Can philanthropy drive systems change? By changing the way we approach the work in our individual institutions and how we collaborate, Living Cities seeks to prove that we can actually make meaningful progress toward the issue of our generation: closing racial income and wealth gaps.
As a leader working at the intersection of philanthropy and the private sector for more than 25 years, I am continuously inspired by the organizations and change makers in these fields creating economic opportunity for families and communities across the country.
Collectively, we have many proof points and innovations to feel proud of, which have stemmed from our ability to take a systems-wide view. For example, philanthropy’s shift in focus from strictly investing in revitalizing places, to a more comprehensive approach that accounts for mobility, health, education, food access, and more, has led to better interventions and outcomes.
But when I step back, I realize that we are only achieving gains at the margins. Overall trends are worsening, and nothing validates this more than the growing racial wealth gap. This gap is not only unjustly affecting people’s lives today, but also setting our country up for a socio-economic crisis tomorrow.
Can we change patterns of conscious and unconscious bias that permeate our work and results?
In light of the stark challenges we face, I am both excited and nervous to be a part of the Living Cities collaborative as the Board Chair for the next three years. Excited, because Living Cities is applying its unique levers to confront one of the greatest issues of our generation: closing the vast racial wealth and income gaps. Nervous, because I am not sure whether philanthropy is up to the task, and whether I personally have the grit to challenge the status quo as is needed to move from words to action, to real impact. We can certainly fund things that make us feel we are doing our part. But can we change patterns of conscious and unconscious bias that permeate our work and results?
Living Cities is all about challenging the status quo by shifting the philanthropic field from a stance of “trying to tackle issues,” to “actually tackling hard issues.” The organization has always been focused on anticipating trends, and remaining adaptive to the changing world. In its earliest days, that looked like pioneering new mechanisms to pool and channel funding to fuel affordable housing production and economic development in marginalized communities.
Take a tour of any major US city and you can see tangible examples of the organization’s efforts to reverse disinvestment trends – new housing, small businesses and community facilities. But look closer and you realize that these are window dressing for what isn’t so easily seen: how persistent inequality and racial bias remain a root cause of racial income and wealth gaps. It’s hard to reconcile the positive, measurable impacts of our philanthropic investments with the reality that inequities persist, and the social and economic progress of all Americans is eroding.
Truly solving problems, rather than treating symptoms, requires a commitment to systemic interventions. Solutions won’t be designed or implemented by one actor or even sector. Rather, we have to focus on empowering diverse change-makers— municipal government leaders, community activists, corporate leaders and more—to shift private markets and public systems. And we need to confidently call diverse players to the table, even when we fear being called out for not having all the answers. Or worse, for investing in the status quo. Personally, I don’t know what solutions will look like, but I do know that if I fail to call out what doesn’t work, we will never move forward with bold new approaches.
Grappling honestly with the role of race in America and in our work requires us to get comfortable being uncomfortable, and admitting what we don’t know…
Secondly, Living Cities is shifting the way that we approach our work as individual institutions, and how we think about collaboration. My role as a board member of Living Cities over the past five years has helped build my appetite for risk-taking. And risk-taking—at the personal and institutional levels—is critical if we have any hope of closing racial gaps. Grappling honestly with the role of race in America and in our work requires us to get comfortable being uncomfortable, and admitting what we don’t know—which doesn’t always come naturally to our field. Many of us in philanthropy need to build new skills and competencies to tackle today’s issues at their roots, cognizant of the way race, class and gender bias contribute to persistently negative outcomes for households, communities, and the future of our diversifying country.
Living Cities supports us in building those competencies, and pushes us to bring them back to our roles as board members and leaders in our own institutions. This forum is not just about channeling money. Instead, we collaboratively shape our thinking and our understanding of the many roles our institutions can play beyond simply funding programs—so that our response might actually be commensurate with the challenges we face. We challenge and support each other as individuals and institutions to push against the status quo, even though we may have spent our careers showing up as though we have the answers.
I am proud to be leading the board as chair at this unique moment in the history of the collaborative and of our country at large. I take pride in the fact that, for the first time, Living Cities’ Executive Committee, elected by the board, is made of a majority women and people of color. And I get to observe firsthand how the organization and its governance are working hard in ongoing ways to live our values from the inside-out, as well as catalyze shifts toward racial equity in communities around the country. I am grateful for the questioning, and the comfort and discomfort of the collaboration.