Skip to main content

by Nikishka Iyengar, Founder and CEO, The Guild and SOAR Fellow, Aspen Institute Forum on Women and Girls

This blog was originally published on Medium on May 1, 2020.

COVID-19 reminds us of the urgent need to bridge the gap between the worlds of social impact and social justice.

On May 4, 1886 at Haymarket Square in Chicago, what began as a peaceful rally turned bloody after a bomb and gunfire resulted in the death of at least ten people. The rally was organized by workers who were striking for an 8-hour workday. Up until then, American workers were working nearly 60 hours over a 6-day work week. Chicago, an industrial hub, saw a rise in organized labor movements that were met with equal and opposite force by businesses implementing severe, and sometimes violent, anti-union measures. That tension between capital and labor finally came to a head in what is now called the Haymarket Affair or Haymarket Riot. An estimated half a million U.S. workers went on strike across the country, and the riot sparked labor uprisings around the world. Subsequently, May 1 was coined “International Workers Day” to commemorate the Haymarket Affair.

Today, on International Workers Day 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic, that same tension between capital and labor that has been brewing since the Great Recession of 2008 is once again coming to a head. Workers from Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods, Target and Walmart are striking for better working conditions. As COVID-19 reveals the flaws of our current economic system and exposes the stark disparity between the rich and the working class, the “working poor” have, ironically, been the ones charged with saving the rest of us — the minimum wage workers stocking and delivering groceries, the underpaid teachers preoccupying quarantined children virtually, the healthcare aides without sufficient PPE risking their lives while caring for and cleaning up after coronavirus patients.

In response to growing social and environmental issues prior to COVID-19, the last decade saw the rise of social impact as a field of practice — this includes social entrepreneurs, corporate social responsibility leaders, non-profit leaders, and impact investors. Within business specifically, movements like B Corp and Conscious Capitalism have entered the mainstream and promote the cause of “doing well by doing good”. In case it isn’t clear, the doing well refers to making a good profit and the doing good refers to social good. If only it were that simple. In my decade of experience in this social impact sphere, I’ve seen how these movements, for the most part, have been entirely disconnected from social justice movements. That mantra of doing well by doing good, albeit catchy, ignores the fact that within our current economic paradigm of neoliberal capitalism, profitability often comes at the expense of people and the planet, no matter how hard we try to dress it up. Consider the fact that a company like Amazon — which avoids taxes, has decimated small businesses, and has created harmful working conditions for its workers and stripped them of their bargaining power repeatedly — has a compelling website that showcases its supposed social impact.

This is one of the main reasons I left my career in corporate social responsibility: the incrementalism of the work did not match up to the urgency and magnitude of the issues at hand and often just served as window dressing to the machine of capitalism that, at its very core, was at odds with social progress measures like equitable pay, ownership, and bargaining power for workers. Social entrepreneurship, the non-profit industrial complex, and mainstream impact investing are currently all in the same boat. While they provide marginally better outcomes in the short-term, they fail to address the actual root causes of social injustice and inequities by not aligning with social justice movements. In the conflict between capital and labor that has spanned centuries, capital continues to win at an alarming rate. The top 1% now own more than 40% of the country’s wealth and the gap — which includes the racial wealth gap — continues to grow. COVID-19 is a wake-up call to create new systems that truly put people over profits, and should be a call to action for social impact practitioners that want to create lasting social change. In addition to not crossing the picket line today, here are 3 ways to heed that call to action:

  • Understand and learn from history: From trade unions to farmworkers’ and sanitation workers’ rights, the history of organized labor movements in this country is rich, but like so much else, Black, Indigenous and other People of Color’s contribution to these movements, especially that of women of color, tends to be erased from mainstream conversations. It’s important to not only learn about them, but learn from them, since the conditions that birthed those movements in the past are still very much alive today. Celebrating Black History Month and LGBTQ History month at your organization is just the first step and needs to be followed with real action in the form of policies that advance the lives of those workers.
  • Align with social movements and community organizers in ways that shifts power to them: Labor organizing is clearly not a thing of the past. Social impact organizations or companies with a national or global presence should align with movements at that scale — Movement for Black LivesFight for 15National Domestic Workers AllianceSunrise Movement, and LGBTQ and Reproductive Justice movements all have labor platforms and prescriptions for companies. If you’re an organization with a local presence, you should also align with local movements that intersect with your area of business. For example, my organization, The Guild is in the real estate sector in Atlanta, so we try to work in solidarity with housing justice and other community organizing groups fighting gentrification. Beyond that, we’re working on real estate models now that can be community-owned and governed. The goal is to be able to shift power to communities and away from industries that have been historically extractive. In the social impact space, we often say that if we want to be successful and true to our mission, the goal is to work ourselves out of a job. The only way to do that is to take human-centered design, a popular framework in the social impact space, to the next level, by building real solidarity with and shifting power to our users (beneficiaries / workers/ the communities we operate in).
  • Incorporate models that equitably distribute governance and ownership across all stakeholders: While movements like B Corps and Conscious Capitalism have made the case for a shift from shareholder primacy to a stakeholder approach to governance, employee ownership models like worker-owned cooperatives flip the power script entirely. Even if your business is not ready to make the full transition, programs like ESOPs are a good next step. The Democracy CollaborativeCenter for Economic Democracy and the New Economy Coalition have useful resources for this. For tech or other companies that are looking for ‘exits’, consider an emerging model of exiting to your community. For non-profits, grantmakers and impact investors, equitable distribution of governance and shifting power can look like a participatory grant-making process or including members of your target beneficiary group in your investment committee that has decision-making power.

For too long, the world of social impact has tried to do good “without being political”. What that statement fails to account for is the fact that if you’re a person of color, an immigrant, LGBTQ, or part of any marginalized group, your entire existence is political by default. We’re being disingenuous if we think we can have social impact without pursuing social justice first. Like the 2016 election, this pandemic presents an opportunity to examine and reflect on all the systems (that are either broken, or arguably working as designed) that have led us to this point, and to reimagine and redesign an economic system that truly puts people over profits.