How the Impact Space is Meeting the Moment and Embracing Anti-Racism


Derek Chauvin’s trial and conviction for the murder of George Floyd are over. But Floyd’s death, and too many other horrifying recent headlines underscore the ingrained racism in the US: the police shootings of Daunte Wright and 13-year-old Adam Toledo, the Atlanta spa shootings and the resulting spotlight on anti-Asian acts of violence, continuing anti-immigrant and anti-Latino policies and violence, and widespread voter suppression measures targeting people of color. While George Floyd’s death ignited a racial reckoning that’s spread throughout mainstream America — including in the social enterprise ecosystem where Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship operates — the hard work is just beginning.

In parallel and, in part, sparked by the anti-racist movement that gained traction in the US last summer, the international development community is under fire and grappling with its own history and current practices of colonialism, racism, and white-saviorism. In an Overseas Development Institute (ODI) article, authors Kathryn Nwajiaku-Dahou and Carmen Leon-Himmelstine note, “The aid sector has long been criticized for being deeply imbued by its colonial past and structural racism. This has enabled the ideology and practice of the powerful to be normalized in ways that systematically undervalued local knowledge and expertise.”

In response, organizations in both the social enterprise and development sectors have condemned racism. Further, they are rethinking practices, introducing programs, and attempting to right past wrongs to become more just, equitable, and inclusive. We have a long way to go, and we must ensure that we’re not just talking the talk. But it’s worth reflecting on some anti-racism work that’s emerging in both sectors and what we can learn from one another.

Acknowledging Our Complicity

It would be disingenuous to highlight the following practices without acknowledging the complicity that we, in the social enterprise and aid sectors, have in perpetuating the problems. Columnist and self-described “recovering aid worker” Paul Currion notes that many working in international development (and in social entrepreneurship) are “WEIRD — Western [and White], Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.” He goes on to say, “Anti-racism is necessary but not sufficient for the aid industry to make the fundamental changes to move beyond its colonial legacy” and must additionally renounce its systemic power inequities.

International NGO Save the Children is taking steps in that direction, committing to “do more to address institutionalized racism in our own organization and sector, and [committing] to listening and understanding what it takes to be an anti-racist organization. Save the Children also has a role to play, more broadly, in decolonizing development narratives and practices.”

Recognizing that Language Counts

In the words of Kenyan author and social activist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, “Language carries culture, and culture carries…the entire body of values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in our world.” Language matters! And by acknowledging the part that language plays in perpetuating white supremacy throughout the impact space and then changing our language, we begin to do the hard work.

For years working in the development sector and now at Miller Center, I’ve been advocating to stop using the term “beneficiary” with its wealth-is-power connotation. Over the past months, Miller Center has taken a deeper dive into our language and the many words and phrases that convey power imbalances, inequities, and colonial legacies. Drawing on lessons from our social enterprise partners, academics, and others in our ecosystem, we recently established guidelines for more inclusive language. As examples, we are committing to use people-first language, such as “people living in poverty” rather than “poor people,” and eliminating phrases like “in the field” for its colonial implications.

Putting Our Money Where Our Mouths Are

Confluence Philanthropy is a membership organization of foundations, family offices, and individual donors focused on values-aligned investing around sustainability, equity, and justice. In 2020, Confluence members and partner networks launched the Belonging Pledge, a pledge for racial equity that calls on investors to build “systemic solutions that will rebut racial inequity by changing the way we make decisions about the deployment of capital.” To date, the pledge has 188 signatories representing almost $1.9 trillion in assets under management.

Echoing Green is launching a $50 million Racial Equity Philanthropic Fund to ensure sustained action, backed by the Skoll Foundation, Goldman Sachs, and others. The fund’s goals include catalyzing and scaling 500 social enterprises focused on racial equity globally, breaking down barriers to capital for people of color, and infusing the private sector with the tools and understanding to support anti-racism.

Miller Center is increasingly investing our resources to accelerate local leaders. Here we refer to those leaders with a deep connection to the communities they’re working in, an intimate understanding of the problems they face, and profound insight into viable solutions to those problems. In their excellent article, Disrupting White Supremacy in International Development: 5 Lessons from our Partners, the authors (including Miller Center alum Jailan Adly of RefuSHE) note, “Local leadership is essential to centering the dignity and assets of communities most impacted by systemic inequities and global crises.” We have long been cognizant of and worked to avoid the “top-down” power dynamics that are reminiscent of colonialism and white-saviorism, but only in the last couple of years have we articulated a focus on locally-led enterprises. In the last quarter of CY2020, 113 social entrepreneurs graduated from our programs with 62 local leaders or 55%. I would like to see Miller Center reach at least 75% by 2025.

Elevating the Voices of Local Leaders

Ashoka, a leader in the social enterprise space, has stated, “In this moment, as we work to find more social entrepreneurs addressing systemic racism and its effects, we also look to veteran Ashoka Fellows closest to the issues — for perspective, insight, and wisdom rooted in lived experience and decades of work.”

At Miller Center, we envision a world where all people are architects of their own futures. Yet we acknowledge a need for more diverse and representative voices in our decision-making. We recently established our Social Enterprise Advisory Council to elevate the voices of local leaders in frontier and emerging markets to provide input on Miller Center’s governance, programs, and services. The eight steller social entrepreneurs in our inaugural cohort hail from Cameroon, India, Kenya, Mexico, and Uganda.

Last week’s Shift 2021: Business as a Force for Positive Change conference kicked off with a Land Acknowledgement to recognize and honor Indigenous Peoples as stewards of the land. Land Acknowledgments are “a simple way of resisting the erasure of Indigenous histories and working towards honoring and inviting the truth.”

The Tip of the Iceberg

These examples represent the tip of the iceberg in the necessary work to dismantle structural and widespread racial injustice in the US and worldwide. Yet, they provide glimmers of hope and direction. It’s time to face our hard truths and commit to an anti-racist future. To quote James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Originally posted on (updated May 25, 2021)