Recently I had the opportunity to travel to up-state New York to support some evaluation and learning with a new education project called the Emerging Leader Labs, or more simply the ELL (http://emergingleaderlabs.org/). It’s an unusual amalgam of ideas and aspirations.
At a first and most obvious level, the ELL is an incubator for social-enterprise start-ups. Young people in their twenties and thirties come to the lab with an idea for a new organization or as the leaders of organizations that are in their very early stages of operation.
A more distinctive feature of the ELL is that it is also a residential learning community. The participants—or ‘makers’ as they are called in ELL-speak—agree to live in community with each other and work full-time on their projects throughout the eight-week intensive program.
There is also a third level at which the program operates; the ELL is a complex experiment in the arena of the gift economy. That is, the project exists almost entirely without money or financing. In order to function, the program is dependent upon the generosity of the local community for its facilities, food, housing and transportation.
This is where the ELL becomes especially interesting. I had become aware of the ELL in 2012 when the first iteration of the program was already underway. When I learned that it was happening again this summer, I contacted the organizers to see if Empyrean Research could support the project by providing external evaluation. Once involved in the ELL, I realized that I was looking at the project from the wrong end of the telescope—the community-supported dimension wasn’t a creative way to finance a social enterprise incubator, rather the gift economy aspect was the core purpose of the program: to be a living example of these ideas and practices.
Moreover, through the incubator, the ELL is also generating new organizations which also function in outside of the monetary economy. As ELL co-creator Art Brock told me during my visit, “We are modeling the gift economy through the ELL. At the same time, we know that many of the organizations that the participants are trying to create may not survive in the regular money economy. From working here in the ELL environment, they understand that it is possible to exist outside of it.”
In the typical social enterprise discourse, organizations look to create income while simultaneously addressing a social problem. At the more ‘enterprise’-heavy end of the discourse, it’s defined as ‘doing well by doing good.’ As social entrepreneurship becomes increasingly recognized and promoted, more and more non-profits are being challenging to think in this way as well—a way that pushes them more into a private sector, income-generating paradigm. While this model has generated a great deal of excitement in some circles, if you think--as I do--that the current economic paradigm is a key driver of many of the current global problems, it is harder to see how broadening its influence into other sectors is likely to bring transformative change.
As such I have often struggled with theory and practice of social entrepreneurship. It can stimulate innovative thinking in generating new models and practices for change. However it can also conflate small-s sustainability (financial) with big-s sustainability (environmental and systemic). Social enterprises which generate their own revenue can be just as invested in the current economic systems as global corporations, thus limiting this ability to critique the status quo and to search for alternatives for deep change.
The ELL was a radical and exciting departure from the conventional approach to social enterprise development. By placing itself fully in the gift economy, it squared the circle by pivoting the social enterprise discourse away from a focus on financial models into a more clear focus on embodying solutions and responses to problems. The ELL approach and curriculum carries with it an implicit critique of the current economic system. As such, the start-ups within the ELL are quite radical in their orientation. They are not Band-aids for current problems, but seeds and fractal beginnings of alternative systems.
In the next several posts, I will say a bit more about how the ELL functions, as an organization and as a learning environment.
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Felix is the founder and director of Empyrean Research. Based in Tennessee, he travels widely with his work for Empyrean.
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