gray areas to spur innovation and possibility. It’s not surprising that activists, leaders and organizations would respond to the dysfunction of the federal government by exploring ideas and practices to resolve conflicts and develop common ground.

No one understands the challenges of conflict more than Planned Parenthood, so it makes sense that they stepped out early. Last January, Planned Parenthood made a major announcement acknowledging that Americans’ views on abortion weren’t so cut and dry. Their willingness to adopt the gray area so proudly and publicly signaled potential for a major shift in the abortion conversation.

Less than a year later, they are less alone in their approach. More and more public figures are advocating for better ways of dealing with our differences.

In a fall TEDTalk, Sally Kohn, the liberal pundit formerly of Fox News, spoke about a concept she calls emotional correctness: “You can’t get anyone to agree with you if you don’t listen to them first… we spend so much time talking past each other and not enough time talking through our disagreements.”

Philanthropy publicly embraced the idea of building bridges across divides this year too. The Board of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation announced a new initiative, which will “zero in on the problem of political polarization. We believe… that alleviating polarization is a precondition for successfully addressing the other problems that bedevil us.”

This desire to try something beyond fighting is happening on the local level too. Continue Reading »

*This was first published in HuffingtonPost Politics*

Years ago, there was a rural clinic in Northern California where women who got abortions one week would bring lasagna to women getting their abortions the next. When I heard about this, I couldn’t help but imagine myself with them. Would I be hungry enough to eat after my abortion, or would cheesy lasagna make me nauseous? Would I want to talk with other women or hang out quietly, feeling cared for?

This room of women swapping stories and plates of food is an image I equate with the ultimate expression of support, connection, and wellbeing after an abortion.

What if we could turn America into a community known for lovingly providing potlucks and supporting friends and family after an abortion?

We may not be as far away from this vision as you think.

Last month, when New York Magazine published “My Abortion,” featuring 26 different women sharing 26 different stories, women and men came together in the comments section and social media, offering support and compassion. We were all able to witness community being formed across a range of diverse abortion experiences. Continue Reading »


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