I winced slightly during the opening session of SOCAP and wondered if I’d wandered into another variation of dealing with white man’s guilt. Phrases like “changed forever”, “southeast Asia”, “compelled to do something”, and “Peace Corps” sounded like the clichés of philanthropy and of international development. I thought, perhaps, that we were here to do something new, with a new perspective, and that we’d traveled beyond some of these sentiments.

Like my colleagues who have written their reflections on SOCAP, I gleaned a massive amount of information on the spaces within social entrepreneurship and impact investing.  I do this work because I love the newness and the possibility. I love the build. While much of their reflection has landed on the financial and investing side, there is room for the perspective from a cultural studies side, from critical theory to reflect on the dynamics of what we are building.

Do the “poor folks”, the used-to-be middle class, and the Veterans use the platforms we create?

The sentiment above was poignantly conveyed by Van Jones during his session at SOCAP about rebuilding the American Dream. Are the Kivas, the Kickstarters, and the MicroPlaces accessible and reaching those who may truly need them?

At 9% unemployment (14 million people) in the U.S., with Greece being asked to cut 100,000 public sector jobs to avoid default, and while hundreds of thousands of veterans return to their home countries from the Middle East, it is curious whether the world of social entrepreneurship and impact investing is just a ‘nice to have’, a playground for the privileged?

I ask myself, does my mother know about these things? When laid off from her job, it was the world of what she didn’t know that lay just beyond her reach. If that’s the case for her (and I, her daughter, know about these possibilities), then what is to be said of those who are not as proximate?

Are looking for the new and the shiny, or willing to go deep into the pain?

In pursuit of any of the goals we are trying to accomplish – financial returns, social impact, building a business – are we pulling hard enough on the levers of power to ensure there is sufficient space to participate? Debbie Alvarez – Rodriguez of Goodwill Industries asked this on day two – “do you know the pain points of our neighbours?” The excitement around building the space often leads us to build more, build newer, but in doing so we forget to build deeper.

The examples of entrepreneurship that I heard at SOCAP were powerful, and the interventions that are being created are not to be taken lightly. From water and sanitation to comfort for the homeless, the ability for this sector to change the world does seem remarkable. Still, how far past the Ivy Leagues are we willing to reach and to invest? By challenging our need for new and shiny, we open the possibility of finding ourselves in proximity to the problems themselves. How close to the pain points are we willing to go?

What will we do with the power of privilege?

The most telling interaction of the conference came not from a panel, but in an exchange in the Investors Forum – between an entrepreneur and an investor. During the question and answer period, a participant posed the question of “how are we supposed to find you (i.e. investors) and how do we know your criteria for investment?”

Attending the conference with a social entrepreneur and being committed to education for entrepreneurs, I was curious as to the answer.  It’s hard enough to find philanthropic donors and foundations, how the heck do you find investors? The physical dynamics of the interaction are just as important as the answers; the investor on stage, and the entrepreneur on the floor. “To be honest, part of this is doing your homework. You can find our websites.” At a conference where we hope to build resources and share practices, the answer gave us a peek under the love-and-hugs veil.  There is power in the privilege we hold in being a funder, an investor.  We are allowed to answer that way.  We’ve constructed our world to answer that way.

SOCAP exceeded my expectations on a ton of levels, and even as I critique some of the power and privilege dynamics at play – I’m really quite glad that they started to rear their heads. As Debbie Alvarez-Rodriguez said so aptly, there are “sharp edges and contradictory realities” in the field we are building.

I’ve studied power and privilege since I was an undergrad, writing a thesis on white privilege, and a graduate thesis on restoring power to the public, in public diplomacy. I do not admit at all to having the answers or the expertise on how to overcome some of these challenges. But I do know that once aware of our privilege and of the power it wields, we do have the possibility of moving forward. The reflection I challenge for all of us is not simply a call for navel-gazing, but rather an opportunity to take more conscious action.

(Originally posted on Social Finance.ca, September 27, 2011.  Photo from Zappowbang.)

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