Lorenzo Lewis has founded a nonprofit to activate Black barbers. Credit: The Rodenberry Foundation

Lorenzo Lewis knows first-hand the hardships endured by young men of color, and the toll on mental health those traumas take. Born in jail, Lewis, 32, struggled with a host of mental health problems throughout his childhood and early adolescence. But when, at 17, he was arrested for gun possession and sentenced to a year on parole, Lewis managed to turn his life around.

Drawing on his own experiences, in 2016, he founded The Confess Project, a Little Rock, Ark., nonprofit aimed at building a grassroots movement to help young men of color address mental health issues by enlisting trusted community members – namely, Black barbers. “We’re building a culture of mental health for young Black men and families by training barbers to be their advocates,” says Lewis.

Lewis is a member of the latest class of fellows in Echoing Green, one the longest running and most successful social entrepreneurship programs in the U.S. He’s entering at a time when a global pandemic and a heightened awareness of racial inequities mean the organization could be about to vault into even more prominence. Echoing Green has announced it’s raising a new $50 million fund aimed at boosting another 500 social entrepreneurs.

The Role Of Private Equity

Founded more than 30 years ago by private equity firm General Atlantic, Echoing Green focuses on early-stage social entrepreneurs with the potential to create significant change. Though hardly a household word, the organization has nurtured enterprises and innovators ranging from Teach For America to digitalundivided to One Acre Fund, which supplies smallholder farmers in East Africa with training and asset-based financing and, back in 1991, Michelle Obama.  She started the Chicago office of Public Allies, a national leadership training program.

Michelle Obama is a former Echoing Green fellow.

To date, the group has invested $47 million in more than 800 social entrepreneurs—called Fellows—based in 86 countries; 70% of those organizations are still in operation.  The application process for those Fellows is a color-and-gender-blind system through which the first round of applicants’ names, gender, education, and financial situation are concealed.

In August, Echoing Green said it would raise $50 million for a new Racial Equity Philanthropic Fund, with financial support from such partners as Amgen Foundation, Goldman Sachs, Jerome L. Greene Foundation and Miranda Family Fund. Among other goals, the fund aims to launch and scale 500 social enterprises focused on racial equity in the U.S. and globally, including follow up funding of the organization’s most high-impact enterprises. “We’re continuing to work hard to break down barriers to resources,” says Cheryl Dorsey, Echoing Green’s president. “The problems of equitable access to networks and capital are magnified in a moment like a global pandemic.”

Two-year fellowships offer intensive advice, guidance, funding and training in three areas: leadership development, with a self-paced program; stipends of $80,000 to $90,000, plus health insurance and other benefits, along with handholding by a dedicated expert advisor; and ongoing, post-graduation support. Nonprofits get grants; since 2011, for-profits and enterprises with a hybrid structure have received what amounts to recoverable grants. “It’s the best deal you can get when you’re starting out as a social entrepreneur,” says Dorsey.

She figures the total value of the program over the course of two years is about $250,000. Plus, according to Dorsey, social enterprises typically raise 10x the initial funding amount in the first year after graduating.

Emergency Grants And Wellbeing Support

In the face of Covid-19, the organization, like many others, has had to make adjustments large and small. In May, for example, Dorsey and her colleagues launched an emergency grants program, awarding $225,500 to 24 Fellows; a second round is in the works. It also ramped up a program which provides secular mental and emotional wellbeing support from three Echoing Green Chaplains.

It’s also wrestling with larger changes. There’s the matter of how to replicate the intensive, high-touch engagement that’s a hallmark of Echoing Green’s approach. “We’re trying to figure out, how do you create community when the pandemic is keeping us apart,” says Dorsey.

Over the summer, it experimented with a virtual version of formerly in-person group advising sessions called “Brain Trusts”, during which one Fellow shares a challenge with a group of corporate leaders who are experts in that area. During four virtual sessions, Fellows participated eight meetings with experts from Barclays, General Atlantic, Guggenheim Foundation and Citi Foundation. In August, the organization also hosted a virtual session of Black Innovator Talks, another event usually held in person, with five Fellows who focus on racial equity issues, along with Lily Workneh, editor-in-chief of Black media outlet Blavity and actor activist Kendrick Sampson.

For the current class, which just kicked off, Dorsey and her colleagues have made more substantial changes. Example: a decision to accept a smaller-than-usual cohort—13 Fellows, instead of the 25 to 40 who are typically selected. “We want to develop deep ties among the class,” she says. “So, in this moment when everything is so in flux, we thought it would be prudent to choose a smaller group.” That also will likely involve more-intimate, curated gatherings organized around factors like geography or common interests.

Three ‘Pillars’

Even more significant, the organization also is rethinking its work supporting Fellows, an effort started pre-Covid as part of a periodic examination of organizational goals and well they’re aligned with programming.

The revised approach is likely to focus more on three “pillars”: providing wellbeing and culturally-competent support; breaking down barriers to capital and opportunity; and building mutual support networks to transform how power is distributed and wielded.

The Confess Project’s Lewis falls squarely under that first category.  “We’re particularly interested in Lorenzo’s work because of the grassroots movement he’s building around mental health and emotional well-being for men of color, especially in this time when mental health and well-being are top of mind for so many who are struggling,” says Dorsey.

Lewis worked for 10 years in the area of mental health, a period during which he came to a deep understanding of the difficulties young men of color face addressing mental health problems- a cultural stigma against seeking help, as well as a long-standing distrust of medical providers. Just 4% of clinicians in the U.S. are people of color, according to Lewis. Looking for a way to reach potentially troubled young men who wouldn’t normally seek professional help, he realized that not only did barber shops tend to be the pillars of inner-city communities, but barbers, themselves, were highly trusted.

With that in mind, he formed The Confess Project and developed a system for training barbers in such areas as what he calls “active listening” and “emotional validation”. Lewis now has enlisted over 150 barbers in 14 cities in the South and Midwest. Plus, he provides training to mental health professionals, educators and law enforcement officers in how to understand the problems faced by young men of color better and communicate with them more effectively.

J. “Divine” Alexander, 46, joined the ranks of Lorenzo’s barber-advocates after hosting a Confess Project presentation at his Louisville, Ky. barbershop in 2017. Alexander, who has struggled with depression, himself, instantly related to the message and realized the contribution he could make. Now, he follows a regular process: After asking a customer how he’s doing, Alexander looks for tell-tale facial expressions and body language indicating the person may be experiencing deeper problems. “We learn that being an ear is even more important than being a mouth,” he says. If necessary, he suggests the customer consider seeking professional help.

Other social enterprises in Lewis’ class also fall into one of those three categories. Mukuru Clean Stoves, a Nairobi-based designer, manufacturer and distributor of clean cookstoves, for example, uses locally sourced recycled metal, sold through a network of women business owners and microfinance institutions. Strawcture Eco is tackling the global housing crisis for low-income communities in India by using bio-composite panels made with crop residue, reducing the cost and speed of construction. Inner City Green Team aims to increase recycling rates, save taxpayer money and create jobs through a door-to-door pickup service for recyclables in New York City public housing projects.

Other changes could be on the horizon. The new emphasis could require a reworking of Echoing Green’s application process, Dorsey says. Traditionally, the year-long system has required an in-depth application, which is reviewed by a team of experts, who send all applicants personalized feedback, including those who aren’t selected for the following rounds. Finalists appear in an annual Social Entrepreneur Spotlight. Selection criteria emphasize indicators of strong leadership, rather than previous financial success. Dorsey and her colleagues are figuring out how best to adjust not just the application, but the entire process. They expect to spend the rest of the year gathering information before finalizing their plans.

This article was changed from its original form to clarify Michelle Obama’s role, the emergency grant sum for fellows and details about the Brain Trust meetings.

This story and others on New Builders Dispatch are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect with www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.