Lifting a community up through Social Entrepreneurship

By: Karen Wawrzaszek

Tens years ago, we were in the throws of the global financial crisis, weeks away from the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Today, the U.S. economy is strong. The stock market is up, unemployment is down, and the gap between the rich and the poor is wider than ever. Things are better, but also worse.

To say that our economy doesn’t work for everyone is an understatement. While there has been a long-term trend underway, a recent Reuters analysis of U.S. household data reveals that the continued increase in consumer spending over the past two years has largely been driven by the bottom 60 percent of wage earners, even as their finances worsened. Our strong economy is being fueled by borrowing and spending savings. As a result, credit card and loan delinquencies are increasing and saving levels are at their lowest since 2005. Things are better, but also worse.

Unemployment may be down, but wages aren’t growing and haven’t been for a number of years -- hence the arguments underway for Universal Basic Income programs. In a recent report, the Office of the Budget Director of the Council of the District of Columbia estimated that a childless adult living in the District would need an annual income of nearly $37,000 to meet their basic needs. The federal poverty line for a childless adult is closer to $15,000. Poverty is persistent, and is a consequence of a growing wage and wealth gap where certain economic and social systems need a fresh look.  So how can we make things better, period?

Muhammad Yunus,  founder of Grameen Bank, posits that “the most important step to ending poverty is to create employment and income opportunities for the poor.” But we know, that even in D.C., with the nation’s highest minimum wage, wage-employment doesn’t generate enough to sustain a family. According to Yunus, self-employment is the quickest and easiest way to create employment for the poor. He further states that “economic theory in its simplest form visualizes people as providers of labor. They are born to take orders from a small group of a very special kind of people known as entrepreneurs. These special people are the only people who can think, organize, and act.”

So what if we imagined a different kind of economic theory? One in which all people are potential entrepreneurs? And better yet, what if they were social entrepreneurs? People who, unimaginable in orthodox economic theory, didn’t only seek to maximize personal gain, but sought social gain -- an added dimension to our current capitalism framework. Turning the page on current economic theory by supporting social entrepreneurs whose objectives are aligned with revitalizing communities through health, education, workforce development, and housing is an avenue worth exploring and advocating for.

Poverty is not created by the poor, so when we think about bringing new enterprises or innovations to a community that is struggling economically and one that has never had success modeled for it, it’s important that we not try to fit those innovations and enterprises into the current economic and social system that created poverty in the first place. We must create new systems that bring access to capital, stable housing, and a capable local workforce.  Take DC’s Minnesota Avenue Main Street Program, for example. Grounded in asset-based development, an approach that starts with a community’s existing assets rather than what it lacks, this program is promoting the revitalization of traditional business districts. Program Manager Anaia Peddie works to provide business technical assistance, marketing and public space design activities to help the small businesses on Minnesota Avenue flourish and enabling existing potential entrepreneurs to draw from local resources.

Not far from Minnesota Avenue, you can find the Farm at Kelly Miller, an urban farm operated by Dreaming Out Loud, an organization working to combat food insecurity and alleviating poverty in Wards 7 and 8, where the issues surrounding generational poverty and  food access run deep. Their integrated approach to building a new food system for the 34,000 residents living in food deserts in these wards doesn’t start and end with food, nor does it rely on our current, broken systems. Dreaming Out Loud’s programs build a supportive infrastructure to aggregate, process and distribute locally-grown agricultural products. Their community markets don’t just provide healthy food access, but also opportunities for local food entrepreneurs. Micro-enterprise and entrepreneurship programs equip community members - more than 50,000 of whom lack a high school diploma - with the skills to create their own food-related businesses, and their workforce development program introduces community members to a healthy food culture while teaching transferable employment skills and fair wages. The food system in Wards 7 and 8 didn’t work for its residents, so Dreaming Out Loud is creating a new, resilient and productive food system that improves health and generates economic opportunity.

Enabling entrepreneurship comes with the promise of helping to develop economic participants. Like Dreaming Out Loud and the Minnesota Avenue Main Street program demonstrate everyday, entrepreneurs help a community grow jobs that can be filled by the existing local workforce, or delivering goods and services that fill a gap. In DC’s most disadvantaged communities, this extends to uncovering what skills exist in the current workforce, but also making capital accessible to the ideas that will improve the lives of the the community, so that it may grow away from poverty.


Peter Edelman, a renowned advocate in the fight against poverty, wrote “as long as middle-income voters think they have more in common with the people at the top than the people at the bottom, we are cooked.” While many of us live within walking distance of a Harris Teeter, a Whole Foods, a Giant and a Safeway, the truth is that we are closer to the food deserts in Wards 7 and 8 than we may want to imagine. And while the median household income in D.C. is 20% higher than it was a decade ago, the poverty rate is unchanged and suburban poverty in the area is on the rise. The status quo is making things better, but also worse. So how can we create a more supportive environment for D.C.’s social entrepreneurs that are reshaping our city?

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  1. Spicer, Jonathan. (2018, July 23). Mortgage, Groupon and card debt: how the bottom half bolsters the U.S. economy. Retrieved from: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-economy-consumers-insight/mortgage-groupon-and-card-debt-how-the-botp
  2. Office of the Budget Director of the Council of the District of Columbia. (2018, February 27). Economic and Policy Impact Statement: Approaches and Strategies for Providing a Minimum Income in the District of Columbia.

  3. Yunus, Mohammed. (2005, May). Eliminating Poverty Through Market-Based Social Entrepreneurship. Global Urban Development Magazine. Volume 1 (issue 1).

  4. Edelman, Peter. (2012, May). So Rich, So Poor. New York, NY: The New Press.

     

 

Abigail Skeans