Over our history, Living Cities has remained committed to improving the lives of people in US cities, and accelerating the spread and adoption of practices that combat economic insecurity. From our original focus on neighborhood-level transformation, we pivoted in 2007 to address the many, interrelated systems–education, transit access, workforce development, and more–that impact peoples’ economic well-being, and since then have evolved to center race and a commitment to racial equity in our work.
Learn more about our racial equity journey in this interactive timeline, or read for more on our history:
1991 – 2000: The National Community Development Initiative
Living Cities was founded in 1991 as the National Community Development Initiative, with an initial focus of providing capital to and building capacity of local community development corporations (CDCs). NCDI was an unprecedented funding pool of $62.5 million created by six foundations and a for-profit insurance company, and was intended to expand the work of CDCs so that they could accelerate the production of affordable housing.
For the remainder of the decade, the membership continued to expand, as did the number of targeted cities. Some institutions that did not have an explicit program interest in the physical redevelopment of cities joined the alliance. Increasingly, members viewed the collaborative structure as a way of pursuing complex and intersecting challenges. Cities, in short, were the place where many philanthropic missions intersected.
By the end of the 1990s, NCDI had invested a total of $250 million into neighborhoods in some two dozen cities, investing directly into projects and to improving the skills and management of CDCs and strengthening the policy and financial environment that surrounded them. But the real effect of these direct outlays was to draw other, outside resources into the same neighborhoods, at a volume many times larger than the group’s original investment. In all, the development funded by the first decade of NCDI—19,500 housing units, 1.3 million square feet of commercial and industrial property, 330,000 square feet of other kinds of development— represented a total investment of more than $2 billion.
For more about Living Cities’ first decade:
Resource Document: Common Effort, Uncommon Wealth: Lessons from Living Cities on the Challenges and Opportunities of Collaboration in PhilanthropyDownload More information
2001 – 2016: Dramatically Better Results for Low-Income People
The Living Cities collective was developing an awareness that the challenges of the 21st century also demand re-engineering broken, siloed systems that fail to create adequate opportunities for low-income people or connect people to those opportunities. The Board of Directors adopted a bold new vision in 2006, to expand the organization’s focus from neighborhood and community development to a multi-sector, systems-focus that addressed education, health, workforce development and more. During this period, we launched a number of new initiatives focused on supporting cross-sector leaders in places to move beyond delivering programs, toward accelerating the spread and adoption of solutions that could bring about lasting change that benefitted low-income people. [The Project on Municipal Innovation](link) in 2008, [The Integration Initiative (TII)](link) in 2010, and the [City Accelerator](link) in 2014 were all designed to support cities in learning with and from each other.
Capital innovation has been a part of Living Cities’ approach since its inception. In 2008, we raised a $30 million impact investing fund, [The Catalyst Fund](link), to complement and advance the organization’s agenda by investing in ways that led to the creation of economic opportunity. In 2016, building on lessons and successes from that experience, we launched the Blended Catalyst Fund, a $36 million impact investing debt fund that combines philanthropic and commercial debt.
2016 – Today: Closing Racial Income & Wealth Gaps
Meanwhile, internally, Living Cities’ staff at all levels had been pushing to address the role of race and racism in the mission and work of the organization. Our theory of change, programs, and messaging were race-neutral, and many staff members felt that a robust interrogation of the impact of racial inequity on cities was noticeably absent—if not unwelcome—in Living Cities’ work.
Our journey to embed a racial equity analysis into our work has been complex, non-linear, and imperfect—and transformative for the organization. That work is ongoing. In 2013, through internal organizing efforts and sparked in part by the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer, leadership and staff committed to building a shared language and analysis in order to collectively grapple with how individual, institutional and systemic racism manifested in the organization and its work.
Engage with more of our history through our interactive timeline, “We Were There: Reckoning with Living Cities’ History on Race.”
Explore staff perspectives, lessons and tools from our racial equity journey in our interactive, multimedia report, “Conversations About Racial Equity.”
In 2015, the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody sparked similar conversations among the board, with members concluding that the collaborative needed to develop a collective response to the pattern of police brutality and structural racial inequities. The response, Racial Equity Here, brought together five cities that worked with the Government Alliance on Racial & Equity (GARE) to apply a racial equity lens to local government policy and operations.
At Living Cities’ 25th Anniversary event the following year, the organization and collaborative put a bold stake in the ground by framing the entire day around the imperative of closing racial gaps.
As we built our competencies, it became clear that in order to effectively address racism in the world, the organization needed first to do that work internally. Over time, we came to be grounded in the understanding that personal growth, individual journeys and self-reflection are critical components of “operationalizing” racial equity in our culture and day-to-day work.
In 2017, we adopted racial equity and inclusion as a fifth core value, and established an internal team—Colleagues Operationalizing Racial Equity (CORE)—to normalize conversations about race, and to support the infrastructure and investments necessary to support personal competency-building. All staff went through a deep racial equity training, and all new hires are now expected to take a workshop within 90 days of being hired.
Without putting race and racism at the center of our work and our analysis, Living Cities has no hope of achieving our mission of economic security for all. Today, the collaborative is unapologetically about race and closing the racial gaps in income and wealth.