Black leaders driving social innovation is not a new phenomenon.
From the civil rights leaders and Black Panther Party to the Black social change leaders of today, Black communities have wielded social innovation as a tool to design and determine their own futures, build collective power, and achieve liberation.
However, research over the last decade has painted a clear picture of the disparities that Black leaders face in philanthropy. Despite the clear and present need for a significant shift in how the field supports Black leaders, long-term commitments to funding Black leaders and communities are episodic at best.
The reactionary funding of Black leaders and communities raises a critical question: what is possible when we build sustainable funding ecosystems that affirm the genius of Black leaders and sufficiently resource them to develop and deploy world-changing solutions?
Black voices, Black spaces
Since 1987, Echoing Green has identified visionary leaders with bold ideas for transforming the world and invested in their ideas and leadership. My journey with Echoing Green began back in 2015 when I led the Black Male Achievement Fellowship (BMA) program – the world’s first Fellowship for social entrepreneurs improving the life outcomes for Black men and boys in the U.S.
Between 2012 and 2020, the Fellowship supported 90 leaders working across 40 U.S. cities. Leaders like Oluwatoyin Ayanfodun (Toyin), founder of Tomorrow’s Leaders NYC (TLNYC) which has supported 2,000 over-age middle school students across New York to defy the statistics. Despite this outsized impact, Toyin has yet to secure adequate funding to support and scale TLNYC. Like Toyin, many proximate Black leaders struggle with the lack of trust and barriers to capital identified in Echoing Green’s Racial Equity and Philanthropy report.
Despite 2020’s influx of interest in Black leaders, who have always been here, leaders like Toyin have yet to receive support from the $67 billion pledged towards racial equity. The money pledged is an example of historical cycles of reactionary funding traditionally followed by retrenchment and backlash. 2018 BMA Fellow and Co-Founder of Mission: Launch and R3 Score Laurin Leonard describes what it felt like to fundraise during that time, “In the midst of a national reckoning with race, I felt like I was drinking from a firehose—struggling to keep up in the moment and trying to get as much water as I could because I didn’t know when the hose would be turned off.”
Stories like Toyin’s and Laurin’s are reflective of Black folks all throughout the world who continue to resist, cultivate joy, build community, and reimagine new visions for the future These stories are at the heart of Echoing Green’s recent report, Black Voices, Black Spaces: The Power of Black Innovation, because as Congressman John Lewis said, “The movement without storytelling is like birds without wings.”
Written in partnership with Equivolve Consulting, we capture lessons from the BMA Fellowship as a case study of what’s possible when Black social innovators exist in an affirming environment of support and respect. Informed by over 15 interviews with BMA Fellows and field leaders, the report offers three calls to action for the field to be more just and equitable.
At Echoing Green, we celebrate proximity as an asset–believing that leaders from the communities they serve and tackling issues they’ve experienced first-hand hold the most disruptive and effective social change solutions.
Until the sector reframes the definition of a successful innovator to include proximate Black leaders advancing unparalleled community-driven impact, we will never dismantle the root causes of the world’s most urgent problems. Here are two actions funders can take to reframe the dominant narrative of what social innovation is and what is needed for it to thrive:
- Elevate proximity and community buy-in when selecting and supporting initiatives that support Black communities.
- Create an ecosystem of support for Black leaders that elevates risk-taking as an asset to innovation.
To build the enduring infrastructure required to honor Black innovation and life, funders and decision-makers must consider what it means to genuinely listen to and be in solidarity with Black leaders and their visions for Black liberation.
This requires funders to examine their practices including grant applications, reporting requirements, decision-making structures, and program design to determine whether they reflect the inequities they seek to eliminate. Here are three actions to take to commit to funding Black communities and leaders for the long-term:
- Listen and respond to Black leaders.
- Dedicate resources and support that are highly flexible and responsive, including allocating space and time to build community and connection amongst the leaders.
- Identify and change internal and funding practices that uphold inequity.
Meaningfully supporting Black innovation requires funders to consider the long-term resources needed to build momentum and sustain impact.
Expanded funding opportunities like pooled funds can close funding gaps for Black-led organizations. Additionally, investment managers, program directors, and board members need to more closely resemble the communities they serve. According to the Council on Foundations, only 10.3% of CEOs and leaders of surveyed foundations are people of color.
Also important is creating space for communities themselves to identify the resources, individuals, and organizations that are best suited to meet their most urgent needs; and leveraging intermediaries like Echoing Green, NewSchools Venture Fund, and Camelback Ventures which have the capacity and knowledge to build relationships with Black leaders and communities. Here are two actions to take to expand the funding and support opportunities available to Black innovators:
- Invest in Black leaders with patient, risk-tolerant, substantial, and reliable financial support that prioritizes innovation as the leader and community define it.
- Partner with and support institutions led by Black, Indigenous, and leaders of color that have long-term, robust, and authentic relationships with Black leaders and communities.
While the calls to action above are not all-inclusive, they offer a starting place for a sustainable ecosystem that fully activates Black social innovation.
Black communities are teeming with innovative and world-changing leadership and vision. They’re dreaming and building an alternative world that commits to removing oppression—not reforming it. However, Black leaders need co-conspirators, partners, and disruptors on their side.
The power to build a just and equitable world belongs to all of us. Every time we think of this power as something we don’t have, we sacrifice the alternative future for the probable one.
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