How Social Entrepreneurs Are Transforming Democracy

November 10, 2020

One of the organizations that is a grantee partner of New Profit’s Civic Lab is the Millennial Action Project (MAP), and Worth recently caught up with the founder of MAP, Steven Olikara, to hear his story and perspective on the current state of democracy.

There’s no doubt that the results of the election will define how democracy is shaped over the next few years in the United States.

A few days ago, I was reminded of this statement by former Canadian Prime Minister John Turner: “Democracy does not happen by accident.” Arriving as a refugee to a democratic country like Canada, has always been a paradox for me, as I remember that these countries, the United States and Canada, have a helping hand in destroying countries like mine overseas. The fact that this is what has led to the refugee crisis to begin with is something I have yet to reconcile.  

On one hand, the fight for freedom and democracy is the essence of what the United States stands for, but on the other hand, this does not come without racial injustice, war and conflict. 

What makes this digestible for many immigrants and marginalized people of color is the fact that we have freedom and we’re part of a democratic society here. Although, for the past few years, we have seen a changing political landscape that has heightened racial, social and economic tensions all over the United States and is seeping to the rest of the world as well.

Over the past six months, more than 230,000 Americans died from COVID-19, while little to no action has been taken to stop the spread of the virus. Civil violence and unrest, racial reckoning and heightening tension, anxieties and anger overall signals to many citizens that the country’s democracy is at stake.

Over the past few days, the world has been watching the presidential elections to see what happens next. And it’s not because America is the center of the universe, but the results of the elections have a huge impact on not only Americans but on Canada and countries overseas, as well.

There’s no doubt that these election results will define how democracy is shaped over the next few years in the United States.

To make matters worse, the current state of the country’s trust level of people is very low. According to the Pew Research Center, 35 percent of Americans are “low-trusters” who believe that people cannot be trusted and only look to their own self-interest. Interestingly, among this group of Americans, 40 percent believe we are overreacting to the COVID-19 crisis. 

Why are these stats important? Because the global pandemic, along with putting trust in people and more importantly governments, are linked together. People need to trust in their country, and government officials, in order to ensure that their and their family’s safety, health, livelihood aren’t at risk.

To Turner’s point, we have to be very deliberate in choosing to create systems, structural solutions and policies that promote and push democracy forward into the hands of the people.

Many social entrepreneurs and leaders are working on these solutions to improve the civic engagement and participation of young people to be part of an even better democratic landscape. In fact, those who are closest to the problem—Black, racialized, low-income and newcomer individuals—are working hard to ensure that democracy remains a core pillar of the country’s apparatus. Our parents and ancestors fought hard to bring us to a country that promises hope, safety and freedom for everyone, and at the core of its values, that’s exactly what democracy is built on.

Which is why it’s a crucial time for philanthropic ventures to engage with and participate in civic and democratic initiatives and organizations that are driving the conversation forward, and working to empower and amplify young people’s voices to be at the forefront of these solutions.

“Having experienced and witnessed the grave cost of political dysfunction, division and civic disenfranchisement in my home country of Ethiopia, I know that our democracy is to be treasured and protected. But we have not invested in our civic and democratic infrastructures outside of the party systems,” says Yordanos Eyoel, a partner at New Profit.

“During this 2020 election, this country has already spent $14 billion, three times what philanthropy has invested in democracy organizations over the last decade. Irrespective of the outcome of this election, we will not be able to see transformative changes in our economy or education system unless we build a healthy and an inclusive democracy,” explains Eyoel.

You might be wondering, how can we support building a more inclusive and healthy democracy? Eyoel recently wrote an article outlining 10 actions that leaders can take to support democracy, which you can read here.

New Profit, a venture philanthropic organization, has been scaling social entrepreneurs since 1998 and has been one of the first organizations to dive deep into non-partisan civic support to catalyze social entrepreneurs working directly to solve civic engagement and democratic issues across the country.

Last year, New Profit announced the launch of a new Civic Lab initiative to support seven democracy entrepreneurs who are building  innovative models of grassroots solutions that build civic trust and a strong civic culture in America.

One of the organizations that is a grantee partner of New Profit’s Civic Lab is the Millennial Action Project (MAP), and Worth recently caught up with the founder of MAP, Steven Olikara, to hear his story and perspective on the current state of democracy.

Q: Could you share a little bit about your career journey with us? What drove you to start the Millennial Action Project?

A: What drove us to start MAP was the worsening political polarization of our country and seeing how, as elected officials in this country, we’re losing the art of political bridge building, which is required for a diverse democracy to succeed over the long term. I came to that problem growing up here, in the Greater Milwaukee area in Wisconsin, which is a highly polarized, as well as racially segregated area, in the United States. I grew up in a non-political background, I’m a musician. That was my first passion. And I learned about building coalitions and the power of bringing people together through the arts, as opposed to politics.

I saw how my different bands really spanned the stylistic spectrum, ranging from hip-hop and jazz to R&B, alternative rock and folk music. And I noticed that the collaborations we had, through those different genres, when I bring these different musicians together, would lead to a better piece of art. I started to realize these skills that we’ve picked up—they’re listening, you know, improvisation and innovation calling response—those are key ingredients to a healthy political discourse. Through my experience with the music and art industry, I learned that our community service was enhanced when we brought people together, and we saw diversity as our strength.  

Those are some of the ideas that led me to the Millennial Action Project. And really what prompted me to take this leap of faith was seeing that two of the most important forces shaping the future of our politics would not only be the worsening polarization and an increasing sense that people on the other side are our enemies. In fact, two-thirds of Americans today see members of the other political party, it’s not just different or having different views, but people who are fundamentally evil. The other major trend is the rise of the millennial generation and Generation Z after us, and the question became: How do we create a new pathway in politics, how do we create a new political paradigm? How is this next generation going to govern our country?

What drives your passion every day to make change?

I see the problem front and center and our headlines virtually every single day. And I also look at the long-term trend lines, which if we don’t change course, these trends are just unsustainable overtime. I think about my own family’s background, having immigrated to this country from India; I’m a first generation American. I grew up in a town outside of Milwaukee that, at the time, I believe was, like, 98 percent white folks, and I definitely stood out. I was different from most of my peers. And yet, we built community together. And I think that’s a powerful story about Wisconsin and about our country, is that we can work together, that we can build community together, that we can form these relationships together, and we’re stronger because of that.

What are some of the ways philanthropic ventures need to continue to support civic movements and initiatives to improve the future of democracy for young leaders?

New Profit was one of the first investors from the social enterprise space to get involved with MAP. And that was significant, because when we started MAP, the social enterprise space really wanted nothing to do with democracy reform or politics. We’ve eventually built the case that investing in democracy is a force multiplier for efforts on education, the environment, health care, many of these intractable problems we really can’t move the needle on unless we have a better political process. So that that was a huge shift, and New Profit has been a market shifter in many ways because of that.

What philanthropic organizations and investors need to do is not be afraid to invest in civic entrepreneurs. Civic entrepreneurs are trying to make our democracy function better. And that has the deeper impact of understanding why are people going hungry in the first place? You know, why our parks are dirty in the first place? It’s getting at the root problem and the issues, and that’s why I believe nothing addresses the root of a problem like public policy, and nothing scales a solution like public policy change.

What are your hopes for the elections as we’re watching over the next few days?

I hope that there’s recognition that this political culture we have is completely unsustainable, and the worsening divides that we have in our country are unsustainable, and I hope people take away a message given that the results were quite, you know, mixed. Here in Wisconsin, Biden won by a very slim margin. My point is that if we’re not seeking to build a bridge to understand, if we’re not seeking to talk to people who are different from us, then I think we’re missing out on a huge opportunity to make our country even better.

Are you worried about the state of democracy in the United States at all?

Yeah, I’m very worried about the state of our democracy. George Washington warned us in his farewell address that when the country becomes overrun by party rage and warring factions, it would facilitate the rise of undemocratic tendencies. He specifically said it would facilitate both foreign corruption and influence, as well as the rise of authoritarian tendencies. And I’m making a non-partisan point here.

We do need to create a very different kind of politics, as many people feel left out. We have rising levels of disillusionment; 90 percent of Americans are unhappy about the state of our country. And that cuts across both parties. Two most prevalent feelings Americans have right now are fear and anger. We need to create a new kind of politics that is about that, and we need to create a new inclusive form of politics and get out of this partisan deathmatch.

Reflection: This piece was written two days before the election results were announced, and while we congratulate fellow Americans for this victory, we also know that there’s so much more work to be done to improve the current conditions for underrepresented racialized individuals, for the working class, for Black and Latinx communities, for immigrants and refugees, for Muslims and other religious minorities and for the LGBTQ+ communities across the United States. The fight for justice and racial equality isn’t over, it’s just beginning.

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Rep. Sara Jacobs


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