I don’t have to look hard at the world around me today to find reasons for despair. We are being confronted daily with the fragility of institutions and norms that many of us took for granted. Inequality and racial gaps continue to grow relentlessly despite decades of well-intentioned work. A shockingly large number of Americans seem, at best, indifferent. The weight of these challenges and the complexity of their solutions can feel overwhelming.
It’s impossible to live in America today without being conscious of the ever-growing racial inequities, and the racism that has been in the groundwater of the country since our founding.
But for me, my role as president and CEO of Living Cities has served as a source of hope and optimism in these pretty dark times. That’s because I am seeing 18 of the world’s largest and most powerful foundations and financial institutions honestly grapple with how to effect change closer to the root causes of today’s mess. By acknowledging the limitations of working alone, exploring ways of collaborating differently, and confronting difficult realities around historical and ongoing injustice, the impact of members’ collective efforts may actually stand a chance of being commensurate with the scope of the problems we face.
This past May, those 18 institutions agreed to fund and govern the collaborative for another three-year period. This was the tenth time—dating back to 1991—that members have made this commitment. In fact, almost all of the foundations and financial institutions making up the Living Cities collaborative today have been at the table for more than half of our 28-year history. Just like the previous nine times they have been at this juncture before, the board recognized the ongoing importance of taking the long view, and having the patience to invest in and observe real, long-term change.
However, unlike previous periods, the stated purpose of their work together is very different. For most of Living Cities’ history, our mission was broadly defined as achieving better outcomes for low-income people in US cities. But it’s impossible to live in America today without being conscious of the ever-growing racial inequities, and the racism that has been in the groundwater of the country since our founding. As we dug into root causes of economic inequality in the United States, we couldn’t escape the fact that race remains one of the strongest predictors of life outcomes. Without putting race and racism at the center of our work and our analysis, we simply had no hope of achieving our mission of achieving economic security for all. Therefore, today our collaborative is unapologetically about race and closing the racial gaps in income and wealth.
The board’s willingness to stay together for more than two decades, fund in three year rounds, and focus squarely on closing racial gaps is an anomaly within our current system. Our board recognizes that change takes time; the results we set for ourselves, and the partnerships and programs we develop to achieve them, are oriented around a ten-year or longer time horizon. Importantly, board and staff members have also been reckoning with and strengthening our analysis of the history and legacy of structural racism in this country and in our own institutions. I am encouraged by the way this collaborative model goes to the heart of criticism that philanthropy incentivizes programmatic, short-term fixes that don’t upset the status quo and have little accountability to achieving results.
Working together differently—centering race and a focus on a shared result—has also opened the door to different types of questions around the boardroom table: What could we do differently as an institution—or, perhaps, stop doing—to bring us closer to our shared goal? As individual leaders, what research, resources or relationships do I have access to that could support our collective progress?
What could we do differently as an institution—or, perhaps, stop doing—to bring us closer to our shared goal?
This has resulted in anything but business as usual. Over the last three years, sparked by these kinds of questions, board members and their staff have collaborated on issues ranging from racial inequity within the halls of local government—giving rise to our Racial Equity Here initiative—to shifting narratives in corporate America to promote equity as a business imperative. Participants in these narrative change efforts have used their own personal relationships to connect with C-suite leaders in the private sector, and begin to build a coalition of the willing.
Individual board members have shifted internal practices within their own institutions to combat the racism in our groundwater—interrogating hiring practices, measurement and evaluation practices, procurement and more within their own institutions. One member vastly increased funding for racial equity competency building among the foundation’s grantees. In the last year alone, we’ve co-hosted Undoing Racism workshops around the country with a variety of partners including the City of Austin, the Ford Foundation, the Boston Federal Reserve, and the Collective Impact Forum. These workshops were aimed at supporting changemakers in our networks to center race in their work, to see themselves as anti-racist organizers within their institutions, and to connect them to a broader cross-sector movement. Through survey responses, we have received overwhelmingly positive feedback about the value and impact of this training for participants in their own work.
We have a long way to go. But the ambition and commitment of member institutions, the Living Cities board of directors, and their staff is a source of inspiration for me as we continue working toward a world where race is no longer a predictor of outcomes. It’s on all of us—within philanthropy and beyond—not to rest on good intentions, but to hold up the mirror to our own institutions and to ourselves in order to create renewed hope in the promise of America, this time very intentionally for all.