In 1991, Living Cities (formerly the National Community Development Initiative) was founded on a simple but powerful idea—that by working together, visionary foundations and financial institutions could genuinely transform the trajectory of American cities. In our first 15 years, our unique collaborative achieved tremendous success in terms of helping to bring the community development industry to scale. By 2006, we had invested more than $540 million in 23 cities to build or renovate over 140,000 homes and other community facilities. Working with our core partners at the time, Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and Enterprise Community Partners, we leveraged the resources of our member institutions 29:1. But, in terms of ensuring equitable access to opportunity, this work was necessary but not sufficient.
I joined Living Cities as President nine years ago with the charge of building on the success of the organization’s community development work with a focus on both neighborhood and systems transformation. Today, Living Cities deploys a unique blend of grants, loans and influence to re-engineer obsolete systems and connect low-income people to economic opportunity. We support cities in their efforts to boldly fight poverty by:
Helping leaders to achieve audacious, lasting change for low-income people.
We help local business, government, philanthropic and community leaders, who are impatient with incremental change, to align their efforts in new and more impactful ways. Through our support of the Integration Initiative, the Boston Fed’s Working Cities Challenge and StriveTogether, more than 100 cities are now on the road to achieving dramatically better results for low-income people, faster than ever before. They are using data, disaggregated by race, geography and income, to confront disparities and transform the long-broken education, workforce and economic development systems that perpetuate them.
Resourcing social change work in smarter ways.
We use Living Cities’ direct investment – now totaling more than $2 billion – to attract other public, private and philanthropic dollars, and aggregate the resources needed to drive meaningful change. In 2011, when no one would lend in Detroit, Living Cities’ $4 million loan to jumpstart housing and commercial redevelopment not only generated hope and energy for the city’s future, but also spurred an additional $55 million of private sector investment. Our $40 million Catalyst Fund has been recognized as one of the world’s top 50 impact investing funds for five consecutive years.
Strengthening local government to better serve residents.
We work with local government leaders who understand that cities must play an outsized role in improving the lives of low-income people. They are creating a culture of innovation, and using data and technology to evaluate results and reimagine government’s relationship with residents. For example, New Orleans is implementing creative approaches to ensure that the city’s poorest residents have access to healthcare. We are supporting their efforts to encourage the more than 30,000 New Orleanians who have registered for healthcare coverage but have never used it to take advantage of the services they need to stay healthy.
Spreading the best ideas and practices to speed the pace of change nationwide.
We document the most promising practices taking place around the country and circulate them across our trusted networks and growing base of social media followers. We’ve seen firsthand the hunger in the field for resources and solutions that are truly impactful; when we offered an online, self-directed, five-part course on community engagement, 2,600 people participated. Our networks are only growing, with 500+ new people joining the ranks of our more than 50,000 Twitter followers every week.
But so much more needs to be done.
It has been over 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech and the declaration of the War on Poverty. And yet, countless studies, along with events of national significance such as the events we recently witnessed in Dallas and Baton Rouge and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement have made crystal clear that we all need to do much more to address racial inequities and to close the racial opportunity gaps.
Despite the progress that the social sector has made–in affordable housing, education, health, asset building, strengthening families and even building a movement for change–in many areas, racial disparities have actually grown over the last 25 years. This reality, combined with America’s imminent transformation into a majority non-white nation, creates not only a moral imperative but an economic one as well. Despite this long-term trend, society and the social sector has too often taken a neutral stance regarding the role of race in inequality of outcomes, instead of openly acknowledging structural and systemic racism and the disproportionate impacts of policies and practices on people of color. For all of these reasons, we have focused the agenda of our 25th Anniversary events and a blog series that I am kicking off today around these two themes:
- Race, Opportunity and US Cities; and
- Harnessing Capital to Close the Racial Opportunity Gaps.
Our focus on the role of capital as part of the solution has always been at the heart of Living Cities. Much of this work, however, has been focused on the built environment in specific neighborhoods where markets were failing. But, over the past 15 years, it’s become apparent that the market failures have expanded to the larger economy, reflected in stagnant wages, losses of higher paying jobs, falling business start-up rates and a growing wealth gap. The largely place-based interventions and tools that we’ve built over the past 25 years are now grossly inadequate for closing gaps in the income and wealth of low-income Americans, especially those of color.
Because collaboration is in our DNA, we are not setting out to design solutions on our own. Indeed, these blog series will highlight ongoing efforts across the country– from transforming education, cradle to career, to ensuring that health outcomes are not dictated by the color of peoples’ skin– that show promise of contributing to closing the racial opportunity gaps. These blogs, contributed by our members, grantees, partners, and many other leaders, give us great hope that, together, we can do this.
Thank you for being a part of the Living Cities’ family over these 25 years and for celebrating this milestone with us.