America has a serious problem — a lack of trust in our elected leaders.
According to the Pew Research Center, less than half of the people in this country feel the current political system is effective at upholding their rights. Only 17 percent of Americans across party lines said they trust their government to do what’s right — compared to 75 percent in 1958.
These numbers are nearing a historic low.
In response to this crisis of faith, New Profit, a national venture philanthropy organization that funds social entrepreneurs, recently launched Civic Lab. Civic Lab’s goal is to promote nonpartisan democracy entrepreneurship by supporting a cohort of leaders who are working on solutions to build civic trust in America. The cohort currently consists of seven social impact entrepreneurs. Each leader received a $50,000 unrestricted grant, coaching and peer support in order to support their work.
“There’s declined trust in those kinds of institutions that actually used to be places where people formed communities and helped create the social connection and social fabric,” said Yordanos Eyoel, a partner at New Profit who leads Civic Lab.
Eyoel spent two years researching the civic needs of today’s society — a society that’s more divisive and more distrustful than ever before. “Civic Lab was really born with the emphasis of building and helping to support innovative grassroots solutions that are focused on building civic trust and civic culture in our country,” she told NationSwell.
Eyoel’s interest in civic engagement originates from her experience as a refugee. She was born in Ethiopia during the country’s longest civil war. She came to America in her early teens to join her mother, who had fled Ethiopia as a political refugee.
“Having grown up in a repressive government, I was obviously interested in civil society and activism,” Eyoel said. She started working at New Profit in 2013. A few years later, she had to decide between keeping her Ethiopian citizenship or becoming an American citizen. In 2016, the current state of political affairs in the U.S. motivated her to become an American citizen.
“It was a really big personal decision for me to forego my Ethiopian citizenship, but I made the decision to not sit on the electoral sidelines and to become a [U.S.] citizen and vote.”
Eyoel also helped co-found the Sister March Network, which helped mobilize the four million people who participated in the inaugural Women’s March in 2017. At the end of the march, Eyoel wanted to maintain the level of activism and engagement she saw with supporters of the march.
After two years of interviewing entrepreneurs and researching social distrust, Eyoel led the launch of Civic Lab, which brings together organizations that are addressing civic trust in multidimensional ways from multigenerational perspectives.
The pilot cohort launched this past March and features leaders from a range of sectors. But all leaders have a focus on democracy entrepreneurship.
One cohort member, Katie Fahey, is a 26-year-old activist who tackled gerrymandering in Michigan. With the help of Civic Lab, she’s taking on the rest of the country through her organization The People. Another cohort member, Rev. Gregory Holston, founded the interfaith organization POWER, which aims to unite faith-based communities on fighting for justice reform.
“We have shared values and shared cause but our tactics and strategies in the different spaces can help to inform what works,” said cohort member Steven Olikara, who is the founder and CEO of Millennial Action Project (MAP), the largest nonpartisan organization for young lawmakers.
Olikara is from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which is currently the most racially and politically segregated city in the country, according to the Brookings Institute. MAP’s goal is to empower, develop and amplify millennial lawmakers across the country and across party lines.
Olikara launched the nonprofit in 2013, and with the support of Civic Lab, aims to scale the organization beyond the dozens of legislators MAP currently supports.
With the help of a coach, who has experience in the private, political and nonprofit sectors, Olikara is gaining valuable new expertise.
Olikara said it’s key that the social venture philanthropy sector focuses on democracy entrepreneurship.
“Nothing scales a solution like public policy, and nothing solves the root cause like political reform.”
Olikara stressed it’s a critical moment when an anchor in social venture philanthropy, such as New Profit, identifies democracy entrepreneurship as a top priority.
“If you’re working on education, the environment, or immigration issues and not looking at the underlying reason of why our political system has not produced better outcomes in those areas,” he said, “then you’re missing the boat.”