Living Cities Blog en-us Wed, 17 Sep 2014 00:00:00 -0400 15 2013 Census Poverty Report Should Drive Action Yesterday, the Census Bureau reported that the national poverty rate declined slightly last year for the first time since 2006. However the drop in the overall poverty rate—from 15% in 2012 to 14.5% in 2013—was not enough to signal a statistically significant change in the number of poor people. There was also no notable change in the median household income. The numbers, although they suggest that the economy is improving incrementally, also highlight some realities that if uninterrupted will likely add up to a troubling new normal.

The 2.8 million net new full-time jobs created have helped families hit by the Great Recession, as evidenced by a heartening decline in the poverty rate for children below the age of eighteen—a statistically significant change from 21.8% in 2012 to 19.9% in 2013. But, we have by no means seen a full recovery. Median income is still 8% lower than it was in 2007. And, incomes at the bottom of the distribution have remained stagnant in the last 40 years—a fact that is a key contributor to income inequality which did not change significantly in the last year, but remains historically high.

Not surprisingly given these trends, much of the analysis of the data has focused on the need to meaningfully address inequality. It is clear that failing to do so will have devastating long-term effects on our economy, our place in the world, our democracy, and our way of life.

Here is some of what people are saying about the Census data and other related studies:

Here at Living Cities, we share these concerns about how we are faring. The numbers are daunting. But, we believe that we can change course. It will not be easy and it will require unprecedented levels of collaboration, innovation and, perhaps most of all, optimism. Optimism has long been, like the idea of shared prosperity, a driver of the American Dream. We do not need the kind of optimism that renders us blind to current realities, but rather the kind that starts with the possibility that we can create something better. And, the kind that is not satisfied with managing decline, or with the status quo, or even with incremental change. That kind of optimism will lead to bigger, better and faster solutions. We look forward to working with other optimists to imagine, build and grow them.

]]> Wed, 17 Sep 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Nadia Owusu
Time to Integrate our Separate and Unequal Business Development Systems When it comes to boosting minority entrepreneurship, business growth and hiring, our nation has been using more or less the same strategies for well over a quarter century – with essentially the same results. African Americans and Latinos comprise over 30% of the American population today, and will become the American majority in the next 25 years. African American and Latino owned businesses, however, generate less than 4% of U.S. GDP. Meanwhile, the range of approaches to minority business development, which includes special certification processes, connections to private and government procurement opportunities, capital access strategies and the like, is evolving too slowly.

We have enough of a track record to know that current approaches, while groundbreaking and appropriate in times past, will not generate the scale or pace of progress that we need as we head into a majority-minority future. Nor will they help minority entrepreneurs and businesses keep pace with the blistering technological, environmental and other changes taking place today. And since minority-owned and -led businesses are proven by research to hire more minorities, the long-term economic implications of this challenge are profound.

We don’t have all the answers as to how exactly to “reinvent” the minority business assistance landscape, but we know more than we might think.

Minority communities are home to a lot of talent, but need connections to opportunities

We know from our work at MainStreet Inclusion Advisors, a firm connecting underserved populations to high-growth and innovation-based business opportunities, that there are tens of thousands of talented, highly skilled people of color in communities across the country. These entrepreneurs, however, are disconnected from opportunities to grow their own, or get on board with, high-growth potential businesses. This is particularly the case with technology and innovation-based businesses where there are two parallel – separate and unequal – business development ecosystems, one “mainstream” and one specialized for minorities, which seldom interact. As a result, well-educated, highly skilled people of color continue to be disconnected from the business incubators, accelerators, and “deal flow” activity that are producing some of our nation’s most promising businesses.

We can better integrate our networks

The infrastructure of today’s minority business and professional networks evolved out of our country’s darker days of segregation. While there are still benefits to having specialized business development networks, we no longer need to confine ourselves to the operating logic of those times.

Our experience at MainStreet shows that there are ways to link minority talent and business networks with the “mainstream” business development system. And, while the work is hard, the framework can be relatively simple. When mainstream economic development groups come to us to help connect them to minority talent and business networks, their needs generally fall into three categories:

  • Deal Flow: Identifying and developing more high potential minority-owned firms for consideration by investors tied to mainstream networks;
  • Capital: Identifying private investors and diverse sources of funding to support businesses with high growth potential;
  • Talent: Connecting talented people of color to the management, board, advisory and other leadership opportunities in these emerging high growth enterprises.

The key in this framework is to facilitate meaningful connections around specific and actionable transactions. Rather than perpetuating parallel systems, we are working toward a singular, more inclusive system that connects the best and brightest talent and entrepreneurs from all populations. For example, we’ve created a web-based Talent Portal that facilitates the sharing of information and business opportunities between mainstream and minority networks. We also provide “readiness training” to help prepare minority entrepreneurs for equity capital, exporting, and related opportunities. More solutions towards this end are needed.

If we want to connect more minorities to better jobs, we have to do a better job of growing larger scale minority-owned and minority-led businesses. This requires market-driven, integrated solutions, not a separate-and-unequal approach. Our approach isn’t the only solution, but we believe it points in the right direction. In today’s multi-cultural America, it’s only through further integration of the best and brightest talent from all ethnically diverse networks that we can truly optimize business growth and expansion for all Americans.

Darrin M. Redus is President and CEO of MainStreet Inclusion Advisors. Darrin has spent 25 years directly assisting entrepreneurs and business owners from start-ups to multi-national firms, with an emphasis on supporting underserved populations.

]]> Mon, 15 Sep 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Darrin M. Redus
Practical Links between Collective Impact Principles and Federal Government Sustainability Efforts In the shadow of the Great Recession, President Obama called on federal agencies to employ creative strategies that would restore stability to the economy, address growing income inequality, and create opportunities for families to enter the middle the class. In response to President Obama’s challenge, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created the Partnership for Sustainable Communities just over five years ago. The Partnership was tasked with the mission of helping communities provide more housing and transportation options for their residents, better connect housing and jobs, and leverage federal funds to increase economic competiveness.

Each agency has taken a leadership role in advancing the Partnership’s work. HUD provided $240 million in Sustainable Communities Initiative grants to communities and regions to help them plan for a more economically resilient future. Through the Sustainable Communities Initiative, HUD enabled more than 1,200 cities in 48 States and the District of Colombia to work with their partners to create master plans that were reflective of a bottom-up approach. These robust community planning processes have catalyzed new public-private and philanthropic partnerships that are attracting new businesses, supporting a strong workforce, and developing new housing with access to economic opportunities.

To achieve these goals, the Partnership has supported local efforts that are bringing together leaders from across sectors, building a common agenda, and committing to using data to track results and progress. In many ways, this approach, described in more detail below, mirrors the conditions of Collective Impact by drawing on the strength of multiple organizations to solve complex social problems with powerful results.

1) Building a common agenda

Through the interagency collaboration fostered by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, HUD encouraged its grantees to address multiple local and regional challenges, by using these Six Livability Principles: 1) provide more transportation choices; 2) promote equitable, affordable housing; 3) enhance economic competitiveness; 4) support existing communities; 5) coordinate and leverage federal policies and investment and 6) value communities and neighborhoods.

Using these principles as a foundation, communities as diverse as Phoenix, East Central Florida, and Minnesota’s Twin Cities have developed plans for housing and business development, along new transit lines that improve access to job centers.

2) Creating feedback mechanisms for shared measurement systems

HUD has assisted communities to collect and measure data to track progress toward their common agenda. The agency created a national online Learning Network to centralize resources and share best-practices and information among grantees. Additionally, this fall, the Partnership will release a comprehensive Sustainable Communities Indicators Catalogue highlighting community indicators that are relevant to local policymakers, accessible to all local governments, and adequate to the task of demonstrating progress toward sustainable development practices.

3) Engaging and empowering stakeholders for mutual gain

Grantees worked hard to engage as many stakeholders and community members as possible, and to ensure their plans and activities represent the wide swath of community needs. At the same time, ensuring that individuals and organizations are empowered to make this change happen has been equally important. The Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation, for example, has brought business and philanthropic leaders into the planning process, ensuring resonance with the resulting plan and investment in its successful implementation.

4) Proactive communication, support and monitoring

Grant managers at HUD’s Office of Economic Resilience (OER) serves as a form of customer service support and help them to navigate the federal government bureaucracy. A grant manager is assigned to each grantee community, and acts as a partner, federal liaison and government administrator. In addition to traditional grant monitoring and compliance, this role helps build the direct relationship between grantees and the federal agencies that are most helpful in implementing their plan priorities. Grant managers typically speak to their grantees monthly and provide helpful resources as they monitor progress. This support assists grantees in serving as strong backbone organizations and coordinators of local projects

HUD has invested nearly $10 million in capacity building, peer-to-peer learning, and technical assistance for grantees to assist them in serving as on-the-ground team leads. HUD has also partnered with funder collaboratives such as Living Cities to maximize the collective impact of each effort. By sharing information and tactics with these organizations, we ensure their access to existing research and experience.

Looking Ahead

As communities and regions move from planning to implementation, the collective impact potential of HUD’s Sustainable Communities Initiative grants is becoming increasingly evident. Grantees have leverage more than $253 million from local, state, and other partners; and have created partnerships across multiple sectors, including the business community, leading to millions of dollars in new community investments and new jobs. This has enabled broader cooperation, greater buy-in and aligned investments in regions across the country. Given all that the Partnership and the Sustainable Communities Initiative grantees have accomplished in the past five years, we are poised to achieve bounty of new successes in the years to come. For more information on the Partnership for Sustainable Communities and HUD’s Office of Economic Resilience, please visit and

]]> Tue, 09 Sep 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Dwayne S. Marsh
An Invitation to Re-Think Ways to Integrate Immigrant Workers into the U.S. Economy Invitation to Living Cities Webinar: Living Cities invites you join us in learning about what it takes to better prepare low-income people for quality jobs by participating in a webinar exploring approaches to help immigrant job-seekers access opportunity and integrate into the US economy. The webinar will occur on September 17th from 2:00 to 3:30 pm EST.

Studies have found that the U.S. is facing a significant skills gap between ready-to-work job-seekers and ready-to-be-filled jobs. Given the rate at which we currently prepare Americans with the necessary post-secondary skills for in-demand jobs, researchers predict that we will be 5 million workers short of demand by 2020.

At the same time, we know that the U.S. is not fully maximizing the potential of current working-age adults to take part in the national economy. Access to quality employment continues to be a critical issue for many communities. Not only are 1 in 4 Americans blocked from entering the workforce by prior criminal records, but we also have 25.3 million foreign-born workers who similarly face unique obstacles in preparing for and accessing quality jobs. And since immigrants & their children will constitute 83% of the growth in the workforce through 2050, they are crucial for meeting our national labor needs and meaningfully addressing the predicted skills gap. Indeed, as communities of color become a larger portion of our national labor force (and population in general), we need to better align workforce efforts to improve their employment outcomes.

Yet our current approaches to equip immigrant workers with the resources, supports and skills they need to access and retain quality jobs are often insufficient. Discussions about immigrant integration and workforce development largely occur in siloes, leading to missed alignment opportunities such as linking immigrant youth who are deferred from deportation to post-secondary programs or occupational training providers. And even when there is alignment, local policy environments often raise additional barriers that keep immigrants from accessing jobs, such as limiting access to drivers licenses which affects people’s ability to get to work.

Thankfully, a number of promising approaches are being tested and scaled to address these issues. From the emergence of immigration integration efforts within city government to the rise of worker centers where community organizations act as brokers between immigrant job-seekers and businesses in need, there have been encouraging strides to better welcome immigrants into the US economy. National attention on the issue is also growing, as evidenced by last month’s first ever White House National Convening on Immigrant and Refugee Integration.

Join Us in Learning More about Immigrant Worker Integration Efforts

At Living Cities, we’re actively working to understand what it takes to better prepare low-income people for quality jobs. By looking more closely at the challenges facing different groups of low-income job-seekers (such as formerly incarcerated or foreign-born individuals), we hope to contribute tothe broader workforce development field’s efforts to prepare low-income people for quality 21st century jobs.

We invite you join us in this learning process by participating in a webinar Wednesday, September 17th that will explore approaches to help immigrants access quality jobs and integrate into the US economy. You can register and receive more information on how to join here.

We encourage funders, government agencies and on-the-ground practitioners interested in issues of immigrant worker integration to join the webinar. You can expect to hear perspectives on the following questions and more:

What challenges do immigrants face in preparing for and accessing quality jobs?

What are some promising policies and practices that help integrate immigrants into the US workforce?

What roles can the public sector play in moving this work forward?

How can efforts better engage businesses to directly connect immigrant job-seekers to available jobs?

We’re excited to host a panel of leaders currently working in the field to tackle these issues. You’ll hear from Flavia Jimenez, National Skills Coalition, Gustavo Torres, CASA de Maryland, Cristina Tzintzún, Workers Defense Project, & Hilary Stern, Casa Latina.

The webinar will take place on September 17th from 2:00 to 3:30 pm EST. Please email any specific questions in advance to

We will be tweeting about the event with the hashtag #welcome2jobs and invite everyone to share their thoughts and questions with us @Living_Cities.

We hope that you will join the conversation!

]]> Wed, 03 Sep 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Juan Sebastian Arias
My Seven-Year Ride on the Green Line On June 14th decades of planning, years of engineering, and two seasons of major construction culminated in the launch of the Green Line (formerly known as the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit project).

Linking the downtowns of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, the 11-mile Light Rail Transit (LRT) project, travels primarily on University Avenue through some of Saint Paul’s most diverse neighborhoods and into Minneapolis where it passes the University of Minnesota and terminates at Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins.

This billion dollar infrastructure project has always been about so much more than the tracks and trains. Living Cities recognized this as an early investor in the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative (CCFC) – a group of 12 local and national funders seeking to create benefits “beyond the rail” for residents, businesses, and neighborhoods. They followed up their CCFC investment by selecting Corridors of Opportunity as one of five Integration Initiative sites in its inaugural round. This regional partnership invested in projects to advance equitable transit-focused growth in the Green Line and multiple other transitways in the region.

I’ve had the privilege to be part of this journey for the past seven years as a resident, consultant, partner, and funder – and here are a couple of my reflections.

Policy is Personal

In 2007, residents were questioning the station spacing along the eastern end of the line – where the train was only slated to stop at one-mile intervals through the city’s most transit-dependent neighborhoods. The primary reason for this was a federal Cost Effectiveness criterion- a pass-fail measure that focused on the travel hours saved by projected passengers and trumped all other criteria for Federal Transit Administration (FTA) project funding. Just two years earlier, when I was a policy analyst at the USEPA, our team was building a case that this criterion was penalizing smaller urban areas, basically requiring them to find ways to speed travel through the city. Fast forward, I’m consulting for a coalition of neighborhoods in order to make the case for additional stations using data and research, and am struck again by how a federal policy plays out on the ground. Fortunately in the Twin Cities, this didn’t stop the talented and persistent Stops for Us campaign who championed the stations locally and all the way to DC. The result: The Green Line experience led to overturning a flawed policy in 2010 and the Hamline, Victoria, and Western stations are now serving riders. If ever a small group of people changed the world….

Weathering the Storm – Together

Fear is the first emotion that comes to mind when I think about 2010-2012. What had been a planning exercise for years, was about to become a major construction project – which for the hundreds of small, mostly minority and immigrant-owned businesses along the line was a daunting prospect indeed. The story and details have been told many places – most recently by the Minneapolis Fed – but for me the “Prepare, Survive, Thrive” strategy devised by the Central Corridor Business Resources Collaborative (a group of business and community organizations, government and philanthropy) remains an inspiration for strategic collective action. During the two years of heavy construction a diverse team of business specialists, fluent in many of the languages spoken on the corridor, provided a mix of marketing and business planning assistance, low or zero interest loan products, and a voice for small often minority or immigrant owned businesses. The result: Of the nearly 400 businesses assisted during this time period, 99% remained in business.

Investing today for tomorrow

In places across the country, the introduction of LRT has often led to increased property values and rents. For the Green Line to be successful, members of Central Corridor Funders Collaborative and the Corridors of Opportunity (CoO) initiative wanted to ensure that low and moderate-income residents could still afford to live in the adjacent neighborhoods. The Big Picture Project partners set a goal of creating or preserving 4,500 affordable units along the corridor by 2020. The Living Cities-backed CoO loan fund invested $4.4 million in five multi-family/mixed use projects along the Green Line, which is slated to produce 483 units of housing, 67% of which are affordable. CoO resources and the Frogtown Rondo Home Fund are also increasing housing stability for homeowners and turning vacant lots and foreclosed homes into wealth-producing assets for area residents. The results: In May, the Big Picture Project released its first progress report which found that, 2,076 new and preserved units have been created, with 545 units in the pipeline. At this pace, 346 units are needed annually to meet the goal of 4,500 units by 2020, which many believe can be achieved.

One Corridor - Five Continents

Seven years ago on my now-defunct blog about the hidden gems of the Twin Cities, I penned a piece called an “Ode to University Avenue: Part 1” (I never seemed to get around to Part 2), which likened this auto-oriented arterial to the historic “El Camino Real - rather than linking missions, presidios, and peublos, it connects Hmong and Somali neighbors; African-Americans and old school St. Paul Irish; the State Capitol and the Turf Club; the U of M and the Love Doctor.” Now, the Green Line runs down University Avenue, allowing many more to experience the incredible diversity of place, spaces, people, and cuisines along the corridor. The Central Corridor as Cultural Corridor is bringing people to the corridor over the summer and fall months to highlight the arts and culture in the area. The Little Mekong district has launched a series of Night Markets this summer, introducing Twin Citians to the traditional Asian experience of food, entertainment, and vendors under a twilight sky.

Keeping the momentum and promise

With six weeks under its belt, the Green Line is exceeding ridership expectations and more than $2.5 billion in commercial and residential development has occurred near the line. But since this story has never just been about the rail, I’m struck by a recent article from Insight News, where Dr. Beverley Oliver Hawkins, CEO of the community development organization Model Cities, says:

"I smile to myself when I see all of the faces and ages at the Victoria Station. There's a lot of diversity – some in suits, some in shorts, some with babies, some senior citizens. I see it every day; many new faces coming here, some just out of curiosity. Now, we just need to give people reasons to get off at these stations and visit our businesses."

Her quote highlights the opportunities that remain now that Green Line is operational. There are local assets to showcase and strengthen, jobs to create, and projects to develop. In two years when the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative sunsets, we want to see a Green Line where businesses are healthy, residents can find and reach work more easily, low and moderate-income residents can afford to live here, and that high-quality investments continue to be made in this important corridor.

Mary Kay Bailey is the project director for the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative and the Partnership for Regional Opportunity/Corridors of Opportunity initiative at the Saint Paul Foundation. Mary Kay directs the operations of these cross-sector initiatives to support development in the region’s transitways that benefit people of all incomes and backgrounds. She initiates program activities for the working groups, boards, and other partners and has sought, reviewed, and recommended investment opportunities for both initiatives.

]]> Thu, 21 Aug 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Mary Kay Bailey
The State of Inequality in 6 Articles: Marking the 50th Anniversary of the Economic Opportunity Act Today marks the 50th Anniversary of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. The Act was the centerpiece of LBJ’s War on Poverty and the fruit of the Civil Rights Movement. As President Johnson stated, it was created to “eliminate the paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty in this nation by opening…To everyone…the opportunity for education, training, the opportunity to work, and the opportunity to live in decency and dignity.”

Programs created through this legislation were aimed at improving access to quality education, job training, and loans for small businesses to attack the roots of unemployment and poverty.

While we’ve come a long way since 1964, there is still much work to be done, as evidenced by the unfolding events in Ferguson where decades of disinvestment and racial tensions have come to a boil following the shooting of an unarmed African American teenager. A year ago, in recognition of two other important anniversaries, our CEO, Ben Hecht, shared his reflections on the progress we’ve made as a nation to increase access to opportunity for low-income people and people of color. He found that, though there are many reasons to feel heartened by overall improvements in educational attainment and economic opportunity, the evidence still points to a sobering, expanding, wealth gap along racial lines in this country. A year later, his words still ring true.

Read more from Ben here:

At Living Cities, we are committed to catalyzing and supporting enduring change to increase the economic well-being of low-income people. We must continue to wage war on poverty, and to dismantle the systems that continue to perpetuate inequitable outcomes for people of color.

In honor of today’s anniversary, we have compiled a number of articles that shed light and provide substantive data on the state of inequality and the War on Poverty 50 years later.

We hope that you’ll read these and be encouraged to take action to disrupt inequality in America.

]]> Wed, 20 Aug 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Elizabeth Vargas, Nadia Owusu
Disrupting the Teams and Score-keeping: August 19 Twitter Chat AUGUST 19th TWITTER CHAT ON DISRUPTING INEQUALITY

Tomorrow, August 19th at 1pm Eastern Time, Living Cities will host our fifth and final Twitter Chat on #DisruptingInequality. The chat, Disrupting the Teams and Score-keeping, will be co-hosted by Tynesia Boyea-Robinson (@tyboyea), our Director of Collective Impact at Living Cities. During the chat, we’ll discuss Collective Impact - What is it? What role does the framework play in disrupting inequality? And how can we apply the principles of Collective Impact in our efforts to improve the lives of low-income people?


We invite you and your organizations to participate in tomorrow’s Twitter Chat. Living Cities will moderate the chat via our Twitter handle, @Living_Cities, and the Hashtag #DisruptingInequality. You can also follow Tynesia with @tyboyea.

Over the course of an hour, we will pose a series of questions about the state of inequality and the role that collective impact plays in disrupting the issue. Participants will have 10 minutes after each question to share their thoughts, feedback, and other relevant information before we move onto the next question. At the conclusion of the hour, all participants will be invited to share their final ideas.

Questions for Participants:

  1. How is #collectiveImpact different than collaboration? Can it help in #DisruptingInequality?
  2. Have you seen the principles of #CollectiveImpact applied to address problems of #inequality? What are some examples? #DisruptingInequality
  3. We have applied #CollectiveImpact to address workforce development, TOD and health. What are other potential areas where collective impact could help in #DisruptingInequality? #TII_LC
  4. How can we authentically engage communities in #collectiveimpact efforts? Do you have examples? #DisruptingInequality
  5. Through our #CollectiveImpact work, we’ve found that feedback loops are key to success. What feedback and/or data do you track in your work? #DisruptingInequality
  6. #CollectiveImpact requires that we all change our behavior. How has/does your institution need to change in service of the result?


Your participation is crucial to disrupting inequality. Living Cities recognizes that the issue of inequality is complex, and difficult to solve. We are open-sourcing solutions to you, our followers, so that we might co-create a path forward in disrupting inequality.

Please join us tomorrow, August 19, 2014 at 1pm Eastern Time for our fifth and final Twitter Chat on #DisruptingInequality. We also encourage you to read our Annual Report, Disrupting Inequality: A Living Cities Perspective in 2013, in advance. If you have questions about participation or involvement, please email Elizabeth Vargas at

]]> Mon, 18 Aug 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Elizabeth Vargas
How City Halls Can Help Construct Stronger Neighborhoods This piece is cross posted from the Data-Smart City Solutions blog hosted by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School.

Last week, the UN reported that more than half of humanity now lives in cities; by 2050 two-thirds of people will, up from just 30% in 1950. Given the grave challenges facing the world's booming urban areas—including global warming, economic dislocation, and crumbling basic infrastructure, among other torments—tomorrow's mayors will need to take bold steps to ensure their constituents live in dignity and safety. But public distrust of dysfunctional, faceless government is profound, resources are limited, gaps between groups are widening, and many are unaware of the role of government in their lives—which makes citizens less likely to support major initiatives.

One way to fill the drained reservoir of public trust in municipal government is to make city hall more visibly—and continuously—responsive. Digital technology can help: by using data to optimize the use of limited city resources and communicate clearly (with a friendly voice) across a range of platforms, a city can make life noticeably better for its citizens. The hard question is whether cities will use data to make genuine citizen and neighborhood engagement—affecting policy decisions and the allocation of resources, and potentially solving some problems altogether—possible. So far, cities in America are being cautious. There is much more that could be done.

A few weekends ago, at a "Civic Academy" put on by the City of Boston's Department of Information Technology aimed at training neighborhood groups to use social media tools, Mayor Marty Walsh stepped to the microphone in a short-sleeved shirt to provide some energetic cheerleading: "We want to make sure we're using every channel available" to reach constituents, he said—including every flavor of social platform, from Tumblr to Twitter to Instagram. (This is a link to a list of every social channel maintained by Boston.) What's great about Boston's training sessions, taking place in the city's new District Hall innovation space in South Boston, is that their goal is to help neighborhoods help themselves--not just publicity for city initiatives.

Communicating by way of social media is both easy and helpful. Boston's tireless tweeting following the Marathon bombing of last year and during the endless snowstorms of this past winter unquestionably made an enormous difference to Bostonians and others anxious for news. Boston is not alone in its creative use of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. New York City has more than 300 social media channels, and the City of Chicago is not far behind. Many cities collect and analyze geolocated public tweets to help them get ahead of urban issues; when people Tweet about train delays or noises, the city can listen.

When it comes to policy decisions, however, digital technology is mostly being used to announce rather than construct. The City of Palo Alto lets anyone access, visualize, and share its budget and financial information by way of its OpenGov Platform. Houston hosts an online Budget Bootcamp that decodes city budget lingo, and many cities ensure that their budget figures are easily available online.

Participatory budgeting, in which citizens have a hand in allocating resources, has both a long history in Brazil and the support of the White House but has been slow to emerge in U.S. cities. In New York City, residents of ten participating city council districts voted earlier this year on how to spend about $14 million of capital funds. Similarly small experiments in Chicago and San Francisco, as well as a recent youth-oriented effort in Boston, have not had a significant effect on policy.

Just as engineers need to build buildings that don't fall down, we need to construct public institutions that won't crumble. It is now possible for cities to use screens, data, and handheld devices to help neighborhoods be visible to themselves—what are the issues? where are the resources?—and allow citizens to organize in ways that will provide dignified, useful assistance to one another and, in partnership, to the city as a whole. (See, for example, Micah Sifry's recent story here on techPresident on the work that SeeClickFix is enabling in concert with the city of New Haven.) All the best-intentioned tweets in the world won't substitute for finding a way to authentically harness and respond to civic energy. Governments are part of neighborhoods and aren't moving; getting people used to working together this way is essential.


Susan Crawford is the John A. Reilly Visiting Professor in Intellectual Property at the Harvard Law School (2014) and a co-director of the Berkman Center. Her blog originally appeared on TechPresident.

]]> Thu, 14 Aug 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Susan Crawford
Disrupting the Flow of Resources: August 13 Twitter Chat AUGUST 13th TWITTER CHAT ON DISRUPTING INEQUALITY

Tomorrow, August 13th at 1pm Eastern Time, Living Cities will host our fourth Twitter Chat on #DisruptingInequality. The chat, Disrupting the Flow of Resources, will be co-hosted by Eileen Neely (@Eileen Neely), our Director of Capital Innovation. During the chat, we’ll discuss different impact investment models and explore how innovative uses of capital can help improve the lives of low-income people.


We invite you and your organizations to participate in tomorrow’s Twitter Chat. Living Cities will moderate the chat via our Twitter handle, @Living_Cities, and the Hashtag #DisruptingInequality. You can also follow Eileen with @EileenNeely.

Over the course of an hour, we will pose a series of questions about the state of inequality and the role the capital innovation plays in disrupting the issue. Participants will have 10 minutes after each question to share their thoughts, feedback, and other relevant information before we move onto the next question. At the conclusion of the hour, all participants will be invited to share their final ideas.

Questions for Participants:

  1. How do you think impact investments can help to disrupt #inequality? #DisruptingInequality
  2. What are challenges communities might face in making efficient use of capital (debt, grants, #impinv) towards #disruptinginequality?
  3. What orgs, nonprofits or govts have you seen innovating w/capital to improve the lives of low income people? #DisruptingInequality
  4. Have you heard of #PayforSuccess? Do you think it has potential for #disruptinginequality?
  5. We invested in 2 #SIBs 2 reduce #recidivism & increase #employment. What else could we tackle w/this tool? #DisruptingInequality
  6. What gives you hope for how we can leverage capital for good in underserved communities? #DisruptingInequality


Your participation is crucial to disrupting inequality. Living Cities recognizes that the issue of inequality is complex, and difficult to solve. We are open-sourcing solutions to you, our followers, so that we might co-create a path forward in disrupting inequality.

Please join us tomorrow, August 13, 2014 at 1pm Eastern Time for our fourth Twitter Chat on #DisruptingInequality. We also encourage you to read our Annual Report, Disrupting Inequality: A Living Cities Perspective in 2013, in advance. If you have questions about participation or involvement, please email Elizabeth Vargas at

]]> Tue, 12 Aug 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Elizabeth Vargas
Momentum behind the Collective Impact Movement Could Catalyze Change As Living Cities seeks to adjust itself internally to better align with Collective Impact principals, we continue to scan the field in an effort to learn with others who are undertaking similar processes. We analyzed data from a series of funders, platforms, and initiatives to better understand the evolution of the principles and how they have spread. Through this work, we’ve started to quantify impact and define what Collective Impact looks like on the ground. The field is very much in flux and our analyses are intended to offer general insight into the movement, where it comes from, and where it’s going.

The Collective Impact landscape has been (and is!) growing in size and diversity, nationally and internationally, since Mark Kramer and John Kania’s article struck a chord with the social change field in 2011.

Collective Impact is innovative, but collaboration is not new. However, talking about initiatives with more formal collaborative structures for social change has gained popularity since the late 2000s. Collective Impact became the shared language for many practitioners in the field, and more and more initiatives and organizations are adopting Collective Impact to describe their work. And over time, both new initiatives and older collaboratives have begun applying the principles to a wide range of goals, rapidly accelerating the adoption of Collective Impact.

In addition to the rapid growth, the diversity of purpose across the landscape is striking. The principles of Collective Impact have been applied to create Alzheimer’s friendly communities, to decrease childhood obesity and to fight inner-city poverty. And these are just a few examples.

So what implications do growth and diversity in the landscape have for the individual Collective Impact initiative?

First of all, we are not alone! The promise of Collective Impact lies in how it could help us collectively learn to solve complex issues. In addition to reflecting, evaluating and measuring our own initiatives, we also should continuously look outwards.

According to the theories of social physics, innovation comes when a group strikes a balance between continuously looking inward and looking outward. Collective Impact has achieved this, in part, by facilitating face-to-face connections in a diverse cross-sector partnership. But at the same time, its shared language creates a common ground for external exchanges around the world. It has become a movement.

The growth and diversity in the Collective Impact landscape suggests that there is power in this movement. By sharing learnings and knowledge across a large and diverse set of initiatives, the potential to facilitate momentum around ideas grows. This, by extension, increases Collective Impact’s potential to create enduring change. By continuously looking inward and outward we can bump our ideas together and improve how we manage Collective Impact initiatives and how we better engage with complex issues.

Collective Impact is a promising tool for improving the lives of people all over the world by helping us to tackle some of the most complex challenges we face. Enduring change can be achieved if we continue to learn within our Collective Impact initiatives, but also from others across the landscape.

]]> Fri, 08 Aug 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Astor Carlberg
Disrupting the Status Quo in Government: August 7 Twitter Chat AUGUST 7th TWITTER CHAT ON DISRUPTING INEQUALITY

Today, August 7, 2014 at noon Eastern Time, Living Cities will host our third Twitter Chat on Disrupting Inequality. The chat, co-hosted by Arthur Burris, our Director of Public Sector Innovation, will explore different local government practices and policies aimed at improving the lives of low-income people.


We invite you and your organizations to participate in today’s Twitter Chat (Thursday, August 7, 2014) at noon Eastern Time. Living Cities will moderate the chat via our Twitter handle, @Living_Cities, and the Hashtag #DisruptingInequality. Over the course of an hour, we will pose a series of questions about the state of inequality and the role the public sector plays in disrupting the issue. Participants will have 10 minutes after each question to answer and discuss, before we move onto the next question. At the conclusion of the hour, all participants will be invited to share final thoughts and ideas.

Questions for Participants:

  1. How can the public sector work differently to overcome outdated, ineffective structures? #DisruptingInequality
  2. What are some examples of how #localgov uses tech & other innovations to improve the lives of low-income people? #DisruptingInequality
  3. How can we connect the public sector and cross-sectoral groups of problem solvers to address systemic problems? #DisruptingInequality
  4. Which local govts are effectively modernizing operations to improve the performance of systems? #DisruptingInequality
  5. What are examples where combining public, private & philanthropic $s improved outcomes during fiscal constraint? #DisruptingInequality
  6. What gives you the most hope in terms of building #gov20? #DisruptingInequality


Your participation is crucial to disrupting inequality. Living Cities recognizes that the issue of inequality is complex, and difficult to solve. We are open-sourcing solutions to you, our followers, so that we might co-create a path forward in disrupting inequality.

Please join us today, August 7, 2014 at noon Eastern Time for our third Twitter Chat on #DisruptingInequality. If you have questions about participation or involvement, please email Elizabeth Vargas at

]]> Thu, 07 Aug 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Elizabeth Vargas
What’s Equity got to do with it? It is Key to the Success of Collective Impact Last December, Living Cities embarked on a journey to intentionally embed a racial equity & inclusion lens into our work. Since then, we’ve been building our internal capacity to understand the system of racialization in order to appropriately incorporate these considerations across our portfolio.

At the same time, we’re seeking to highlight how social sector leaders are already incorporating equity into their ongoing work. This post highlights how Everyday Democracy is bringing an equity lens into collective impact efforts.


My colleagues and I posed this question—“What’s equity got to do with it?”—to those who took part in our session at the Collective Impact Forum’s funder convening in May. As foundations explore how best to support collective impact efforts amongst their grantees, they need the chance to explore blind spots when it comes to ensuring that there are no barriers in place to full community participation. That is, are there foundation practices or policies at work that may deter people of different backgrounds—racial/ethnic, educational, economic, sexual orientation, gender and language—from participating in a collective impact effort, and thus having the genuine impact they all seek?

Based on Everyday Democracy’s work with the Graustein Memorial Fund to support its grantees’ interest in having conversations about equity in their collaborative efforts, Angela Frusciante, knowledge development officer at the Memorial Fund and Collective Impact Forum advisory group member, approached us to help bring an equity focus to the May convening. Angela joined Everyday Democracy’s Carolyne Abdullah, director of community assistance, Valeriano Ramos, director of strategic partnerships and alliances, and myself, Carrie Boron, organizational effectiveness officer, to design and facilitate a conference session on equity.

A note about who we are and the perspective we bring: Everyday Democracy helps diverse community coalitions build inclusive civic engagement for community change; for the past decade, we have focused on helping them build an “equity lens” into their efforts. As a national operating foundation, we have worked less on grantmaking with an equity lens, and more on the community and technical assistance side of the equation. Through twenty-five years of experience in coaching communities around the country to organize accessible dialogue and deliberation, we have learned with and from our local partners about the difficulty and value of inclusion and equity. We have also seen the impact of foundation decisions—including our own—that have unwittingly worked against the very values of inclusion and equity that we stand for. Thus, we came to the collective impact funder convening as an intermediary—with some experience on the grantee side and some experience on the foundation side. We also came with humility about “walking the talk” as we help embed principles of equity into community change processes.

Our first priority in the conference session was to connect people personally and professionally to the issue of equity. With that grounding, we provided an opportunity for participants to use an equity lens to reflect on the practices of their foundations and that of the collective impact community.

It was not an easy session for anyone involved. From the design of the session, to helping people on the spot work through some uncomfortable realizations, to deeply listening to people’s own experiences with inequities, facilitators and participants may have walked away pained, fatigued and/or frustrated. But we hope that many also left with a powerful “a-ha,” a sense of possibility and a desire to do something to address inequities that their foundations might be inadvertently perpetuating.

For those who want to do something, we’re sharing two of our session’s activities that can help organizations surface and address inequities that may be in play when working with grantees on collective impact efforts.

  • The first exercise is “Move Forward, Move Back.” Participants step forward, remain stationary or step backward in response to a series of statements related to power and privilege. The activity illustrates how long-term accumulation of advantages based on skin color and other forms of privilege can produce gaps among groups within foundations and create or sustain inequities in the communities we hope to serve.
  • The second exercise is “Collective Impact and White Privilege Scenario.” This role-play scenario can serve as a tool to help foundation leaders begin to explore issues of white privilege, internalized bias and racial equity as part of a broader conversation on making collective impact authentic, inclusive, and equity-focused.

Another resource worth checking into is the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity (PRE) and the latest volume of its Critical Issues Forum, “Moving Forward on Racial Justice Philanthropy.” Martha McCoy, Everyday Democracy’s executive director and PRE advisory board member, is quoted in the volume in response to the question of whether philanthropy has made progress on structural racism:

There have been many shifts over the past two decades in the ways structural racism manifests in U.S. society—with progress on some fronts and further entrenchment of racial inequities in others. In light of this, racial justice grant making has been critical to analyzing structural racism across policy and community arenas and to assessing philanthropic approaches to addressing and flipping these destructive power arrangements.

This is hard work, but it’s much needed if we’re going to tackle today’s toughest social issues. And, you’re not alone. Everyday Democracy is happy to share additional insights and resources, and direct you to organizations that can help you as you take on equity at your foundation and in your collective impact work.

Carrie Boron is the Organizational Effectiveness and Learning Officer for Democracy now. Her post originially appeared on the Collective Impact Forum blog.

]]> Tue, 05 Aug 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Carrie Boron
Racism in America: An Unexpected Kind of Culture Shock When people, especially women, from my country, Pakistan, come to the United States, their “culture shock” includes things like the freedom to be an individual, the ease of availability of alcohol, and the perceived meritocracy of the American system. My culture shock was America’s racism, made worse by the fact that I didn’t really understand what it meant to be discriminated against for simply having a different skin color or not speaking English “perfectly.”

Racial discrimination is both a fascinating and highly distressing concept for me. In my part of the world, people don’t have a clear answer if asked to identify their race. Most of them would respond with their ethnicity. So, my knowledge of active racial discrimination came from literature or film, such as Lincoln and Amazing Grace.

In November 2008, as I listened to Barack Obama give his victory speech, I was moved to tears. From another continent, it appeared to me as not just the victory of one man, but of a whole nation against its racist past. The American people, I thought, had finally moved past their history of systemic racism, segregation, and discriminatory policies that disconnected huge segments of the population from opportunity.

Six years later, I landed in Chicago, home to Obama and to one of the largest African American populations in the U.S. I was excited to be here, especially the South Side of Chicago which is largely populated by African Americans, and to see the interaction between Americans of all races in one of America’s largest and most liberal cities. To me, Obama’s election–and re-election–signaled that the era of institutional racism against African Americans was over, but I was curious to see if people’s individual attitudes and experiences had changed.

I learned that, on too many levels, they had not.

I was shocked when I started reading Michelle Alexander’s fascinating book The New Jim Crow. The book asserts that to this day, when even rich and powerful White men like LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling end up paying a price for being racist, the US Justice System continues to discriminate against African Americans. The book further explains how the practice of mass incarceration disproportionately impacts African Americans, effectively relegating them to “second-class” citizens by denying them the very rights that were supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

I did not know how to process how the same country that could elect a black man to be its leader could at the same time brutally discriminate against a huge portion of black men through an unjust criminal justice system. Could it be that Obama, with his eloquence, intelligence, and impressive academic credentials was a less threatening figure for white Americans? Was it because everyone likes a rags-to-riches story but would rather ignore the realities of multi-generational poverty–a reality that is much more common? Indeed, moving from poverty to wealth is an almost impossible goal for most poor Americans, black or white, since the majority of the wealth in this country is inherited from one generation to the next.

Since reading Alexander’s book, I have become obsessed with learning about racial dynamics in large U.S. cities and how they are affecting American life. I couldn’t have found a better place than Living Cities to explore the intersection between race-based disadvantage and urban policymaking.

Recently during a staff brown bag meeting, my colleagues and I watched a haunting film titled Cracking the Code: The Systems of Racial Inequity.

The part of the film that spoke to me most was a segment about internalized racism, something I have myself witnessed among my own community of South Asians who moved to the United States as young adults–mostly as highly qualified doctors or engineers–and have now become naturalized U.S. citizens. They speak like white Americans, live in suburbs largely populated by white people, and their children are friends with either children of South Asian descent or from white families. Although they were born in a culture that didn’t recognize race, once they came to America, they realized at some point that they needed to be like the White-Folk in order to “make it” in America. Many now exhibit racist attitudes and behaviors towards all non-white people, particularly black people, who they view as members of society they must not mingle with if they want to be accepted.

It is the prevalence of this sort of attitude–the subconscious racism that still persists in American society–that makes Living Cities’ Racial Equity and Inclusion (REI) initiative so important to a new framework for analyzing urban policy and using it for the benefit of all those who populate these urban areas.

Cities should not just be places for better economic opportunities, but also for economic inclusion where all residents can equally benefit from all that their city has to offer. To that end, policymakers, the movers and shakers in cities, must incorporate the racial lens into how they think about their cities and the opportunities that they provide for lower-income families of color.

The author is a Knowledge and Impact summer intern at Living Cities, and a Masters in Public Policy student at The University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. She tweets at @zainabimam and blogs at

]]> Fri, 01 Aug 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Zainab Imam
Where do Collective Impact, Community Engagement & Racial Equity Intersect? At Living Cities, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to change the systems that consistently produce poverty, income inequality, and all their related disparities. One of our core beliefs is that the seemingly intractable problems facing cities today can only be addressed when decision-makers from across different sectors come together around a common vision to re-engineer the systems that produce these outcomes in the first place. This approach - also known as Collective Impact - is one that Living Cities has been testing in the social sector over the past several years.

We also recognize that race influences and shapes the same systems that together produce uneven outcomes for low-income people in U.S. cities - from housing to health to education. Given this reality, we recently committed to incorporating a racial equity & inclusion lens across all our work in order to more effectively disrupt the persistent inequality and poverty in our cities.

And at the same, the importance of community voice and engagement in Collective Impact has emerged as a critical issue in the field. More and more, a national conversation around how to authentically engage community stakeholders at all levels of Collective Impact work has grown. Indeed, it makes sense that the perspective of community members is needed to inform and guide the social change efforts that seek to impact their everyday lives.

What is less clear, however, is how Collective Impact, racial equity, and community engagement all intersect. How do we effectively integrate community voice into institution-heavy Collective Impact efforts? How do we authentically and meaningfully involve communities who have historically been left out of decision-making processes? And how do we engage stakeholders in the sensitive conversations about race, class and culture without driving away those who need to sit at the problem-solving table?

Living Cities’ Exploration with StriveTogether

The importance of these conversations can be easily ignored when working systematically. In order to more intentionally address these issues (and in direct response to a call to action by leaders on the ground), StriveTogether and Living Cities are convening a work group of practitioners currently grappling with these issues in their work. By convening this group we seek to build our collective knowledge on how to apply an equity lens in Collective Impact work focused on improving outcomes for youth from cradle to career. We’re working to identify the support that local partnerships need in order to engage communities more equitably in their work and ultimately reduce inequality across different races, cultures, and class groups.

4 Early Insights

While these conversations are still going on, we’ve identified 4 early insights that we think may be useful to others working on similar efforts.

  • First: Conversations about race and class can be incredibly difficult to navigate, and some communities may not have the capacity to constructively facilitate them. Given the sensitive nature of the topics, a common language is often useful to help communities engage in constructive conversations. Language is contextual and certain words can turn some people away while bringing others in. For example, ‘underserved’ or ‘underrepresented’ or ‘minority’ are often used interchangeably to identify target communities, yet they can each inspire different reactions in different people. Regardless, these tough, courageous conversations are an important starting point for any movement towards incorporating equity considerations into Collective Impact work.
  • Second: We need to be clear on who we mean by the community. The first half of an answer is that community is defined as the people who will be impacted by the changes the Collective Impact partnership seeks to make. Going one step further, in equitable community engagement, the targeted community can be defined as those individuals who will be impacted by social change efforts and who are also historically left out of the decision-making process. In cradle-to-career work, this can include local students and youth as well as communities of color.
  • Third: We need to recognize the difference between equity and equality in community engagement. It’s not enough to give all community members an equal opportunity to engage in the Collective Impact effort; we need to actively meet communities where they are and create targeted opportunities around the unique needs of community members historically disengaged from civic decision-making. For example, equitable engagement could include offering translation services for non-English speakers or timing engagement opportunities later in the day so that working parents are able to join.
  • Fourth: We need to more carefully redefine power in Collective Impact efforts. Conventionally, power resides in the leaders and institutions that have authority to make unilateral decisions. Yet, in Collective Impact, power also resides within community members who have the ability to quickly identify what is and isn’t working. Collective Impact partnerships themselves may have a role to play in helping drive this shift by highlighting the importance of incorporating community feedback into the work of the larger partnership.

Join the Dialogue

This is only the beginning of our exploration into equitable community engagement as a way to address inequality. As we continue to explore this question, we’re committed to sharing our insights and questions through this blog. Over the next several months, we will share knowledge ranging from examples of equitable engagement in the field to insights gained from our ongoing discussions. I invite you to join us in this dialogue by reaching out to me - either through email at or through twitter at @_jsarias.

]]> Wed, 30 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Juan Sebastian Arias
A Mayor’s View: The Effect of Collective Impact Initiatives on City Hall In our journey to explore and learn more about the role of municipal government in collective impact initiatives we had a wonderful opportunity at our most recent Integration Initiative Learning Community convening to interview former three-term Mayor of Minneapolis, MN, R.T. Rybak, who is now a part-time Senior Advisor to Living Cities. As mayor, R.T. participated in several collective impact initiatives focusing on an array of issues including youth violence, transportation expansion, education reform, and chronic homelessness. Below are some highlights from our insightful conversation with R.T. To learn more from R.T.’s experience, watch a highlight video of the conversation, below.

What did you learn about the role of philanthropy, government, and community in collective impact initiatives?

One major thing I learned is that it’s not philanthropy’s job to rescue government. Philanthropy is the jiffy lube that can help make government run, but it is not a substitute for government or an antidote for things not working in government. Collective impact models like The Integration Initiative (TII) can serve as a vehicle to disrupt the government power grid that is often more interested in maintaining control than achieving results. The beauty of the collective impact table is that it jumbles up that rigid government power grid allowing equal distribution of power around the table. In TII and other collective impact initiatives that I was a part of as Mayor, the table allowed the power to shift dramatically, setting the mayor and other elected officials on equal footing with non-profit partners and community members most impacted by the problem we were trying to solve.

How critical is the role of community?

Like I said before, collective impact initiatives can really shift the power dynamic putting mayors and other electeds on equal footing with community. That power shift forces elected officials to recognize how much he or she needs other people to bring about real systemic change that goes beyond their term in office. In working with such an array of partners I had to walk humbly into those meetings, embracing the idea that the change that was needed was only going to be sustainable if I practiced true servant leadership -- which is not easy for type A elected officials, like myself, who often feel they need to have all the good ideas and make it all happen on their own steam. Around our youth violence initiative work, I went into those community meetings knowing that I did not have the solution. Listening to the young people and their families impacted by the violence led to some critical policy changes that would not have happened without that community voice at the table.

What is your advice to elected officials beginning to work in collective impact initiatives?

Elected officials need to accept that there is virtually nothing they can solve totally on their own. I’d advise them to do some real soul searching from the very beginning asking themselves – Am I really trying to do collective impact or am I trying to get a bunch of people to say “I like your idea Mr. or Ms. Mayor?” If the latter is the case then I don’t think they’ll achieve the type of success that’s possible through these efforts nor will they improve the lives of the people they were elected to serve.

What is your advice to those outside of government?

Those outside government need to recognize when they are being brought in as equal partners and when they are not. If equal partnership is not happening they need to push back, letting their elected officials know that they understand the difference between just supporting a mayor’s ideas versus engaging in true collaboration. If those outside of government want effective collective impact they must push their elected officials for shared results, outcomes, and accountability from the very start.

What role did race play in pulling together collective impact tables?

Race was and is a big part of the equation especially when you are pulling these tables together. Often we would find ourselves in meetings with the top people from our philanthropic institutions and social service agencies which was a good thing, but the racial make-up of that meeting was often all white or predominately white people trying to solve the problems of communities of color. We had to racially and ethnically expand the table so we could have an authentic conversation about who we are ultimately trying to help, understand the differences and similarities in experiences of an African-American youth living on one side of town versus a Somali immigrant youth living on the other side of town, and make collective decisions based on that knowledge. The ability to have those conversations drive policy and change was one of the major benefits of working in this new way.

Want to learn more from R.T.? Watch additional highlights from the Q&A:

]]> Tue, 29 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Ronda Jackson
Lessons on Open-Sourcing Social Change to Disrupt Inequality On July 16, 2014, Living Cities hosted a Twitter Chat on open-sourcing social change and the role that this approach plays in our work to disrupt inequality in America. The chat, co-hosted by our Chief Operating Officer, Elodie Baquerot, was the second in a series we’re hosting this summer on #DisruptingInequality, the focus of our 2013 Annual Report. During that chat, participants surfaced a number of themes on what it takes to come up with solutions to complex social problems. Encouragingly, our Twitter community collectively acknowledged the potential of open-sourcing social change to transform the way the social sector works for the better.

To learn more about what it takes to open-source social change and disrupt inequality – and for examples of this work on the ground - check out our post-chat Storify:

]]> Mon, 28 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Elizabeth Vargas
5 Opportunities (and Challenges!) of Community Engagement When Seattle/King County set out to decrease health and social gaps among low-income residents, we embraced a new way of working and engaged in a Collective Impact initiative. In my post yesterday, I shared some of the core learnings about community engagement that informed the creation of our Communities of Opportunity partnership.

Even though our Collective Impact initiative is new, we have found the process of working directly with communities to be both rewarding and vital in designing and planning our initiative. But, as I mention, the opportunities also come with challenges.

Here are five opportunities and challenges we’ve faced in community engagement:

1. OPPORTUNITY: Education of residents

At the 2013 Community Forum, Dr. David Fleming, Director and Health Officer of Public Health-Seattle & King County, presented color-coded maps of health and well-being inequities in the county. This visualization of the data (below) was a powerful way to educate residents about core issue we faced in Seattle/King County. The illumination of the intersection of place and well-being sparked attendees to think about issues in new ways. Receiving knowledge in a new way also encouraged us to explore areas where we work “better together”— and where we need to break down siloes to address underlying root causes of poor outcomes.

Maps of Seattle/King County showing concentrations of poor health and social outcomes in dark red in the lowest income parts of the county.

2. OPPORTUNITY: Surfacing of new ideas

Community stakeholders contribute different perspectives to policy, programs, and interventions. The ideas surfaced at the Community Forum ranged from creating a “food innovation district,” to creating a neighborhood-level resource portal, to building partnerships between health plans and housing providers. If not for the forum and the input of cross-sector stakeholders, the Communities of Opportunity partnership may have neither imagined these solutions nor discovered the widespread desire for shared goals.

3. OPPORTUNITY: Gaining buy in early on

At the forum, County Executive Dow Constantine spoke to the meeting participants. He implored everyone to harness the power of Collective Impact and declared that, with the combined efforts of everyone in the room, we could “do something extraordinary.” This enthusiasm from a top regional player demonstrated commitment to the ideas generated in the meeting. It also gave participants confidence that the ideas of the initiative had the support to really take hold in the communities where they work.

4. CHALLENGE: Little advice has been given about how to engage with low-income community members

A common question at a recent gathering of The Integration Initiative sites was: “How do we actually engage at the grass-roots level with the low-income people where we are working?” We heard anecdotes from other health, human services and foundation efforts to work from, but didn’t find a coherent body of work on ways to effectively bring low-income communities into a Collective Impact initiative. Richard Harwood of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation called this type of engagement creating a “civic culture.” We need more concrete examples of successful grass-roots community engagement in Collective Impact to learn from. It’s too easy to create tables of “the usual suspects” instead of opening the circle to those with different backgrounds and perspectives. One of our mantras is “if it isn’t hard, it isn’t equity,” but a little guidance on how to make inclusion work well would be welcome. We think our second mantra “if it isn’t fun, you’re not doing it right” can also guide our work on this.

5. CHALLENGE: Hard to define “community representative”

How do you know at which level to engage in a community? Who actually are the grass-tops and the grass-roots players? Should you speak to local elected officials? Representatives of community-based organizations? Neighborhood leaders? People walking down the street? Communities of Opportunity has spoken with many different community representatives and we will continue to engage at all levels of the community. Our King County Community Engagement Guide provides advice about how to structure interactions honestly with community groups depending on whether their input will be advisory or decision-making. Yet we need more clarity on which community representatives can provide the most helpful input around the design and implementation of a Collective Impact initiative. And what kind of feedback loops we can use to ensure we are on track with pursuing community priorities.

Many of the communities highlighted in our maps of King County have clearly articulated actions plans that spell out a comprehensive set of priorities they believe will make their communities healthier and more livable. We are committed to taking the lead from the local organizations and people who live in these neighborhoods, so we can build on existing hopes and dreams rather than lose energy by imposing solutions from the outside.

Do these opportunities and challenges resonate with your experiences? If you have had a different experience engaging with your local communities, let us know in the comments.

]]> Fri, 25 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Kirsten Wysen
How to Steer a Collective Impact Initiative through Community Engagement Community engagement is a critical part of making lasting changes in low-income places. It’s worth the effort, resources and time to do well at both the grass-roots community level and at the grass-tops political and organizational leader level. “Communities of Opportunity,” a cross-sector partnership in Seattle/King County, recently joined The Integration Initiative with a bold goal of decreasing health and social gaps among low-income residents in our county.

The initiative was born from a 2013 task force charged with preparing two King County departments for national health reform. The task force recommended working to change community features in low-income places that contribute to today’s poor health and social outcomes. At the same time, The Seattle Foundation was interested in similar place-based work. Rather than doing business the old way and proceeding on independent tracks, King County and The Seattle Foundation decided to work together in 2014 to co-design a framework that would set the stage for engaging other partners and investors in a Collective Impact approach. One of the guiding principles the partners share is to actively design strategies and interventions with input from all levels of stakeholders from the southern parts of the county, where the greatest disparities lie.

An important pre-cursor to the Communities of Opportunity partnerships was a large open invitation community forum in late 2013. The community forum brought grass-tops and grass-roots leaders from multiple sectors together to explore what it would take to make changes in under-resourced regions of the county. The 175 participants came up with dozens of ideas about how to work in the intersection between health and community development. From that point, the initiative has worked with a smaller design committee, also composed of cross-sector representatives, to identify three places in South King County to employ these strategies. The committee is advising that we use a “mutual selection” process so communities can decide if they want to work with us too.

Even though we have only recently begun this Collective Impact initiative, we have found the process of working directly with communities to be both rewarding and vital in designing and planning our initiative. However, these benefits also come with challenges.

Stay tuned for more insight into the benefits and challenges we’ve faced in steering a Collective Impact partnership.

]]> Thu, 24 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Kirsten Wysen
3 Fabulous Flavors of Feedback Needed for Collective Impact At Living Cities we think of Collective Impact as a set of principles: (1) a cross-sector partnership that has collectively agreed to a (2) shared result they aim to achieve and a (3) commitment to behavior change based on a (4) feedback loop of measures and outcomes that signals whether or not they are on track. (whew!) But anyone doing this work knows that, in application, it can be messy and confusing. To stick with the recipe analogy from my recent blog about the yummy tensions of collective impact, feedback is the binding agent that holds all of the other ingredients together. But it isn’t something that you can just throw into the mix. It has individual, flavorful elements that have to be carefully incorporated into the larger process. When done well, this creates an enabling connective tissue upon which the Collective Impact partnership can thrive.


When I busted onto the social-sector scene, I succeeded admirably in one thing: pissing everyone off. I was used to speaking in terms of "accountability", "corrective action" and "metrics". When I didn't hear that language back, I assumed (you know what happens when you do that) that it just wasn't there and started to come across as patronizing. I learned the hard way that the private, public and social sectors have different languages. That doesn't mean we don't want the same things, we just tend to go about trying to achieve them in different ways. What I quickly learned was that, while we used different language, we were often doing similar activities. During my work in youth development, we called the sum of these activities “feedback culture.” But it wasn't your run of the mill constructive criticism. Each young person we worked with had to sign a contract about committing to professional behavior (accountability). At the end of each week, what they did or did not do well was read in front of their peers by category (metrics). But that wouldn't have done anything without coaching. So that same group of peers would also give feedback about what they did well and what they could do better so that the person had the opportunity to change behavior (corrective action). What my youth development organization called feedback culture, I believe most professionals would call anxiety-laden.

For the young people I had the privilege of serving, the end result was a career pathway to make a better life for them and their families. Cross-sector partners need this level of transparency and vulnerability. They need the courage to share what's going well, what's not going well, and why in order to improve continuously That requires building trust that everyone in the group is coming from a place of caring and that the temporary discomfort is worth it in order to reach the end result the group is committed to.


It is always hard for me to hear people say things along the lines of, "it's all about the data". That might seem strange since I was an electrical engineering, computer science double major. But what I've found about data is that it is surprisingly subjective. A savvy person can make data do or say whatever they want in order to prove a point of view. Also, the data is not the point. What matters is whatever the data allows passionate people to understand and change. As Jeff Edmondson and the StriveTogether folks often say, the best data doesn't help you prove, it helps you IMPROVE.

Although we spoke about feedback loops in my earlier blog, one thing to note is that “feedback loop” does not equal “information technology system”. Feedback Loop literally means collecting the information that is needed to know whether or not you are on track. When people start thinking about data, they often go on a mad spree trying to collect EVERYTHING…blades of grass, wind speeds, rainfall percentages. The best feedback loops are processes that are elegant and iterative. They inform you about the validity of your choices as quickly as possible. I love the blinking speedometer example; those flashing numbers inform you whether you should speed up or slow down, but the desire and choice to do so is still ultimately your own.

Another important distinction is that many organization ALREADY HAVE feedback loops. The challenge is that they exist within the boundaries of their own organization. That brings us to my last element of feedback.


Inevitably, if your Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) is audacious and scary enough, no one organization will house all of the information needed to be able to assess progress toward the goal. When I was speaking at an environmental conference recently, we walked through an example using an initiative with the goal of reducing CO2 emissions in Washington D.C. by 25% in five years. I asked them, “What are you doing to drive this change?” The answers were fast and furious.

"Planting trees!"

"Engaging employers to change their polluting behaviors."

"Burning down power plants." (That last one was a little alarming but every room has a wild revolutionary.)

When I asked how they would know that the CO2 emissions were reduced, and if they had that data themselves, most folks scratched their heads and said, "Uhh…no." Most of them could tell you the number of trees they planted, or the private-sector people who signed up to change their behaviors, or even their progress toward their goals. It's not that they weren't collecting data. It’s that the issues they are ultimately trying to impact are so interconnected with larger, more complex systems that it is easy to “achieve” programmatic success in a vacuum without seeing any improvement big picture change. Achieving a BHAG will require laying down infrastructure that gets you the right information when you need it. That's what is so awesome about the first two flavors of feedback. If your cross-sector partnership builds a feedback culture and feedback loops that keep them informed if they're on or off track, inevitably there will be a tension with getting the information they need fast enough so that they can change course, if needed, in real time.

A great example of what can happen when people take that journey together is what happened when Cuyahoga County, in Ohio, began preliminary research for a Pay for Success deal aimed at decreasing the average number of days a child spends in foster care. In the process of building a Pay for Success model (which, by the way, is one of the best emerging models that is naturally aligned with the principles of Collective Impact), they realized that part of the reason children were not being picked up from foster care when their parents were released from jail was because the criminal justice systems and the family services systems didn’t “talk”. Since they needed to prove outcomes to receive a financial return, they were not comfortable with convoluted paper pushing processes. The county decided then and there that they would invest in building infrastructure between the two systems so that they would automatically notify each other. This change will last regardless of administration changes, or people being promoted. And as a result, no mother will feel that it is not her right to reach out to her children and no child will wonder why her mother doesn't care enough to take her home. When it's all said and done, that's when you know you've achieved enduring systems change.

]]> Wed, 23 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Tynesia Boyea-Robinson
Social Physics As A Public Utility This piece is cross posted from the Data-Smart City Solutions blog hosted by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School.

Prime innovation ecologies are at a premium these days, as both municipal and private-sector officials scout out sites to host the next innovation district or biotechnology firm. A new branch of science, social physics, will help them develop innovative neighborhoods to deepen their bench of prospects.

Developed by MIT Professor Alex Pentland, one of the world’s foremost experts on big data, social physics derives fundamental rules of social interaction from the “statistical regularities in human movement and communication” made tractable by information technology and big data. This is the descriptive aspect of what Prof. Pentland terms “reality mining”: Who is going where, with whom, in what mood, for how long, by what route, to buy what – and all the patterns of conversation along the way.

The key finding is that innovation is an emergent property of interpersonal networks that precisely balance engagement with exploration. Engagement refers to a densely transitive hub of face-to-face ties. These hubs forge ideas into good ideas into actionable ideas by volleying them back and forth in a richly social pattern layered with the implicit communication that accounts for most of the information exchanged between people. Ties of exploration, oftentimes electronic and/or transient in nature, connect these hubs of engagement, seeding them with new ideas in order to prevent them from becoming echo chambers.

The predictive dimension of social physics, though, is what earns it the “physics” moniker. Because humans are habituated through the influence of their peers, their behavior can be forecast by mapping and measuring their interpersonal interactions. As individuals, we can perceive this only dimly because we lack an aerial view of the network, but statistically the findings are overwhelming: Our ideas, norms of behavior, germs, fashion choices, and even weight gain are extrinsic properties, mostly determined by who we see every day. So, just as physicists can predict the behavior of an object in space, social physicists can predict a human’s behavior in a network.

The benefit for city planners is that if engagement and exploration can be measured, they can be managed. And the measurements are getting very good.

Researchers at Prof. Pentland’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, its partner institutions throughout the world, and its spin-off companies, like Sense Networks and Sociometric Solutions, are able to tap into the data that stream through telecommunications providers, search engines, mobile gadgets, social media, credit card payment systems, and sociometric badges to precisely map the social dynamics within an organization or location. Furthermore, the City Science Initiative at MIT, managed by Dr. Ryan Chin, has recently launched CityScope, which acts as an “urban observatory, urban intervention simulator, and decision support system”, that allows planners to dial-tune policy inputs to map their effects on a physical representation of their neighborhood or city.

Instead of describing each technology in isolation, consider this hypothetical example of how they might be integrated: A merchants’ association in a well-situated but underperforming downtown retail center decides that it wants to improve the center’s network dynamics in order to generate innovation. Helped along by grants from the city and non-profit organizations, the association contracts with the City Science Initiative for a comprehensive year-long study that requires tracking all credit-card transactions, the location data from all mobile phones, the content of all social media output from the retail center, the construction of behavioral profiles of mobile users, and even the imposition of sociometric badges, which when worn around the neck can measure the distribution and quality of face-to-face interactions, on employees, customers, and pedestrians in the downtown center who opt in.

Using CityScope, the City Science Initiative then projects onto a scaled, three-dimensional model of the retail center the hubs of engagement and ties of exploration. Macro trends, like foot traffic through the light rail and commuter stations and the spatial concentration of different demographics at different hours, can zoom into granular profiles, i.e. behavioral avatars of the pedestrians on Main Street plaza, between 8am and 10am on weekdays; the quality and the quantity of the face-to-face interactions they’re having with each other and which stores they’re having them in; how long they stay at each site; what types of things they’re purchasing; where they go after their purchase, and by what route.

Standing at the helm of CityScope, city officials can then calibrate the network dynamics of the retail center by dialing up or down a host of variables instantiated in the model. Graphics for exploration and engagement are indexed to these variables, so that planners can see in real time and in three dimensions what happens when, for example, permits for sidewalk seating are granted more liberally, or zoning density and mixed-use allocations increase, or the exits for transit stops are shifted across the street to be nearer to open cafes. "Graphing network dynamics onto a user-friendly platform like CityScope,” Dr. Chin explains, “will provide city planners with new insight into how to, literally, build innovation."

As it stands now, planners in charge of capital investment and improvement budgets may be the most receptive, because the money is substantial enough – over $100 million annually for Boston, for example – and the backlog of worthy projects long enough that an apolitical, time-intensive planning tool could synchronize with the already deliberate process for triaging the funds.

Ideally, though, the theory of social physics and the increasing sophistication of its measurement will change the way cities think about fostering innovation. That thinking today is capital intensive: administrations assume that synergy is inevitable when they lure in human capital, whether by recruiting STEM-heavy firms or place-making for the creative class, and build physical capital, like innovation centers. The productivity of the network is an ex post facto and qualitative consideration.

Instead, cities should ultimately treat network enhancement as a public utility, to be measured, improved, and published as open data. Let the market then internalize this new information to determine how capital, both physical and human, is allocated.

Jake Auchincloss is a research assistant at the Ash Center and a dual degree candidate at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

]]> Tue, 22 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Jake Auchincloss