When we think of social impact in Boston, what comes to mind? For most, it’s images of crowds on the steps of City Hall, college students rallying with green T-shirts and marginalized communities finally being seen. And while there is diversity in the social impact arena, many times the appearance and accepted perception is one where black and brown faces are recipients of benevolence, rather than the visionary founders and impact makers. Are we in awe of Greta Thunberg because she acted profoundly on behalf of her planet or because that profoundness came from a white face? Where are the black faces of social impact and why aren’t those faces the sought-after marketing images that surround us?
In search of an answer, I sat down with one of Impact Hub’s former change-makers, Bintou Kunjo. Currently earning her Masters in Global Management, Bintou understands first-hand the power of social impact as an international business owner and in her previous stint as part of the Impact Hub Boston leadership team. Kunjo’s vision is to empower African creatives to drive their own narratives by curating impactful spaces throughout the continent in the hospitality and tourism industries. Her personal and professional experiences has given her a bird’s eye view of the perception and truth of the impact black and brown faces are making in the world.
The Impact of Labels
In order to accurately see the social impact of Blacks in Boston and even widening that lens to a worldwide view, we first need to look at the definition of social impact, Kunjo begins. White faces are the ones usually represented at social impact events or conferences but it doesn’t mean people of color aren’t engaged in the work and leadership of effecting change. There’s not one way social impact can look; however it has fallen prey to categories like corporate social responsibility (CSR). Additionally, many people of color aren’t using culturally accepted labels to identify the work they do. Labels and terminology are luxuries of the West but the real work is the one being done on the ground to feed people, alleviate poverty, provide others with security and that tends to be people of color, Bintou states.
But aren’t labels attached to funding and access? I asked her. And if labels are the gateway to funding, should the burden be on the label-makers to ensure awareness, or should the burden really be on each organization? While Bintou didn’t side with one viewpoint or the other, she stressed the fact that labels are associated with a specific culture in the world and they come with constraints. It’s great if an organization is able to secure capital for their venture but it’s imperative they understand the labels and constraints that are attached. And because organizations without labels are doing the same thing as those with culturally accepted labels, impact investors need to understand and know that social impact looks different per demographic and region. We shouldn’t expect people in the trenches fighting for social justice to stop and label their work because that’s a western phenomenon.
The Impact of Connection
I expressed to Bintou that this is where co-working spaces like Impact Hub Boston can be very instrumental. It’s a hotbed of connectivity and like-minded ideas, allowing members to connect and build networks through community sharing. However, black and brown faces are still sparse even in such spaces. As a former Hub leader, I wanted Bintou’s take on how Impact Hub can be a magnet for minority social impact organizations and entrepreneurial pursuits. For Bintou, it was all about physical and mental distance. The reality is that spaces like Impact Hub are very removed from spaces where African American social impacters tend to do their work. For those working outside of Boston’s center, commuting just to have access to work space can be very difficult. Mental distance speaks to a culture and faces that don’t mirror their own and their level of comfort with such. While having a network of peers doing mission-driven work is important, many black people are already involved in just that and spaces like Impact Hub must go beyond just offering a co-working space in order to draw people in.
“We must break down the thinking that we are the center and others must come to us.”
The Impact of Decentralization
The highest priority for any mission-based initiative is solving problems, which supersedes work space and meeting like-minded people. To fully understand their needs and how spaces like Impact Hub can began building bridges, Kunjo suggests spending time with organizations that don’t use labels to get a sense of what would be most helpful and how other organizations can strategically align with them by learning what matters most to them. But it’s imperative we don’t make the mistake of clearing a pathway only to 50 Milk Street, or to other coworking spaces, incubators, or program. We must break down the thinking that we are the center and others must come to us as if we’re the ones to revolve around. We might be the ones that need to move into their spaces. An inclusive social impact community means cutting down those barriers so we can create a flatter structure where people can feel comfortable and can make a difference in their own spaces.
Beyond the concrete and glass jungle of Boston’s financial district is an engaging world of social impacters making headway without labels, many times without funding and without the corporate address. Their mission cements them in the forgotten spaces of the city and you probably won’t see them at the next social impact conference or networking mixer. Their boots are on the ground doing the same mission driven work as others operating under the labels of sustainability and innovation. But do we see them?