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Social Enterprise and the Privilege Economy

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I am an unapprehended felon. From age 18 to 38, I spent some part of virtually every day in the illegal drug culture. Buying, selling, using and/or driving under the influence of highly illegal substances.

Nothing in my persona ever gave me away as a practicing criminal. What you'd likely, but probably not even consciously notice, is the winner of an ostensible jackpot of demographic advantage: A straight, white, educated, suburban, professional, middle-class, currently-healthy, currently-abled, extremely well-fed male.

I am the epitome and beneficiary of an extraordinary level of privilege that I did nothing to earn or deserve.Privilege that I have been slow to understand but quick to harness. Privilege that could neither spare nor cure me of the disease of addiction, and which, in the light of my eventual recovery through the grace of God and the 12 Steps of Narcotics Anonymous, now demands to be paid for in arrears by gratefully heeding the spiritual truth that says, "of one to whom much is given, much is expected".

I had a bit of a skirmish with the law at age 20. I got a huge scare, a slap on the hand, and no mark on my record. I went back to a private college education that led to a good job, that led to other good jobs, that preserved the life of upper middle class comfort I assumed was my birthright. In short, I got a free pass back into the mainstream economy.

Change my demographics to young, black, uneducated, inner city, and I would have been given a one-way ticket into the wildly profitable prison-industrial economy instead.

Through recovery, I eventually found a spiritual and social consciousness. I ended up leading a social enterprise, providing jobs for addicts coming out of the addiction-incarceration-poverty cycle that ensnares primarily African American men at a rate up to eight times higher than privileged criminals like me. Note: I was the head of the organization, not one more in the huge line of men who desperately needed the jobs we offered. Even in this social endeavor, privilege prevailed!

(By the way, there are a lot of us unapprehended felons running free. Some would argue we are all criminals.)

Today, with 20 clean and sober years under my belt, and my most felonious days hopefully behind me, I lead Social Enterprise Alliance (SEA), the movement builder for social enterprise in North America.

We define a social enterprise as business whose primary purpose is the common good. Lately, I've been realizing that social enterprise is the counterpoint to the very Privilege Economy that has propelled my own career and economic security.

The myth of the Privilege Economy is that it rewards hard work and perseverance. Yes, but. But, it rewards holders of capital disproportionately to all others. But, the economic capital it rewards is massively concentrated among the privileged. But, it even more generously rewards what Chris Rabb calls Invisible Capital: social capital, cultural capital, and human capital, that flow from a set of characteristics ascribed almost entirely to privilege holders like me. But, every time it rewards us privilege holders, it further perpetuates that privilege.

In contrast, social enterprise pivots us away from the Privilege Economy to a framework of economic justice, in several powerful ways:

  1. Social enterprise shifts the underlying metric for economic success from the enrichment of ownership to social enrichment. The common good becomes the primary measure of value.
  2. A successful social enterprise doesn't necessarily breed more success within the privileged class. It spreads it outside of the class.
  3. Social enterprise opens economic opportunity for the least privileged among us. Among the great examples are the social enterprises that make up REDF's portfolio. Many of them work with criminals and addicts who, unlike me, weren't able to dodge cascading consequences through privilege.
  4. In driving an economic justice agenda, social enterprise "buzz" shifts the tailing mainstream economy as well. Even those who aren't ready to go full tilt into social enterprise are beginning to see that it doesn't have to be all about perpetuating economic returns, and are making at least some effort to integrate social returns with the enrichment of ownership.

In the field, we often speak of "scaling" social enterprise. What we're talking about is creating the conditions in which social enterprise can move from a sliver of the economy to the biggest slice. The rapid acceleration of social enterprise scope and impact in even the last three years gives me hope that purpose can overtake privilege as the key determinant of economic access and success.

I'm coming to realize that my purpose in this job is to flip the very economy that led me to this job. In every way that this statement can be interpreted: It's my privilege to work in social enterprise.


(This post can also be found at redf.org).