Doing the Right Things Right

Doing the Right Things Right

Living Cities’ new Theory of Change represents our unique position on how to close racial gaps across the country.


My colleagues like to joke that no matter what we’re talking about or what meeting I’m in, I’m always asking: Are we doing the right things and are we doing them right? This is how I make sure that we are not only trying to solve the right problems, but we are solving them in the best ways we can. This quote originally comes from Mark Friedman and the Results Based Accountability approach, but I’ve become so associated with that question at Living Cities that staff sometimes don’t even say it–they just shorthand it as “that thing JaNay always says.”

This question has taken on more importance and prominence for me in my new role as Chief Strategy Officer. I am spending more time around the country speaking about our work and hearing what others are doing. I have seen how critical it is for an organization like Living Cities to not only have a clear-eyed focus on results, but also to center racial equity in the work we do.

This reckoning is an on-going process, one that will never be done.

Living Cities has been on our organizational racial equity journey for several years now, and many of us as individuals have been on that journey for much longer. We announced last year an updated results statement that recognizes the importance of racist policies in our society as a root cause for inequity. This evolution came from our organizational and individual reckoning with our past, one that was not without pain and sacrifice, but also driven by hope, authentic relationships, people willing to take risks, and creating environmental conditions that held us to account.

This reckoning is an on-going process, one that will never be done. But there are moments when it’s important to reflect back on what we have accomplished, how the organization has changed, and share out what we have learned. We have been doing this recently by highlighting our new mission and vision, which represents a further commitment of Living Cities and our members to undoing the legacy of racism in this country.

As the revised mission and vision were being developed, I was playing my usual role and asking the “JaNay question”: Are we doing the right things and are we doing them right? It became clear that to truly know if Living Cities was going to have the impact we wanted, we needed to develop something to give us a sense of what exactly we wanted to achieve and how that would help us get to our ultimate North Star Result.

Today, I am proud to announce our new Theory of Change, which shows what things we are doing and how we will do them right. You’ll see that the top of the theory of change is the vision for our North Star Result: All people in U.S. Cities are economically secure, building wealth, and living abundant, dignified, and connected lives. Everything else flows from that, all the way down to the most basic activities, like developing relationships in local communities or understanding the landscape of organizations in communities.

RESOURCES – Achieving Results by Centering Race Internally and Externally

I encourage you to explore the theory of change in full. But you will see that it isn’t a typical nonprofit theory of change. We center dignity within the model, because we recognize that traditional metrics of well-being (like “yearly income” or “net worth”), while important, are not sufficient to explain what a truly equitable society would look like. We pushed ourselves to hold true to our vision and come up with something radical.

Living Cities is uniquely positioned to influence systems in more intangible ways, such as relationship building, facilitating communities coming together, testing and sharing learning, connecting the dots for leaders in cross-sector relationships, and casting cover for leaders to take risks, innovate and push the boundaries they face. We wanted to be a bit more radical in our theory of change because of the luxury of our position.

It is important for our staff and partners to see this as a tool to be used to achieve results, rather than something external and prescriptive.

The initial reaction to this new theory of change was not overwhelmingly positive. We have shared it with our board, and while they approved it unanimously, the approval was not without questions. Staff had strong reactions to it as well, because, ultimately, a theory of change is a tool born out of white institutional culture, which we try to resist at all times. We’ve also received questions about how the day-to-day work of Living Cities connects into this model, as well as where our board members fit in. We are still working and responding to these valid concerns, because it is important for our staff and partners to see this as a tool to be used to achieve results, rather than something external and prescriptive.

A theory of change should always be a living document, and ours certainly is. But even as it evolves, this theory of change represents Living Cities’ unique position on how to close racial gaps in this country. We will continue to refine the model as we grow in our work and learn from those around the country. I will be sure to publish other updates as we continue our struggle to answer that ever-present question–are we doing the right things, and are we doing them right?

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