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SPLC explores social justice innovation

A workers rights organization pairs with a tech startup to get unemployment benefits for gig drivers in Philadelphia.

A domestic workers alliance raises $30 million in weeks to put cash in the pockets of housekeepers, nannies and caregivers thrown out of work during the pandemic.

A reproductive rights group responds to the blinding series of strategic strikes on a woman’s right to choose by moving rapidly to organize in states where its forces had been thin.

What do all three have in common?

Their bold actions were forged in what are known as innovation labs, a tool developed in the business world to explore edgy, risk-taking ventures – and one that social justice organizations are increasingly embracing to develop new ways to catalyze change.

Over the past year, the Southern Poverty Law Center has been exploring innovation, reaching out to social justice innovators in the South and across the country who have harnessed the process to shape new approaches to tackling some of the most pressing problems confronting society. The SPLC included innovation as a core approach in its strategic framework out of recognition that the country remains in a very hostile climate for advancing its vision of justice, equity and liberation for all people.

“We hope to create space to imagine the impossible and develop disruptive innovations that could propel systemic change,” said Margaret Huang, the SPLC president and CEO.

Listening and learning

As an organization with roots in the Civil Rights Movement and a track record of battling for justice and against hatred for more than half a century, the SPLC knows that turning dreams into reality takes hard, slow, painstaking work. It knows that in a world of rapid change, activism for social justice is meeting increasingly hardened resistance in many parts of the U.S.

To explore how best to support innovation, the SPLC has been listening and learning. Through workshops, conversations and study, the SPLC has gathered wisdom from dozens of community partners, SPLC staff and board members, researchers, small and large-scale social advocacy groups and some private sector companies about their innovation efforts – what works and what does not. At the heart of every question it asks is this one: How can the SPLC help seed and pilot transformative advocacy and activism across the Deep South?

“Achieving our vision in the current hostile climate requires radical transformation,” said Ann Beeson, the SPLC’s chief program officer. “In the corporate world, there is an entire infrastructure devoted to supporting innovation, cultivating innovative leaders, incubating new ideas and accelerating their scale-up. So, in the social justice space, we see the incredible potential of people who are rewriting history in their communities. Our aim is to figure out how can we best support them.”

To that end, Beeson said, the SPLC is convening a diverse group of artists, educators, youth leaders, organizers and faith leaders from its five focus states for a design workshop in early November. Participants, who will be given stipends to attend, will work together to generate ideas, concepts and models for supporting social justice innovation.

The participants were nominated by SPLC staff who work closely with organizations on the ground.

“It’s important that any effort to support innovation be co-designed with our community partners,” said Chandra Foster, a policy associate with the SPLC who nominated leaders from Louisiana to join the workshop. “They are remarkable individuals doing transformative work. We are truly inspired by their commitment to social justice, honored to share space with them, and excited to learn from them.”

Following the workshop, Beeson said, the SPLC plans to pilot some of the concepts with partners in the communities it serves to test their impact.

Innovating to support workers

For a decade, Palak Shah, one of the innovators the SPLC is learning from, has been social innovations director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance. The organization aims to represent the 2.2 million people who work as nannies, housekeepers and caregivers in the U.S.

When she was hired, innovation labs were just starting to gain a foothold among social justice organizations. As the future of work began to be tied intrinsically to the growth of the internet, Shah said the group’s innovation strategy work has been focused on how technology could help, rather than displace, its constituents.

Among the results, Shah said, are a series of ventures with tech companies like Angi,, Airbnb and others that allow domestic workers to earn a living wage, to earn paid time off and to meet on a regular basis with employers to discuss mutual concerns.

“Innovation in our movement is actually inventing something that allows us to make progress for workers in their jobs in places where we don’t have all the traditional legislative tools that we normally use,” Shah said.

“I’m very influenced by the idea of applying the scientific method to solution-making, and that’s what I told the SPLC,” Shah said. “Take the Silicon Valley lean startup model,” an approach to building new businesses based on the belief that entrepreneurs must investigate, experiment, test and iterate as they develop products, “and merge it with what social movements are all about to create our own approach to solving problems.”

Adrian Haro is CEO of The Workers Lab, a nonprofit that invests millions of dollars in cutting-edge efforts to improve the lives of workers. He joined one of the SPLC’s learning workshops to share details about the nonprofit’s innovation strategy.

Over the past few years, The Workers Lab has invested in, among other projects, Canary, which works with employers across the country to ensure workers have access to emergency cash as part of their benefits package; Los Deliveristas Unidos, a collective of app-based food delivery drivers in New York City advocating for better working conditions; and the Clean Car Wash Worker Center, which advocates for green products and water conservation to increase safety standards for car wash workers in Los Angeles.

“This work of innovation is not for the faint of heart, it’s a scary, scary place to be,” Haro said. “It’s really admirable and really promising for an organization like the SPLC with such a tremendous track record already to commit to jumping in and asking the hard questions.”

New tactics

The idea of such innovation has been a staple of the tech world and other fast-progressing industries for decades. But the association of innovation with the corporate world is a double-edged sword. The term has met resistance from some social justice advocates.

“I remember the early times when we were trying to teach design thinking in innovation, there was just a tremendous amount of pushback of like, this is corporate, this is not us, this is not who we are, these are not our communities,” said Sujatha Jesudason, a professor of professional practice in management at the New School’s Milano School in New York City. Jesudason has a long history as an organizer and is one of the innovation experts the SPLC included in learning workshops.

“Then, we started reframing innovation as the legacy work of historically oppressed people,” Jesudason said. “We have always innovated to push back on the status quo and systems of oppression, and so innovation is in that legacy.”

Innovation, Jesudason said, is just shorthand for doing different things – and doing things differently.

“I prefer the term radical imagination,” Aisha Nyandoro said during one of the SPLC’s workshops. Nyandoro is the CEO of Springboard to Opportunities, which uses a resident-driven approach to end generational poverty. She created the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, now the country’s longest-running guaranteed basic income program for Black women.

Jesudason tells a simple story to explain what innovation means to her. Years ago, when she lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, she was taking part in a series of protests against the World Trade Organization, which was holding meetings there.

Central to protesters’ strategy, she said, was sitting in the middle of an intersection to block traffic. But the police would inevitably come to dislodge the protesters, and by the time they made it out of police custody, the day was done, and so was their ability to protest further until the next.

“And then a group of people on bicycles figured out that if they rode their bicycles in a circle in the intersection, they could block traffic,” Jesudason said. “And when the cops arrived, they would just cycle off to another intersection. So seven people could block six or seven intersections in a day, instead of just one.”

Take that sort of out-of-the box thinking, Jesudason said, and move it from the simple question of peaceful protest tactics to the fundamental questions of our time, questions like voter suppression and criminal justice reform. That is innovation.

Start with a question or problem. Talk to the people who are impacted. Try to understand their points of view. Generate a bunch of different ideas for how to solve it. Prioritize and test those ideas and, Jesudason said, “just create as many spaces as possible for people to try different tactics out.”

Image at top: The SPLC is convening a design workshop of artists, educators, youth leaders, organizers and faith leaders to generate concepts for supporting social justice innovation. (Illustration by Laura Salafia)