By: Dori Baker
May 22, 2017
What makes a social entrepreneur?
Someone who challenges cultural perceptions about the dis-enfranchised and the displaced? A leader who upsets binaries that erase the genius we might otherwise see in one another? A change-agent who looks at surrounding culture, sniffs out creative vitality, and follows that which resembles “good news for the poor”?
Each one of these fresh descriptions of social innovation emerged during an FTE Community Forum hosted recently in Los Angeles. We gathered in LA on the very date that, twenty-five years ago, the city was on fire, engulfed in racial violence after the acquittal of four police officers videotaped beating African-American motorist Rodney King.
In the midst of the ongoing violence and suffering in our communities, nation, and world, FTE President Stephen Lewis asked us to consider how people of faith move beyond simply imagining a different future and begin to build it. How do we innovate the kind of future we’d like to inhabit?
Perhaps a key lies at the intersection of faith, social impact and entrepreneurship.
FTE’s Community Forum surfaced an urgency among Christian leaders who are called to create hybrid expressions of faith community in spaces that are both secular and sacred, holy and ordinary, church and marketplace. An innovator works in these margins—creative spaces where life grows in the tension between safety and risk, comfort and creativity.
Four innovators invited us—an intergenerational group of Christians exploring social entrepreneurship—to re-imagine how we engineer space, excavate stories, invest in neighborhood economics and listen for harmonies in our stories. These “imagineers” included an architect, anthropologist, Episcopal priest and ethnomusicologist who create alternatives out of the already-here.
Steven A. Chaparro is lead storyteller and strategist at Visioneering Studios, Inc. He shared his story of growing up as a pastor’s kid who felt a tug to be a minister, but also identified a false split between working as a pastor and serving the common good. Steven asked attendees, “What if churches were not these specially segregated spaces, but ecotones—the spaces in between?” He described putting his architectural skill and ministry to work to engineer spaces designed to serve human flourishing and build God’s beloved community. This gives rise to re-imagined ministry, such as the Moniker Warehouse, a co-working space in San Diego. He describes it as a “dream factory” where a church is one tenant among a lively mix of twenty artisan brands, creating jobs and becoming a community asset in one of the city’s most underserved neighborhoods.
Marlon Hall is a storyteller, archeologist and self-described “curator of human potential” who believes the best way to honor God is to fully develop one’s talents and skills. Through his Houston-based non-profit, The Eat Gallery, Marlon helped seven budding entrepreneurs launch businesses that match the health needs of underserved populations with artful food. “The food was good, but they were part of something bigger,” Marlon explained. Community developed. Passions blossomed. People came alive to the “why” of their existence. His philosophy of social entrepreneurship is to excavate the stories of cultural creatives, following vitality that resembles the Gospel. Marlon believes it’s our spiritual and Christian responsibility to learn what a community needs and find ways to serve it, all the while creating opportunities for people to make meaning and money at the intersection of one’s passion.
Rosa Lee Harden held up a one-dollar bill and asked, “Where do you want this to spend the night?” She urged “emancipation from a predatory economy” and told the story of growing up in a small Mississippi town before the big-boxification of the US economy. Money stayed in the community, providing jobs, and supporting families in a way she described as “neighborly.” Could a few people working together to invest their dollars in neighborhood really make a change? This is a growing movement that redefines economics from the bottom up, funding local ventures, creating toolkits to support entrepreneurs, and encouraging shared learning. This movement inspired Rosa Lee to be part of initiatives such as Social Capital Markets (SOCAP) and The Parish Collective—organizations that encourage the planting of small, place-based churches that celebrate and connect models that support human flourishing.
Alisha Lola Jones is an ethnomusicologist whose academic work focuses on contemporary African-American male performances. She and her sister began hosting Genius for Men, a men’s empowerment conference. “We acknowledge the genius of young men who were getting kicked out of school because we don’t know how to teach their kind of brilliance,” she said. Now Alisha teaches others how to look for unexpected forms of genius. Her start-up, InSight Initiative, Inc, consults in the design of events that uplift people while also turning a profit. Alisha suggests listening for harmonies in our stories, giving an example of her unique journey into a career portfolio that amplifies her academic training, while addressing the trauma experienced by people of color in her home cities of DC and Chicago. Her advice to would-be entrepreneurs? “There’s going to be doubt. There’s going to be famine and fallow ground,” she said. “Those who made it big had blips along with the ascension. Risk should be part of the conversation.”
As the day came to a close, evocative questions lingered:
What if we already have everything we need to create alternatives to the systems that are snuffing out the life chances of the people we love and serve?
What if, within our individual stories and our collective memories, lie the exact blueprints for creating a future in which we can all flourish?
What if God’s spirit set loose on the world aches to create new life from the compost of our dying institutions?
Like most hard questions, these don’t fit with multiple choice answers. They do, however, inspire us to take next steps we might not have imagined before.