Maia Jachimowicz worked with Mayor Nutter in the City of Philadelphia, helping to shape policy and improve resident well being in the city. She initially met Living Cities through the Project on Municipal Innovation (PMI), and then later “jumped on the opportunity to learn something new” through the inaugural cohort of City Accelerator, which focused on embedding innovation in local government. Throughout our conversation about these experiences, I was struck by the ways that Maia’s engagements with Living Cities enabled her and her team to do their work in new ways that challenged the status quo of local government.
We at Living Cities have been reflecting on the characteristics of white supremacy culture. One of these characteristics that we see our public sector partners (and ourselves) struggle with is a sense of urgency. When it always feels like there is so much to do, everything feels urgent. As Maia put it, “When working in local government, you’re fighting to get through what’s on your plate that day.” This sense of urgency often prevents the intentionality and critical thought that is necessary for doing our work in a way that interrupts racism. Through her experiences in PMI in particular, Maia was able to harness the day-to-day sense of urgency toward engaging in a curated experience with “highly relevant content” and practitioners who were facing similar challenges. With that additional perspective, she could show up to her work with fresh eyes and a more nuanced understanding of how to address poverty locally.
Building on her experience in PMI, Maia’s leadership in the inaugural City Accelerator cohort supported the City of Philadelphia to disrupt norms of city government. Like most institutions, city government is very siloed, but the project that Maia’s team developed with funding and support from City Accelerator was characterized by cross-agency collaboration. Their project intended to make older, low-income residents aware that they were eligible for relief on water bills (a benefit that had been available for some time but few people knew about), and required partnership with other departments to do it well. “It was quite striking,” Maia reflected. “This was the first time we had ever done a project focused on poverty alleviation with all of those departments together. We were meeting regularly, working through interdepartmental challenges.” And they continue to grow that work today, even within a new mayoral administration.
When Maia was still working with Mayor Nutter, and since under the leadership of Mayor Kenney and the new Policy Director, Anjali Chainani-Jha, “at least a dozen” more trials have been implemented to evaluate return on investment, reduce poverty, and increase racial equity. The new team has also established relationships with local universities to evaluate the impacts of these trials on different demographic groups across Philadelphia, and they’ve continued efforts to curb a sense of urgency in their racial equity policymaking work, as Anjali recently reflected on in conversation with Living Cities’ Elizabeth Reynoso.
As Maia and I concluded our conversation, we reflected on what enabled the city’s capacity for innovation to grow, and how Living Cities can support other city governments to grow in similar ways. Maia reflected back what Living Cities had offered to her team: “Try to get comfortable with failure and increase your tolerance for risk,” she said. Being willing to test and pilot a number of different strategies means that “for all those that don’t stick, there are others that grow and blossom in ways that are unpredictable at the outset. …And it’s hard to imagine having done this project in this way if Living Cities hadn’t catalyzed it.” As we reflect on this feedback, we look toward the future of our work with city governments with hope and a belief that together we can lean into risk and behave in ways that disrupt the status quo.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.