As part of our series highlighting alumni of Living Cities’ cohorts, we spoke with Joann Massey, Director of Business Diversity & Compliance for the City of Memphis. We reflected on her experience in this role, how her work with Living Cities has impacted it, and what we can learn from our collaboration to improve future cohort experiences for public servants.

Portrait by Kevin Alvir

Joann Massey has led Mayor Strickland’s Office of Business Diversity and Compliance in the City of Memphis since February 2016. “[Living Cities staff] are an extension of our team in so many ways,” she reflected as we opened our conversation about her experiences in the City Accelerator on Inclusive Procurement cohort, which focused on equity in procurement. When Joann was first hired, the office was brand new and its scope was limited. She knew, though, that to truly meet the needs of Memphis’s citizens, they had to expand their notion of what was possible. There is no one better suited to do this work than Joann, who has a vivacious, warm spirit and an attitude that makes it clear that once she has a goal, nothing will stand in her way to achieving it. “Anything can be done once we say we want to do it,” Joann told me. “If we don’t have it, we’ll go find it. Even if it’s not a tangible thing – a network, idea, etc. I don’t think city government has operated like that traditionally.”

Indeed, Joann and her team have proven that city government is capable of innovation and resourcefulness in a way that the public often hears it’s not. From where I sit, that’s due to the leadership that Joann embodies. She insists, though, that her partnership with Living Cities played a huge role in her office’s ability to innovate, so we dug into how exactly that worked and how Living Cities can replicate similar types of support in our future work.

At Living Cities we often reflect on our capacity to “give cover.” In Joann’s case, we were able to give her the cover she needed to innovate in her work. “When I first started in this role,” she said, “everyone around me was screaming: the city of Memphis is 63% African American and your numbers should match the demographics!” She knew that would be nearly impossible in the time frame she had. They were too far away from that rate, and the number of businesses available to contract with were limited. She looked to the Living Cities network, and reached out to folks she had met from Chicago to get their procurement data. Then she was able to go back to Memphis and offer a comparison. “That expectation reset was monumental,” she reflected. “What it did was it allowed the progress we were making to be absorbed by the community and elected officials. We garnered support because they said ‘you know what, [our progress is] actually good because we’re almost where Chicago is.” The Living Cities network offered “cover” for her by helping her team understand the national progress in this area and then put their local progress into context. “That support allowed us the breathing room to be innovative because we weren’t being pressured by expectations that were unreasonable to accomplish. Operating in that obtainable space allows us to stretch ourselves enough without breaking.”

The benefit that Joann and her team got from Living Cities cover didn’t come right away, though. Like many philanthropic and non-profit organizations, Living Cities has frequent internal shifts that inevitably impact our stakeholders. In Joann’s case, her first few months in the City Accelerator cohort were “very transactional.” The required quarterly reporting process was redundant and confusing. The first meeting was a lot of being “talked to.” Then, something shifted. Referencing Living Cities Associate Director Julie Bosland, Joann said “Julie took it to where we weren’t being talked to, but we were being talked with.” That’s when Joann learned of the people and offices nationwide against which she could measure her office’s progress. That’s when “it went from reporting to people.” That also happens to be around the same time that Living Cities was doing internal work to apply a racial equity lens to its philanthropic practices such as reporting.

Sometimes it can be hard for an organization going through a racial equity journey to recognize the impacts of that hard work in the moment, but as we look back and reflect with Joann’s help, we can see the significant impacts that relatively small shifts can make. Living Cities loosened the reporting process and shifted convenings to focus on participants connecting with each other, and suddenly Joann was “110% engaged.” Her experience then “went beyond the boxes and became authentic.” At this point she referenced the names of at least seven staff members and reflected, “It is sustaining. I feel empowered because of our relationships. When [my team and I] have an idea, a need, when there is a thought, we have a source, we’re not afraid. We are empowered to move and that’s because with Living Cities and even with [Living Cities member and partner on City Accelerator,] Citi Foundation, we actually talk [to each other].”

The engagement and authenticity in the partnership between Joann’s office and Living Cities has also impacted the ways that both of our organizations engage with other partners. “The power of collaboration that I learned through Living Cities has spilled over to local relationships,” she said. The signature initiative that’s come from Joann’s leadership is The 800 Initiative, which seeks to grow the ecosystem of businesses owned by people of color in Memphis. When getting it started, she reflected on what she learned about collaboration to “bring the right ingredients together,” resulting in a uniquely diverse set of cross-sector partners co-owning the initiative.

Further, Joann’s team has spearheaded transformation of the way people collaborate across departments of Memphis city government. The housing and community development offices now come together on a regular basis to ensure that their efforts focus on cultivating entrepreneurs and businesses in predominantly Black and people of color neighborhoods. This kind of cross-departmental collaboration with a focus on building Black wealth is very rare in local government. Joann attributes the possibility of it largely to two key factors: the trust that her team has been able to cultivate with a range of external and internal stakeholders, and a loosening of structures. “Strict structure isn’t the way of the world anymore, so allow for a more natural engagement. I think that would help people bond.” And the bonds are what make the deep engagement possible, which is what brings the work to life. As we design the Closing the Gaps Network, Living Cities is heeding Joann’s advice to cultivate trust with our stakeholders and advance authentic, relational approaches to closing racial gaps.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.