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Reflections on AshokaU 2019

This year’s AshokaU Conference asked some really difficult and powerful questions: How do we make the field of social entrepreneurship more diverse, equitable, and inclusive? How do universities, and entrepreneurs interact with local communities in a respectable and fair fashion? And perhaps with the most challenging force, from the words of one Canadian professor – how do we decolonize social entrepreneurship?

These topics, addressed through a multitude of riveting workshops and sessions, challenged all of us to actively rethink the social impact space and our roles within it.


Keynote speaker Antionette Carroll, founder and CEO of Creative Reaction Lab, challenged all of us in the room to think deeper about the power dynamics, and the inequitable societal systems that influence our world and the social impact sector.  She stressed that we are all designers, but that the system too has been designed to marginalize and minimize the contribution and opportunities for many, especially those of color. Yet, she encourages us: if the system was designed to be unequitable, we can all do our place to redesign the system, and we must first all recognize our place and roles within it.

So what roles can and should we play? Carroll’s organization, Creative Reaction Lab, focuses on working with what she titles Equity Designers, those who come from the most impacted communities and are thus best positioned to create their own solutions when given the support and platform to do so. Her goal is to educate, train, and challenge Black and Latinx youth to become leaders in designing healthy and racially equitable communities. The true experts, she argues, are those with the real, lived experiences, who need to be given the power and the voice to generate ideas to solve issues within their own communities.  She argues that our current, flawed system can often exclude those who have voice, but no link to power to be heard. To really create meaningful change, she encouraged, we must give power and agency to people who are the true living experts in their communities. True equity can only exist, she insisted, when outcomes are not predictable based on someone’s identities.

However, there is still room at the table for those of us who may not come directly from the communities we are trying to serve (myself included as a white Hispanic, middle class female), but still are eager to contribute. We can become, what she titles, Design Allies. Design Allies may not have the same direct, lived experiences of the issues they are passionate about, but they can use any advantages (or privileges) they have to support the ideas of the Equity Designers. Her model stresses that Equity Designers + Design Allies = Outcomes.

Equity-Centered Community Design.

To begin down a path of more equitable design, it is imperative, she stressed, that we all first acknowledge the power we have, especially universities, and build our own humility. It is not enough to just be empathetic, we must first place a mirror to ourselves and acknowledge our own flaws, histories, traumas, and barriers, and see how we are the same as everyone else. What is the power I am bringing to the space? What identities, values, emotions, and potential blind spots do I have? In the end, it is all about shifting power, and bringing in community voice, and youth voice first. Her Equity-Centered Community Design Model (featured left) reimagines the design thinking model by adding room for acknowledging and dismantling power constructs, including history and healing, building humility and empathy, and inviting a diverse set of co-creators to the table.

During the same Designing for Equity session, David Clifford from DesignSchool X, also stressed, that if we fail to address the root cause of inequity, we can often reproduce inequitable power relationships. In his own words, as a white, middle aged male, he commented that “design is hecka white.” He stressed that we must acknowledge that certain components of design, often held as essential, are perceived as very different things throughout the various realities. He highlighted, that “failing forward,” for example, looks very different for different people. And that not all people have the time, money, or luxury to be able to fail and to move forward beyond it. Certainly most can not forego a salary or take on an unpaid internship to work for or start a social enterprise.

To account for these biases, his organization adds two additional steps to the design thinking framework. First, before we even begin the design thinking process, we must NOTICE. Notice our identities, notice our lived experiences, notice our beliefs, and notice our biases. We must also pause to notice our emotions, our actions, our insight and our impact and REFLECT on our language and ideas. Where do we sit in this world? In our bodies? These powerful additional steps, that really can be embedded throughout the process, can help make the design process more equitable and inclusive.


Other sessions throughout the conference also challenged conference attendants to deeply reflect on meaningful community engagement, and how to acknowledge and address our own privileges. In a very powerful session, Sonia Galiber from Urban Creators, joined Doug Fennant of Uniti, Christina Fialho of Freedom for Immigrants and Lam Nguyen Ho of Community Activism Law Alliance in Chicago to outline the worst and best ways to interact with the community.

The panelists stressed that community based organizations are often left feeling mistreated, patronized, or at worse, used when working with universities, students, and other organizations.  Lam Nguyen Ho of Community Activism Law Alliance stressed that the heart of the problem is really power dynamics. Volunteer engagements, he insisted, need to be meaningful, sustained, transparent, and mutually beneficial. He has witnessed many volunteer law students or lawyers come with a feeling of heroism to “help the poor”, that is often disempowering. He stressed the importance of exhibiting professionalism at all levels when working with communities, and about treating those you are working with the same respect and hospitality you would if someone were coming to your own house. Even the term empowerment, indicates that I am “giving you power” when it really should be about –together– enhancing the power we already have.

Sonia Galiber had similar sentiments to express, encouraging that universities and organization must use their finances to match their values. If you really do value your community neighbors, she encouraged, then you must pay for interviews, engagements, and workshops with community organizations and leaders and legitimize it as labor. There must also be community accountability, she stressed, where community members must be on decision boards and where universities and organizations must take direction from those most directly impacted by the issue. And there must be reciprocity in the relationship, recognizing that community organizations have assets and gifts to offer and want to be invited IN and given credit and co-ownership of research or projects.

Christina Fialho, herself an Ashoka fellow, stressed these points showing how her organization, Freedom for Immigrants, that aims to end immigrant detention centers, has a leadership council made up entirely of all of those who have been imprisoned. She also added how UCSD demonstrated best practices, by welcoming her IN to their entrepreneurship in residency program, providing space, resources, and support to help their growth and development.


So where to next? How can we learn more about designing for equity and respectfully engaging with our communities?  For those of us who really want to learn more, Creative Labs has many resources to help us along on our journey to more equitable and inclusive engagement. You can download their Equity-Centered Community Design Field Guide or register for their hosting two Equity by Design Bootcamps in Oakland in New York.

We all want purpose in life: we can begin by all doing our part to continue to hold that mirror up to ourselves, to notice, to reflect, and to meaningfully engage with the people and challenges around us. As Mentor Dida said in his opening remarks, we can truly all “see ourselves as humans with special powers to create change”, but we must remember to do so in an inclusive, equitable, and diverse fashion.

Interested in this topic? Here are some additional resources to review and consider:

Cristina served as a Political Appointee for the Obama Administration to support the growth of small businesses, renewable energy, and community economic development throughout the most impoverished areas in rural and tribal America. She currently serves as a Research Consultant for the Obama Foundation. She is also Co-Founder and President of Open Dreams, a small educational non-profit to help underprivileged youth from Cameroon and South Africa attend university and a Marketing & Business Development consultant for Emzingo.

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