As We Rebuild, Here’s the Part We Can’t Afford to Take Out

Opinion | Diversity and Equity

As We Rebuild, Here’s the Part We Can’t Afford to Take Out

By Aaron Walker     Apr 14, 2020

As We Rebuild, Here’s the Part We Can’t Afford to Take Out

I live in New Orleans. In 2005, the aftermath of a once-in-a-century hurricane provided an opportunity to think anew about how to design an education system and rebuild a city.

The current hurricane—the coronavirus—gives us a chance to think anew as a social impact sector and as a nation about the future we want to pass along. This is our once in a 100-year opportunity. But just because we have a once-in-a-lifetime chance, it does not mean we will necessarily seize it. In our fixation on grades and achievement, we have too often left out the most important “part” of what it takes to build a better future for our children.

Now again, I worry that this “part,” which too often gets taken out, is just the part that we need the most.

That “part” is a holistic approach to investing in education. It is the argument that what happens outside of the school matters as much as what happens within. It is the statement that health and food matter. That economic opportunities matter. And that black lives matter, too.

For nearly the past decade, defending this “part” has been a constant part of my work. In 2014, as funding and enthusiasm for education technology was booming, I had been trying to string together a few “yeses” from foundations for the nonprofit venture fund I was launching, Camelback Ventures.

A coffee meeting led to information about a funding opportunity. You’ll receive an email, said my coffee date. A few months later the email arrived. A couple months after that, our proposal was up for approval. The program officer had this advice for me: To get the deal done, they advised, “take that part out.”

The program officer said that although they agreed with me, all those issues would be a distraction for the foundation to get this deal done.

I did not argue. I, too, wanted to get the deal done. It had been nearly 15 months since I had had a paycheck.

Six year later, I still believe in that part I was told to take out. It is why even though we took a few lines out of our proposal, we did not remove those ideas from our work. It is why Camelback has invested in companies like Tiny Docs (media to advance health and wellness for families), Raheem (tech to create a world without police violence), MadeBOS (tech to create career pathing for retail workers) and Liberate (meditation app for people of color).

The Part We Need Now

In the midst of the current pandemic, we all are asking ourselves, “Now what?” I don't know what the future holds. But here’s what I do know:

We must look beyond classroom education to create the conditions for children to thrive.

We cannot educate through the fact that 11 million go to bed hungry. We can’t ignore that there are 3,800 areas with high levels of lead in the water. We can’t forget that five children are murdered daily by someone responsible for their care. And we must own up to the fact that we have a system where those who make all other work possible—especially teachers—are underpaid.

We must build a more agile way to deliver programs.

Just as we are asking schools to figure out distance learning, those of us who lead fellowship and accelerators must do that same. In the short term, Zoom and Mural will serve as tools for team meetings and virtual summits. In the long run, there is an opportunity to use frontier technologies like augmented and virtual reality to create immersive experiences that can scale.

We must build a bridge between social innovation and social justice.

If you’re a social entrepreneur who has built a product or program to solve an issue, you will have to engage in the policy, advocacy and work of “getting in the way” to help it flourish. If you are a social justice warrior who is an expert agitator, you too will need to figure out how to “productize” and even scale your work to make sure it has impact.

For Camelback, these ideas are not a radical change. We have long believed that this work is important. Before the pandemic, we heard phrases such as “education plus” and “systems change” to describe the idea that it was more than good schools with great teachers and technology that would lead to better outcomes. Whatever it is called, leaders of color have thought in these ways for years. And now that the vocabulary has caught up to us, we must make sure that the vocabulary does not leave us behind.

In the next 12 months, we cannot let this exogenous shock decimate organizations led by people of color. Our organizations were under-capitalized in the good times and therefore are the most vulnerable now.

That means funding organizations must innovate, too. Providing general operating grants, maintaining funding levels, and then increasing them is a start. But if our country can provide a stimulus plan to companies that lack liquidity because they spent precious capital to buy back stocks, then it can provide support for entrepreneurs of color who launched their organizations by cashing out their 401(k)s. Here’s how:

Invest in research & development: The Big Four tech companies have spent over $600 billion on R&D in the last decade. It is the only way we will get to new policies, ideas and models. The emergent “recovery funds” from foundations should be R&D funds. This is not the time to simply double down on your portfolio. This means foundations must bet on new ideas, including from black, indigenous and people of color.

Add constituencies to governing boards: Let’s practice co-determination. In countries such as Germany, corporations must have a percentage of the board be employees. This has aligned interest, provided stable governance and created value. Money should not be used as a tool for control, but rather for collaboration. Foundation boards should add board members who have lived experience on the issues they support.

Invest in an equity ombudsperson: Equity ombudspeople aren’t chief diversity officers but instead independent, contracted professionals, appointed for an unimpeachable timeframe such as at least two years. They identify systemic issues and handle internal and external complaints related to issues of equity, with a focus on race, gender and ability. Ombudspeople build trust with communities and hold donors accountable. If you’re not ready for this yet, start with this new funder collaborative.

Now, more than ever, we can no longer leave critical parts out. Those parts are the lives of individuals, families and communities to whom we are all inextricably linked. Those parts are the work of anti-racism. A massive investment in leaders of color and designing for equity is the first step. All the parts we leave out of this redesign will be the ones we’ll be fixing until the next crisis blooms.

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