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Posts Tagged ‘Innovation’

*This was first published on the blog for the Stanford Social Innovation Review*

In my experiences over the last dozen years working to transform the abortion conflict, I’ve encountered some hard truths about why we humans have so much trouble getting ourselves out of the sticky problems we create for ourselves. My organization Exhale has sought to influence mainstream culture, unearth hidden stories, and demonstrate that it’s possible to nurture human connection and empathy despite increasing hostility and polarization—but it’s been no easy task. Like most leaders, I’ve needed to adapt so that I can face each new challenge with openness and optimism.

Early on in the job, I asked a prominent feminist leader how she kept going against so many odds, and her answer—that sacrificing for the cause was worth it—didn’t help me at all. Over the last decade, I’ve witnessed how sacrifices like hers can eventually lead to personal resentment, bitterness, and despair. Feelings of hopelessness are a real threat to our ability as leaders to imagine creative new possibilities. Many just give up.

Take Paul Kingsworth, an environmental activist, who is so disheartened by a lack of action on climate change that he’s moved his family to a rural area to begin preparing for the worst. “Whenever I hear the word ‘hope’ these days, I reach for my whiskey bottle,” he has said. “Surely we only hope when we are powerless?”

Not true, says Raven Brooks, executive director of a progressive activist network that influences politics and public policy called Netroots Nation. Brooks has seen bitterness about the state of the world manifest as cynicism and believes it’s something activists “must guard against.” “It’s one thing to be pragmatic,” he acknowledges, but it’s another to “get to the point that you are so cynical that you can’t throw a Hail Mary or think about what’s needed to change the game. You will talk yourself out of everything.”

So, how do leaders do it? How do they wake up everyday, step outside, and face a world full of injustice, hardship, and difficult decisions with no easy answers?

I recently interviewed a number of social entrepreneurs, including Brooks, to find out what it really takes—beyond time and money—to make lasting change. Their answers were inspiring but definitely not simple. People who take leadership seriously develop a host of strategies to wade through the rough waters of social change while also taking care of themselves. Their answers are about discipline and focus.

Here are some of my top takeaways from these conversations:

  • Strong leaders know how to make change. Every single leader I interviewed knows how to make change happen (even one person who said she didn’t went on to describe how she does it—regularly and successfully). Change is a lived experience for them. They might not have known how at first. It took time to get there. They had to overcome obstacles, navigate failures, and make mistakes, but they persevered, adapted, and came out the other side with knowledge and insight. That means that whatever the political or social challenge of the day, leaders have confidence in their own abilities to figure it out. They are ready for more.
  • They use dilemmas to innovate. Whether the cause is prison abolition, contraceptive safety, or climate change, leaders seek to avoid black-and-white thinking and use gray areas to imagine new possibilities. Over and over, the people I interviewed acknowledged the difficult social, political, and cultural terrain in which they operated, and expressed how valuable it was to communicate these challenges clearly, directly, and publicly. Highly ethical, they were most concerned with being truthful, credible, and real—not convincing, persuasive, or right.
  • They don’t sacrifice themselves for the cause. As I mentioned above: Burnout, cynicism, bitterness, and despair get in the way of change, and while the leaders I interviewed said they had moments when they felt all of these things, they have developed methods to not stay stuck there. Each strongly resisted the idea that sacrifice was fundamental to leadership or social change, and noted that creative, joyful, generous people are best suited to social change work. It was also interesting to note that for some changemakers, rejecting upwardly mobile, middle-class aspirations isn’t a sacrifice (despite how others perceive their choices), but a lived reflection of deeply held ethics and values that give their life meaning.
  • They know political risks have more to do with friends than enemies. Here’s the challenge with acknowledging gray areas publicly: The primary risk that leaders I interviewed faced when it came to speaking openly about challenges inherent in issues like abortion or prison abolition is that it can piss off your friends. Friends (the people and organizations that share goals, and the foundations that fund them) sometimes perceive talking about dilemmas as a sign of weakness, believing it signals a lack of conviction or provides enemies with something to exploit. Peer pressure, conflict, and the desire to hold onto relationships for future funding or coalition-building are obstacles leaders face when they use dilemmas to think creatively and spur innovation.

The message I took away was clear. Leaders make mistakes, but they don’t let that stop them. Innovative leaders regroup. They adapt. They go back at it again. They find new ways forward, and they take important risks that can jeopardize future funding or collaboration with allies if it means doing what’s best. That’s how they make change, and how they’re ready to do it time and time again.

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* 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. (more…)

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* 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. (more…)

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Lisa Lepson, Executive Director of Joshua Venture Group and founding board president of Exhale, wrote “Losing Ownership of New Ideas: A Mark of Success” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review on April 29, 2013.  In her piece, she writes about how social entrepreneurs, like me, impact social change by radically reframing ideas.

“The terms ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ are alienating,” explained Heather Holdridge, director of digital strategy at Planned Parenthood, before she went on to describe her organization’s new campaign to drop them. I was listening to her speak on a panel at the Jewish Funders Network conference last month, but my mind quickly went elsewhere.

Eleven years ago, I was the founding board president of Exhale, an organization dedicated to providing emotional support to women and their allies after an abortion, and to removing the stigma around abortion. At the time, Exhale’s founder, Aspen Baker, a social entrepreneur, had a radical viewpoint: The political labels of pro-choice and pro-life got in the way of our mission. She put forward a risky approach: to leave the labels behind and make our home in the grey area of personal abortion experiences.

You can imagine the response we got at the time. Established organizations working in the field of abortion rights were dumbfounded, threatened, confused, and angry. We were told to pick a side or “admit” that we were pro-choice. We faced suspicion and outright hostility. It didn’t matter how we tried to explain it. No one got it yet. It was a novel, daring approach, and Exhale’s board, staff, and volunteers spent the next decade advocating our view.

Exhale can list all the people who have used its services or sought its expertise. It knows how many people have called the after-abortion talkline, accessed their online resources, and trained as volunteer counselors. There are personal anecdotes, new financial supporters, and plenty of media articles, Twitter followers, and Facebook Likes.

But, how can Exhale measure progress on its mission of removing stigma and promoting emotional wellbeing after abortion?

Social entrepreneurs such as Aspen inject new values into communal conversations and can measure their success by taking stock of how perceptions around the issues they support have changed. They can track whether and how their novel, daring messages become mainstream.

She continues:

What social entrepreneurs do for social change is unique. They arrive on the scene, bring attention to community needs previously ignored, push the envelope, raise questions, and provide an alternative view and voice. They tackle problems with innovative models and impact large-scale public perceptions. Often, they work in fields dominated by large, established organizations with complicated networks of stakeholders and bureaucratic systems with large budgets. But these established organizations aren’t often nimble, and they struggle to adapt to contemporary needs. So when an organization such as Planned Parenthood or BBYO makes a major change and begins to own progressive messaging and values, it is years in the making.

That’s how a social entrepreneur can measure their impact. Years after their radical idea is rejected by mainstream organizations, the very same organizations will adopt them and promote these ideas as their own. Success for the social entrepreneur happens when their views are no longer feared but embraced.

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