Ben’s Story – CEO Letter

Ben’s Story – CEO Letter

Dear Friends of Living Cities,

Welcome to our open source 2014 annual report, #NewUrbanPractice.

Changing demographies, unchanging disparities and promising, transformative practices defined 2014 for us at Living Cities and inspired this report. For the third year in a row, non-white births in the United States have almost eclipsed white births. While a great swath of our country already has non-white majorities, this statistic only served to reinforce the fact that we will be a majority, non-white nation as soon as 2040. And the events in Ferguson, Missouri served as a powerful reminder not only of how destructive the existing disparities of income, education and opportunity between whites and non-whites are to the fabric of our society but also to the fact that we are not on a pace to close those gaps by 2040. Not even close.

Unless we ferociously change course, the majority of our citizens in 2040 will be less educated, less prosperous, and less free than our current majority, due to decades of dysfunctional systems, disinvestment, mass incarceration, and disenfranchisement of people and communities of color. This is not a legacy any of us should tolerate or one our founders could have ever imagined. But 2014 also showed us that we really can accelerate the pace of change. Promising practices, as seen in our own four year old Integration Initiative, StriveTogether’s ongoing Cradle to Career 57 city network, and the virally growing ‘collective impact’ movement, for example, are showing us that committed civic leaders across disciplines and industries are rejecting incrementalism. They are individually and collectively changing their behaviors to set their communities on a course that can achieve dramatically better results for low income people, especially people of color.

At the end of 2014, these promising, results-focused practices together with the ways that citizens from all walks of life have responded to events like Ferguson –marching, organizing their communities and raising their voices in the press, on social media, and in the halls and chambers of civic life –have put us at a strategic inflection point on the arc of justice and American history. We must seize upon it. We must harness these forces of change to address our most wicked problems at their roots and to do so with the urgency and at a scale that 2040 requires.

To do so will certainly require many of us, individuals, business, philanthropy, government, nonprofits, and academia, to work differently, to make hard choices so we can scale what works and to build permanent capacity that can insure we get increasingly better results over time. We believe that this is possible but it will require all of us to build a new type of urban practice aimed at dramatically improving the economic well-being of low-income people faster. Our vision for the #NewUrbanPractice does not purport to have all of the answers, but rather focuses on the need for cross-sector leaders to come together to articulate, test, adopt, apply, and define it. It is about building on the successes of the past to inform the ideas of the future. It is about considering how the contributions of individuals and institutions can be amplified by understanding them as part of a much greater whole.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that “our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.” This exhortation still rings true today, and can serve as a powerful energizing call to action for all institutions and individuals who aspire to recapture the promise of America.Martin_Luther_King_Jr_NYWTS-247x300

There is no single lever— intervention or innovation—that we can pull to end poverty, inequality, and racial inequity. Believe me, I have searched for one. I am resolute in my belief that no one leader, institution, or sector will be able to do it alone. My experiences have taught me this.

To face, as Dr. King put it, ‘the challenge of change’, we must understand how new ideas impact our work. We must endeavor to creatively adapt to and apply these new ideas, from rapidly advancing technologies, to new social operating systems, to evolutions in terms of how social services are financed and delivered. We must strive to be more nimble and agile, redirecting and applying our resources vigilantly towards what works. We must not be set in our ways, but rather be constantly imagining and reimagining what is possible. As I set out to write this letter, and as I consider what it will actually take to create the kind of change that Living Cities and so many others want to see, I found myself pausing to reflect on my personal journey and career.

I first became acutely aware of inequity and poverty as a child growing up near Newark, New Jersey. Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy had just been murdered and Newark, along with other American cities, went up in flames. I am reminded of my stunned recognition in the 1970s and early 1980s, as the 70’s Recession set in, that the political activism of the prior decade did not, by itself, stem the tide of inequity. It became clear to me, as a young college student whose political and social consciousness was ignited by the Civil Rights Movement, that effective social change had to harness an array of market, political, and civic forces.

11290402-standard-295x300This awareness was sharpened in law school. Over my three years at the Georgetown University Law Center, my concept of impact was challenged. I participated in a traditional clinical program, providing legal services to individual, indigent tenants facing eviction from their homes. While it was important work, we were expending enormous effort, in piecemeal fashion, to benefit one person at a time. It seemed that there should be more that we could do to address the reasons that they were in that position in the first place. On the other hand, I also worked as a research assistant in another clinical program that represented groups of citizens, organized as a non-profit corporation, who came together to collectively improve their condition. Not only was my work for the ‘corporation’ enabling me to help more people with the same level of effort, but it exposed me to the power of collective action. I saw the power of the possible when many are aligned towards a common goal.

I took this lesson into my career, first as an attorney and then as a community and economic development practitioner. In the 90s, I was certain that strong community organizations would be the key to transforming the lives of low-income people. My work revealed to me that in addition to bringing people with common interests or from within the same sector together, cross-sector collaboration can also be transformative. I understood that the scaling of affordable housing in America was made possible by the most successful private-public partnership the nation has ever seen—the Low Income Housing Tax Credit. And, as the community development movement got its wings, we were seeing the emergence of an extraordinary number of high-performing local, regional, and national nonprofit organizations. Yet, as we approached the new millennium, once again, I was coming to terms with the fact that, despite the best of intentions and the progress being made, we were not achieving the desired outcome: A material impact on the number of Americans living in poverty. In addition to the fact that we had failed to develop a silver bullet, the world was also changing around us. The concept that was at the center of community development—the notion of community as being primarily tied to place—was being disrupted. Revolutionary forces of change—globalization and the internet—were reshaping America, the world, and our place in it.

In my ongoing quest for the magic lever, I turned my attention to the internet and technology, co-founding One Economy Corporation in 2000 to leverage the power of technology to connect underserved people around the world to vital information that will improve their lives. Cisco, an early supporter of our work, was excited by this new idea, But, the funders there said: “You can’t solve this problem alone. You’re rebuilding the ecosystem. Who are the other organizations that must be part of your solution if it is going to succeed?” That seemingly obvious question crystallized the biggest lesson that had been revealing itself since my college days. I would never find the magic lever because none existed. I believe that all of the work that I had donewas important—I learned a great deal. But, at the end of the day, it all comes down to bringing people, ideas, and resources together. The truth is that while most social change efforts focus on one approach to solve one piece of the problem, the root causes of the problem are interconnected and require interconnected solutions that take advantage of all of the tools available to us.

Supporting and participating in a movement towards those kinds of big picture, comprehensive, and inclusive solutions is what we are focused on at Living Cities. Our work with public, private, and philanthropic leaders over the past few years signal what some of those key elements of the #NewUrbanPractice might be, and we share some of those in this report. But, in the spirit of Dr. King’s call, and building on my belief and the belief of our entire staff that enduring change happens when people work together, we asked other leaders at the cutting edge of social change efforts to share what they think are the most important issues and promising solutions that have the potential to dramatically improve the lives of low income people, faster. We include an exciting diversity of those responses in this report as well. Traditionally, an annual report speaks to the mission, promise, and impact of an organization. But, our success is inextricably tied to the efforts of our partners: our members, our grantees, our collaborators, those who engage with us on social media, and so many other like-minded leaders and institutions working to create a better tomorrow. So, open sourcing our annual report felt true to who we are and where we want to go. It also gave us a window into what to pay attention to in 2015 and beyond.

What is so encouraging about what you will read in this report is that we collectively know a lot about what should go into the #NewUrbanPractice toolkit. As many of the pieces that we highlight reflect, many of the tools have been tried and proven over the last decade or more. What is new and exciting is the way in which so many people and institutions are asking ourselves, more frequently and more urgently, the question that the funders at Cisco posed to me years ago. The result is that we have a much better understanding of how to apply each of the tools, both individually and together, towards accelerating our ability to reengineer the opportunity grid.

As we continue to remain vigilant, we look forward to hearing from even more of you. Share what you believe key elements of the #NewUrbanPractice are by using the hashtag on social media. Tell us what you are seeing and learning. Help us to reject the status quo of incremental change and identify ways to move our country into a brighter future for all where we don’t just survive, but rather thrive, together.

Ben Hecht

Ben Hecht was appointed President & CEO of Living Cities in July, 2007. Since that time, the organization has adopted a broad, integrative agenda that harnesses the collective knowledge of its 22 member foundations and financial institutions to benefit low income people and the cities where they live.

1 Comment

  1. Kathryn Alexander 3 years ago

    Finally, finally, finally we are starting to understand the interconnected nature of the world! NOW if we can just include nature in that interconnectedness we may make it through these challenging times!

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