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Courage in Action: McNulty Prize Winners at the 2022 Aspen Action Forum

On July 27th, the 2022 John P. McNulty Prize Winners engaged in a dynamic conversation about their bold visions for solving humanity’s most intractable social problems, and how they stay true to their values and convictions in the face of enormous challenges. The Winners are Edesia & Navyn Salem, SOURCE Global & Cody Friesen, and Magnolia Mother’s Trust & Aisha Nyandoro.

These breakthrough leaders each took the stage to pitch their bold visions for solving the world’s most pressing challenges: hunger, thirst, and poverty. The Winners then came together for a conversation moderated by Stace Lindsay, Senior Moderator at the Aspen Institute and President of Fusion Venture Partners, about how they made the decision to commit to action, and how their experiences allowed them to persist through challenges. This conversation took place as part of the 2022 Resnick Aspen Action Forum.

Read some of the insights from this conversation below:

This material has been edited and adapted for publication.

Watch the Panel Conversation

Stace Lindsay: Something triggered you–galvanized you–to step up and say “no more watching, no more thinking, no more dreaming–I need to act.” What was that galvanizing moment?

Navyn Salem: From my father’s side, I was introduced to Tanzania and issues of the developing world from a very young age–three generations of my family are from Tanzania. So when my father and I took a trip to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, I remember very clearly being in a hospital and hearing the cry of a mother who had just lost her child to malnutrition. At the time, I had four daughters under the age of five, and I was seeing this other mother losing her child to something so basic. So I said to myself, "I will never come back into a situation like this without figuring out what can be done." And that’s what started Edesia.

Aisha Nyandoro: I have many moments—I am from a family of civil rights leaders. I’ve always known that I want to work in community, listen to the needs of community, and think about how to impact change. But the galvanizing moment specifically when I became a cash advocate was in 2017. And was having a conversation with one of the women that we work with–quite frankly she told me a story of trauma, and I don’t even think she recognized that it was a story of trauma. She told me about the birth of her son. Living in extreme poverty, she didn’t have any insurance–in Mississippi, we don’t have Medicaid expansion. She ended up needing to have an emergency cesarean section. And before she had the cesarean section the nurse came in and asked her: did she want to have stitches, or did she want to have staples? And the nurse told her to think about the financial impact of her decision. And hearing that story, I knew something was radically wrong with this country, that we would have a mother go into a decision about staples or stitches, when she’s already dealing with trauma.

Cody Friesen: I realized there was this great opportunity to take the brain trust–both in academia and in the startup universe–to go solve some of the biggest problems in front of us. I thought, “how do we redeploy what we do in the lab, all the way out to the world, rather than just publishing, putting it on a shelf, and hoping somebody else picks it up?”

We have all the tools we need to end the malnutrition crisis. We can manufacture peace. Food can bring this peace all over the world.

Navyn Salem

Stace Lindsay: Each of you are taking on challenges that fly in the face of conventional wisdom. How have you managed defying conventional wisdom and overcoming the critics? Have you ever felt like quitting?

Cody Friesen: Depends on how big the moving average is–at an instant, of course, it’s hard. The reality is that I’m not a good enough leader to solve the issue of clean drinking water access around the globe alone. It takes a massive team who also has that mindset: there are no gurus here, and we have to all be willing to humble ourselves to each other and the data. That team, that community inside of SOURCE is what has enabled me to continue. And so, if you average that instant out beyond five minutes onto three or four days – hell no.

Navyn Salem: I can get very frustrated when I get told "no." Every single day, someone tells me "no." And I allow myself a little time to be upset, and by the morning we are ready to fight again. I know that if I don’t find the energy, there are lives at stake. I get up every morning for them.

Aisha Nyandoro: When we started this, guaranteed income wasn’t a widely debated concept–it was before COVID, and it wasn’t yet a household term. And so the skepticism really was based on ideas of who was deserving in this country. So the skepticism really was, “How dare you go about moving Black women out of poverty?” It wasn’t, “Can it be done?” or “Do we have the financial resources in this country?” People literally told me that these women should be happy with what they have, because of the subsidies, and the vouchers–so, they were saying that these women should be ok with scarcity. And that’s problematic. I like to operate in a space of what is possible, rather than what is obvious. When we started this work, it really was with that—the cash, that’s important, but it really was about changing the narrative on poverty. We are going to go all out, and we are going to talk about the fact that this country has a problem with centering the needs of poor Black women.

We should care about Black mothers because in this country, Black women are financially the most vulnerable. The narrative we tell is that they aren’t working enough or they aren’t working at all. That’s not true - they are working, and they are working hard.

Aisha Nyandoro

Panelists Navyn Salem, Cody Friesen, and Aisha Nyandoro, joined by moderator Stace Lindsay and Foundation President Anne Welsh McNulty

Participants engaging in dialogue about courageous leadership

Stace Lindsay: [Referencing the poem “Holding the Light” by Stuart Kestenbaum] "It is not only our hearts that are broken, but the heart of the world as well. Stitch it back together." What advice can you give to those of us who have not landed yet on how we’re going to stitch it back together?”

Aisha Nyandoro: In my family, we always say that the ant ate the elephant one bite at a time. You take it bite by bite by bite. When we started in 2018, our first bite was boosting 20 women out of poverty. Now we’re at over 300 women. Now there are over 100 guaranteed income projects. The COVID stimulus checks were a bite. The Child Tax Credit was another bite. We are working towards policy as the long arc of the work, but we’re taking it bite by bite. So it’s important to not get overwhelmed as we think about how the world is broken, instead, take your bite. And sometimes the bite is yucky - drink some water, and know another bite is coming.

Cody Friesen: Solar’s gotten very cheap, DNA testing has gotten very cheap, and there are six billion smartphones with all of humanity’s information accessible on them. That’s all been enabled in the last decade by this sort of exponentiality of change. And I think that every single person is likely able to initiate a root of exponentiality of their own. It’s really quite critical that we work to redeploy our privilege, so we aren’t ultimately all just consumers of our privilege.

Navyn Salem: Find out what pisses you off so much you can’t stay in your seat. It’s a hard journey - so, make it personal. Make sure it’s something that you are committed to with every piece of your core.

There’s a lot of water challenges around the world - fetching, the aridification of whole regions, infrastructure challenges, and of course the trillion plastic bottles that are sold every year. We have to change that.

Cody Friesen

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