The Black Male Achievement fellowship is an historic, first of its kind, initiative born of a partnership between the Open Society Foundations and Echoing Green, two organizations with long-standing histories of supporting crucial social justice causes and entrepreneurship. In its inaugural year, eight fellowships, which include a stipend of $70,000, were awarded to social entrepreneurs dedicated to changing the conditions for Black men and boys in America.

Among the fellows, as described on the Open Society’s website, are “a community organizer and strategist whose vision is to build the self-sufficiency of young, queer, straight, and transgendered people of color to shape a radical new vision of masculinity for black males, and a 19-year-old social entrepreneur who wants to improve math literacy among urban youth by creating innovative, fun, and effective educational tools that harness the power of the NBA (National Basketball Association).”

EBONY spoke exclusively with Shawn Dove, campaign manager for the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, about how the initiative got its start and what it will mean for the fellows and the Black men and boys it aims to help.

EBONY: If you could, start by telling me how did the idea for the fellowship came about.

Shawn Dove: The Campaign for Black Male Achievement was launched here in the Open Society Foundation in June of 2008 to improve the life outcomes for Black men and boys in America. At that time it was the largest initiative. It was a 3 year, 15 million dollar campaign. About eighteen months into it, the campaign made a presentation to Open Society Foundations’ U.S. programs board of directors. During that meeting our chairman and founder Mr. George Soros stated that he was so impressed and inspired by the campaign’s early work that he was going to take off the three year term limit of the campaign and that he was going to scale up our budget. And so we went from a five million dollar a year philanthropic initiative to a 15 million dollar a year initiative. And we were charged with coming up with a scale up plan. Our core investment areas are in education, work, and family. We’ve been doing grant making in that area. We had six core cities we were invested in, plus some national work. But in the scale up plan, there were a couple of ideas we said we wanted to launch. One was a leadership and sustainability institute for the field to strengthen leaders and organizations for the field. Another innovation was to launch the first ever fellowship for Black male achievement where we would invest in social entrepreneurs to generate new ideas; invest in innovative strategies to advance Black male achievement.

So that’s how the idea originally came up. We have a really solid history in the philanthropic community and the social sector for running our own fellowships. We have something that’s called Soros Justice Fellowship. We have an Open Society fellowship, and a few other fellowships. But what we wanted to do here with the campaign was get an innovative model to the field very quickly. We wanted to leverage a partnership that really focused on social entrepreneurship. We did some research and we looked at the model of Echoing Green, which had a 25 year history of investing and supporting and feeding social entrepreneurs. We did what I like to call innovation at the verge, [merging] the Echoing Green strengths and brand with the Open Society’s campaign for Black male achievement brand and strength. And i believe we’ve come up with a really dynamic launch. It’s early, obviously, but it has generated a lot of enthusiasm and interest; even more so than what we’ve done to this date in the field of Black male achievement.,

EBONY: This is the first fellowship that you’ve handed out. So what was the criteria you were looking for these social entrepreneurs?

Dove: New and innovative ideas to advance Black male achievement. We wanted fellows to have the potential to have their efforts be able to be scalable; to have a broader impact. We wanted fellows to be exclusively committed to their projects. It could not be a hobby or a weekend warrior vision. But most importantly, we wanted individuals that really were passionate about coming up with strategies to transform the conditions of Black men and boys in America. A lot of the resources and technical skills can be learned, but that passion and vision was at the top of the list of what we wanted to do.

EBONY: I see for some of the fellows, it’s some of the kind of expected areas of Black male achievement, in terms of education and furthering math skills and things of that nature. But there’s also the work with environmental justice and working with LGBT youth. Can you talk a little bit about why that was important?

Dove: Basically it’s all Black male achievement. Black males encompass all aspects of American society. And so while the Campaign’s lead investment areas were around work, education and family, we thought it was really important to just open up the field and areas of fellowship applicants and bring on the best and talented people. For example Markese [Bryant] and John [Jordan], co-founders of Fight for Light, have an innovative model in environmental justice in a space where not enough Black males number one, work; and number two, [are] serving as social innovators and creating jobs forever.

The overall premise of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement is that the point of departure and launching point is Black men and boys. But that’s the narrow angle lens. The wide angle lens is that this is a community building strategy which is inclusive of women, [and] the LGBT community. It’s really a community building strategy. Our portfolio, to this point, has included women and invested in single mothers raising Black boys. And so, for example, the Brown Boi Project exemplified our ongoing strategy of incorporating the LGBT community and looking at masculinity and building bridges between the heterosexual and gay communities.

EBONY: Going forward, what other types of programs would you like to support?

Dove: Well that’s the thing about it, we are open. We aren’t going to box ourselves in and say that only these ideas and these type of people need apply. Obviously we would continue to look for social innovators around our core investment areas of education equity, increasing 21st century working wage opportunities, and strengthening family structures because that’s at the heart of our strategy. But also arts and culture. We would be looking for leaders or fellows that may want to flip the script in the field of philanthropy and how philanthropy approaches this issue. So we are just really excited about what will come down the pipe for the next round of fellows. And i want to say that there is an amazing demand across the country for something like this. We had eight fellowship slots and 1300 people applied for just eight fellowship slots. And it just really proved to us that there is a vast number of leaders and social entrepreneurs that are looking for support, platforms, resources, and a launching pad that an Echoing Green and Open Society Foundation fellowship like this can provide them.

EBONY: What is the legacy you hope these fellows leave?

Dove: Wow. That they’ve created change. A legacy that they had a big bold idea for change, that they will look back and say that their initiative did something that has never been done before. It doesn’t have to be that complicated because we are really looking to transform the outcomes that Black men and boys are experiencing. Change systems and structures. So, the legacy is that the playing field in the United States for Black men and boys around opportunity, access, and equity has been leveled; and that the Black Male Achievement fellows have been amazing idea generators to help level that playing field.