How feminist social justice and social innovation work can strengthen each other
Feminist organizing tends to be suspicious of social innovation as just the latest flavour of social change. The social innovation field tends to turn away from the dynamics of power and difference, including gender. Can the two interweave?
In spring 2017, we designed a first systems mapping process and facilitated it across Canada with several groups of women’s organizations working together in the areas of housing, justice and economic security. The sessions were part of a three-year journey, now at the mid-point, to collectively learn how feminist organizations are doing systems change and to understand their impact across on policies, practices, cultures and narratives in these respective systems.
In one mapping session, both the enthusiasm and the doubt in the room was palpable. On one hand, participants were eager to gain tools that helped them to think about strategy and learning in new ways. On the other hand, some participants seemed to smell the social innovation veneer, resisting on the basis that they had been around the block, they knew what they were doing, and the new concepts and tools were not needed here. There is often suspicion by social justice groups that have worked “in the trenches” for decades when the latest flavour in social change appears. It’s not surprising, then, that feminist organizers often perceive the trend towards social innovation as a neo-liberal tactic (i.e. re-enforcing individual rather than systemic and collective responsibility) that undermines their work.
We have also been in many social innovation spaces that are blind to gender inequality and how it plays out in power and decision making. Even with the recent #MeToo movement and important public conversations about sexualized violence and workplace harassment coming out of perpetual silence, it can be difficult for many players in the social innovation field to understand that gender discrimination and inequality are real and must not be discounted. Social innovation discourse and practice (even with its rhetoric about the need to be inclusive and diverse) tends to lack power analysis and the experience to engage and work across difference.
While there are undeniable tensions between the social innovation and intersectional feminist fields, we actually see a lot of creative possibility, both where they meet and where they diverge. In her recent article in The Philanthropist, Marilyn Struthers helps frame the tensions and opportunities in the social change sector, sparked by the colliding edges of the social innovation and social justice approaches. This is a conversation the two of us have had many times. We are grateful to Marilyn for her thoughtful exploration and agree with her generative proposition: that we may find the opportunities in the spaces in between. We call this work “bridging” – and we see an opportunity to shine light on bridging as a practice to help strengthen our collective efforts for change.
Successful bridgers create spaces that support the deep knowledge, lived experience and critical power analysis of those working in grassroots mobilization and advocacy to be at the centre of a social innovation initiative.
Bridging: an emerging practice
Bridging work is often undertaken by system entrepreneurs, described sometimes as transformative agents or weavers within and across different system actors. We know that working from a systems perspective means that we are often called to work more deeply in collaborative ways, however we propose that bridging is more than convening across sectors towards a common goal. While still emergent, bridging is body of practice that includes translating across scales, cultures, and approaches, “code switching” (understanding and being able to communicate with the vocabularies and behaviours of different fields), leveraging resources and opportunity, awareness of dynamics of power and privilege, and being comfortable with the discomfort that comes from different ways of being and seeing in the world. Successful bridgers create spaces that support the deep knowledge, lived experience and critical power analysis of those working in grassroots mobilization and advocacy to be at the centre of a social innovation initiative. Bridgers are also able to support social justice initiatives to move beyond binary for-us-or-against-us analysis, opening up creative possibilities for new collaboration, strategies and tactics to increase equity in our systems.
As practitioners in both the feminist social change and social innovation spaces, we know that the work of bridgers largely lacks a shared language, awareness and a systematized understanding of how it works. Much of this work involves intuitively blending insights and practices; there is no handbook. Bridging is usually under the radar and as the social innovation field becomes more mainstream and mobilizes more resources, this subtle practice can be overshadowed by the latest trends.
Alignment between feminist social justice and social innovation approaches
We, like most of you reading this, want to be wiser and better in our change efforts. We believe that feminist change leaders can leverage the resources and tools found in the social innovation and systems change tool box. And we know there is a wealth of learning and knowledge to be harnessed from intersectional feminist analysis and practice that could strengthen the field of social innovation.
We have been thinking about opportunities and alignment between systems change, which we see as a core component of social innovation, and intersectional feminist activism. Systems change is not a new concept for feminist organizers; it has been a part of the theory and practice since before our time. Yet, the field of systems change is a growing and exciting practice area where new tools and approaches are helping change leaders make sense of complex problems and do strategy in new ways.
As Marilyn Struthers stated: “this is a generative moment with the potential to build social organizing practice that has stronger impact than when we work from either narrative alone.” Instead of being at odds, these bodies of knowledge can feed into and support each other. In our experience, intersectional feminist practice and analysis complement and align with systems thinking tools and frameworks in many ways.
First, feminist practice has long been rooted in a systemic framework: injustice and inequity are understood to be structural issues, not individual problems. Intersectional feminism works to transform the root causes of issues, aiming at systemic change. Social innovation is also ultimately intended to effect change at a systems level. Both systems thinking based on complexity theory and intersectional feminist analysis pay attention to how systems and structures work. When applied well, systems thinking can help to identify levers for change, to pinpoint opportunities for transformation in the system. Feminism has always advocated for a holistic and interconnected perspective -understanding how childcare access and housing issues are related to poverty, for example. Systems frames also value interconnected approaches to seeing and solving problems.
Second, both approaches value and recognize the importance of diverse perspectives in seeing the holistic nature of the problem and in seeking pathways for change as well as the value in decentralized and collaborative leadership and decision making. Social innovation sometimes applies human centered design, which keeps the people meant to benefit from an innovation “at the heart of the process.” Similarly, but perhaps more deeply, intersectional feminism centers the voices of people with first-hand experience when exploring, identifying and working towards solutions for change.
Finally, both practices reframe social challenges in order to work with the complexity and see possible ways forward. For example, #MeToo has reframed survivors of sexual assault and harassment from unfortunate, individual victims to strong, powerful people exposing the need for, and leading, systemic change.
Opportunities to deepen social change impact through bridging
There are also many tensions and points of divergence between how feminism and social innovation are being practiced. When these two fields collide, rather than dismiss other ways of thinking and doing social change, let’s shine light on and learn from the differences. When we are able to reframe these tensions into a new narrative – we see our interconnectedness and the creative possibilities. Here are a few ways forward that we believe will deepen the work of social innovation and social justice initiatives by bridging the two:
Consider the ecosystem. Rather than locating innovation in contrast with social justice, it would be useful to use an ecosystem lens, mapping out key players in social justice and innovation movements along with their assets and relationships. How can we build off of each other’s work, form alliances, and feed each other’s respective spaces?
Shift the power. Social innovation work often neatly avoids the fact that we live in diverse, stratified communities and societies. Social innovation is quick to describe systems as ‘complex’ and diverse – that is, until we start talking about power and bringing marginalized voices to the centre in our initiatives. Intersectional feminist analysis can help social innovation as it faces its shadow side. It can deepen an understanding of problems we are trying to solve and make social innovation better at power analysis, understanding the structural and discriminatory barriers created by racism, colonization, sexism and economic marginalization. This will in turn lead to better and new strategies.
Move beyond inclusion to equity and solidarity. Far too often social innovation organizations, events and initiatives are dominantly white, privileged spaces with men holding power and decision making roles. It’s one thing to say inclusion is important and it’s another to actually do it. Innovation initiatives can leverage intersectional frameworks and practices to actually do inclusion well. Intersectional feminist practice has been evolving ways to create spaces that acknowledge multiple layers of power while allowing for contributions from everyone and acts of allyship and solidarity. Social innovation initiatives could seek out these valuable tools – and if they are applied with skill, they would help ensure that initiatives start from the right place, engage the right people (including in leadership roles) and create deeper results, saving time on efforts that fail because of power differentials.
Centre the margins. Social innovation and systems thinking can help feminists get their work out of the margins and into the center. Gender equity groups have for so long seen their work as on the outside looking in. We have seen how tools like systems mapping empower feminist groups to imagine seeing women with lived experience at the centre of the system they are aiming to impact, which in turn shifts their strategies. This conceptual re-organization can be powerful.
Collaborate. The emphasis in social innovation on multi-sector collaboration and building new relationships within the system is a strategy that could nourish and amplify gender equality seeking initiatives. People working for gender equality and justice have often had to be fighters. Because feminism has so often been co-opted by mainstream culture and corporations, we think twice before embarking on collaboration with “unusual suspects,” reserving trust for those with a similar analysis of the world. Working with unusual suspects, exploring to find the allies within power-holding institutions, for example, can assist feminist movements to reach beyond silos and increase their ability to shift systems without co-opting deep values.
Work at the intersections. A gender-based analysis and intersectionality lens can inspire social innovation to find new ways to work across silos and re-bound problem domains where intersectionality shines light on new opportunities and levers for change. For example, what issues are reframed and what innovations are possible when we work at the intersection of climate change, racism and gender based violence? This is an exciting space for R&D and experimentation.
Flow resources to the grassroots. “Social innovation” and “innovation” are increasingly being used by funders to define their granting criteria. Initiatives that frame themselves as innovation are growing their ability to mobilize resources from government and private sectors. Feminist groups and movements on the other hand have been and continue to be under-resourced. Rather than having the current rise of social innovation further marginalize social justice groups, let’s make sure that these resources support innovation led by grassroots mobilizing and advocacy. At the same time, we can support a mindset shift among feminist social change organizations and movements to flip the script from scarcity to abundance. Where our money goes shows what we value: sharing resources and channelling more resources to social justice initiatives is essential so that this important work is supported and sustained.
Embrace humility and the long view. The social innovation field can be blind to the social movements, including women’s and gender justice movements, that have brought us to today. The word innovation indicates newsness and invention – yet in reality all that is being developed has benefitted from past culture shifts and practice. We need to beware in the social innovation field of the arrogance of thinking that we invented it all. That goes for processes and tools as well as products and ideas. Achieving change quickly seems to be the goal of many social innovation initiatives; the discourse is littered with words like “accelerate” and “maximize” and “fail fast”. Yet there are histories reaching back decades and centuries in the struggle for a more equitable society. Having a long range view reminds us that while there is urgency to change, there is also a need to be deeply respectful and thoughtful about our strategies and how our actions might reverberate through time and across communities.
Here’s the thing. We know that innovation lives on the margins. We believe that those who are living on the front lines of harm, whether it is violence, climate change, poverty or exclusion – have the lived experiences and hold the visions, the possibilities, the innovative solutions for change. An intersectional lens shines light into new possibilities and important perspectives. Those of us who are bridging know this and are working hard to draw on the wisdom from social change tools, practices and strategies, wherever we find them, whether they are tagged #socialinnovation or #socialjustice.
We cannot do social innovation if we are not connected to, working with and holding up the wisdom and leadership that emerges from the margins. We see such leadership in #metoo, #enough, #blacklivesmatter, and Indigenous communities and movements including Idle No More.
The good news is that there are many innovations happening at the grassroots that are not called “social innovation” but are doing it anyway. There are many bridgers quietly working away – with the capacity and skill set to help us navigate this important and critical journey to more connected and effective social change work. If you don’t know where to find bridgers, look a little harder, to the side, in behind, beyond the usual spaces.
Where do we go from here?
Illuminating the practice, the people, the projects and the potential
In the coming months, we plan to host conversations and virtual learning opportunities to help shine light and explore this important practice we call bridging. You may recognize yourself as a bridger. You yourself may have other elements and experiences to bring to this conversation. You may know people and organizations that are doing this bridging work in their own ways, using skills, intuition, frameworks, practice to bridge more innovation into social justice work and more justice into social innovation initiatives. Be in touch. We are creating a practice field. Join us.
Tatiana Fraser has 20 years of experience leading and scaling social change at the intersection of gender and innovation. She is co-founder of Metalab, a platform supporting systems change strategy, learning and collaboration. Co-founder of Girls Action Foundation and co-author of Girl Positive, Tatiana is recognized as an Ashoka Fellow and one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women (Women’s Executive Network). She was also the recipient of the McGill Alumni James G Wright Award and the Champion of Lifelong Learning by the Quebec Association of Lifelong Learning. She has served on numerous boards and advisory committees including The UN Commission on the Status of Women, The Carold Institute, Food Secure Canada, Exeko, and Actua among others.
Juniper Glass has been active in the nonprofit sector for two decades, working to improve strategy, operations, research and external communications at organizations addressing violence against girls, youth leadership, affordable housing, forest preservation and food security. She holds a Master of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership and is principal of Lumiere Consulting.
The authors would like to acknowledge and thank Vanessa Reid and Cheryl Rose for their thoughtful review of this post.