As part of our series highlighting alumni of Living Cities’ cohorts, we spoke with Ashleigh Gardere, who recently completed her service as Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at the New Orleans Business Alliance where she transformed the public-private partnership into one of the nation’s leading economic development organizations prioritizing inclusive growth as the pathway to a thriving economy. Ashleigh has worked with Living Cities during our Integration Initiative and Start Up, Stay Up, Scale Up program. We reflected on her experiences in her public and private sector roles, as an alumni of our past learning communities, and how New Orleans is embedding equity in its workforce and small business developments.

Portrait by Kevin Alvir

Ashleigh Gardere has been a friend and partner to Living Cities for over six years. Our partnership began many moons ago, during the launch of the second round of The Integration Initiative in 2014. At the time she was serving as a Senior Advisor to Mayor Mitch Landrieu in New Orleans, LA. In this role, she managed the Mayor’s Economic Opportunity Strategy. Most recently, she was the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at the New Orleans Business Alliance and is currently transitioning out of that role in order to inform, provoke and accelerate action at the national level.

Having to rebuild the very systems necessary for civilization caused us to lean into relationship building and partnership.

As we began our conversation, one of the first things she mentioned was the ways in which Hurricane Katrina caused the city of New Orleans to shift the way they thought about collaboration in service of the outcomes they desired for their city. In reflection of this conversation that I had with Ashleigh just a few weeks before America had caught on to the severity of COVID19 and its effects, I can’t help but think of the ways in which what she shared with me that day, resonate so much in this moment. That for me illuminated the ways in which crises’ like the one we’re living through right now and Hurricane Katina in 2005, can be the catalyst for a shift in operations and different ways of existing and organizing/working. “Having to rebuild the very systems necessary for civilization caused us to lean into relationship building and partnership,” she said.

In reflection of how participation in the Integration Initiative impacted her work she shared that, “a new leadership style and discipline focused on the concept of shared results was transformative. This new approach changed our thinking about who needed to be at the table to achieve meaningful outcomes.” The rigor of agreeing on a shared result then caused Ashleigh’s team and local partners in New Orleans to elevate a single data point that became central to their work. “52% of working age, African American men in New Orleans weren’t working. We decided to be courageous around significantly reducing that data point.” The network of partners began thinking about the root causes that have contributed to that data point and what “meaningful interventions” as she put it, would be necessary to move that number. Ultimately, her team became nimble about their strategies in the areas of workforce development and small business growth under the assumption that, “if we grew Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (DBEs) and their revenue, they would and could hire more workers and were likely to hire folks that looked like them.” During the time Ashleigh and her team were in partnership with us working toward that shared result, they saw their 52% unemployment rate drop to 43.9%. “On the small business side, we surpassed the city’s goal of achieving a 35% participation rate from DBEs with a total of 48.62% DBE participation.”

Being able to stand for each other was transformational.

As we shifted gears to talk a bit more about what it felt like to be part of a learning community within the Integration Initiative, I began to settle in; it was exciting to hear so many of the results I’d seen in numbers come to life through her storytelling. “Living Cities will always have a special place in my heart,” she said. She painted the picture of every semi-annual TII leaning community convening as a reunion of trusted partners; speaking specifically of her fellow Initiative Directors (ID) in the TII cohort. As she put it, “every 6 months is about the time that you start to feel lonely in this work.” She shared joyously about what it felt like to be able to reconvene with the TII community, especially during moments when they [IDs] each needed support “being able to stand for each other was transformational.”

As our conversation neared its end, I asked Ashleigh about this national network that she’s now been growing over the past few years and how she’s been able to leverage those relationships to achieve outcomes in her city. “Half the reason I can say I have a national network is because of Living Cities,” she said. She revelled at the memories of being able to celebrate the success of fellow TII IDs like Robin Brule, Tawanna Black, Monique Baptiste and Kurt Sommer, in community with one another. The joy that was present in those memories could be felt– even if we were just on the phone.

At Living Cities, we talk often about the importance of relationships and critical friendships; Ashleigh, more than most, has felt the impact of those relationships and critical friendships in transformational ways. She shared a story about how she leveraged her critical friendships to help New Orleans stay on the right side of history regarding workforce development and equity. In 2015, the New Orleans City Council passed Hire NOLA, the same policy that allowed Ashleigh’s team to work toward the inclusive procurement practices I mentioned above. In turn, the city became the subject of state preemption– this would have eliminated the local hiring and DBE policies Ashleigh and her team had worked to create to increase Black male employment rates in New Orleans. In response, Ashleigh picked up the phone and called on her national partners. Philanthropic leaders, including ourselves, were able to ask tough questions without political repercussions, giving the city and Ashleigh’s partners the support needed politically to defeat the preemption bill. Other national organizations like Policy Link and City Lab also wrote articles in support of the local hiring policy. “That changed the game, that was evidence of our partnership,” she said.

At Living Cities, we are increasingly encouraged by folks, like Ashleigh, who are working across systems, building and leveraging relationships, and centering racial equity across their work. These are the leaders that will bridge us into the world of abundance and dignity, where all people are given a chance to thrive, that so many of us are working and striving toward.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.