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A Conversation with Four Leading Black Women Who Are Building and Scaling Social Impact in Detroit and the Nation 

In early December, as part of the SHIFT Series, GreenLight Fund hosted the event Building Change that Lasts: A Conversation with Black Women Scaling Social Impact, featuring a panel of four leading Black women. The panelists explored the tools, strategies, and mindsets that help them build lasting change and shift outcomes in their communities.

Moderated by Donna Murray-Brown, president and chief executive officer of the Michigan Nonprofit Association, the panel included:

  • Margrit Allen, Detroit Executive Director, Urban Alliance
  • Chanel Hampton, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Strategic Community Partners
  • Nina Hicks, Detroit Director, Center for Employment Opportunities

Scaling Social Impact: What It Is and How to Do It Equitably

According to Murray-Brown, scaling means something different for everyone. But for her, someone from a banking background, scaling means getting more customers, revenue, and market penetration. But her perspective changed when she entered the nonprofit world, where scaling could be seen as triggering. However, she cautioned that scaling does not have to be seen as a significant, frightening thing because it is relative to your organization and where you would like to be and achieve.

“Scaling in and of itself is not a bad thing. The word ‘scaling’ is not a bad thing,” Murray-Brown said. “What can be tricky is that when you’re thinking about Black people leading these organizations – Black women, in particular – who don’t necessarily have access to the resources, the things that will actually help them scale – they’re not in the scaling conversation the way that others can be in the conversation. The other thing is, scaling for what? Scaling for what purpose? Is it better to go deeper than wider, or can you do both? I think that the conversation around scaling is way more dynamic than more money, more people, bigger, better. It’s more nuanced than that. And so, when we simply kind of throw those words out, scaling, I pause and say, ‘wait a second, what are we talking about here and who’s not included in this ability to scale?’”

At the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), scaling means helping more returning citizens integrate and thrive in society, according to Hicks.

“When we look at the landscape just here in Michigan, particularly in Detroit, there are about 3,300 parolees that are released. The majority of those individuals are coming back to Detroit. Many of them are re-entering without resources, whether it’s financial or otherwise. That’s where the Center for Employment Opportunities kind of comes into the picture,” Hicks said. “We’re able to provide some immediate and effective and comprehensive employment services for those individuals that are returning home from incarceration.”

Hicks shared the overall vision at CEO is for everybody who wants to work, with a criminal record or not, should be able to be prepared and supported to find employment.

“My approach [to achieving this vision] for serving participants from a lens of equity and responsibility – I have three basic tenets that I operate from every day. Those are my professional tenets and my personal ones. That’s support, it’s advocacy, and it’s redemption,” Hicks said.

At the Urban Alliance of Detroit, Allen discussed how they started in D.C. in 1996 and expanded to Detroit in 2018 to scale the impact of their work.

The Urban Alliance brings together school districts and employers to provide training, support, work experience, and ultimately, pathways for high school students before they graduate.

“Our goal is to make sure that every student continues into an upward mobile pathway. It could be a two- or four-year university. It could be training, the military. It could be an entry-level job,” Allen said.

They are doing that through partnerships and public funding, which Allen said are vital to their organization. Detroit Public Schools, Rocket Companies, and Strategic Community Partners are a few of the larger partners of the Urban Alliance of Detroit.

Allen also mentioned community buy-in as an essential factor in scaling social impact.

“Super important coming from a Detroiter who still lives on Six Mile but has experience scaling a national model in my city: scale efforts have to remain flexible,” Allen said. “They have to be driven by the community. It can’t just be an auto-import of something that was done somewhere else. Detroit youth have unique needs, so Urban Alliance’s model in Detroit has to be willing to adjust to meet them. We’re not doing D.C. solutions for Detroit challenges. And when you’re scaling, it has to be locally led…. ‘I am who we serve.’”

At Strategic Community Partners, a national firm that works with organizations by advising, designing, and managing projects and initiatives that advance equity with and for communities, they work to scale their impact on organizations across the nation in community-grounded research and evaluation, diversity, equity, and inclusion, education, project management, and more.

“Our ability to grow and expand is hands down because of our team,” Hampton said. “The first year and a half, when I launched, it was me. And then, overnight, I had to hire 20 consultants, then full-time staff. Yes, I did found the organization, but we have almost 15 full-time employees in Detroit, in D.C., in St. Louis, and Newark, and Atlanta – who are just as passionate. Many of us have lived the very lives of the very folks that we work every day alongside, and so it’s personal. It’s very personal for us.” 

Taking Care of Yourself as You Effect Change

All of the panelists shared that scaling and working in social impact organizations is a lot of work, especially as Black women. According to Murray-Brown, this leads to burnout and not having time to keep themselves “whole, nourished, energized, and healthy,” according to Murray-Brown.

Hicks shared while she would love to say she does a great job at taking care of herself, in honesty, she does not.

“We, as African American women, every day we are putting on our superhero cape and this face of being a strong Black woman,” Hicks said, “So, as you move through and serve people, whether it’s your family, whether it’s your participants, whether it’s youth, whoever, people draw on you. So, they draw on you because of sometimes your certain skillsets; they draw on you because of your contagious love factor that you exude. I don’t do it well. I haven’t done it well in a long time.”

But the pandemic has given Hicks time to dedicate to restoring her energy and focusing on herself. This allows her to show up in a beneficial way to those she is serving.

Allen shared a similar experience. As a subscriber to the saying, “I am the people we serve,” she said she never used to separate work from life. What woke her out of her stupor was her teenage son struggling and her missing moments in his life. From then on out, Allen said she started to prioritize self-care by doing things like leaving her laptop at work when she went home and cutting off work and committing to her family after 4:15 p.m. She also started making herself watch TV, which may seem like a minor activity but was huge to Allen, who felt like she could never watch it before since she could be doing something more productive.

“As Black women, we believe we have to carry everything, and I would just be transparent. Like, I am excited to have the leadership
spot, so I’m not trying to lose it. I’m trying to do everything that I can to show that I deserve to be here, and resting makes me feel, sometimes, guilty because of all those things,” Allen said.

Hampton also started watching TV and cooking – things she never felt like she had time to do before. She also said she apologized to friends for not being present, which many people working in social impact struggle with.

“Having people in your corner that you can talk to about personal issues, work issues is a gamechanger,” Hampton said.

All panelists agreed that no matter what, giving yourself time to recharge is essential. Not sleeping or eating, being stressed, and always being “on” can reduce your capacity to help others.

“The reality is if I’m like dead in bed, or dead and having health problems and mentally stressed because I’m running myself into the ground, I’m not good for anybody. I want to be here for the long term. I want to be in the game for the long term. I want to be in my community for the long term. That means I have to take care of Chanel, and if someone has a problem with that, they have a problem with that,” Hampton said.

Watch a recording of Building Change that Lasts: A Conversation with Black Women Scaling Social Impact here.