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‘Bottom Up Change is Lasting Change’

April 7, 2021
Melinda Wright
Three visionary leaders are advancing innovative solutions to achieve education equity for all

“We all know the adage … that talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not,” said Cheryl Dorsey, president of the Echoing Green Foundation, which supports emerging leaders in social justice and social innovation. “So that is our work as galvanizers, as dot-connectors, as philanthropic leaders … and it does come down to leadership development.”

Dorsey is part of a growing group of Black leaders in education, business and entertainment joining forces to lift the next generation up and over historical barriers to opportunity.

In February, Dorsey joined Liz Thompson, co-founder of the Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education, and musician and entrepreneur Pharrell Williams to discuss their work to build greater access to high-quality education in the Black community over the next five years.

Building Access for the Next Five Years
Talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not. Groundbreaking research from Echoing Green and Bridgespan Group reveals race remains a defining factor when looking at which organizations get funded and how much they receive.

Leaders of color are vastly underrepresented across the business and nonprofit sectors, but especially in education. Groundbreaking research from Dorsey’s group has revealed that race remains a defining factor when looking at which organizations get funded and how much they receive.

Dorsey’s Echoing Green is one of the leading angel investors in emerging social entrepreneurs around the world. Every year, the group receives over 3,500 submissions to become an Echoing Green fellow, each subject to a rigorous vetting process. “Less than 1% of folks are left standing at the end of this vetting process … You talk about best-in-class emerging leaders, Echoing Green has them,” Dorsey said.

Yet despite this, Dorsey recognized troubling trends for young leaders of color. “When you look at Black male achievement fellows … their [organizations’] revenues were 45% smaller than their white counterparts. Their unrestricted net assets … 91% smaller … It's just stunning … These best-in-class global leaders, despite having run the gauntlet of this selection process, were still facing the headwinds of implicit biases out in the capital marketplace.”

These leaders are using their platforms to push back on this reality, more fully tapping into what Thompson calls the “Black genius” that exists across the country.

From desegregating K-12 schools and colleges, to managing historically Black colleges and universities, the African American community has always championed equality of opportunity and access for students.
Liz Thompson, The Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education

From innovative educational models that identify unique student strengths, to better recruitment and support for Black educators, to more equitable access to social and financial capital for entrepreneurs, each is centering solutions around the wisdom of the community.

“Education has always been of utmost importance to the Black community,” said Thompson. “From desegregating K-12 schools and colleges, to managing historically Black colleges and universities, the African American community has always championed equality of opportunity and access for students, because in this country, it has long been the key to social mobility and economic independence.”

With support from the Walton Family Foundation, Thompson launched The 1954 Project in 2020 with a goal of raising $100 million to support Black educators and education leaders across the country over the next five years. This unique Black-led and Black-serving initiative focuses explicitly on investing in innovative and culturally affirming approaches to teaching and learning, expanding educator and leader diversity and increasing economic mobility for students of color.

It’s work that is desperately needed. For over three decades, the foundation has worked to put the American dream within reach for more children by supporting efforts to increase access to high-quality schools. However, the K-12 system still tolerates a significant opportunity gap. In our new strategic plan, the foundation is putting greater focus on supporting locally demanded, locally designed and locally driven solutions.

Pharrell Williams is also advancing education equity through his organization – YELLOW. Through the soon-to-be-launched YELLOWHAB school in his hometown of Virginia Beach, Williams is ready to prove and scale the concept that developing personalized and immersive learning experiences can unleash possibility and prepare youth to be the innovators and entrepreneurs of the next generation.

Through YELLOW, Williams is working to eradicate the word “remedial.” “It's just, quite honestly, not fair,” he said. “Some people are visual learners. Some people are auditory learners. Some people are even kinesthetic learners. For us … we want to get into sensory-based assessment and sensory-based learning, so that once it's determined when you're 3 or 4 years old how you process information, you have curriculum based on that.”

Dorsey says that to develop a deeper bench of emerging Black leaders, the conversation must be a more holistic one, and one that relies deeply on mentorship. “When you talk to a lot of these entrepreneurs, the capital matters, but it's that social capital that often matters more,” she said.

Above all, building access to opportunity comes down to building power through community, said Dorsey.

“I have had the privilege of almost the past 30 years working with transformational leaders who deeply believe in centering community voice and community wisdom. Some of the things that we've learned … is bottom-up change is lasting change. Distributing decision-making authority is really powerful in crowdsourcing the kind of wisdom … required to change the systems that work for too few of us.”

Highlighting community-led efforts to help entrepreneurs of color start and grow thriving enterprises.
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