Frank McCourt Foreword
I grew up in a household of seven siblings. Almost every evening at dinnertime, we would gather around the table with my parents—and, often, other family members and friends—and discuss current events. With so many people and so many opinions, those dinners made for lively, interesting conversations. We learned to listen. We argued. But every time I or my siblings complained about a policy or an action or an incident, my parents would ask: “What are you going to do about it?”
That question has stayed with me throughout my life and shaped my identity as a builder, as a business leader, and as a civic entrepreneur. I’m interested in examining the root cause of an issue and then finding ways to implement solutions and make transformational change. Often, that means looking for new approaches and defying common wisdom. It requires starting at the source and stripping away the noise and the gridlock that frequently prevent progress. Ultimately, it’s about showing up in the world in a responsible way—holding yourself and others accountable through active, integrated, persistent work that results in positive change and creates a legacy that can be built upon by future generations.
We are living at a time of incredible opportunity. The world has more abundant resources than ever before. Technology has given us access to new
ideas and new markets. We have the ability to connect with one another in ways that were impossible just a few decades ago. Changes in the way that we live, work, and interact are opening the doors to once unimaginable progress.
And yet, even in the midst of this moment of promise, we are too often unable to find common ground. In our economy, the playing field is divided between the lucky and the left out. In our democracy, powerful individuals and industries are making it more difficult for everyday people to be heard and creating obstacles to necessary change. In our technology ecosystems, monopolistic companies are setting the terms of the conversation—cutting off competition, centralizing control, and harming civic dialogue.
We are becoming more polarized and more disconnected and are collectively losing confidence in our institutions when collaboration is more important than ever. We are losing one of the most important pillars of our common life: trust. On issues from climate change to economic development to racism to gun violence, today’s polarization makes it impossible to make meaningful strides forward—and our approach to problem-solving too often involves imposing solutions without input from impacted populations. When we do speak to the people who are affected, it is frequently to confirm our own viewpoints or justify our assumptions.
But what if we approached problems differently? What if we listened to people who are close to the issues, close to the pain, and close to the impact of our proposed solutions without judgment or preconceptions? What if we began real conversations designed to help us more fully understand one another? The conversations that follow are intended to achieve exactly that: to provide us with insights that come directly from people who are close to the issues at hand, and are from communities that are underrepresented in our national dialogue. The interviews take place with a collection of Ashoka Fellows—social entrepreneurs who are working to champion new ideas and transform our society for the better.
The conversations that follow are intended to achieve exactly that: to provide us with insights that come directly from people who are close to the issues at hand, and are from communities that are underrepresented in our national dialogue. The interviews take place with a collection of Ashoka Fellows—social entrepreneurs who are working to champion new ideas and transform our society for the better.
I was introduced to Ashoka several years ago and immediately was drawn to its core mission: to find the people with the big ideas and surround them with what they need to be successful. That includes a peer network where Ashoka Fellows can regularly learn from one another, open doors for each other, and spot patterns within and across fields. When you meet a Fellow— or for that matter, some of the exceptional people who work at Ashoka (and who conducted the interviews that follow)—you can’t help but be more optimistic about the future. They are out there, working on the very things that keep us up at night. They show us what is possible. And they inspire us. The individuals interviewed in the following pages represent a range of backgrounds and work in a variety of fields, but what they share is a perspective on some of our most urgent challenges based on lived experiences, and an approach to problem-solving that puts communities at the center. Their expertise is in untangling real problems for real people—and their perspectives are not heard nearly enough.
Together, they speak about issues that are small and large, and share innovative ideas that open up new pathways for advancement. How to revitalize Appalachia by investing in organic growth and human potential, and allow the region to lead clean energy development. How to support fishing communities through regenerative ocean farming to narrow inequality, improve sustainability, and create bonds between white working-class fishermen and Indigenous people. How to end poverty, improve democracy, save lives, unleash potential, and revive human dignity in ways that are ambitious, exciting, and transformational.
Effectively addressing these challenges won’t come from top-down interventions or be imposed unilaterally by well-meaning individuals or organizations. Instead, they will come from collective action—from a process that lifts up the people who are most impacted and least heard. This grassroots approach is what’s required to break us out of our bubbles and join us together in a shared, often messy, and sometimes contradictory effort to design our common future. At a time when it can be difficult to communicate with one another over the noise of partisan gridlock, these impact leaders are speaking candidly about what politicians and advocates on both sides of the aisle often get wrong about their communities. They are sharing how a different approach can result in effective progress. And they are demonstrating how overlooked ideas can help get us unstuck. That is, at the most fundamental level, why I launched Unfinished: to rebuild trust and drive progress and inclusion by elevating new voices and forging unexpected alliances.
The perspectives in the pages that follow are not often at the forefront of our collective national dialogue. They are rarely quoted in the news or shared in boardrooms across the country. They don’t fit easily into the boxes we too often create for ourselves and others. But they are shaped by real-life experiences, informed by conversations with impacted communities, and attuned to the kind of impact we can make if we listen to one another and take action together. They might not be front-page or breaking news, but I like to think they represent a better picture of who we really are. Of course, the challenges we face in communities across the country are wide-ranging and multifaceted, and no single solution will move us where we need to go. These interviews are not intended to provide simple answers to difficult problems. Instead, this collection is intended to urge us to listen and then start meaningful conversations—the kind that I was so fortunate to have at my family’s dinner table—about the way that we approach challenges and the steps we can take to move forward together.
So: What are you going to do about it?
Chairman and CEO, Unfinished