Living Cities’ strategy has evolved radically since the early 1990s. Following a pivot away from community development, today, it’s putting racial equity front and center in a striking way. “Our North Star is that we want to focus on racial disparities,” said President and CEO Ben Hecht. “We’re asking ourselves: How do we become a leading racial economic justice organization? There’s been great excitement around that future among our 18 member institutions.”
– Inside Philanthropy, September 10, 2019
I was excited that Inside Philanthropy profiled Living Cities’ evolution earlier this month. We have indeed been a work in progress. Over the past several years, as we watched economic disparities grow, especially between white people and people of color, we came to realize that despite millions of dollars, thousands of hours, and the efforts of countless individuals and organizations, our impact has been incremental compared to our aspirations. We had to ask ourselves, why?
Twenty years of race-neutral solutions weren’t having the desired impact because our prescriptions were based on a faulty analysis of the problem. We failed to understand that the root of our nation’s persistent inequities has been our unwillingness to come to terms with the racism that’s been in our groundwater since our country’s founding. Achieving impact requires us to see the ramifications of structures (e.g., laws, policies and practices) that were built to separate white and Black people, and to legally support a white supremacist society from 1619 to as recently as the 1960s. And, we must build solutions that intentionally address the harms stemming from those actions, which have compounded over time.
Our organization had to get clear on two things. First, the overarching goal stated in our mission—economic opportunity—didn’t reflect a desired end condition. Although useful at times, the concept of economic opportunity represents a means to an end—a piece of the puzzle rather than a vision for economic well-being. Relying on opportunity as our endpoint placed a heavy burden on the individual, ignoring all the systemic factors that must be in place for a person to actually take advantage of an opportunity. It excuses public, private and philanthropic actors from their responsibility to create and maintain the conditions necessary for everyone to participate and thrive.
Second, we learned that you can’t achieve results ‘for all’ without an anti-racist approach that addresses the history and legacy of structural racism. Race-neutral solutions fail to improve conditions for communities of color because they assume that race is irrelevant. The reality is that race continues to be one of the strongest predictors of outcomes in any given area of life (e.g. economics, health, education, life expectancy). Without strategies that address the historical and current realities of structural racism, our work to secure better life outcomes for all people would continue to be undermined.
So, over the past three years, our organization has focused on both race and results. Building on staff’s efforts to deepen racial equity competencies, JaNay Queen Nazaire championed an approach that married race and results in a then-newly created position, Managing Director for Performance and Results. JaNay led us through a process to define our “north star” result—all people in American cities are economically secure and building wealth –and articulate the path forward–closing the racial gaps in income and wealth. She helped us determine how to best position our organization to make meaningful and measurable contributions to changing public, private and philanthropic systems so that we can improve outcomes for people in cities.
JaNay will not only ensure that we continue our disciplined focus on race and results, but also bring strategic stewardship of the organization that will help us to manage for stability, growth, and impact.
This past May, the Living Cities board committed to work together for another three years—which will bring us to an unprecedented 30 years of working collaboratively. They were excited about the clarity of the focus and the internal consistency of the portfolio. So are we as staff. The foundational work that JaNay led us through has ensured that every element of our portfolio takes race into account, and effectively utilizes our unique assets toward closing the racial gaps in income and wealth.
As we launch into this next three year round, I’m pleased to announce that JaNay will become Living Cities’ first Chief Strategy Officer. JaNay will not only ensure that we continue our disciplined focus on race and results, but also bring strategic stewardship of the organization that will help us to manage for stability, growth, and impact. She will help us to fully leverage our many existing relationships and to develop new individual and institutional ones. Importantly, we will look to JaNay to oversee the ongoing development and implementation of the results-oriented, anti-racist culture we need to make LC’s strategic vision a reality. I could not be more excited to have JaNay with us in this exciting and mission critical role.