Centering Equity, Transforming Systems: A Profile on Joann Massey


Joann Massey has led Mayor Strickland’s Office of Business Diversity and Compliance in the City of Memphis since February 2016. “[Living Cities staff] are an extension of our team in so many ways,” she reflected as we opened our conversation about her experiences in the City Accelerator IV cohort, which focused on equity in procurement. When Joann was first hired, the office was brand new and its scope was limited. She knew, though, that to truly meet the needs of Memphis’s citizens, they had to expand their notion of what was possible. There is no one better suited to do this work than Joann, who has a vivacious, warm spirit and an attitude that makes it clear that once she has a goal, nothing will stand in her way to achieving it. “Anything can be done once we say we want to do it,” Joann told me. “If we don’t have it, we’ll go find it. Even if it’s not a tangible thing – a network, idea, etc. I don’t think city government has operated like that traditionally.”

Indeed, Joann and her team have proven that city government is capable of innovation and resourcefulness in a way that the public often hears it’s not. From where I sit, that’s due to the leadership that Joann embodies. She insists, though, that her partnership with Living Cities played a huge role in her office’s ability to innovate, so we dug into how exactly that worked and how Living Cities can replicate similar types of support in our future work.

At Living Cities we often reflect on our capacity to “give cover.” In Joann’s case, we were able to give her the cover she needed to innovate in her work. “When I first started in this role,” she said, “everyone around me was screaming: the city of Memphis is 63% African American and your numbers should match the demographics!” She knew that would be nearly impossible in the time frame she had. They were too far away from that rate, and the number of businesses available to contract with were limited. She looked to the Living Cities network, and reached out to folks she had met from Chicago to get their procurement data. Then she was able to go back to Memphis and offer a comparison. “That expectation reset was monumental,” she reflected. “What it did was it allowed the progress we were making to be absorbed by the community and elected officials. We garnered support because they said ‘you know what, [our progress is] actually good because we’re almost where Chicago is.” The Living Cities network offered “cover” for her by helping her team understand the national progress in this area and then put their local progress into context. “That support allowed us the breathing room to be innovative because we weren’t being pressured by expectations that were unreasonable to accomplish. Operating in that obtainable space allows us to stretch ourselves enough without breaking.”

The benefit that Joann and her team got from Living Cities cover didn’t come right away, though. Like many philanthropic and non-profit organizations, Living Cities has frequent internal shifts that inevitably impact our stakeholders. In Joann’s case, her first few months in the City Accelerator cohort were “very transactional.” The required quarterly reporting process was redundant and confusing. The first meeting was a lot of being “talked to.” Then, something shifted. Referencing Living Cities Associate Director Julie Bosland, Joann said “Julie took it to where we weren’t being talked to, but we were being talked with.” That’s when Joann learned of the people and offices nationwide against which she could measure her office’s progress. That’s when “it went from reporting to people.” That also happens to be around the same time that Living Cities was doing internal work to apply a racial equity lens to its philanthropic practices such as reporting.

Sometimes it can be hard for an organization going through a racial equity journey to recognize the impacts of that hard work in the moment, but as we look back and reflect with Joann’s help, we can see the significant impacts that relatively small shifts can make. Living Cities loosened the reporting process and shifted convenings to focus on participants connecting with each other, and suddenly Joann was “110% engaged.” Her experience then “went beyond the boxes and became authentic.” At this point she referenced the names of at least seven staff members and reflected, “It is sustaining. I feel empowered because of our relationships. When [my team and I] have an idea, a need, when there is a thought, we have a source, we’re not afraid. We are empowered to move and that’s because with Living Cities and even with [Living Cities member and partner on City Accelerator,] Citi Foundation, we actually talk [to each other].”

The engagement and authenticity in the partnership between Joann’s office and Living Cities has also impacted the ways that both of our organizations engage with other partners. “The power of collaboration that I learned through Living Cities has spilled over to local relationships,” she said. The signature initiative that’s come from Joann’s leadership is The 800 Initiative, which seeks to grow the ecosystem of businesses owned by people of color in Memphis. When getting it started, she reflected on what she learned about collaboration to “bring the right ingredients together,” resulting in a uniquely diverse set of cross-sector partners co-owning the initiative.

Further, Joann’s team has spearheaded transformation of the way people collaborate across departments of Memphis city government. The housing and community development offices now come together on a regular basis to ensure that their efforts focus on cultivating entrepreneurs and businesses in predominantly Black and people of color neighborhoods. This kind of cross-departmental collaboration with a focus on building Black wealth is very rare in local government. Joann attributes the possibility of it largely to two key factors: the trust that her team has been able to cultivate with a range of external and internal stakeholders, and a loosening of structures. “Strict structure isn’t the way of the world anymore, so allow for a more natural engagement. I think that would help people bond.” And the bonds are what make the deep engagement possible, which is what brings the work to life. As we design the Closing the Gaps Network, Living Cities is heeding Joann’s advice to cultivate trust with our stakeholders and advance authentic, relational approaches to closing racial gaps.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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Racial Equity is a Marathon: Honoring Past Labor and the Work to Come

Across the country, we are seeing elected officials and career-long public servants rise to the challenges of COVID19 while centering the needs of their most vulnerable communities. Its important to reflect on their response and acknowledge the hard work that has happened pre-COVID to make an equitable response possible.

Mayors wasted little time in bringing attention to racial disparities of COVID-19’s impact on their community. In April, the 500 member African-Americans Mayors Association issued a letter to the President requesting race, ethnicity and supply chain data on testing and cases, PPE, and individuals losing company-sponsored health insurance due to job loss. In an interview with CNN, Philadelphia’s Mayor Kenney said, “Systemic racism and bad policy over the years has created a situation where African Americans and other people of color are more susceptible to hypertension, diabetes, and the like, and that is just as much a tragedy and as much as a crisis in this country, as the coronavirus is.” The Mayor moved testing sites into Philadelphia’s Black and Latinx neighborhoods to do “everything we can do and shows like this hopefully will also impact people to understand that this is really serious, and we don’t want to lose you.”

“Systemic racism and bad policy over the years has created a situation where African Americans and other people of color are more susceptible to hypertension, diabetes, and the like, and that is just as much a tragedy and as much as a crisis in this country, as the coronavirus is.”

Many mayors have been forming racial equity-focused taskforces. “In response to the shockingly disproportionate impact this disease has had on our communities, [Chicago’s] Racial Equity Rapid Response taskforce (RERRT) is working aggressively and in close collaboration with local leaders and partners to mount a public health response that addresses the specific and contextualized needs of our residents and families.” Mayor Lightfoot’s taskforce was first created to address the spike in cases among Chicago’s African American community. The taskforce is expanding their scope to address the surge of cases in Latinx neighborhoods with an equally potent response.

When Mayor Libby Schaff announced Oakland’s Racial Disparity Taskforce, she said in this news video “We must take this unprecedented pandemic to create an unprecedented justice for people of color and vulnerable residents.” Oakland’s taskforce is developing a COVID-19 Vulnerability Index measure to inform decisions. Meanwhile Pittsburgh’s Mayor Peduto has used a virtual bully pulpit to communicate his commitment to racial equity. This video is first in a series on COVID-19 and equity discussions with his staff. Recently, Pittsburgh’s council approved the creation of a racial equity taskforce.

[Similar Task Forces: Louisiana/Governor Edwards, Massachussetts, Greater Flint, Michigan and the state Michigan].

“People in the community are READY. They were further along than the city leaders …they were waiting for the government to catch up to where they are.”

Impressive as these commitments are, we must not forget to acknowledge that there are unelected leaders who have led many of our elected leaders to their current response. They are the career public servants who have been imagining what a racially equitable, just and prosperous society would look like, for the long haul. They are also the community organizers who have been trying to bring community needs and demands to the table for decades. “People in the community are READY. They were further along than the city leaders …they were waiting for the government to catch up to where they are,“ Christina Brooks, Chief Equity Officer of Fort Worth told us. Most equity officers have been working closely with community members who have proposed solutions in the past to racial disparities in health and economic opportunities.. They have also been working internally to train staff to apply a racial equity lens to decision-making and operations prior to Covid. Due to the work that was done prior to this crisis, public servants and their staff across the country are quickly discovering inequities in service delivery and are developing partnerships internally and externally to address them. In Minneapolis, the City has contracted with community health healers to support those who are “experiencing crisis and whose ability to receive in person help is either limited or not existent at this time.” The program manager for the City’s ReCAST Initiative noted in this Next City article that applicants who had been providing services to underserved communities “for a long time” were identified to receive the City’s Mental Health Fund which is focused on helping people of color, women, indigenous people, disabled people, and those who are undocumented. Other key partnerships across the country have also been with Chiefs of Staff who have been advising their mayors on operationalizing racial equity promises and championing strategies learned from their own teams and peers from around the country.

We have been learning from these policy and decision makers, sparkplugs, and programmatic staff as they respond to the pandemic and plan for an equitable recovery. They acknowledge that aspirations don’t become reality without a struggle and changes won’t happen overnight. Racial equity practice and promises are being tested as administrations around the country attempt to apply a racial equity lens to COVID-responses and recovery. Here are examples from three cities:

Through a partnership with the City of Austin’s Equity office, the Family Independence Initiative and 30 local community organizations, provided direct cash payments of $2000 to 1000 families. Recipients include undocumented residents who would not be covered by any other stimulus relief support.

San Antonio also created a Rapid Response Tool with a framework that encourages staff to “reach out to the City of San Antonio equity staff, the Community Health Workers, the organizers and activists who work with [BIPOC] communities daily, and pull them into decision making so that as we continue to make rapid-fire decisions, we know that critical voices are present in key roles.”

“Build Back Better Together: Now, Next, Beyond” plan is driven by the values of equity, compassion and trust. Metro Louisville is not only communicating with residents about what it is currently doing to help them and local businesses but they are soliciting input through a survey on what a complete and equitable economy looks like beyond the pandemic.

Covid-19 has opened a space for all of us to reimagine how to use our power and direct resources to directly affect the life or death of people of color. At Living Cities, we are using our convening and connective muscles to support public servants and their elected leaders who committed to closing racial income and wealth gaps: connecting them to one another, hosting conversations for them to consider centering race in their response to COVID, coaching them through challenging power dynamics, and sharing tools and resources developed by their peers, ourselves and our partners to support decisions they are making and programs they are implementing for an equitable recovery. This is the marathon we’ve been training for.

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Centering Equity, Transforming Systems: A Profile on Ashleigh Gardere


Ashleigh Gardere has been a friend and partner to Living Cities for over six years. Our partnership began many moons ago, during the launch of the second round of The Integration Initiative in 2014. At the time she was serving as a Senior Advisor to Mayor Mitch Landrieu in New Orleans, LA. In this role, she managed the Mayor’s Economic Opportunity Strategy. Most recently, she was the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at the New Orleans Business Alliance and is currently transitioning out of that role in order to inform, provoke and accelerate action at the national level.

Having to rebuild the very systems necessary for civilization caused us to lean into relationship building and partnership.

As we began our conversation, one of the first things she mentioned was the ways in which Hurricane Katrina caused the city of New Orleans to shift the way they thought about collaboration in service of the outcomes they desired for their city. In reflection of this conversation that I had with Ashleigh just a few weeks before America had caught on to the severity of COVID19 and its effects, I can’t help but think of the ways in which what she shared with me that day, resonate so much in this moment. That for me illuminated the ways in which crises’ like the one we’re living through right now and Hurricane Katina in 2005, can be the catalyst for a shift in operations and different ways of existing and organizing/working. “Having to rebuild the very systems necessary for civilization caused us to lean into relationship building and partnership,” she said.

In reflection of how participation in the Integration Initiative impacted her work she shared that, “a new leadership style and discipline focused on the concept of shared results was transformative. This new approach changed our thinking about who needed to be at the table to achieve meaningful outcomes.” The rigor of agreeing on a shared result then caused Ashleigh’s team and local partners in New Orleans to elevate a single data point that became central to their work. “52% of working age, African American men in New Orleans weren’t working. We decided to be courageous around significantly reducing that data point.” The network of partners began thinking about the root causes that have contributed to that data point and what “meaningful interventions” as she put it, would be necessary to move that number. Ultimately, her team became nimble about their strategies in the areas of workforce development and small business growth under the assumption that, “if we grew Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (DBEs) and their revenue, they would and could hire more workers and were likely to hire folks that looked like them.” During the time Ashleigh and her team were in partnership with us working toward that shared result, they saw their 52% unemployment rate drop to 43.9%. “On the small business side, we surpassed the city’s goal of achieving a 35% participation rate from DBEs with a total of 48.62% DBE participation.”

Being able to stand for each other was transformational.

As we shifted gears to talk a bit more about what it felt like to be part of a learning community within the Integration Initiative, I began to settle in; it was exciting to hear so many of the results I’d seen in numbers come to life through her storytelling. “Living Cities will always have a special place in my heart,” she said. She painted the picture of every semi-annual TII leaning community convening as a reunion of trusted partners; speaking specifically of her fellow Initiative Directors (ID) in the TII cohort. As she put it, “every 6 months is about the time that you start to feel lonely in this work.” She shared joyously about what it felt like to be able to reconvene with the TII community, especially during moments when they [IDs] each needed support “being able to stand for each other was transformational.”

As our conversation neared its end, I asked Ashleigh about this national network that she’s now been growing over the past few years and how she’s been able to leverage those relationships to achieve outcomes in her city. “Half the reason I can say I have a national network is because of Living Cities,” she said. She revelled at the memories of being able to celebrate the success of fellow TII IDs like Robin Brule, Tawanna Black, Monique Baptiste and Kurt Sommer, in community with one another. The joy that was present in those memories could be felt– even if we were just on the phone.

At Living Cities, we talk often about the importance of relationships and critical friendships; Ashleigh, more than most, has felt the impact of those relationships and critical friendships in transformational ways. She shared a story about how she leveraged her critical friendships to help New Orleans stay on the right side of history regarding workforce development and equity. In 2015, the New Orleans City Council passed Hire NOLA, the same policy that allowed Ashleigh’s team to work toward the inclusive procurement practices I mentioned above. In turn, the city became the subject of state preemption– this would have eliminated the local hiring and DBE policies Ashleigh and her team had worked to create to increase Black male employment rates in New Orleans. In response, Ashleigh picked up the phone and called on her national partners. Philanthropic leaders, including ourselves, were able to ask tough questions without political repercussions, giving the city and Ashleigh’s partners the support needed politically to defeat the preemption bill. Other national organizations like Policy Link and City Lab also wrote articles in support of the local hiring policy. “That changed the game, that was evidence of our partnership,” she said.

At Living Cities, we are increasingly encouraged by folks, like Ashleigh, who are working across systems, building and leveraging relationships, and centering racial equity across their work. These are the leaders that will bridge us into the world of abundance and dignity, where all people are given a chance to thrive, that so many of us are working and striving toward.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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Centering Equity, Transforming Systems: A Profile on Daro Mott

Daro Mott worked with Mayor Fischer in the City of Louisville—Jefferson County as the Chief of Performance Improvement from the Fall of 2016 through the end of 2018. “I had such a fantastic relationship with Living Cities during that time,” he reflected as we opened our conversation about his experiences in the Project on Municipal Innovation (PMI) cohort. The Chief Equity Officer in Louisville at that time was Kellie Watson, and together they deployed a number of best practices that they learned through their work with Living Cities. For example, they looked at their performance management program, LouieStat, and realized that they could be more intentional about racial equity measurements. They started to embed new measures that helped the City better understand how they could improve delivery of key services to residents, particularly residents of color.

When it comes to what made Daro’s relationship with Living Cities “fantastic,” it really came down to two things. First, the network of peers he was able to tap into and dialogue with about similar challenges they were facing. Second, the responsiveness and humanity he experienced in his relationships with Living Cities staff. We hear these two pieces of feedback a lot, but I was struck by a story Daro shared that highlighted both of these things, and how they can show up in moments of crisis.

In October 2018, a white gunman shot and killed two African Americans outside a local Louisville grocery store. One of the victims happened to be the father of Louisville’s Chief Equity Officer, who Daro had mentioned was one of his closest collaborators. Any hate crime is tragic, but this one really hit close to home for the City of Louisville’s staff. “That was a difficult, difficult time,” Daro said sullenly. Almost immediately, Daro had to go into action mode and help Mayor Fischer’s senior leadership team align on strategy to move forward. One of his first steps was to call Living Cities. Elizabeth Reynoso, Associate Director of Public Sector Innovation, and Ben Hecht, CEO, responded right away. They offered up resources for the response, including a consultant to support the creation of a reconciliation plan. “That was transformational,” Daro reflected.

Just three days after the shooting in Louisville, a white supremacist gunman shot 17 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 and injuring six. Daro was stunned to hear this news, and immediately thought about Pittsburgh’s Chief of Staff, Dan Gilman, who he had met through the PMI cohort. He reached out and shared a “hate crime action plan” which his team had leveraged from the GARE network. The plan helped inform the City of Pittsburgh’s response to the hate crime they were responding to. “All of this comes back to how Living Cities really allows a network of very connected city leaders to problem solve together, share information and resources, and help develop a community of practice around [racial equity] practices,” Daro said after sharing the ways in which he and Dan were able to support each other through that challenging time in late 2018.

By this point in our conversation, I felt close to Daro. I happen to be from Pittsburgh, so the story he shared and the role he played in moving Pittsburgh toward a racial reckoning was deeply personal to me. Yet, I knew his relationship with Living Cities couldn’t have been so positive in every case. What can we learn from your experience that will help us be better partners to city governments in the future?, I asked Daro. This question brought him back to a PMI convening that Living Cities hosted with our partners at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. “There was a lot of dialogue around something that I thought was not fully tested by cities. It seemed more relevant to academic contexts,” Daro shared as he reflected on a racial equity training that brought out “raw feelings and emotions” among the participants. Despite the fact that many of the participants were steeped in racial equity work, they were not prepared to go as deep as this particular training offered, either because their work presented barriers to fully integrating it, or because there was not a clear framing around the connections between the training and their work.

As we spoke about what Living Cities can learn from that experience, the importance of intentionality rose to the surface. The folks in that training were doing racial equity work in earnest, but they were balancing that with their responsibilities to the institution of government–its budgets, programs, people. This part of our conversation was particularly important to me because Living Cities is in the process of designing a network that will engage city leaders to advance deep transformation of local government structures. We recognize the challenges that earnest public servants face (“balancing budgets and police relations and what about potholes?”), and we know that the time is now to make government truly responsive to communities of color. So what can we do?

“One of the good things that came out of that [difficult training] was that Living Cities staff created a cohort of early adopters to get a more intimate experience with the racial equity focus,” Daro was reminded. He also acknowledged that the training itself had merit, but that participants needed support thinking through the actions they could take based on the key ideas that were presented. People in the public sector are “dealing with 15 hot potatoes at any time,” so our work at Living Cities has to be about supporting public servants to shape racial equity interventions as “potholders,” so to speak. One of our values is that racial equity is a process and an outcome. As we design the Closing the Gaps Network, we must reflect on how the process of racial equity can make “dealing with 15 hot potatoes” more manageable for public servants.

In the context of driving community outcomes, today Daro’s work focuses on giving people of color a seat at decision-making and wealth-building tables. “One of the things that became crystal clear to me [through my work with Living Cities] was that I needed to address some of the structural causes,” he said. “If I’m hiring, mentoring, or doing anything, I have to make sure I have the discipline of using [racial equity] tools I’ve learned from Living Cities and internalizing them when I make my daily decisions.” Recently, he coached one of his employees to reflect on the possibility of hosting future team events at businesses owned by people of color. “People make daily decisions without thinking about it through an equity lens,” he said, almost as if reminding himself of this reality. Under Daro’s leadership, though, I am confident that far more of us will be applying an equity lens day in and day out.

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Centering Equity, Transforming Systems: A Profile on Dr. Lomax R. Campbell

“I’ve grown into my City Hall role with Living Cities by my side,” Lomax shared. According to him an Office of Community Wealth Building, isn’t common in city government. “What we are doing in Rochester is doing something that is counter-cultural to the system,” he reflected.

As we delved into the impact the City Accelerator has had on his work, Lomax shared the ways in which the cohort’s “amazing program and experience,” as he put it, helped him grow into his position of director and build a progressive office in City Hall. In his role, Lomax is responsible for collaborating with a diverse array of community partners to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem that fosters communal wealth and helps Rochester’s citizens thrive. Just days after this first day on the job, a large part of that role became to participate in the City Accelerator: Local Business Starts and Growth cohort.

In reflection of how Rochester’s racial equity journey has shifted after their participation in City Accelerator, Lomax described Living Cities’ role as “notably impactful.” He shared several examples of how his relationships with partners in the field have evolved post-City Accelerator and how racial equity has been embedded into his outcomes; a few of his anecdotes, shared below, stood out to me.

After attending the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s (PISAB) Undoing Racism® Community Organizing workshop as part of City Accelerator, Rochester has gone on to partner more deeply with the folks at PISAB. They have been building their own personal relationship with the organization and have been able to fund and host three more Undoing Racism® workshops in their city. “Our partnership with PISAB has grown enough that we’ve created a chapter of PISAB [Western New York Undoing Racism® Alumni Network] here, in the City of Rochester,” he shared. The impact from Undoing Racism® led Rochester to add a budget item in their office to continue to deepen their equity lens. “Our vision is to systematize this training across the City of Rochester so all city leaders will be required to undergo this training,” Lomax shared.

The intentionality and excitement Lomax evidently has for this work energized me. His eagerness to grow Rochester’s Undoing Racism® Alumni Network to, “bring more heart, hands, and minds together,” as he stated is exactly what we at Living Cities, aim to achieve. We speak so much about how important common language is in this work and believe deeply that PISAB’s Undoing Racism® training provides a framing that can help connect city leaders to the framework that is required to undo structural and systemic racism. To see alumni of our programs, like Lomax, take in the tools and resources we share and continue to share this wisdom with his network is exactly the kind of action we’re hoping folks will continue to take. Lomax’s personal connection to this work jumped out to me in particular. He shared about how he’d even gone down to visit New Orleans, where PISAB is headquartered, with his wife; together they toured the city, and shared time with some of the PISAB organizers that we work closely with like Dr. Kimberly Richards. He even paid a visit to some of her top recommended New Orleans attractions like Studio Be, a collaboration with over 40 artists who created pieces that spoke to the racial violence that had led to the site’s unoccupied state.

With initial funding that came out of the City Accelerator initiative, Rochester was able to match funding they’d received from other entities. They are now able to cover three years of funding for vital regional data consolidation resources powered by SourceLink®—locally being branded Nexus I90—which helps local governments with job creation through entrepreneurship-led economic development systems (including a resource navigator, small business hotline, a central events calendar, and customer relationship management system) for ecosystem builders. Lomax went on to share one of the many ways that Rochester is embedding equity into their processes, “We are working to standardize the Undoing Racism® training by embedding it as a requirement for organizations who wish to be listed in our SourceLink,” he shared. We are excited to see the ways in which folks who hold power, like Lomax, are leveraging it strategically to think about how they can institutionalize fundamental racial equity training in this way.

As we work to build a future network, similar to City Accelerator, that will convene a community of folks, like Lomax, who are agents of change within city government to build competencies and better understand how to leverage their power to shift systemic inequities; we are eager to hear from Lomax and his peers about what we, and other funding organizations, should do to support city government toward a more transformational way of working. Lomax responded candidly, “We’re trying to shift entire cultures of multiple organizations across communities—that requires trust.” “To do so,” he says, “we must build community trust and show that progress is happening toward community goals versus giving lip service.” He shared his own stories of noting a difference in energy within the City Council when they share initiatives being funded by the government (i.e., taxpayer dollars) versus initiatives being funded by external funders, like Living Cities. “When they think city dollars are being used, politics can come into play; but if it’s externally funded, they are generally more amenable to giving support.” He went on to share that nimble initiatives that can show progress within a short period of time can build or restore trust.

According to Lomax, “the explicit information sharing across city governments was one of the most impactful pieces of the City Accelerator.” He shared that prior to connecting with folks from the city of Atlanta at a City Accelerator hosted Undoing Racism®, they hadn’t known about tools like Atlanta’s Community Engagement Playbook . Now that Rochester has found the tool, they will adapt it and include it as part of their leadership development efforts to further normalize centering community/equity in leadership decision-making.

As Lomax remembered what it meant and felt like to be “in community” with folks doing similar work to him during City Accelerator, the word “ubuntu” came to his mind. “Ubuntu” as he explained it, was used to emphasize the compassion, humanity, and connectivity that is required to do racial equity work. “It takes a village,” he said. I deeply understood that connection as someone who subscribes to the idea that racial equity work must be collective and collaborative to shift the systemic oppression that lives and grows within the groundwater of our nation’s roots. “One thing we’ve quickly learned is that there isn’t a big space in terms of racial equity work,” he emphasized in relation to the reality that many of the people doing “the real work” know each other.

Although the coalition of those who are willing to authentically push for racial equity is currently small, we can grow it if we continue to build off of the work that folks like Lomax are doing and build a collective that is sharing information and aligning strategies to create a systemic shift toward equity and inclusion.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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Parks for All, Not Just the Privileged: Data-Driven Approaches to Park Equity

City Parks Alliance believes that all residents deserve access to high quality parks, and we believe that cities are wise to prioritize access for all residents for the health, environmental, and community benefits. That is why we also recently commissioned Investing in Equitable Urban Park Systems: Emerging Strategies and Tools, as part of a national initiative to help cities address park equity while promoting innovative strategies for funding parks and green infrastructure. Urban Institute led the research and published the report, which explores funding models and their equity considerations in cities of various sizes across the country.

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Stormwater Management is an Equity Issue

As extreme weather conditions become the new normal—from floods in Baton Rouge and Venice to wildfires in California, we need to clean and save stormwater for future use while protecting communities from flooding and exposure to contaminated water. Changing how we manage stormwater has the potential to preserve access to water for future generations; prevent […]

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Foundations and Financial Institutions Recommit to Work for Racial Equity

I don’t have to look hard at the world around me today to find reasons for despair. We are being confronted daily with the fragility of institutions and norms that many of us took for granted. Inequality and racial gaps continue to grow relentlessly despite decades of well-intentioned work. A shockingly large number of Americans seem, at best, indifferent. The weight of these challenges and the complexity of their solutions can feel overwhelming.

It’s impossible to live in America today without being conscious of the ever-growing racial inequities, and the racism that has been in the groundwater of the country since our founding.

But for me, my role as president and CEO of Living Cities has served as a source of hope and optimism in these pretty dark times. That’s because I am seeing 18 of the world’s largest and most powerful foundations and financial institutions honestly grapple with how to effect change closer to the root causes of today’s mess. By acknowledging the limitations of working alone, exploring ways of collaborating differently, and confronting difficult realities around historical and ongoing injustice, the impact of members’ collective efforts may actually stand a chance of being commensurate with the scope of the problems we face.

This past May, those 18 institutions agreed to fund and govern the collaborative for another three-year period. This was the tenth time—dating back to 1991—that members have made this commitment. In fact, almost all of the foundations and financial institutions making up the Living Cities collaborative today have been at the table for more than half of our 28-year history. Just like the previous nine times they have been at this juncture before, the board recognized the ongoing importance of taking the long view, and having the patience to invest in and observe real, long-term change.


However, unlike previous periods, the stated purpose of their work together is very different. For most of Living Cities’ history, our mission was broadly defined as achieving better outcomes for low-income people in US cities. But it’s impossible to live in America today without being conscious of the ever-growing racial inequities, and the racism that has been in the groundwater of the country since our founding. As we dug into root causes of economic inequality in the United States, we couldn’t escape the fact that race remains one of the strongest predictors of life outcomes. Without putting race and racism at the center of our work and our analysis, we simply had no hope of achieving our mission of achieving economic security for all. Therefore, today our collaborative is unapologetically about race and closing the racial gaps in income and wealth.


The board’s willingness to stay together for more than two decades, fund in three year rounds, and focus squarely on closing racial gaps is an anomaly within our current system. Our board recognizes that change takes time; the results we set for ourselves, and the partnerships and programs we develop to achieve them, are oriented around a ten-year or longer time horizon. Importantly, board and staff members have also been reckoning with and strengthening our analysis of the history and legacy of structural racism in this country and in our own institutions. I am encouraged by the way this collaborative model goes to the heart of criticism that philanthropy incentivizes programmatic, short-term fixes that don’t upset the status quo and have little accountability to achieving results.

Working together differently—centering race and a focus on a shared result—has also opened the door to different types of questions around the boardroom table: What could we do differently as an institution—or, perhaps, stop doing—to bring us closer to our shared goal? As individual leaders, what research, resources or relationships do I have access to that could support our collective progress?

What could we do differently as an institution—or, perhaps, stop doing—to bring us closer to our shared goal?

This has resulted in anything but business as usual. Over the last three years, sparked by these kinds of questions, board members and their staff have collaborated on issues ranging from racial inequity within the halls of local government—giving rise to our Racial Equity Here initiative—to shifting narratives in corporate America to promote equity as a business imperative. Participants in these narrative change efforts have used their own personal relationships to connect with C-suite leaders in the private sector, and begin to build a coalition of the willing.

Individual board members have shifted internal practices within their own institutions to combat the racism in our groundwater—interrogating hiring practices, measurement and evaluation practices, procurement and more within their own institutions. One member vastly increased funding for racial equity competency building among the foundation’s grantees. In the last year alone, we’ve co-hosted Undoing Racism workshops around the country with a variety of partners including the City of Austin, the Ford Foundation, the Boston Federal Reserve, and the Collective Impact Forum. These workshops were aimed at supporting changemakers in our networks to center race in their work, to see themselves as anti-racist organizers within their institutions, and to connect them to a broader cross-sector movement. Through survey responses, we have received overwhelmingly positive feedback about the value and impact of this training for participants in their own work.

We have a long way to go. But the ambition and commitment of member institutions, the Living Cities board of directors, and their staff is a source of inspiration for me as we continue working toward a world where race is no longer a predictor of outcomes. It’s on all of us—within philanthropy and beyond—not to rest on good intentions, but to hold up the mirror to our own institutions and to ourselves in order to create renewed hope in the promise of America, this time very intentionally for all.

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CityLab Daily: Why Public Transit Is an Equity Battleground

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What We’re Following

Standard fare: In New York City, a spate of attention has come recently to policing America’s largest transit system. As part of a new campaign to combat fare evasion, the MTA hired new cops to police the subway. When videos of aggressive arrests surfaced, protesters demonstrated against the police presence by jumping turnstiles en masse.

Transit systems across the world—from Santiago to London to Hong Kong—have become theaters for protest over the inequity of communities. In part, according to Alexis Perrotta, a lecturer at Baruch College, that’s because buses and subways serve as a special kind of egalitarian public space where “you are in community automatically with the people around you.” Drawing from her research interviewing riders, Perrotta explains the thought process of riders who choose to evade fares:

It’s a rational decision, and a frightening and terrible decision that you have to make because you are poor. What do you do? You still have to continue living. Being able to move around the city is just being able to continue living.

Read an interview with Perrotta on CityLab: Why Public Transit Is an Equity Battleground

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

Talent May Be Shifting Away From Superstar Cities

According to a new analysis, places away from the coasts in the Sunbelt and West are pulling ahead when it comes to attracting talented workers.

Richard Florida

My Fight With a Sidewalk Robot

A life-threatening encounter with AI technology convinced me that the needs of people with disabilities need to be engineered into our autonomous future.

Emily Ackerman

The Three Personalities of America, Mapped

People in different regions of the U.S. have measurably different psychological profiles.

Olga Khazan

Native American Tribe Gets Its Land Back, 159 Years After Brutal Massacre

The Wiyot Tribe was driven from California’s Duluwat Island in 1860. After decades of lobbying by the tribe, the Eureka City Council returned it.

Sarah Holder

Mile-High Perspective

Perspective map of the city of Denver, Colo. 1889, by Henry Wellge. (Library of Congress)

There’s more to fast-changing Denver than beer, hiking, and skiing. Still, it can be daunting for a new resident to penetrate that shallow surface. “There is no newcomers’ guide for urbanist ennui,” writes Andrew Kenney, who decamped to the Colorado capital when his partner found a good job opening. But this old map above—”Perspective map of the city of Denver, Colo. 1889”—gave Kenney a clue about where to look:

The map captured a sweeping bird’s eye view of the early city. It was distorted and perhaps embellished to impress unsuspecting would-be transplants, not unlike the modern city. But as I pored over its rendition of the South Platte River, I realized I could sync its details to real life, block by block.

From CityLab’s Maps that Make Us series: What an Old Map of Denver Can Teach a Newcomer

What We’re Reading

The quiet rooms: In schools across Illinois, kids are being locked away alone and terrified. Often, it’s against the law. (ProPublica)

As climate risk grows, cities test a tough strategy: saying “no” to developers (New York Times)

Why Walmart is turning its headquarters into a walkable town square (Curbed)

What it takes to be carbon neutral—for a family, a city, a country (Washington Post)

Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to

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Impact vs. Intent: Initial Lessons from Third Sector’s Equity Journey

What does a low-income community look like? What systems and programs, while often well-intentioned, serve as the foot of oppression for keeping this neighborhood economically poor?

After conducting this power analysis as part of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s Undoing Racism Workshop, hosted by Living Cities, there was no denying the immense privilege and power Third Sector has to influence systems and their outcomes for low-income communities and communities of color. This was a wake-up call for us. It helped us to understand the role we potentially play in perpetuating systemic inequities and prompted us to commit ourselves to being vigilant and intentional about how we do our work.

Over the last 18 months, a number of factors, including the power analysis, have led us to realize that we must embrace an equity-centered approach in order to achieve our mission. Because the public and social sectors have a history of racism that leads to disproportionately poor outcomes for communities of color, we cannot ignore the influence of racism on our work. We have committed to upholding Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and have dedicated significant resources to improving DEI, both internally and externally. This includes sending every staff member to the Undoing Racism Workshop, revisiting our policies and practices, and hosting ongoing trainings and informal conversations. While our journey has not always been easy, we know it is the right journey to be on and want to offer some lessons learned for other organizations who are embarking on their own DEI path, as Living Cities has done for us.

1. Connect DEI to organizational values and ability to achieve mission

Recent staff feedback and guidance from Erika Bernabei of Equity & Results revealed the extent to which we need to more explicitly help team members understand why DEI is critical to us living our values and executing on our mission. We are communicating more proactively, starting with new staff on-boarding. If we want to guide governments to reengineer their systems to produce more positive, equitable results, we must do our work differently. Without an explicit equity focus, outcomes are unlikely to improve and we risk furthering the disparities that do exist.

2. Take a hard look at the role of quantitative and qualitative data in our work

Without an explicit equity focus, outcomes are unlikely to improve and we risk furthering the disparities that do exist.

Data has always been a critical lever for our work. We stress the importance of accessing externally validated datasets, oftentimes collected at the federal or state levels, and using that data to establish baselines and benchmarks in order to measure program impact. However, at government client urging, we realized that it is not enough to simply check the frequency of data collection or reliability of the data quality when taking an equity-centered approach. Disaggregating data based on population characteristics is the first step, but more important is layering qualitative analysis, such as user journey mapping, participatory research, and community focus groups to provide community context and voice to the data insights.

3. Create spaces for personal and interpersonal reflections and growth

Like most folks working in the social sector, our staff have been trained to focus on implementing solutions and measuring progress. It is not surprising that many of our initial DEI efforts have been tangible tactics within recruitment, HR, and project planning. We often fail to give ourselves the necessary time and space to truly grapple with how each of us has been affected by systemic racism. After the Undoing Racism Workshop, we see staff starting to unpack the relationship between the racism that lives in the systems and our individual biases and actions that result from and contribute to systemic racism. We have created spaces for broader discussions and affinity groups to help staff process this personal aspect. There is still an inclination to jump to tools and solutions, but we know this intentionality is the first step in figuring out how we support one another on our individual journeys, which is critical to organizational progress.

4. Stay focused on impact, not intent

We often fail to give ourselves the necessary time and space to truly grapple with how each of us has been affected by systemic racism.

We preach the value of outcomes orientation in government funding and service delivery. Yet, when making changes to improve DEI, it’s easy to abandon our own outcomes orientation. For example, we did not intend for our interview process to filter out the majority of candidates of color in the first round, but a focus on intent alone allowed us to continue perpetuating inequitable practices. Initial data revealed that our recruitment pipeline and process were falling short in helping us hiring more candidates of color. So, we updated our job descriptions and interview process to attract more diverse candidates and to value a wider range of skill sets and experiences. We will keep measuring the impact of these changes and make further adjustments, as needed.

While Third Sector is still far from achieving our goal of becoming an antiracist organization, we are hopeful that our outcomes will soon reflect our efforts. If not, we will continue learning and adapting. Along the way, we are so grateful to learn with and receive support from peers who are also on their own DEI journey and welcome outreach, feedback, and ideas to help us all shift power to communities of color.

Third Sector works with communities nationally to deploy government resources towards positive, long-term outcomes in areas such as housing stability, child development, post-secondary education, workforce and economic mobility, and mental health. Of the many ways to promote improved community outcomes, Third Sector leverages public funding and data to accelerate the transition to a performance-driven social sector.

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