Cheryl L. Dorsey: A trailblazer in social innovation
Cheryl Dorsey is at the cutting edge of the social entrepreneurship movement. As the President of Echoing Green, a nonprofit that supports emerging social entrepreneurs around the world and invests deeply in their ideas and leadership, she is shifting the paradigm of social innovation. We caught up with her to find out more about her work at Echoing Green and her thoughts on the vital role of social entrepreneurs in responding to the significant challenges of COVID-19.
An accomplished leader and a social entrepreneur herself, Cheryl received an Echoing Green Fellowship in 1992 to help launch The Family Van, a community-based mobile health unit in Boston. In 2002, she took over the leadership of Echoing Green and reshaped the organization into a global nonprofit. Almost two decades later, the Fellowship Programs continue to be the organization’s cornerstone, providing seed funding to social entrepreneurs launching bold new initiatives to create positive systemic change.
Cheryl has served in two presidential administrations as a White House Fellow and Special Assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Labor (1997–98); Special Assistant to the Director of the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Labor Department (1998–99); and Vice-Chair for the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships (2009–2017). She is a frequent speaker on racial justice and equity in philanthropy, having advocated for equitable funding for leaders of colour on panels organized by Skoll World Forum and The World Economic Forum, amongst many others.
At the helm of an organization that’s committed to disrupting the status quo, Cheryl’s groundbreaking approach has enabled the Fellows of Echoing Green to address some of the greatest social challenges of our time.
What is the background to Echoing Green’s formation, and how has it evolved over the past three decades?
Echoing Green has been around since 1987, and we are one of the pioneers of the social innovation movement. We set out to be an early funder of emerging social entrepreneurs, as a place where folks with a lot of passion and amazing ideas could get support and an invitation to our family. We strive to be a soft place to land for those trying to change the world so that they can find comfort and care as they deal with all the slings and arrows that come with that work.
Since that time, we’ve invested in close to 900 social entrepreneurs working in about 86 countries around the world — including the African Leadership Academy, which has become part of our family. I got to meet Fred Swaniker and Chris Bradford in 2006 when they joined our community, and we’ve just been dazzled by the work they’ve done in the world.
How has Echoing Green defined the paradigm of social innovation?
Echoing Green stands out for its deep belief that the work of social innovation has to be about the work of movement building. There are so many structural inequities when you’re trying to take down a precedent of extractive forces, and it’s the work of movements to deconstruct this. We need folks who are thinking about innovation not just as a force for good but also for justice. Supporting the work of social innovation at the intersection of social justice is something that’s become really important to Echoing Green’s evolution over the years, and we’re much more explicit in naming it.
We also celebrate and raise up the notion of proximity. We believe that those closest to the problem are always going to be those that come up with the most critical, gifted and important solutions. This has meant that we’ve focused on diversifying and bringing new voices into the movement. Over the years, we’ve built one of the most inclusive and diverse communities in the sector. We recently announced our new class of Fellows, and we’re thrilled that it’s 100% BIPOC — Black, Indigenous and People of Color — as well as 70% women.
We recognize that talent is equally distributed, but the opportunity is not. So, we try to make the application process for new Fellows as equitable as possible, providing applicants with mentoring and support every step of the way. This is about each one, teach one; walking alongside the next generation and welcoming them into our community.
Why do you believe it’s important for the work of social entrepreneurship to be supported?
Social entrepreneurship entails a blurring of sectoral boundaries, bringing together the state, civil society and the market to create new and shared public value. This is an alliance-based model for change. It’s the language and architecture of movements, which recognizes that everyone has a role to play. We believe that it’s critical to support this work, as it’s the collective that gets you to the level of change over time that’s needed.
How can social entrepreneurs play a part in responding to the crisis of COVID-19?
The historian, Frank Snowden, has written a lot about the role of pandemics across the course of history, and he rightly notes that they are transformational moments. Transformation can be negative and positive. There are lots of examples where tragic and terrible things came about as a result of pandemics, where particular groups were marginalized. But you also had moments where it opened up a space for societal transformation because pandemics simply reveal and amplify existing structural inequities.
Currently, we have a moment where the disproportionate impact on marginalized communities is playing out in real-time, and it is social entrepreneurs who are raising their hands and pointing to these inequities. But instead of saying that the work is too hard or that it’s impossible to change, they provide an alternative vision of what’s possible. Social entrepreneurs who are involved in deconstructing systems that work for too few of us are doing the important work that’s required at the moment — rebuilding and reimagining these systems. I think it should give us hope, that if we provide space for this alliance-based model for change, we have a real chance at changing the world.
Are you hopeful for the future?
Look, these are some tough times. But the fact that my country nominated a black woman to be a Vice President for the first time in our history is a remarkable example of the transformative moment that we’re in. It gives me hope, and we’ve just got to lean in and get this done. It’s the work we have to do around the world, letting social entrepreneurs be the architects of change that we know they are.