The Path Forward: Reflections from New Profit’s Economic Mobility Cohort ConveningJune 26, 2023
I was recently in Miami for the final convening of New Profit’s Economic Mobility Catalyze cohort—featuring eight of the country’s most innovative social entrepreneurs advancing economic opportunity in America. The convening included programming, training, conversations around social justice and equity, and activities that supported rest and rejuvenation. The convening also included a “Voices from the Field” dinner—bringing together social impact leaders across workforce development, philanthropy, education, policy, private sector companies, and the social entrepreneur community to share trends, ideas, and best practices for solving some of the most difficult challenges within the social sector.
Collectively, there was a deep appreciation for the strides we were all making toward equity and access, but we understood we were still far from the finish line in our efforts as there was plenty of work to be done. Jobs remained unfilled and unemployment rates remained high in some of our communities. There were many empty seats among free career training programs within our respective counties across states. We discussed the consistent misalignment between social entrepreneurs and funders around data and outcomes within the social sector, the lack of diversity within leadership roles in the philanthropic community, and the misunderstanding around the barriers to economic mobility faced within BIPOC communities.
These burdens weighed heavy on our hearts. There we were, a group of social impact leaders with a passion for shifting power dynamics in the name of equity, but we had not yet reached the destination for the change we wanted to see. How do we solve these insurmountable challenges? What steps are needed to reach our destination? Although there is no silver bullet solution that will completely remove the deep-rooted social issues brought on by problematic systems, we discussed approaches and best practices from our own work that seem to address, expose, and eliminate long-standing barriers to economic mobility:
- Remove the confusion around systems change. The social issues produced by problematic systems have plagued disadvantaged communities for centuries, provoking the need to rework the systems. Significant social change is only possible if the conditions which hold these social problems in place are shifted—removing roadblocks that lead to equitable outcomes. Systems change, or confronting root causes of issues by transforming beliefs, values, mindsets, power dynamics and policies, is an approach that has proven to be effective against discriminatory structures that block things like educational and career advancement. Although its impact has boasted powerful results, there remains confusion around what systems change is and how to implement it successfully. Social sector stakeholders, including foundations, individual philanthropists, nonprofits, social enterprises, and policy and industry experts, must take on the responsibility of educating the greater economic mobility community about systems change, why it works, what strategies are most effective, and best practices for implementation.
- Treat proximity as a first response—not a last resort—to dismantling problematic systems. Leaders best positioned to reshape the systems that hold complex challenges in place are those with proximity—having a deep connection to the problems they aim to address, backed by an extensive understanding of these problems. Social entrepreneurs who have had previous interactions with these systemic problems and the communities affected are experts, and their personal experiences and innovative approaches help catalyze meaningful and sustainable change. This theory of proximity has been tested and proven to yield effective solutions that improve outcomes for disassembling systems injected with racism, bias, and inequities. Research confirms that proximate leaders have a moral authority and inspiration to drive sustainable change. With proximity at the forefront of systems change, leaders can recognize multi-dimensional root causes of issues and provide effective solutions supported by real-life experiences.
- Understand that barriers to economic mobility also include trauma, mental health, and other internal challenges: Our decisions are only as good as the information we have, so if a problem is not visible, it is impossible to compose the most impactful solution for alleviating the problem. Transportation issues, lack of childcare resources, limited access to technology, and subjection to the justice system are barriers to education and employment that are commonly identified as economic mobility roadblocks. Although these barriers remain common, we must learn to constantly look beyond the surface to identity and recognize the unseen and intangible challenges learners and job seekers face. For instance, how do trauma, anxiety, and depression play a factor in educational attainment or career advancement? Could someone affected by the imposter syndrome miss out on a career opportunity by failing to submit a job application as a result of feeling inadequate or unqualified for the opportunity? How does distrust or skepticism toward systems show up as a barrier? If we remain ignorant to the internal frustrations learners and job seekers face we miss out on the opportunity to accurately provide a solution.
- Integrate equity into programmatic evaluation: Traditional evidence-based practices that evaluate the effectiveness of programs funders support intensifies the inequities faced by proximate social entrepreneurs; especially if the evaluators of the programs lack a deep understanding of relevant social issues the programs address. Common evaluation efforts with a strict focus on quantitative results fail to capture the wider impact of the project and whether or not the needs of the community are being progressively addressed. Foundations, grantmakers, and evaluators must examine if existing evaluation approaches align with principles and values that aim to advance equity. For instance, are the evaluators who review programmatic benchmarks representative of the populations being evaluated? Are the data collection methods and tools culturally relevant and appropriate to the people the organization serves? Are the appropriate constituents involved in creating the evaluation questions and metrics? Learning and understanding programmatic evaluation through an equity lens is key to supporting organizations, proximate leaders, and their unique approaches to dismantling systemic challenges.
As we seek to remove barriers for solving systemic challenges we must remember that innovation and transformative change can only happen through collaboration across organizations and sectors. The challenges we are facing are complex and cannot be solved with a prescribed solution, but convening proved that curated ecosystems infused with diverse perspectives and programmatic expertise offer insight and applicable strategies for understanding and addressing economic mobility challenges. In evaluating how to effectively solve deep rooted social issues, we must prioritize the need to to build multi-racial, intergenerational, and cross-sector ecosystems that bridge the gap between vantage points, and connect personal identities and cultural experiences to create solutions that lead to economic mobility for all.