CHERYL L. DORSEY: The Power of Citizen Voice

25, February 2019
Cheryl L. Dorsey speaks at the Accelerator for America Advisory Council meeting press conference in Las Vegas in June 2018.

It was in 1926 that Dr. Carter G. Woodson laid the groundwork for what would become our country’s Black History Month. Dr. Woodson chose the second week in February as it encompassed both Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12th and Frederick Douglass’ on February 14th. African American citizens poured their pride and love into this occasion driving demand for teaching materials, the formation of black history clubs and the leveraging of content for Freedom Schools in the South and burgeoning Black History Months on college and university campuses in the 1960s. A number of mayors noticed this civic action and had already declared these celebrations to be municipal events by the time President Gerald Ford decreed Black History Month a national observance in 1976.

As we continue to celebrate and recognize the accomplishments of African Americans across society during Black History Month 2019, I am reminded of one my favorite quotes from Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will” (1857).

"Part of Accelerator for America’s power and promise is not only our ability and charge to document and raise up these citizen solutions but also ensure that more solutions emerge that strengthen people’s economic security and well-being. So, how do we unleash more of this citizen power?"

Well, citizens are demanding change, big time—all over this country and all over the world. We read and see so much in the news and over the airwaves these days about negative citizen disruption but an equally impressive force is the disruptive wave of positive citizen action happening in communities around this country and the world. There is good evidence from scholars like Professor Paul Light that socially entrepreneurial opportunities arise during focused periods in history. During these periods, the prevailing wisdom weakens revealing the failure of the status quo to solve problems. This is indeed the moment we find ourselves in, a moment when 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.

My community—Echoing Green—is a diverse community of extraordinary citizen “social entrepreneurs” who are demanding change through the bold ideas they bring forth for building an equitable and sustainable world. Social entrepreneurship is a problem-solving approach that looks toward audacious social change as its end goal. Of note, social entrepreneurs are in the business of driving dramatic rather than incremental changes. Our job is to identify these transformational leaders at an early stage, invest deeply in the growth of their ideas and leadership, and build a broad ecosystem that will support them long into the future. Here’s what social entrepreneurship looks and feels like in cities across this country:

  1. Fagan Harris is the founder of Baltimore Corps, a social enterprise in my hometown of Baltimore, Maryland that is creating a new talent model for post-industrial cities in the US. Fagan and his team recruit and retain diverse professional talent. They connect mid-career professionals to high-impact opportunities via funded one-year terms as Baltimore Corps Fellows. They then dig in and make an up-front investment in each Fellow’s social capital, local networks, and accountability to the city. By retaining these leaders beyond their service term, his Baltimore Corps team is building the next generation of social, political, private, and philanthropic leadership for Baltimore, leadership catalyzing a movement for the city’s renewal.
  2. Donnel Baird is the founder of BlocPower a triple-bottom line social enterprise that aims to scale green energy across American inner cities by updating millions of older buildings while hiring from vulnerable populations. Recognizing that buildings represent about 30% of US greenhouse gases, according to some accounts, Donnel recognized that it was critical to both reach these hard to green buildings and “financially underserved communities.” BlocPower’s software platform not only solves excess energy consumption problems for buildings owned by large companies as well as for low-income buildings in underserved communities but to date has established a workforce that is 95% people of color or women.
  3. Last month the New York Times did a two-part series on the kinds of problems that are created when well-meaning social services try to tackle individual needs in isolation. Katya Fels Smyth is the founder of The Full Frame Initiative (FFI) which partners with systems and communities across the country to fundamentally shift their focus from fixing problems to fostering wellbeing – i.e. the needs and experiences essential for health and hope. FFI is currently working with government agencies in Missouri and Massachusetts to integrate this well-being orientation at the system level.

These three extraordinary leaders are but a few of the thousands of citizen entrepreneurs at work each and every day in communities who brilliantly code-switch between the structural and the street. Part of Accelerator for America’s power and promise is not only our ability and charge to document and raise up these citizen solutions but also ensure that more solutions emerge that strengthen people’s economic security and well-being. So, how do we unleash more of this citizen power?

Echoing Green has seen that working with local ecosystems in four primary ways holds great promise in helping communities drive towards mission-based economies, economies grounded in social impact (equity in prosperity, education, welfare, safety, etc.)—for social impact is the pre-requisite to economic impact (increased GDP, other indicators of civil prosperity, etc.), not the other way around:

  1. Spark New Ideas-ignite the leadership of idea-stage impact leaders through street-level capacity-building support for technical and leadership skills and begin to connect them to local, national and global networks of like-minded social impact change agents;
  2. Invest in emerging leaders and new voices as the embodiment of what’s possible in communities-provide funding and non-financial resources to support the development of top high-potential social impact leaders;
  3. Elevate what works-lift up ideas and success stories of current impact leaders through events, media and other outlets to spread awareness and education of their work and create civic optimism;
  4. Connect and convene key stakeholders across sector to influence policy and shift systems.

Social entrepreneurship as a practice and movement offers the possibility of fundamental shifts and challenge to existing power structures – structures that impede individuals’ opportunity to thrive. It is also expansive—the work is predicated on how the entrepreneurial process can attack entrenched social problems (“creative destruction”) and create new and shared public value. Harkening back to Frederick Douglass: he was one of the most powerful leaders of the anti-slavery movement who translated his citizen power into his role as the first African American to hold a government position in this country. What an extraordinary example of what happens when you translate citizen voice into value!

 

Cheryl L. Dorsey is a pioneer in the social entrepreneurship movement, and the President of Echoing Green, a global organization seeding and unleashing next-generation talent to solve the world’s biggest problems. In 1992, she received an Echoing Green Fellowship to help launch The Family Van, a community-based mobile health unit in Boston. Cheryl serves on the Accelerator for America Advisory Council.

One of Cheryl’s favorite quotes comes from Robert Schuller: "What would you attempt to do if you could not fail?"