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Navigating Moral Courage: Insights from Leaders on the Frontlines

A Dialogue with Jay Coen Gilbert, Réjane Woodroffe and Aimée Eubanks Davis

In a world marred by systemic challenges and injustices, the pursuit of social impact and transformative change demands more than just intention-it requires unwavering moral courage. At the 2024 Skoll World Forum, the McNulty Foundation and Aspen Institute convened a panel of leaders to share their experiences, fears, and hopes for finding and sustaining their moral courage while leading social change. Watch the full conversation from This Isn't Easy: A Dialogue on Moral Courage below.

Embrace The Complex Realities Of Social Impact Work

Jay Coen Gilbert is no stranger to the complexity of social impact work. Jay has spent many years navigating the intricacies of what it means to lead transformatively and with mutual accountability in the spheres of economic and racial justice. Jay was a co-founder of B Lab (the originator of the B Corporation movement) and is currently Executive Chair of Imperative 21 and a co-founder of White Men for Racial Justice. Jay shared this prayer he wrote to encourage himself to embrace, rather than resist complexity. Engaging with conflicting priorities, denouncing dominant social narratives, and accepting diversity and difference, Jay proposed, makes leaders more effective. To explore these concepts further, Jay probed Réjane, Dixon, and Aimée about the inciting moments that led to their work, their strategies to renew moral courage, and their visions for the future.

Moderator Jay Coen Gilbert and panelists Réjane Woodroffe, Dixon Chibanda & Aimée Eubanks Davis

Find Your Authentic Purpose

True strength, Réjane Woodroffe shared, "is not in your head, it's not in your arms, it's in your heart." Réjane grew up in apartheid South Africa. At the age of 12, her mixed-race family was forcibly removed from their home in Cape Town's District 6. The experience ignited her political activism and she was extremely active throughout university. Following the rise of Nelson Mandela and the sweeping societal changes and presumed end to discrimination in South Africa, Réjane pursued a career as an economist working in banking. Eventually, though, Réjane felt less and less inspired. She began spending time in the Eastern Cape with remote communities that had been historically neglected for decades.

"True strength is not in your head, it's not in your arms, it's in your heart."

Réjane Woodroffe, Co-founder & Director, Bulungula Incubator

Réjane asked herself when she felt most alive. The answer? While engaging in activism as a child and student. She decided to leave her career and immerse herself full-time with the Bulungula Incubator, the organization she had co-founded with her husband Dave Martin, to support rural communities to catalyze their own change. Within their work, Réjane emphasized the importance of her deep connection with community as an integral part of her journey. As she puts it, "human beings are interesting, we've got a bit of a bug in our software where we look at problems on a spreadsheet and see that thousands of people are suffering in some way but it is only when we feel that human connection, when we are proximate to communities, and when we are living in communities and when we're there that we find the courage to do what it is that we need to do."

Event attendees

McNulty Laureate Hope Azeda shares a poem on the value of embracing our stories

Make Room For Vulnerability

Motivated by the tragedy of losing a patient to suicide in Zimbabwe, psychiatrist Dixon Chibanda is working to create a world in which mental health care is available, accessible, and culturally localized. He founded Friendship Bench, starting with 14 trained grandmothers to provide discussion-based support and cognitive behavioral therapy to community members and refer them to further treatment if necessary. The key to the venture's success, and Dixon's ability to lead, he shared, is in the power of vulnerability. His experiences of grief and loss motivated him to approach his career as a psychiatrist differently. In fact, it was because of those grandmothers that Dixon was encouraged to explore alternative methods of mental health care.

At first, Dixon was overwhelmed by the emotions that came up for him after he lost his patients, and the subsequent disillusionment he felt towards status quo psychiatry. In his leadership role, as a mental health innovator, Dixon says, "It is a constant struggle when you are at the top to constantly remind yourself, 'I need to be comfortable being vulnerable.'" He now firmly believes that creating spaces for vulnerability is essential in fostering genuine connection and healing. He works towards a future where people are encouraged to acknowledge their vulnerabilities and inspire others to share their stories openly. By embracing vulnerability, individuals and organizations can cultivate the empathy, connectedness, and resilience that lay the groundwork for sustainable leadership and meaningful impact.

Find Renewal Through People

Aimée Eubanks Davis grew up on the South Side of Chicago. For her family, education and the hard work of her mother were great engines of economic mobility, moving them steadily from the working class upwards. Despite what she experienced in her own childhood, her professional experience as a 6th-grade teacher in Louisiana revealed how that engine had broken down for students of color- their job outcomes were not matching their school performance. Catalyzed by these discrepancies, Aimée founded Braven to train and mentor students in the skills and networks needed to transition from college to a career.

McNulty Prize Laureates Dixon, Réjane, Jay & Aimée with the McNulty Foundation Team

"Renewal for me," Aimée said, "comes through people. And actually, being able to listen to people whose identities might be different from mine and in the United States, whose politics might be different from mine. It is so important to find common ground if we want any shot at solving big problems." In founding Braven, Aimée struggled initially to raise funds- no one was focused on the transition from college to career. And as a Black woman founder, it was an uphill battle: less than one percent of venture capital funding goes to Black women: less than one percent of philanthropy in 2016 went to women of color, and almost 90% of Black-led nonprofits struggle to access funding. Aimée says, "one thing that I learned from Braven was how to go slow to go fast." Despite her intentional efforts in building out the Braven model, Aimée says, "it took courage to ask Wendy Kopp and other white social entrepreneurs from my network to help me fundraise." It was through these relationships and experiences that Aimée solidified her belief that resilience is rooted in community.

"It is so important to find common ground if we want any shot at solving big problems."

Aimée Eubanks Davis, Founder & CEO, Braven

Watch the full conversation from This Isn't Easy: A Dialogue on Moral Courage at the Skoll World Forum. The dialogue underscored important lessons for all of us striving to work towards social change, and looking to renew and sustain leadership. By embracing authenticity, vulnerability, and the courage to build partnership and ask for help, we can forge a path toward a more just and equitable world.

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