MLK’s efforts and legacy is common knowledge. One of the greatest ways to appreciate his work is to “keep the dream alive.” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a truth speaker, a constant organizer, a strong listener and a loyal change agent.
In reflecting on MLK Day 2021, I am thinking of other history makers who created a resonance for teaching lessons and encouraging us to move forward.
History is continuously being made, debated and repeating itself. Thankfully, one thing America does well is creating new leaders of every generation who help us reimagine an equitable society. To honor Dr. King and keep his dream alive on this MLK Day, there are a few people I want to highlight who are following in his legacy as change agents.
All the Black people on social media who create funny memes even during the most depressive news events. Their gifs, graphical narrations, and other digital stories are expressed with quick wit, precise audience representation and relatable experiences that helps us laugh while being (somewhat) informed. These creators provide a platform for collective grief and healing. While it is hard to identify this collective by name, it is imperative to acknowledge this necessary work of gathering. It is how the Civil Rights movement prevailed, and it has sustained us through 2020’s wrath of traumas.
Rep. Cori Bush from Missouri
Cori Bush is the first Black woman elected to the House of U.S. Representatives from her state. In addition to carrying the weight of being a Black woman American first, Rep. Bush ascended to the predominantly white, millionaire halls of Congress as a single mother, nurse and local grassroots organizer. She is a reminder that local citizens are the soul of this nation, and are qualified to have decision-making power. Rep. Bush’s commentary on her social media, news outlets and the Capitol floor expresses a non-conventional voice that is aligned with the new school members of Congress that include sophomore Representatives Ayanna Pressley, Lucy McBath and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Together they are changing the trajectory of this country’s leadership. Like Dr. King, Rep. Bush champions this movement as a true homegrown leader and public servant. Her story is one that affirms that any American can be a politician or even, a member of the United States Congress.
Tamika organizes on behalf of people lost by violence and co-chaired the 2017 Women’s March. In spaces that are harmful for Black people to protest the injustices against them, Mallory’s coaching and leadership educates us on the true matter at hand, like Dr. King. She dedicated much of Summer 2020 to keeping Breonna Taylor’s name in the news and in front of Kentucky officials by organizing demonstrations of 20,000 people in Louisville, KY in the middle of the Covid-19 global health crisis. After Kentucky state Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s hurtful decisions to release Taylor’s murderers of liability, Mallory offered words of guidance to the public. She held Cameron accountable with her own power of tongue and provided comfort to the people, reminiscent of a big sister who would not let anyone hurt you.
It is no secret her impact on this generation. In the words of the queen herself, “Need another march, lemme call Tamika,” – Beyoncé (“Black Parade”).
Dr. King’s daughter, uses her platform to offer profound words that ground and move us to expand and reform our mindsets. As CEO of Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, she carries her father’s temperament. On Twitter, she corrects any one misappropriating their work by saying they are acting in Dr. King’s legacy. Her demeanor as an elder in justice movements is approachable and sets a standard that transcends generations. King displays that at any level of your contributions you can still have loyalty to and innovative approaches to rights movements.
The people listed above are only a few of Dr. King’s Dream keepers. In each of us is the power to contribute to this Dream that we may all enjoy for generations to come. This MLK Day holiday, as we acknowledge, celebrate and have gratitude for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., think about your own contributions to this Dream. How are you sharing your story and those of people in our community who live out Dr. King’s dreams and push us to keep it alive?
Stories matter when history is being recorded. Please share yours.
This attack on our democracy was an important historical moment, but it was also a deeply personal one.
I am sure that you, like me, have been engrossed in the news about the events of last Wednesday and the tragedy that happened in our nation’s capital. I am shocked, angry and incensed, but as many have said, it is not surprising.
Many organizations have put out statements condemning the violence and highlighting how white supremacy led to this insurrection and the minimal response from law enforcement. These statements are welcomed and important. Living Cities attempts to center our humanity in all that we do, so instead of putting out an organizational statement, we decided to open a call to all staff to offer their personal reflections. We are sharing these now, below.
While this attack on our democracy was an important historical moment, as these personal reflections show, it was also a deeply personal one. I hope that by offering these up, they can offer up a moment of reflection and help you make sense of this painful time.
Ben Hecht, President and CEO
When I watched the insurrection last Wednesday and saw the windows break at the Capitol, something broke in me as well. Even now, I’m struggling to come to terms with what I experienced, and what to do about it.
I didn’t realize how special a place the Capitol held in my heart. I came to University of Maryland as a naïve 18-year-old, convinced that I wanted to work in Washington and become President of the United States. I worked in the Capitol for almost three years, paying my way through college on the staff of an Ohio Congressman. I came of age, so to speak, in that role, observing how Congress operates (and how it doesn’t) and the slow pace but monumental impact of decisions made there. That experience informed the course of my life for the next 40+ years; I affirmatively decided to pass up a small chance for big change at the national level for the high probability of faster, community-sized change at the local level.
The horrific sight of those white rioters desecrating my Capitol, waving the Confederate flag in the Rotunda, meandering the hallways like students on a class trip, and then simply leaving with impunity made me nauseous. Their entitlement was one thing, but the total lack of readiness and appropriate reaction by the police was quite another. Many have called out what was so impossible to ignore in that moment: the police response to a “protest” organized by and for white people is starkly different than a protest involving and advocating for Black people.
This was the embodiment of what is meant when people say that racism is institutionalized and in our groundwater. This wasn’t about the actions of a few bad people; this was the result of the reactions of many people in decision-making roles who judged that these soon-to-be-insurrectionists were not a threat, even after seeing evidence for months to the contrary. Until structural racism is acknowledged and people in positions of responsibility have the racial equity competencies to make very different day to day decisions, justice will remain far from a reality.
Until structural racism is acknowledged and people in positions of responsibility have the racial equity competencies to make very different day to day decisions, justice will remain far from a reality.
As someone often described as ‘frustratingly optimistic,’ I felt extreme despair. Although irrational, I took it personally—as a rebuke somehow for having spent my professional lifetime trying, to the best of my abilities, to do as President Obama elegantly said years ago: contribute to “building a more perfect union.” Wednesday’s events made me question the fundamental value of the choices I’ve made throughout my career. It felt like my conception of what it means to be an American Patriot—someone actually working for the common good and something I’ve always considered myself—was being denigrated by so many in our society who held and celebrated a diametrically different definition.
Maybe this insurrection will finally be the one American crisis that isn’t wasted—that it will be the spark that lights a broad reckoning not just about who we really are, but also for what it will take to get us to live up to our 240-year-old promises.
Deadly Display of Whiteness Elevates White Supremacy- Carmen Smith, Digital Strategist
I woke up the morning of January 7 anticipating a productive, normal day. Yet, I woke up feeling drained. A feeling to be expected after watching, digesting and emerging in the reflection of the prior day’s events.
I live in Washington, D.C. My home is located about a 10-minute drive from Capitol Hill, an area I visit regularly as a few local businesses I patronize are there. The morning of January 6, my sister in South Carolina, where I am from, sent me a message telling me and my 19-year-old nephew who lives with me to be careful, as Trump supporters were planning an event that day in D.C. I noted her caution, and continued my day being intentional about how much news coverage I would engage in that could cause any anticipated anxiety.
After lunch, my nephew called to tell me that the doctor whose office he is interning at near the White House told him to leave early, because she was unsure how the day would escalate. I thought it was a safe call on the doctor’s part, but had no idea that an hour later, the United States Capitol would be breached by hundreds of domestic white supremacist terrorists, only patriotic to their whiteness and campaigning dictator Donald Trump.
Shortly after my nephew arrived home, an Instagram post he was viewing encouraged me to turn on the news. So I did.
I remember watching this coup on television in utter shock and continuously saying “they are not supposed to be right there.” The place of the riots is so familiar to me because I used to drive past it several times a week before the pandemic. I once lived in a Capitol Hill neighborhood, and it’s one of the places I enjoy taking walks. It felt so close. I sat in my living room unsure of how bad it would get. Absolute chaos was raging right down the street.
A standard for protecting whiteness, no matter how violent, has a new level as of January 6, 2021.
After realizing that a riot was currently taking place, I began to process how much blood would be on the Capitol stairs had Black people been protesting. You see, this is an example of white supremacy at its purest form. White people believe that they are supreme – better than, able to do whatever, where ever, how ever they so choose without repercussion. This inherent truth is accepted by all white people – no matter how nice or mean, progressive or conservative, rich or poor, whiteness grants them the safety of privilege. That’s whether it means:
an insurrection because your candidate did not win an election
an attack on someone they believe is inferior to them in public spaces
murdering someone in the privacy of their own home
falsely accusing someone of a crime
having a fit in a grocery store line, threatening someone’s reputation and -livelihood because they heard the word ‘no’ from a worker
inconsiderately refusing to wear a mask properly or at all during a global health crisis
shutting down or dismissing any dialogue prompted by a colleague in a work environment that they feel undermines their whiteness
comfortably doing a TV news interview stating that they ‘stormed the Capitol’ rightfully and will do it again if they do not get what they want
or taking selfies as an officer with unrestrained rioters when they are supposed to be arresting them.
A standard for protecting whiteness, no matter how violent, has a new level as of January 6, 2021. The longer white people continue to uphold the nonsense, the more normal, accepted and rewarded it becomes.
I will avoid prescribing the solutions in this reflection. I am Black so my prescription is invalid for the white supremacist. Yet I will offer these statements to help white people see how their privilege led to the attack on our nation’s capital.
Joan Springs, Senior Associate for Grants, Contracts and Event Management
In the wake of last Wednesday’s travesty, I’m even more disillusioned with the state of the country that up till now I have always been proud to call my own. I have known for many years that life is not fair for people of color, particularly those of us who are the descendants of slaves.
We’ve always known that we had to work harder and be better to receive less than our non-Black counterparts. But we were seeing small moves forward, that the way of life since the Civil Rights movement started was improving and that Black people were moving up in the world. There were positive strides made over many years of strife and persistence. We’d elected a Black man as President and he was in office for eight years. This country was moving forward – and then came the 2016 Presidential election.
To me, the election of Donald Trump was a sad day, but I never believed that it could signify the end of our democracy. That couldn’t be fathomable. One man could not be so self-centered and destructive to the country that provided his family (and thereby himself) all the prosperity that America has given the Trumps. But I was wrong.
These past four years have shown us all that there is no limit to the amount of hatred in the hearts of people around this country. I never would have believed that the mindset that fueled the Confederacy back in the early 1800’s, which led to the eruption of a civil war back in 1861, still would exist in the 21st century – but it does. In fact, I am afraid to admit, the sentiments are just as strong today as they were over a century and a half ago.
One man could not be so self-centered and destructive to the country that provided his family (and thereby himself) all the prosperity that America has given the Trumps. But I was wrong.
I am having a lot of trouble wrapping my head around what took place last week at the Capitol because in my heart, I know that if the crowd that stormed the building had been made up of Black, Latino and BIPOC individuals there would have been many more deaths because the police on site would have used excessive force to stop the insurrectionists from entering the building.
What that says to me is that white people rioting, spewing hatred and untruths are more revered than people of color who are standing up against unjust acts that have happened multiple times. To date, I am not aware of any Black Lives Matter events that were planned as violent gatherings. Chatter surrounding this event promoted it to be anything but a peaceful gathering and yet, no measures were taken to protect the Capitol and, in short, no measure was taken to protect the democracy of this nation.
The events that took place put a stain on our country. We have spent the past four years being the laughing stock of the rest of the world as they have watched our great nation being dismantled from the inside and we are now in a very precarious space due to what should never have even happened.
I pray that the next week goes swiftly and without any more upheaval and that when Joe Biden takes the oath of office, this country can begin the road to rebuilding and healing.
We saw this practice come to life in our cities this summer as protests emerged across the country, calling for a reimagination of our policing and justice systems and largely for a reimagination of what dignity in America could and should look like for all people. At Living Cities, in tandem with our work to embed healing justice across our work and practice, we are exploring what it means to cultivate and exercise the skill of reimagination with our staff. Organizational practices that are also rooted in arts and culture have also helped us exercise this muscle and help us create visions for our future. We firmly believe that these concepts are of one another, reinforce each other and create the space we need to imagine a reality where we are all given the tools to live thriving and equitable lives. If we can dream it, we can create it.
This belief is rooted in the history of what dreaming and imagination has meant and created within Black and Indigenous communities. For example, In 1863, Harriet Tubman achieved the first U.S. military victory organized and led by a woman, a decisive blow to a Confederacy that was at that time dominating and draining the Union. Most important, the Combahee River uprising—during which almost 800 enslaved people of African descent stole themselves to freedom, burned down thirty-two plantation buildings, and flooded the rice plantations that were the center of South Carolina’s confederate economy—could becalled the most successful uprising against slavery in the U.S. In 1977 a collective of radical Black Feminists wrote a founding document of contemporary Black feminism and expresses not only the political stakes and urgency of a movement that seeks to intervene in all systems of oppression. This document is called The Combahee River Collective Statement. The collective was named to honor Harriet Tubman’s work as a scout and her documentation of the Combahee River raid (Source: Prophecy in the Present Tense: Harriet Tubman, the Combahee Pilgrimage, and Dreams Coming True by Alexis Pauline Gumbs). Another example is the 1969-1971 occupation of Alcatraz by the group Indians of All Tribes did not ultimately revert that land to Native control. But it did brilliantly (and playfully) articulate a frame of land-based self-determination that reverberates from the Occupy movement to Standing Rock to the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign (Source: Othering and Belonging’s Frames for Life, Liberation, & Belonging created by attendees of the 2017 Othering & Belonging Conference). These stories reimagined freedom during those moments and retell the stories outside of a frame of private property.
In a recent workshop we called: “Building our Capacity to Reimagine towards a Pro-Black World”, we encouraged staff to imagine what it might looks like to conceptualize new systems of support rooted in themes we pulled from the responses staff shared with us in our 2020 Racial, Equity and Inclusion Competency Survey where we asked them to tell us what a pro-Black institution might look like. Their art was rooted in themes of freedom, abundance, community, transparency, power, etc. Explore some of our staff’s manifestations of these themes within new systems in the slideshow below:
Living Cities Staff Art: Building our Capacity to Reimagine a Pro-Black world
Sevetri Wilson, one of the founders featured as part of the #WealthInColor campaign, provides an overview of the role of nonprofit organizations in addressing racial disparities and shares a reflection on the findings from the Radical Collaboration for Black Wealth Creation report.
Black Americans have always faced unique obstacles on the road to the American dream, from buying homes to saving money. These obstacles have compounded over time and left a glaring legacy of inequality, particularly with regard to wealth creation and retention. After the events of this summer (especially the George Floyd killing and nationwide protests over racial disparities in the United States), Americans are engaged in a renewed discussion about how to address these systemic issues in a robust and sustainable way.
The nonprofit sector is indispensable to this effort. Not only are nonprofits increasingly responsible for the provision of essential services – many of which have a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities of color – but they also account for a significant proportion of economic activity in the United States, which means the sector has to take a hard look at whether it’s promoting racial equity within its own ranks. Governments, businesses, and other grantors should also make racial equity a top priority, which means giving equal consideration to organizations founded and led by people of color.
Nonprofits will be in a stronger position to address the racial wealth disparity in the United States if they focus on collaboration – a rapidly emerging trend in the sector. This is particularly important for organizations run by people of color, as many existing networks remain exclusive and inaccessible to Black entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders alike. Over the next several years, these barriers to investment and action need to come down, but this process will require disruption and collaboration on an unprecedented scale.
Legacies of oppression and inequality
The net worth of the average white family in the United States is around $171,000 – almost ten times greater than the average for Black families ($17,150). This vast disparity is a direct result of centuries of discrimination against Black Americans, from slavery to severe limitations on economic opportunity imposed during the Jim Crow era to policies of redlining across the country that made it extremely difficult for Black applicants to obtain home loans.
THE RACIAL WEALTH GAP
The average white family’s net worth is almost ten times greater than the average Black family.
There are countless effects of these racially-rooted legacies that we witness every day, from persistent educational disparities and hiring discrimination to higher levels of infant mortality and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 and other health crises. There are many ways nonprofits can address these disparities, from job training to improving healthcare access to easing the unique burdens Black families face.
For example, Black caregivers provide more hours of care to family members, friends, and neighbors per week than members of other groups. As the National Council of Nonprofits explains, organizations that “provide care for children or elderly parents allow family members who would otherwise shoulder the burden of providing care to instead work outside the home.” This is just one of the ways in which nonprofits can provide economic opportunity for Black Americans, and it’s a reminder that closing the wealth gap will require a cohesive approach that acknowledges all the inequities Black communities face.
Nonprofits can facilitate Black wealth creation
Take a moment to consider how large and intractable the racial wealth gap has proven to be in the United States. Not only have white families accumulated almost ten times as much wealth as Black families, but also more than one-fifth of Black Americans have zero or negative net worth. It’s clear that any real solution to these vast disparities has to address fundamental issues of access to capital, networks, and other resources that have eluded Black founders and workers for too long.
According to the Living Cities report Radical Collaboration for Black Wealth Creation, published in 2019, nonprofits have a unique opportunity to disrupt the systems that perpetuate the racial wealth gap by forging relationships with stakeholders in other sectors. For example, the report points out that by “leveraging relationships with the Black investment and entrepreneurial community, philanthropies can collaborate with other social impact ventures.” The report also notes that relationships between Black-led nonprofits and white grantors, investors, etc. should be framed as economic opportunities instead of just moral imperatives. When Black founders and leaders have a seat at the table, communities and economic conditions will improve for all Americans – and this is especially critical as the United States experiences dramatic demographic changes.
Living Cities explains that collaboration with Black-led organizations will “uncover new earned revenue opportunities, arrive at innovation more quickly, and exponentially leverage relationships with private sector corporate partners and philanthropic partners in a mutually beneficial way.” The racial wealth gap in the United States isn’t a problem confined to a single demographic group – it’s a problem that hampers the innovation, productivity, and economic growth of the entire country, and we should treat it as such.
Collaboration is the key to closing the wealth gap
Living Cities isn’t the only organization that recognizes the vital role BIPOC-led nonprofits will play in closing the wealth divide. Prosperity Now’s Racial Wealth Divide Initiative emphasizes the idea that “nonprofits of color … are well positioned to serve communities of color.” However, despite the fact that a significant proportion of nonprofit leaders believe diversity should be a top priority within their organizations, there’s a large disconnect between this belief and reality. One reason for this discrepancy is the fact that nonprofits founded and led by people of color often receive less investment (both initially and over time) than their peers.
A recent McKinsey report found that the racial wealth gap will cost the U.S. economy between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion between 2019 and 2028 in reduced consumption and investment. This is one of many reminders that systemic racial inequality in the United States is harmful to everyone. When the perspectives and expertise of Black Americans are kept on the margins, this doesn’t just maintain the cycle of disadvantage for communities of color – it has a stultifying effect on creativity and development across the country.
COSTS OF THE RACIAL WEALTH GAP
$1 – $1.5 TRILLION
The cost of racial inequity to the US economy, in reduced consumption and investment.
One of the most pronounced trends in the nonprofit sector is the move toward greater collaboration between organizations, but what’s necessary today is collaboration that extends to the private sector as well. For example, in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, nonprofits and businesses across the country are coming together to address the systemic causes of racial inequality. Living Cities lists some of the ways nonprofits, grantors, and community stakeholders can continue to collaborate in pursuit of eliminating the racial wealth divide: strategic convening, joint research and program development, resource sharing, and networking.
At a time when nonprofits – including those founded and run by people of color – are receiving a significant influx in donations as the United States has its most far-reaching public conversation about racial inequality in decades (a clear departure from the status quo), it’s all the more important to ensure that these funds are being used as effectively as possible. This means developing an interdependent ecosystem of support, which draws upon the private sector, key community stakeholders, and other organizations to scale programs, invest in marginalized communities, and put us on a path toward eliminating the racial wealth gap once and for all.
As part of the City Accelerator, the City of Pittsburgh has prioritized equity in their procurement systems, implementing changes to better meet the needs of local businesses owned by women and people of color.
On a typical fall afternoon, the streets of downtown Pittsburgh are filled with crowds of people coming from their favorite lunch spots, cars and buses headed in every direction, and bicyclists enjoying the weather. This year is different though. With the constantly changing landscape we are currently living in due to the pandemic, business owners and companies are met with even more day to day uncertainties.
When Pittsburgh was selected for the City Accelerator cohort on Inclusive Procurement, our goal was to find ways to help disadvantaged businesses—particularly those owned by people of color and women—to do more business with the City of Pittsburgh. To be a disadvantaged business is to be owned by a member of an economically and socially disadvantaged group. Put another way, it’s a business owner who is trying to build, grow, and sustain a business while operating against the additional, federally recognized, statistical challenges of being a person of color or a woman.
Equity is a priority for the City of Pittsburgh, and inclusive procurement is an opportunity for our city to recognize and understand the needs of our businesses owned by women and people of color and identify what tools they need to be successful.
When our disadvantaged businesses succeed and are awarded city contracts, our money is invested into our communities and our entire local economy is stronger.
Through our close partnership with the City of Pittsburgh Office of Equity, Office of Business Diversity, and the Equal Opportunity Review Commission—all of whom work directly with the disadvantaged businesses—we were able to garner feedback from female business owners and business owners of color about their experiences and pain points navigating our procurement process. By using feedback about local experiences and national recommendations, we looked at our internal processes and identified two areas where we could immediately help our local businesses: publicly displaying our forecast of future solicitations and shortening the time between when a contract is awarded and executed. Time and preparation are of the essence for our small businesses, so we implemented these tools to help them compete more effectively for City contracts.
Government solicitations can often be confusing and complex. If you are a vendor who is looking at these for the first time, it can often be overwhelming, especially without ample time to plan or prepare a proposal. We saw the great work that the cities of Chicago and Charlotte did by providing their local businesses with a City “Buying Plan” through the City Accelerator. These buying plans include upcoming solicitations, when they estimate the solicitation will be released, the estimated dollar value of the contract, and other pertinent information. These examples were our template for the City of Pittsburgh’s first buying plan.
Time and preparation are of the essence for our small businesses, so we implemented these tools to help them compete more effectively for City contracts.
Our Office of Management and Budget worked with the 19 City departments to develop a 12-month outlook of upcoming contracting needs. These were then merged with our list of recurring procurement contracts to develop the City’s 2020 forecast.
After that was completed, we saw there was an opportunity to make the forecast even more useful to local businesses by having other government agencies’ information appear on the forecast. Due to the City’s collaborative nature with its authorities, we enlisted their help to turn the forecast into a collective Buying Plan that identifies contract opportunities for the next calendar year and is updated quarterly. This means that instead of businesses searching through 6 different websites to find out about upcoming opportunities, they can click and view upcoming contracts and bidding information in one spot.
Along with all of the important solicitation specific information (name, value, time frame), we also decided that it was necessary to include the URL’s to the participating government entities and contact information in the Buying Plan document. We hope to expand this eventually to include additional helpful bidding information.
When looking at our other internal processes, we identified another area where we could immediately help our local businesses: shortening the time between when a contract is awarded and executed. When this time is prolonged or a maximum timeframe is not identified, it can put an unnecessary burden on businesses. Small businesses count on the income from the contract, and they may not be certain when they will need equipment, supplies, labor, inventory, or anything else to complete the scope of work.
We noticed that there were three major opportunities that were contributing to the inconsistent or delayed speed of our process:
An awarded vendor is required to print off two copies of everything, physically bring them to our office, and sign contracts. If any of the required forms are incorrect or missing information, they would need to start the process all over again.
Multiple individuals in separate departments need to review and sign the documents, leaving lots of room for delays along the way.
A notary is required for an affidavit.
When our disadvantaged businesses succeed and are awarded city contracts, our money is invested into our communities and our entire local economy is stronger.
When we recognized the process was more onerous than necessary, we centered the experience of the vendor and we all worked together to identify some administrative solutions. We worked with our Law Department to change an affidavit to a certificate. We collected information online during the solicitation process. We embraced DocuSign/electronic signature process to eliminate delays.
We fortunately piloted the electronic signature process before COVID, so when we closed City Hall, we were prepared to keep executing contracts to avoid administrative business interruption. We are exploring other virtual means of supporting our business community. We launched “Contract Connections: Bids for PGH,” an remote training series to help local, diverse small businesses learn how to participate in the City and other agencies’ procurement processes.
While the pandemic may have changed the busy nature of our Downtown business district, we are grateful to the Living Cities and Citi Foundation’s City Accelerator for helping us change the way we do business to make it more accessible and inclusive. The past few months have been full of uncertainty, and going forward, we remain committed to examining our procurement processes to respond to the needs of the business community.
The City of Pittsburgh can lessen the burdens it places on business owners through the procurement process to diversify our vendors and provide a more equitable opportunity for disadvantaged businesses. During the pandemic and afterward, we will strive to make procurement more inclusive for all of our businesses and ensure that Pittsburgh is a city that is livable and workable for all.
As part of our series highlighting alumni of Living Cities’ cohorts, we spoke with Maia Jachimowicz, who currently serves as the VP for Evidence-Based Policy Implementation at Results for America. Maia worked with Living Cities when she was the Policy Director to the City of Philadelphia in the Mayor’s Office. We reflected on her experience in that role, how working with Living Cities impacted it, and what we can learn from our collaboration to improve future cohort experiences for public servants.
Maia Jachimowicz worked with Mayor Nutter in the City of Philadelphia, helping to shape policy and improve resident well being in the city. She initially met Living Cities through the Project on Municipal Innovation (PMI), and then later “jumped on the opportunity to learn something new” through the inaugural cohort of City Accelerator, which focused on embedding innovation in local government. Throughout our conversation about these experiences, I was struck by the ways that Maia’s engagements with Living Cities enabled her and her team to do their work in new ways that challenged the status quo of local government.
We at Living Cities have been reflecting on the characteristics of white supremacy culture. One of these characteristics that we see our public sector partners (and ourselves) struggle with is a sense of urgency. When it always feels like there is so much to do, everything feels urgent. As Maia put it, “When working in local government, you’re fighting to get through what’s on your plate that day.” This sense of urgency often prevents the intentionality and critical thought that is necessary for doing our work in a way that interrupts racism. Through her experiences in PMI in particular, Maia was able to harness the day-to-day sense of urgency toward engaging in a curated experience with “highly relevant content” and practitioners who were facing similar challenges. With that additional perspective, she could show up to her work with fresh eyes and a more nuanced understanding of how to address poverty locally.
Building on her experience in PMI, Maia’s leadership in the inaugural City Accelerator cohort supported the City of Philadelphia to disrupt norms of city government. Like most institutions, city government is very siloed, but the project that Maia’s team developed with funding and support from City Accelerator was characterized by cross-agency collaboration. Their project intended to make older, low-income residents aware that they were eligible for relief on water bills (a benefit that had been available for some time but few people knew about), and required partnership with other departments to do it well. “It was quite striking,” Maia reflected. “This was the first time we had ever done a project focused on poverty alleviation with all of those departments together. We were meeting regularly, working through interdepartmental challenges.” And they continue to grow that work today, even within a new mayoral administration.
When Maia was still working with Mayor Nutter, and since under the leadership of Mayor Kenney and the new Policy Director, Anjali Chainani-Jha, “at least a dozen” more trials have been implemented to evaluate return on investment, reduce poverty, and increase racial equity. The new team has also established relationships with local universities to evaluate the impacts of these trials on different demographic groups across Philadelphia, and they’ve continued efforts to curb a sense of urgency in their racial equity policymaking work, as Anjali recently reflected on in conversation with Living Cities’ Elizabeth Reynoso.
As Maia and I concluded our conversation, we reflected on what enabled the city’s capacity for innovation to grow, and how Living Cities can support other city governments to grow in similar ways. Maia reflected back what Living Cities had offered to her team: “Try to get comfortable with failure and increase your tolerance for risk,” she said. Being willing to test and pilot a number of different strategies means that “for all those that don’t stick, there are others that grow and blossom in ways that are unpredictable at the outset. …And it’s hard to imagine having done this project in this way if Living Cities hadn’t catalyzed it.” As we reflect on this feedback, we look toward the future of our work with city governments with hope and a belief that together we can lean into risk and behave in ways that disrupt the status quo.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
On May 16, 2019, after Mayor Jackson learned of Cleveland’s grant award from Living Cities and Citi Foundation to participate in City Accelerator’s second Inclusive Procurement cohort, he announced, “There are billions of dollars of development happening in our city. However, now it is time to take the next step. We will establish wealth creation by expanding current efforts and creating a sustained model of procuring and sourcing within the local economy.”
A strong agenda of equity has always been the foundation of Mayor Jackson’s leadership. At the conclusion of his fourth term in 2021, Mayor Jackson will be known as the longest serving mayor in Cleveland. He came into his current seat with the mission of “serving the least of these.” This focus is actualized under his prescribed philosophy of “Self-Help”; a three-fold strategy of prioritizing investing, buying and hiring within the City of Cleveland. This philosophy serves as a reminder of the importance of placing Clevelanders first through an inclusive, local workforce perspective.
Dr. Burrows, Director of Mayor’s Office of Equal Opportunity, learned about the City Accelerator Inclusive Procurement cohort and grant opportunity in the Fall of 2018. At the time, the City’s disparity study was approaching its sixth year, and Dr. Burrows was thinking of ways the department could implement remaining items from the study. She had several internal conversations with other departments and the Mayor, where she heard about upcoming contracting opportunities. It was through these conversations that she learned of the City Accelerator cohort application.
Cleveland’s acceptance into the City Accelerator cohort was an opportunity to continue working towards the City’s long-term goal of gaining a larger and more diverse pool of prime and sub-contractors for projects, along with creating generational wealth for Cleveland’s contractors.
Conversations with the City’s contractors highlighted that the biggest challenges for local entrepreneurs are the same for most MBEs, including: capital and credit issues; limited cash flow; contract sizes too large to manage; and lack of bonding capability. It was no surprise to learn of these barriers, which have been validated in various disparity studies and through a survey of local entrepreneurs.
Through implementation of the Small Contractor Rotation Program, Cleveland expands the City’s contracting ecosystem. Specifically, the rotation program builds capacity for both existing and potential businesses with implementation of the Division of Purchases and Supplies’ CGI Vendor Self Service System.
The CGI Vendor Self Service System (VSS) is for all competitive bids under $50K. This new and innovative system streamlines the procurement process citywide. It allows vendors access to bid on commodity and services electronically, and sends questions to pre-registered vendors when new contracting opportunities become available. Additionally, VSS speeds up the contracting process by reducing the time to issue purchase orders to vendors; eliminates the time buyers spend preparing routine public records request for bid tabulations as the information becomes available online; and reduces human error during the evaluation process.
The Small Contractor Rotation Program’s (SCRP) foundation is built on a race and gender-based initiatives designed to provide capacity building and assistance to small contractors. It will help subcontractors transition into prime contractors through experience with working on contracts. The SCRP provides small contractors with the ability to compete for City business, while taking a “deeper dive” into their business by taking classes in marketing, estimating, financing, bonding and more.
Prior to COVID-19, the City of Cleveland anticipated classes being taught through online, webinar style format to allow small contractors to participate remotely from any location. With the kickoff meeting held in February, no one knew how imperative it would become to go online. So far, all classes, except one, have been held with 10 to 15 attendees on average.
Celeste Lawson is one business owner that’s attended each class. The Lawson Business Group, LTD is a small general construction firm specializing in residential rehabilitation and design. Lawson is participating in the SCRP as a way of better understanding how to run her business effectively and efficiently. Ms. Lawson is interested in learning more about customer service, estimating, and bidding for both public and private sector contracts.
According to Ms. Lawson, “I am very happy I chose to apply for the program. My experiences have been great thus far. Even in this short amount of time I have been able to implement some of the strategies I’ve learned from the classes related to the importance of realizing your customer base and target market, as well as, having the right insurance company that understands your scope of business and what your future goals are for your construction business.”
Additionally, Ms. Lawson agrees that, “this program is essential for any small construction firm looking to grow and gain insight on how to be successful in the construction industry.”
Small businesses and contractors, especially contractors of color, have borne the brunt of COVID-19’s economic crisis. While we, as city and nation, work actively to pursue ways of rebuilding our economies during COVID-19, Cleveland is focusing on small contractors and strengthening opportunities for the small businesses in the CLE. Supporting small businesses and contractors is central to our strategy for recovery and long-term wealth building for entrepreneurs in Cleveland.
Photo Credit: City of Cleveland Photographic Bureau
In the penultimate post of our Learning, Storytelling and Results series, Senior Associate and Content Strategy Lead Shannon Jordy describes how Living Cities has built and sustained a robust learning and communications practice through our learning liaisons – a unique role that bridges knowledge work with content strategy to ensure we’re not only learning from our efforts in cities but also packaging those lessons in accessible and compelling ways. For anyone who’s struggling with how to best share knowledge and create content within their busy organizations, learning liaisons may help.
When I came to Living Cities four years ago, my goal was to apply design thinking and process to the organization’s research, communications, and content efforts. I started by interviewing team leads about how they were collecting lessons from our work in cities, and how those lessons were being translated into usable research and thought leadership for people in our network and beyond. Often, when I asked about existing knowledge plans or content strategies, I got a chuckle. They didn’t exist. Many teams were in the middle of overseeing huge initiatives in multiple cities and didn’t have the time or capacity to think strategically about how to gather and share lessons from their work. Living Cities was of course producing content, but it wasn’t always tightly connected to what we were learning through our programs.
Today, though, there are multiple mechanisms to support teams’ knowledge and communications efforts. All teams, including those focused on internal operations, have a learning agenda and content strategy plan in place and regularly “make meaning” of the applied research going on locally across the U.S and within the organization, in service of closing racial income and wealth gaps.
How did we go from an inconsistent practice of team learning and communications to a robust, coordinated effort to share what we know? As part of a refined process to connect learning and communications at Living Cities, we established a new role – learning liaisons – to hold and manage the process, team by team. In this blog post, I hope to share what’s special about the learning liaisons and how this informal team of six has been able to infuse learning and content strategy across all levels of the organization.
When Living Cities got serious about building rigor into our learning processes, and connecting that learning to our communications output, it became very clear very fast that we needed people on teams to “hold” those processes: to facilitate conversations about what teams were learning, to report back to the organization for measurement and evaluation purposes, and to be responsible for translating resulting lessons into content that’s insightful and useful for public sector and nonprofit practitioners who, like us, are working to close racial gaps.
The consequence of our efforts has been increased output and more nuanced thought leadership from all levels of the organization. It’s the way we’re able to produce over 150 discrete pieces of content a year, with a staff of 35.
So, how did we create and support this role?
Clearly define the role and its responsibilities
First, we needed to document the learning liaison role and what staff in this position were expected to do, both on their teams and as part of the larger, organization-level learning, communications, and results practice. Just as team leads and project managers have established roles with defined expectations, learning liaisons had a documented job description; staff who were interested in the role were assigned to individual teams. Additionally, the Learning, Storytelling and Results team created learning liaison-specific professional objectives that could be plugged into personal development plans and used to evaluate progress on an annual basis.
Give people time to do their jobs and treat them like a team
Next, learning liaisons were allocated time not only to their assigned project teams, but also to the Learning, Storytelling and Results team, which oversees Living Cities’ learning, communications and performance evaluation functions. This split team allocation allows learning liaisons the time to perform the programmatic functions of their role on their individual teams, and still come together regularly to share their knowledge with the other learning liaisons. They’re also able to refine our learning and communications processes and discuss what’s working or not – together.
Create training opportunities to build skills and competencies
Because we treat learning liaisons like a team, with regular opportunities to meet and compare notes, we create the space for the learning liaisons to build their research and communications skills and for Learning, Storytelling and Results staff to share relevant best practices. We ask learning liaisons each year what capacities they’re interested in growing and arrange related training. We onboard new learning liaisons as if they’re starting their job fresh. And we give them the tools, templates and resources to do the job.
Make it as easy as possible to do the job
Which brings me to a key component of the learning liaison work. The Learning, Storytelling and Results team believes in making it as easy as possible for learning liaisons to do their jobs. To that end, we provide meeting agendas that allow learning liaisons to lead conversations that produce lessons learned and develop team-level content strategies with a racial equity lens. We create blank “scorecards” that enable learning liaisons and their teams to track their progress. We have developed content strategy templates through which teams can plug in their own content and communications tactics for the year.
None of this work has been fast or easy. Successful execution of the learning liaison role requires the right tools and processes as well as real cultural change in the organization that prioritizes learning and communications. That comes from both top-down and down-up leadership. It’s also the result of celebrating wins and keeping all staff up to date on the team’s progress. But what we’ve seen is that the work is worth it.
The consequence of our efforts has been increased output and more nuanced thought leadership from all levels of the organization. It’s the way we’re able to produce over 150 discrete pieces of content a year, with a staff of 35. And it’s the way we can share with the philanthropic, capital, non-profit and public sector fields interesting practices to close income and wealth gaps, to build racial equity and inclusion competency at the individual and institutional levels, and to operationalize racial equity – in service of real-world results.
The latest jobs report shows that our national recovery from the COVID pandemic and its economic impact will be slow and painful for millions of Americans, particularly those who did not have the luxury of wealth before the pandemic. It is increasingly clear that the capitalist system created for our society is not working for everyone, leaving some insulated from the wreckage of our economy, while others cannot escape. Without a change to the mechanisms of how our economy functions, there is no hope for a fully equitable recovery.
In our work at both the Kauffman Foundation (Philip) and Living Cities (Demetric), we have seen that entrepreneurship can be a fundamental pathway to economic growth and wealth-building. Yet, entrepreneurship is fundamentally different for those who have access to capital and those who do not. At least 83% of entrepreneurs do not receive either venture capital or a bank loan, leaving them worse off compared to their peers who are able to tap into capital markets. More recently, we have seen how this plays out in programs like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), where those who already had relationships with banks were able to tap into the funding while those who did not were left out.
Black entrepreneurs are less likely to be approved for small business loans, and when they are approved, receive lower amounts at higher interest rates.
These challenges are even greater for Black business owners. These individuals are unusually constrained by undercapitalization and lack access to traditional advisor and investor networks. Because Black people, and people of color more broadly, have suffered decades of systematic discrimination, they have less wealth compared to white peers. This disparity leads to a “friends and family” gap in funding. While many white entrepreneurs can rely on their own networks for seed funding and funding to scale, Black entrepreneurs are unable to do so. And therefore, in a vicious cycle, they also have less collateral to use as guarantees for loans.
As a result, Black entrepreneurs are less likely to be approved for small business loans, and when they are approved, receive lower amounts at higher interest rates compared to their white counterparts. While at least 77 percent of venture capital is invested in white men, only 1 percent of venture-backed founders are Black. However, data has shown that, for most asset classes, firms managed by people of color exhibit returns that are not significantly different than those of white-managed firms.
Fewer than 1.3 percent of the $69.1 trillion in global assets under the four major asset classes—mutual funds, hedge funds, real estate and private equity—are managed by white women and people of color, and only 1 percent of total assets are managed by Black people. That lack of diversity in venture capital and private equity results in a lack of diversity in the founders funded; therefore, investors are missing opportunities for higher financial return.
Capital decision-makers need to be knowledgeable about the history and root causes of the country’s racial wealth gaps.
Because Black and brown entrepreneurs continue to be the engine of employment in Black and brown communities, an equitable recovery requires us to rewrite how capital and access to capital work. To do so, capital decision-makers need to be knowledgeable about the history and root causes of the country’s racial wealth gaps. And, we need to explore new ways of investing in fund managers of color.
To begin to solve these challenges, Living Cities and the Kauffman Foundation are collaborating on an impact investing fund dedicated to closing the racial income and wealth gaps. The fund will invest in fund managers of color, and especially Black fund managers, to fill the capital gap and help entrepreneurs of color access more capital and grow their businesses.
The proposed fund will:
Provide Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) fund managers access to capital as well as technical supports to promote success.
Reduce the time it typically takes for a BIPOC fund manager to raise initial capital.
Enable emerging BIPOC fund managers to establish a track record, gain credibility and be positioned for future rounds of funding. This will, in turn, create a virtuous cycle of funding for Black fund managers with positive ripple impact to Black founders.
By providing emerging BIPOC fund managers with the tools for success, and supporting them to overcome structural barriers, we are supporting their ability to pay it forward by investing in entrepreneurs of color who will then generate wealth for their communities.
This fund will build off the work for the Kauffman Foundation’s Capital Access Lab, which provides new kinds of capital to underserved entrepreneurs and communities in the US, and Living Cities’ Capital for the New Majority, which blends grant dollars, philanthropic debt and commercial debt to invest in innovative solutions for closing the racial wealth gap. Together, our two organizations will work to identify promising solutions and investment opportunities that help establish what it means to have an equitable recovery.
In the latest #WealthInColor infographic, Living Cities and its local partners offer a visual representation of what exists for entrepreneurs in Albuquerque and what doesn’t, so that ecosystem builders can consider the solutions and connections that can be developed or strengthened.
The goal of the Start Up, Stay Up, Scale Up [SU(3)] initiative was to ensure that the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Albuquerque recognized founders of color who are currently seeking, or have the potential to acquire, angel or venture capital funding and to develop support for them. Through the project, Albuquerque’s ecosystem continued to evolve and become much more accessible, connected and functional. The local team identified existing entrepreneurs of color, conducted interviews to assess gaps in the ecosystem, created a portfolio of entrepreneurs to better connect them with each other and began to create an infrastructure to address the gaps in financial and social capital. Specifically, the local team heard how Albuquerque founders of color experienced unequal access to professional business development opportunities, second stage investment capital and mentorship.
To better understand the evolution of Albuquerque’s ecosystem, Living Cities worked with Kelli Cooper at the Albuquerque Community Foundation to map the players and resources present that support Black, Latinx and Native entrepreneurs. With their expertise, we’re able to show the issues inherent in the system across different types of support. They acknowledged that one size does not fit all in terms of the capital and technical assistance that could be offered to entrepreneurs from different cultures, in addition to the stage of their businesses. The local team was also conscious of harmful narratives that influence investors to think of founders of color are risky investments or worse, as obligatory charity.
The team pursued and explored these potential solutions:
Establish a tech transfer joint office for Sandia National Labs, Air Force Research Lab, Cecchi Venture Lab at Innovate ABQ
Develop capital access through a Racial Equity Fund
Develop Navigator to Acceleration to connect founders of color to affordable professional business services
Encourage peer networks and mentorship for entrepreneurs of color
Our intent with this graphic is to provide a visual representation of what exists for entrepreneurs in Albuquerque and what doesn’t, so that ecosystem builders can consider the solutions and connections that can be developed or strengthened. It’s important to note, however, that solutions need to include dismantling the institutional racism inherent in service organizations and local government policies and programs. As with the other cities in SU3 cohort, Albuquerque has to overcome the systemic barriers that have prevented businesses owned by people of color from thriving. At the same time it has the opportunity to build an equitable and inclusive ecosystem with intention, understanding of its racial history, and a commitment to sustainable investments.
As you browse the graphic, see the technical assistance landscape from the perspective of an entrepreneur looking for support to start up a business versus scaling up a business. Consider what markets are identified locally and in the region. Review the providers of capital and think about what long-term and sustainable investment means for Native American entrepreneurs.
After clicking through the various support structures, reading about the challenges for entrepreneurs of color, and considering how you can help implement proposed solutions, we recommend checking out our SU(3) Medium publication to read more about what Albuquerque ecosystem builders are doing to address these issues.