I recently went to hear Cheryl Dorsey speak as part of the NYU Reynolds Program in Social Entrepreneurship. She’s the current head and a past winner of the Echoing Green Fellowship, a prestigious award that provides seed funding to new organizations in the business of social change. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that my colleague Emily Jacobi and I are currently finalists for this years challenge for our work with Digital Democracy. That aside, my main reason for going to this discussion, and for applying to be a fellow, is that they are currently at the cutting edge of social change. I’m always fascinated to speak with game changers, and this proved to be a particularly inspiring event.
This wasn’t some lofty discussion about theories of change but rather practical advice and insight from a woman who has been a “change champion” for 20 years. The key to me, and why I’m posting about this, is that the talk was accessible. It was similar to a recent TED talk that I’ve been thinking about by Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel. In his talk he describes doing over 200 of the most disgusting, back-breaking, and grueling jobs that no one else wants to take, and offers some practical advice from the lessons he’s learned by seeing such a broad cross-section of the modern American worker. Whereas Cheryl is discussing well-educated changemakers and Mike talks of brawny workers, both talks end up discussing a lot of psychology.
One of the most fascinating traits shared by these two people, and something it took both of them a long time to realize is that they are cultural translators. Few people have the ability to easily travel between worlds and Cheryl pointed out how important it was for her to realize her strength of being able to maneuver from the halls of Harvard to the small rooms of community organizations. Meanwhile Mike is very likely to be seen in politics after his stint on cable television ends. These points of connection between worlds that might otherwise not interact are a fascinating way to keep track of how healthy a society is.
For instance, there are many discussions about whether the internet is an echo chamber or not. By mapping social networks, one can see that often it is to a certain extent, as people tend to form groups, but there are always those who connect the disparate groups. One that I am particularly intrigued by was finally publicly launched by the Berkman Center at Harvard. Media Cloud allows users to visualize media outlets in more detail, say for instance tracking Zimbabwe and seeing the top 10 associated words in the New York Times against Fox News against Daily Kos to see breadth versus depth. Are they echo chambers? This is something that is becoming more easy to see and understand as tech becomes more evolved.
With both Mike and Cheryl, there is a profound strength from having such an intimate knowledge of the people they’re speaking about. I’m sensitive about the idea of “speaking for” because I believe that the web 2.0 revolution is in essence people being able to speak for themselves, rather than having others speak for them. Why are there less international correspondents for newspapers today? Because it’s expensive and there are people in the field who know the situation more intimately and so can report on it. That’s in essence the experiment of Global Voices – giving the community itself a voice. What they realized, and most news outlets are still struggling to, is that these voices still need to be amplified in order to be heard. Cheryl’s speech did a wonderful job at contextualizing activities in the field and presenting the lessons that she has learned from this experience, rather than explaining what Echoing Green winners feel or experience. A key distinction, and a reason to look at Be Bold if that’s an interest.
But unlike other web 2.0-type approaches, she does not jump the gun on analysis or implementation. Echoing Green has done a remarkable job of building a set of best practices for the entire field of Social Entrepreneurship and are slowly rolling it out, making sure to engage people in the conversation and evolving definitions from a strong place. Given the reference to Lincoln in my blog title, it’s an approach that I very much favor. They have indeed been sharpening their axes.
The value of her team’s analysis (it’s clear that she’s working with others on this and its a continuing dialogue) is the Social Entrepreneurial Quotient (SEQ – a play on Emotional Intelligence – EQ / Emotional Quotient Inventory). The major characteristics of social entrepreneurs being:
- Core identity formation & alignment – They are clear minded about what they do and why. With authenticity, purpose, values, and self-knowledge.
- Unshakable devotion to a cause
- Resource magnets – Can move hearts, minds and resources for a cause.
- High emotional intelligence – relate in deep and meaningful ways
- Asset-based thinking – While it’s more natural (based on evolution) to be deficit thinking, they find opportunity in challenges
- Focused and can execute with alacrity
- Duality in conflict – They are among the most creative and big thinkers and at the same time they well-grounded and gracious
Perhaps the current economic conditions will allow people to be valued for their work again, rather than the size of their paychecks. It’s important to remember that American Workers are symbiotic with those in leadership positions. If we as a society turn to Social Entrepreneurs and people who embody these core SEQ characteristics as the true leaders of tomorrow, perhaps there will be a stronger sense of the progress that we’re moving towards.
An audience member asked a question about capitalism and non-profits now accepting more government funding and whether that was “OK.” Cheryl gave a delicately worded but encouraging answer about being more open minded about ways to support good work. I’d take it even further and say that how an idea is funded isn’t as as important of a worry as the constraints and opportunities that funding provides. Too often, the momentum and success of a good model is overlooked. It’s my hope that the new changemakers, the post-industrialists will be different than the industrialists that enriched themselves often at the expense of the health and welfare of the workers. If green jobs can be well-paying, healthy and sustainable and the tech sector can churn out open innovation technologies like recovery.gov and beyond, then we’re not only headed for success once we’re out of this recession, but we can start considering a healthier society in total. It’s about ensuring that we’re out of the echo-chamber, being thoughtful about taking the time to get things right, and giving support for symbiosis. Is that so much to ask?