As part of our series highlighting alumni of Living Cities’ cohorts, we spoke with Daro Mott, who currently serves as the VP of Process Improvement and Execution at Farm Credit Mid-America. Daro worked with Living Cities when he was the Chief of Performance Improvement for the City of Louisville. We reflected on his experience in that role, how his work with Living Cities impacted it, and what we can learn from our collaboration to improve future cohort experiences for public servants.

Portrait by Kevin Alvir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.