Illumine America is a podcast created by the U.S. Baha’i Office of Public Affairs. It explores some of the major issues facing American society, such as economic inequality, racial justice and race unity, the sustainable development of our planet, and more.
Just as much as we’re troubled by the challenges inherent to these issues, we’re also inspired by constructive approaches to them that we see being piloted everyday. Our podcast highlights, or illumines, the work of some of the individuals, communities, and institutions that are bringing fresh insight to these urgent conversations.
Addressing Economic Inequality
Americans are developing a shared sense that our economy is not working for most of us. It’s undeniable that inequality has become extreme. But why is this? And what should we do about it? In our Office, we’ve been asking: how can our society have conversations about reducing economic inequality without deepening divisions between people and exacerbating conflict? What conditions need to be met before we can have these constructive conversations? And what does it look like to have faith in the capacity of others to contribute constructively?
This short interview series explores the modest efforts of a few organizations and groups that are trying to answer these questions.
Several common themes emerge from these interviews. These include the importance of expanding and deepening our conception of participation: who is included in conversations about economic development and what does meaningful participation look like? Another is the need for greater awareness of our shared humanity and interdependence. These interviews also illumine the rich potential for applying to these questions the approach of consultation — a means of exploring reality that centers the collective pursuit of truth, the value of diverse perspectives, and loving yet frank dialogue.
Jenna Nicholas: Impact Experience
In our second episode of Illumine America, we talk with Impact Experience’s co-founder, Jenna Nicholas. Impact Experience partners with communities to build bridges and deep relationships between impact investors, foundations, entrepreneurs, artists and local leaders to co-create solutions to exclusion and inequality. Working across the country, the Impact Experience team seeks to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in all aspects of the investment process — from who invests the money and who receives it, to how it is used and the impact it has.
Note: this transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Negar Abay: Thanks very much for joining us today, Jenna. You’re part of a collaborative team at Impact Experience that brings people with a diversity of perspectives into conversation with each other to tackle some complex questions related to the uneven geography of wealth and poverty in the United States. Questions like, how can resources of different kinds be brought into a community without deepening or perpetuating inequality? How can we better understand the history and value the diverse resources that exist in a community? And how can we make central the participation of the people who live there?
To start off, can you tell us a bit about what Impact Experience does and why you see a need for the approach that you take?
Jenna Nicholas: Thank you. It’s really a pleasure to have this conversation today. A big part of the inspiration for us in co-founding Impact Experience was observing, when we look more broadly within the investing, corporate environment, the disconnect that exists between funders, businesses and marginalized communities and asking: How do we create spaces that build bridges across differences? How do we co-create solutions across a broad range of individuals and organizations: universities, funders, artists, entrepreneurs, and key stakeholders within these communities that have been historically oppressed? And building on the concept of people as protagonists of their lives and journeys, given how little acknowledgement there is of the importance of that in the current discourse and funding environment. That inspired wanting to create spaces with an inside-out approach in these communities. So whether it’s in southern West Virginia, where there’s a history of deep extraction from the coal industry, or in Puerto Rico post the hurricanes, where there’s a deep history of trauma caused by colonialism, there is a need to re-calibrate how we engage in these communities and the role of local voices in the conversation.
There are a few core themes that run throughout most of our work. Addressing implicit bias is a lens and entry point for much of our engagement. Similarly, climate resiliency. A lot of the communities that we’ve been working in are communities that post-disaster are looking at what inclusive resiliency and recovery look like. We have an initiative right now with the Sierra Club, for example, that’s a hundred cities that have committed to transitioning to 100% renewable energy and we’re supporting the implementation of that, ensuring that there’s a lens around climate and racial justice brought to the implementation of those commitments.
NA: Participation and partnership are clearly central to the efforts you’re undertaking. Can you say more about whose participation you are concerned with and in what way? What helps you build relationships that allow for meaningful participation?
JN: When we think about participation it’s of people whose voices historically haven’t been heard and about creating opportunities for their voices to be elevated. Last weekend, for example, we took a group to Montgomery, Alabama to visit the Equal Justice Initiative’s Lynching Memorial and Museum as part of a broader range of work looking at structural racism and implicit bias. We had a young man in the group who was formerly incarcerated. Having him as part of the conversation and engagement on these topics was essential. Often people talk on behalf of others rather than actually having the lens and context from their perspective. And because people are often used to a modality of others coming in from outside and being focused on what they can gain, it’s really important to us to spend a lot of time upfront identifying local partners that drive the whole process of engagement in the community. A big part of that trust-building work is how do we actually connect as human beings? Beyond the labels we may have associated with us as investors, entrepreneurs or whatever it may be, what is that core
humanity underneath those labels? So a big part of our program is a focus on building those kinds of relationships.
NA: Can you say more about the spaces you create? What are some of the characteristics of these spaces that allow people to engage at that level of common humanity you mentioned and to engage in a collective investigation of the reality they face?
JN: First, there’s the importance of understanding the context which people are coming from. A lot of the time we spend with the participants is before they even come to the experience itself. We also curate the space with a diversity, equity and inclusion lens and ensure we have a broad range of socio-economic, religious, race, gender and other representation. We typically keep the group fairly intimate in size, so between 25 and 30 people to enable that depth of connection. And we’ll always start each of our gatherings with everybody sharing a symbol or an object that has significance to them. Part of that is to show aspects of ourselves that are beyond just those labels. Our thesis isn’t that labels in and of themselves are bad, it’s more the idea that if we think the whole nature of our reality are those labels that that’s where we may be missing elements. For example, we had in the group in southern West Virginia a former coal miner and he shared a piece of coal and talked about how for him coal wasn’t just about his job, it was about his identity. We also had in the group a Silicon Valley investor who spent her life fighting for environmental causes. She talked about the fact that she’d never actually met a coal miner and the power of being able to connect at that deeply human level, and how when they then went on to collaborate around initiatives, they had first built that ability to see who they were as human beings rather than just these preconceived notions.
In the case of West Virginia, we’ve been working there now for about five years and each Impact Experience has built off of the previous one. Some of the projects that have come out of engagement there have been supporting broadband access, initiatives around retraining for coal miners, supporting the build out of the tourism industry, addressing the very high rates of diabetes and obesity and drug offense rates in the community. Having people in the room who are able to make commitments to support that ongoing engagement and then following up with them is important but also engaging people who may not have been able to be part of the conversation themselves but are deeply invested in the themes and issues that we’re exploring and engaging around.
NA: Give us an example of something distinctive that has emerged from your efforts to put this kind of approach into practice?
JN: I think one of the insights we’ve had that came out of our work in Puerto Rico is the role that artists can play in helping bring another lens and light on the topics that we’re discussing. So it’s actually quite rare in typical investment meetings to have artists be part of that engagement, right? And not in the sense of “oh they’re going to paint the conversation,” but actually actively engaging the contributions that artists can make. So it was really powerful in Puerto Rico because we had an Impact Experience there shortly after the hurricanes and the depth of trauma in the room was very visceral. I think having artists with us to both process that experience — helping us realize, for example, the role of movement as a means for processing trauma — and also illuminating another frame and lens for engaging the topics we were discussing was really important. So engaging the perspective of artist-activists who were working at the grassroots to think more broadly around investments in renewable energy and housing etc. Since then, having that kind of artist perspective in the conversations we’re engaging in has become an integral part.
NA: What sorts of barriers exist for these perspectives to come together? Are there other elements you are learning about in order to allow for constructive dialogue and collective inquiry?
JN: I think a few. I think one is the acknowledgment and recognition that we’re ultimately operating within a system of structural racism. As we’ve dug deeper into the work and research, we’re coming to appreciate the depth of that. In addition to what we see in the world as explicit bias, part of the reason for the focus around implicit bias is seeing how often it actually plays a role, even when people think of themselves as not having any bias, because of the system we operate in. The depth with which racism has been embedded into every aspect of our institutions, the untangling of that and creating the spaces to be able to acknowledge and engage around that requires a lot of work. We look a lot at the fact that within investments less than 2% of capital is going into women and people of color run businesses. That is a structural issue that each of us as investors and entrepreneurs and what have you can try to address but recognizing that we’re operating within a broader system where that’s the case is, I think, a) challenging but b) really important for devising solutions that are not just piecemeal solutions but actually getting at some of the broader systemic challenges.
Also, there’s this element around really being thoughtful about what is being called for in a given moment and our own preconceived notions. Even with the best of intentions, because of experiences we may have had elsewhere, we can think “Oh we have insights that may be applicable to this given community” and that actually, unless we come in with a lens of appreciative inquiry and humility, we can be closed off to what a given person or community is asking for and has to offer.
NA: Do bigger questions about the economic system we operate in feature in these conversations? Is there space, for example, to examine underlying assumptions and other ways of organizing and understanding economic relationships?
JN: I think it’s this balancing act. We are very action-orientated within the time that we have together. But we realize that we need to be constructing new ways of doing everything across all of the systems in which we operate. So how do we both work within the current system and also, through the activities that we’re all engaging with, help build this new system? This balancing act between a crumbling system and then building a new one is something that we think about a lot. We’ve also started doing some webinars and writing and different ways of thinking about how do we engage around some of these bigger topics that aren’t just particular community orientated but are at this more systems level. I think it’s an essential part of the discourse but when everything feels so urgent, I think sometimes the ability to actually take that step back can feel challenging.
NA: The over-arching question for this interview series is: What are the conditions that allow for constructive dialogue on eliminating extremes of wealth and poverty in our country and how do we foster those conditions? What do you see as the next frontier of learning for the Impact Experience team in relation to that question?
JN: One of the things I think about is a quote I learned when I was young and it says:
He drew a circle and shut me out
But love and wit had the will to win
I drew a circle and drew him in
I think a lot about how in this work it can be so easy to engage with people who are already pretty receptive to these concepts and how do we engage with people who aren’t particularly receptive. I don’t think we’ve yet been able to do that well. And how do we think about the scaling aspect of this work? So both more people and what types of people are we engaging to be able to continue to expand some of these circles?