25 Disruptive Leaders Who Are Working to Close the Racial Opportunity Gaps

25 Disruptive Leaders Who Are Working to Close the Racial Opportunity Gaps

Living Cities unveils our 25 Disruptive Leaders list, recognizing remarkable individuals who are shaking up the status quo and creating new approaches to address our nation’s most stubborn challenges.

In celebration of our 25th Anniversary, Living Cities is proud to recognize 25 Disruptive Leaders who are working to improve economic outcomes for low-income people in America’s cities. The list recognizes activists, government employees, artists, community members, entrepreneurs, elected officials and philanthropists from across the country who are committed to addressing racial disparities; empowering and mobilizing others to do the same. In these challenging times, we are more convinced than ever that this type of bold leadership not only is required, but must be celebrated. We believe that their work and leadership embody what’s possible when we lead and work together differently towards a more equitable America.

What is a Disruptive Leader?

Disruptive Leaders act with urgency and unrestrained imagination. They take risks, put their own personal capital on the line to challenge the status quo, work to take down the barriers that cause racial disparities and embrace the responsibility to question, collaborate and lead for lasting and meaningful change.

America’s Top 25 Disruptive Leaders

The changes we need to see in cities won’t happen by luck or chance, but by a different type of leadership. These 25 leaders represent a diversity of sectors, roles and experiences. What they share, however, is a deep-seated impatience with the status quo, a willingness to act and to bring others along with them.

Join us in celebrating and congratulating the diverse leaders who make up the #Disruptive25! Follow along on this blog and on social media to hear stories of how they put their personal capital on the line for progress.

The List: 25 Disruptive Leaders

Mayor Steve Adler

Mayor Adler was elected Austin’s 52nd Mayor in December 2014. He is leading Austin towards a new level of inclusive civic engagement between residents and their elected officials. Mayor Adler practiced civil rights law for many years and served nearly ten years as Chief of Staff and General Counsel for Texas State Senator Eliot Shapleigh, working primarily on school finance, equity and access issues. He has been deeply involved with, and has chaired, many Austin civic and non-profit institutions over the past 20 years.

Nancy O. Andrews

Nancy O. Andrews is the president and CEO of the Low Income Investment Fund (LIIF). Since 1984, LIIF has served 1.7 million Americans, investing $1.5 billion to create, enhance and preserve affordable housing, child care centers, schools, healthy food retail, health clinics, green facilities and transit-oriented development in distressed neighborhoods nationwide. LIIF is trailblazing new ways to tie together housing and health and to measure the social value of investments through their Social Impact Calculator.

Tawanna Black

Tawanna Black, Executive Director for the Northside Funders Group, is a nationally recognized thought leader, well known for influencing, inspiring and equipping cross-sector leaders to transform personal convictions into actions that produce equitable and thriving communities. The Northside Funders Group is a place-based, collective impact organization of 20 corporate, community and private foundations and public sector investors committed to aligning investments and strategies to advance equity, build social capital and extend the prosperity of the Twin Cities to one of its most impoverished neighborhoods.

Angela Glover Blackwell

Angela Glover Blackwell is the President, CEO and Founder of PolicyLink, the leading voice for “equity as a superior growth model” and the movement to use public policy to improve access and opportunity for all low-income people and communities of color in the areas of health, housing, transportation, education and infrastructure. Prior to founding PolicyLink, she was a Senior Vice President at the Rockefeller Foundation and, as a lawyer, founded the Oakland (CA) Urban Strategies Council. In 2010, Ms. Glover Blackwell co-authored “Uncommon Common Ground: Race and America’s Future.”

Raj Chetty

Raj Chetty is a Professor of Economics at Stanford University, and recipient of both a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and the John Bates Clark medal, given by the American Economic Association to the best American economist under age 40. Chetty’s research combines empirical evidence and economic theory to help design more effective government policies. His current research focuses on equality of opportunity, seeking to address the question of how to give children from disadvantaged backgrounds better chances of succeeding.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a journalist, blogger and memoirist who brings personal reflection and historical scholarship to bear on America’s most contested issues. Writing without shallow polemic and in a measured style, Coates addresses complex and challenging issues such as racial identity, systemic racial bias, and urban policing. Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. His most recent book, “Between the World and Me,” was released in July 2015. It won the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction. He was the recipient of a “Genius Grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 2015.

Jason DeParle

Jason DeParle is a reporter for The New York Times, based in Washington. For more than 20 years, he has written extensively about issues involving poverty. A two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a recipient of the George Polk Award, his first book, “American Dream: Three Women, Ten Children, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare,” won the Helen Bernstein Award from the New York City Public Library.

Martin Eakes

Martin Eakes is the co-founder and CEO of Self-Help and the Center for Responsible Lending. Self-Help has proven that access to responsible savings, loans and transactions is critical for promoting financial security, family health and improved opportunity for low-income families. Since 1998, Self-Help’s Community Advantage Program has helped more than 50,000 lower-income families, especially those of color, to become homeowners in 48 states. In 2008, Self-Help Federal Credit Union was formed to build a network of credit union branches to operate on an uncommon scale. It now has 22 branches, $600 million in assets, and serves over 80,000 people in three states.

Ashleigh Gardere

Ashleigh Gardere, Senior Advisor to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, focuses on strategies aimed at connecting more job seekers, especially men of color, to work opportunities. In addition to managing the city’s agency responsible for linking businesses run by minorities or women with city contracts, Ms. Gardere supports the revitalization of the Claiborne Corridor through a cross-sector initiative called The Network for Economic Opportunity. The Network facilitates and manages partnerships among local industries, small businesses, residents, non-profits and city agencies to drive long-term revitalization.

Paul S. Grogan

Paul S. Grogan, President and CEO of the Boston Foundation, is helping to define a new role for community foundations, becoming a highly influential civic convener, raising new resources, launching high-impact initiatives in key areas like education, health and wellness and youth violence prevention, and building a local philanthropic advisory service. As President and CEO of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation in the 1990s, a critical partner of Living Cities during that time period, he helped to build one of the nation’s premier housing and community development organizations and shape the maturing field.

Cristina Jiménez

Cristina Jiménez is the co-founder and Managing Director of the United We Dream Network. Originally from Ecuador, Cristina came to the U.S. with her family at the age of 13 and attended high school and college as an undocumented student. Cristina has organized immigrant youth and workers for the passage of pro-immigrant policies at the local and national level for the past nine years. She was recently named among Forbes “30 under 30 in Law and Policy,” one of “21 immigration reform power players” and one of five non-profit leaders who will influence public policy by the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Laurie Jones Neighbors

Laurie Jones Neighbors is an educator and independent consultant who specializes in increasing local, regional and national decision-making by low-income communities and communities of color. She is the former Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives at Urban Habitat, where she served on the organization’s management team and was the architect of the Boards and Commissions Leadership Institute (BCLI). BCLI is a highly successful program, currently spreading nationwide, that focuses on preparing and placing under-represented resident-leaders on local and regional boards and commissions. In addition to her work as an independent consultant, Neighbors teaches in the Health Education Department at San Francisco State University. There, she also works with the Metro College Success Program, a social-justice focused educational support program for students from low-income communities and communities of color, and serves as a lead for Metro’s Faculty Learning Community.

Don Katz

Don Katz is founder and CEO of Audible, Inc., which offers downloadable audiobooks and other programs to millions of listeners. Since relocating headquarters to Newark, NJ in 2007, Katz is redefining the role that for-profit companies can and should play in a city, exhibiting a commitment to making “our Newark-ness a core element of the business.” Katz has served as chairman of Newark’s economic development corporation, and is the founder of Newark Venture Partners, a social impact early-stage investment fund and ultra-bandwidth accelerator that seeks to connect Newark to the wider technology start-up innovation economy. Under his leadership, Audible has instituted internship, mentorship and scholarship programs at area schools designed to develop students’ skills, connect them to job opportunities, and advance Newark’s economic revitalization.

Julie Lein

Julie Lein represents a new generation of urban economic development, deploying an array of tools to drive social change. Ms. Lein is a co-founder and Managing Partner of the recently established Urban Innovation Fund, a venture capital firm that provides seed capital and regulatory expertise to entrepreneurs working to both solve our toughest urban challenges and grow into tomorrow’s most valued companies. Together with her co-founder Clara Brenner, she also started Tumml, a non-profit accelerator for entrepreneurs working on seemingly intractable problems like transportation, education and workforce development. Since 2014, Tumml has incubated 33 startups that have raised $37 million in funding and launched products and services for over 2.2 million people. To date, 76% of the companies Tumml has funded have a woman or person of color on the founding team.

Marcus Littles

Marcus Littles is the founder of Frontline Solutions, a national consulting firm that offers clients in the non-profit and public sectors a full range of services to enhance impact. Mr. Littles is regarded by many in the larger fields of racial equity and social justice as one of the most influential relationship nodes for this work. He knows everyone, and more importantly, knows how to connect and push the members of his network to increase their individual and collective impact. Among other accomplishments, his work has been essential to the development of the modern iteration of the Boys and Men of Color field.

Doug Nelson

Doug Nelson, the retired President and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF), helped to redefine the role of philanthropy in social change during his tenure from 1990-2010. Under his leadership, AECF supported new, community-based approaches to improving the lives of at-risk children and their families, making lessons learned– both good and bad– continuously and publicly available so they could inform the field. He launched the influential Kids Count, an annual ranking of states on 16 key measures of child well-being that has changed policies and impacted policymakers’ views on the issues for years. Mr. Nelson also pioneered the use of a foundation’s balance sheet to drive its mission, making impact investments before the term had even been coined. AECF’s partnership with Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore started while he was at the foundation. This relationship continues to be a model that many look to for guidance on how philanthropy and anchor institutions can work together for the benefit of low-income people of color. Nelson also twice served as Chair of Living Cities’ board.

Michael Nutter

Michael Nutter served as the 98th mayor of Philadelphia, the nation’s fifth largest city, from 2008-2016, and as President of the U.S. Conference of Mayors from 2012-13. During his time in office, he was widely recognized as a reformer, leading important changes in policing, college attainment, economic development, sustainability policy and more. Together with New Orleans Mayor Landrieu he launched Cities United, a partnership between cities, non-profits and others to combat violence and crime among African-American men and boys. Esquire magazine cited him as one of its “Americans of the Year” in 2011, and in 2014, Nutter was named by Governing magazine as one of their “Public Officials of the Year.”

Jennifer Pahlka

Jennifer Pahlka, Founder and Executive Director of Code for America (CFA), has changed the way government views and uses technology and data for the benefit of its citizens. Since its founding in 2011, the organization has helped governments use the tools and practices of the digital age to better deliver services to the public, especially to those historically under-served. CFA has also organized a network of people dedicated to spreading these practices in government, working with thousands of tech industry professionals to help more than 100 local governments. From 2013-14, Ms. Pahlka served as the U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, where she designed and helped found the United States Digital Service.

Rashad Robinson

Rashad Robinson serves as Executive Director of ColorOfChange, the nation’s largest online civil rights organization. Under Mr. Robinson’s leadership, ColorOfChange has been at the forefront of issues ranging from fighting for justice for Trayvon Martin, to battling attempts to suppress the Black vote, to ending Pat Buchanan’s tenure as an MSNBC analyst. He spearheaded ColorOfChange’s successful efforts to reduce corporate support for American Legislative Council (ALEC)’s campaign in favor of discriminatory voter ID and harmful “Shoot first” laws. Mr. Robinson was selected as one of “The Root 100” emerging and influential African Americans under 45 from 2010-14.

Eric S. Rosengren

Eric S. Rosengren, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, is single-handedly expanding the tools in the Federal Reserve’s toolbox for helping the nation to achieve maximum employment for all Americans. Through the Working Cities Challenge (WCC) in Massachusetts, now expanding into the rest of New England, Mr. Rosengren is defining a new role for the Federal Reserve in working with public, private, for-profit and non-profit leaders in mid-sized cities to reimagine and create more equitable and robust local economies. Many of the other 12 Federal Reserve Banks are now considering similar efforts. In 2016, Mr. Rosengren has served as a voting member of the Federal Open Market Committee, which makes critical decisions about key interest rates and the growth of money supply.

Reshma Saujani

Reshma Saujani is the founder of Girls Who Code. In 2010, during Ms. Saujani’s bold run for Congress, she visited local schools and saw the gender gap in computing classes firsthand, which prompted her to start this organization. Girls Who Code has gone from serving 20 girls in New York to 10,000 girls across 42 states. Prior to establishing Girls Who Code, she served as Deputy Public Advocate for New York City and ran a spirited campaign for Public Advocate in 2013. In September 2015, Reshma Saujani was named to Fortune Magazine’s “40 Under 40” list.

Caroline Whistler

Caroline Whistler is Co-President and Co-Founder of Third Sector Capital Partners. Third Sector leads governments, high-performing non-profits, and private funders in building evidence-based initiatives that address society’s most persistent challenges. As an architect of some of the nation’s most promising Pay for Success projects, it is helping to change how governments contract for social services by funding programs that work, saving taxpayer dollars, and measurably improving the lives of people most in need. In 2015, Chronicle of Philanthropy named Whistler to its “40 Under 40” list of people to watch.

Jesse Williams

Jesse Williams is an actor, activist and former public school teacher, widely recognized for his role as Dr. Jackson Avery on the ABC Television series Grey’s Anatomy. Picking up the torch from other artist-activists such as Muhammed Ali and Harry Belafonte, Jesse Williams is using his platform to create an honest and informed dialogue about racial equity and inclusion, including through his recent speech at the BET Awards that called on other artists to take a stand on this issue. Williams sits on the Board of Directors at The Advancement Project, a civil rights think tank and advocacy group and is Executive Producer of Question Bridge: Black Males, a multifaceted media project focused on the black male identity.

Nancy Zimpher

Nancy Zimpher is the 12th Chancellor of the State University of New York, the nation’s largest comprehensive system of higher education. In that role, she has been a vocal advocate for groundbreaking legislative reforms that ensure SUNY can provide broad access to high-quality higher education in an environment of declining state support, while maximizing the system’s impact as an engine of economic revitalization in every region of the state. As Co-Founder of StriveTogether, Dr. Zimpher has been instrumental in creating a national network of innovative systemic partnerships that holistically address challenges across the education pipeline.

Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg is best known as the founder and CEO of Facebook. In 2010, Zuckerberg joined other leaders such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in signing “The Giving Pledge,” in which they promised to donate to charity at least half of their wealth over the course of time, and invited others to follow suit. In December 2015, he and his wife Dr. Priscilla Chan launched the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, committing to contributing 99% of their shares of Facebook over the course of their lifetimes to support this work, today worth a total value of $45 billion. The mission of the Initiative is to advance human potential and promote equality, focusing on areas such as personalized learning, curing disease, connecting people and building strong communities. The initiative builds on the model of philanthropic investment pioneered by the Omidyar Network, transcending the typical boundaries separating for-profit investing and traditional philanthropy by harnessing the power of non-profits and for-profits, grants, debt and equity.


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