Experience, Expertise and Driving Transformational Change
Exploring the Power of Proximity at the ASU+GSV Summit in San DiegoApril 26, 2022
In early April, I attended the ASU+GSV Summit in San Diego, California. The annual event brings together thousands of leaders from the education, technology, workforce, venture capital and philanthropic sectors to explore, imagine, and work toward “a new era in which all people have equal access to the future.” This year, the team behind the Summit, GSV Ventures, invited New Profit to organize a programming track about proximate power in education and workforce development. Alongside a number of partners, we co-designed six panel sessions, fireside chats, and keynote speeches across the three-day event.
On the first day, I walked from my hotel in San Diego’s Gaslamp District to the Summit venue, a massive building that towered over palm trees planted in a manicured lawn along the oceanfront. An orchestrated medley of Ubers, Lyfts, town cars, and taxis pulled through the semi-circle driveway to deliver conference goers dressed in blazers, skirts, freshly-shined shoes and fresh-out-of-the-box sneakers. The buzz of excitement enveloped me as I stepped through the doors to see people talking, shaking hands, and rediscovering the power of human connection unhindered by pixels, screens, and earbuds.
Five thousand, six hundred. Individuals traveling from all over the world, each interested in some combination of education, technology, and capital, and each bringing with them unique opinions, ideas, and experiences alongside their luggage.
The diversity of backgrounds and interests assembled in that hotel lobby made me think about how we all approach social impact in different ways. Not only the differences in what we prioritize — there are organizations that are impact-first, like New Profit, and those that are impact-also, like many investors — but the differences in how we create that impact. While it’s typical for organizations to elevate the thinking of so-called “experts in their fields”, a growing number are coming to instead rely on and prioritize “proximate leaders” — those with lived experience in the systems they seek to change.
In early 2020, New Profit released research that quantified the leadership and funding inequities in the social sector. Those findings led to a specific action plan for the organization, which included “building leadership in the philanthropic sector that is more representative of, and proximate to, the beneficiary populations the sector serves, and sufficiently diverse to ensure a wide range of ideas and solutions are surfaced.” Ultimately, New Profit is being guided by the expertise of those with lived experience.
“The workers, the parents, the students — how do we lift up the voices of the people who are impacted by this work? We have to engage across a number of vantage points, but who is at the table really matters.”
This was precisely the focus of New Profit’s sessions at the ASU+GSV Summit, which all sat atop the broader programming track of Proximity, Parent Power and Learner Voice. In each of these discussions, panelists and speakers noted not only the equity-imperative of including those with lived experience in problem identification and solution design, but the benefits of doing so. For example, in a session about using policy to advance systems change, Abby Marquand, a Partner on the Economic Mobility team at New Profit asked, “The workers, the parents, the students — how do we lift up the voices of the people who are impacted by this work? We have to engage across a number of vantage points, but who is at the table really matters.” On that same panel, Adrián Pedroza, National Executive Director of Abriendo Puertas / Opening Doors, added, “What gives me hope [in the early childhood space] is proximity. We’re looking at communities that are overlooked the most and that’s where the best ideas are coming from.”
Voice is only one piece of the equation. Unleashing the full power of proximity requires the true experts to lead the design of the solutions. As Kathryn Finney, Founder and CEO of Genius Guild, relayed during a discussion on how funders and investors can be guided by proximate leaders, “The question is not about whether an investment is riskier because it’s a Black founder — it’s a question of trust. These are the people living this everyday, they’re proximate.” Daniel Anello of Kids First Chicago agreed, saying, “The challenge is not how to operationalize getting a broad swath of your stakeholders — parents, teachers, students — to design your solution. The challenge is shifting the mental model about who has decision rights when it comes to design.” After all, as Tulaine Montgomery, Co-CEO of New Profit reminded us in her keynote speech, “Proximity is not an act of charity. Proximity is where genius resides.”
On the final day of the conference, Dr. Aaliyah Samuel of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) implored the audience: “What we need to do is to get out of the way and let educators do what they do. [For example], many decisions are being made by those without education backgrounds. Those closest to the problems have the best solutions, so why aren’t we including teachers in designing the solutions?” Yet, and especially in the social sector, we often act as if the people most impacted by the systems we want to change aren’t the ultimate experts in those systems.
So how do we move forward? First, we must recognize that although we may have experience in our fields, that does not make us experts. That reflection also requires us to change how we define and value expertise. Second, we must be willing to cede power and decision rights to those who are closest to the assets, knowledge, and solutions of the communities we aim to serve. That shift in thinking requires that we move away from our tendency to accumulate power for ourselves and toward a habit of generating power for others. Finally, we must accept that we cannot do this work alone — as individuals or organizations. If we are to create transformational change, we must bring together people of different identities and backgrounds to envision an equitable world, and to build the pathways to get there.