Our weekly round-up of 'must-read' articles showcases a variety of perspectives on and approaches to social change work with people at their core.

Social Change work, at its core, is about people. In America alone, we spend billions of dollars each year to address complex problems like poverty and mass incarceration. More and more, social change leaders are stepping back and asking: Is anyone better off as a result of our work? If so, is it enough?

At Living Cities, we are deeply unsatisfied with the current, incremental pace of change. We want to see dramatically better results for America’s low-income people, faster. That’s just it–our work is an avenue to improve people’s lives at an accelerated pace. We know it’s possible. And we believe that, to achieve this audacious goal, we must build a new type of urban practice – a practice in which leaders from across sectors, from business, government, nonprofits and philanthropy, all come together differently to collaborate and co-create solutions that focus on improving outcomes for people.

Because the face of America is changing. By 2040 we will be majority non-white nation. And, as our CEO, Ben Hecht, has said before, if we don’t ‘ferociously change course’ we will be a nation whose majority is less educated, less wealthy and less free. We simply can’t afford to not see the forest for the trees. We can’t afford to build parks and sidewalks in a community without also asking ourselves how to keep low-income residents in their homes when property values increase. We can’t afford to pour money into education programs that raise the bar for all students, without also acknowledging racial disparities and working to close the gaps.


That’s why this week’s round-up of #GoodReads focuses on improving people’s lives. Our staff have looked across the field to share perspectives, approaches, and their reactions to social change work with people at their core.

Racial Equity and Inclusion

Remembering Katrina in the #BlackLivesMatter Movement - Tracey Ross, Center for American Progress

Recommended by Nadia Owusu, Assistant Director, Strategic Communications and Storytelling.

“While an extreme weather event…may seem like an equal opportunity force of destruction, in reality these events exacerbate the underlying injustices that exist in our communities year round.”

As we mark the 10 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, it’s important to acknowledge that it is low-income communities and communities of color that are, too often, most devastatingly impacted by natural disasters. In this moment of renewed commitment to advancing social justice, as evidenced by the virally growing #BlackLivesMatter movement, there is an opportunity to intentionally address issues of social, economic and environmental justice, particularly at their intersections. We must do this with urgency. Indeed, Tracey Ross, Associate Director of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress (and Living Cities alum!) writes that “while an extreme weather event, such as a flood, heat wave, or hurricane may seem like an equal opportunity force of destruction, in reality these events exacerbate the underlying injustices that exist in our communities year round. Understanding just how vulnerable low-income, black communities are to these threats is critical to protecting black lives in the 21st century.”

Why America’s Next President Must Speak about Systemic Racism - Jason Johnson, GOOD Magazine

My Recommendation: Elizabeth Vargas, Associate, Strategic Communications and Engagement

In the last year, since Ferguson and Eric Garner and Walter Scott, conversations about institutional racism have come, finally, to the mainstream of American public dialog. There is a long road to healing that must come - and the upcoming 2016 elections are an important forum to drive that healing from center stage. But, as author Jason Johnson notes, “we can’t begin to engage in a true ‘healing process’ if we can’t even agree on what made us sick to begin with. Which explains why so many presidential candidates in the 2016 race, representing both the Republican and Democratic parties, are struggling to address institutional racism, discrimination, and how these issues should be tackled.” In his thought-provoking article, Johnson examines why it’s been so difficult for politicians to have nuanced conversations about institutional racism, and what it might take to move these conversation further into the mainstream so that people on both sides of the aisle want to listen and ensure that “problems associated with this kind of injustice” become an ill Americans actively want to cure.

Pay For Success

Pay For Success: Doubling Down on What Works - Sam Schaeffer, Jeff Shumway and Caitlin Reimers Brumme, Stanford Social Innovation Review

Recommended by Eileen Neely, Director, Capital Innovation

“Ultimately Pay For Success is about the people.”

Pay for Success (PFS) has received a lot of attention in both the impact investing and the social change arenas. Now, the authors of the article ask, “What happens after a PFS contract ends?” Sam Schaeffer of the Center for Employment Opportunity (CEO), and Jeff Shumway and Caitlin Reimers Brumme of Social Finance address what happens when a program funded through a PFS contract works (or shows positive social impact) and the need to think about the sustainability of that program after the contract ends. While this is an important topic and clearly one that their organizations have been thinking about for some time, they only brush over what happens when the intervention fails to show impact. From a financing perspective, that’s easy – the program is sunset – but what about the people? The social ills that made the PFS project a priority of government, service providers and investors still exist. Throwing our hands up and saying, “well, that didn’t work” and walking away is unacceptable! We need to double down and ask ourselves why it didn’t work. We need to keep innovating with a renewed sense of urgency. Although most of the PFS discussion centers around the financing, the contracts, the procurement and the services, ultimately PFS is about the people.

Announcing Project Welcome Home - Santa Clara County

Recommended by Ellen Ward, Senior Investment Associate, Capital Innovation

“I’m hopeful that tools like PFS that require collaborations between public agencies, nonprofits and funders will actually achieve better outcomes for the people who need them most.”

This week Santa Clara County announced the launch of their first Pay for Success project, Project Welcome Home, with the goal of getting better outcomes for 150-200 chronically homeless individuals in their community. Two things that really stand out to me about this project: First, Santa Clara County’s commitment to getting better outcomes for their most vulnerable residents, which includes breaking down silos between agencies so the Department of Behavioral Health Services and the Office of Supportive Housing can work together to better serve this population and to put resources toward services that have worked in other places, rather than continuing to expend valuable resources without seeing any improvement in outcomes. And second, the re-alignment of incentives for the service provider, Abode Services. In the PFS structure, Abode is rewarded for achieving better outcomes rather than being paid the same amount regardless of whether the individuals with whom they work actually achieve housing stability or improved economic opportunities. I’m hopeful that tools like PFS that require collaborations between public agencies, nonprofits and funders will actually achieve better outcomes for the people who need them most.

How Hospitals Could Help Cut Prison Recidivism - Stuart Butler, The Brookings Institution

Recommended by Eileen Neely, Director, Capital Innovation

Living Cities has invested in two Pay for Success (PFS) projects designed to reduce recidivism and increase employment for recently released prisoners. Many of the PFS projects across the globe have been aimed at the same goals. In this Brookings; opinion piece, Stuart Butler asks the question “What if prisons, like some hospitals, were charged readmission penalties?” The prison revolving door is good for the prison industry and there are no incentives for correctional institutions to actually correct. Perhaps if there were, the recidivism rate would not be quite so high and the incarcerated population wouldn’t be so massive.

Workforce and Employment

Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace - The New York Times

Recommended by Jeff Raderstrong, Program Associate, Collective Impact

“If [Amazon’s] management style is accepted as the norm, how does it create challenges to prepare low-income people for this type of job?”

This expose of the online retailer Amazon shows how the corporate giant’s growth coincides with the creation of a fast-paced and unforgiving culture. Many employees struggle to succeed and survive at the company, and the article profiles several instances of employees being forced out when they couldn’t perform at optimal levels due to medical issues, family emergencies, or the desire to raise children. While Amazon employees represent an elite and privileged segment of the workforce, this article raises questions about what is expected of employees in today’s corporate landscape. Only a small segment of the population fits the archetype of Amazon’s “ideal worker”, and if this management style is accepted as the norm, how does it create challenges to prepare low-income people for this type of job?

Starbucks-Led Coalition Commits to Hiring 100,000 Disconnected Youth - USA Today

Recommended by Elizabeth Reynoso, Assistant Director, Public Sector Innovation

There is a national momentum to provide urban youth ages 16-24 with opportunities to “reengage” or get back on paths that can ensure their economic security as adults. For example, a Fall 2014 article from Stanford Social Innovation Review talks about the collective impact efforts of the Aspen Institute’s Forum for Community Solutions Opportunity Youth Initiative Fund. Last week, the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative launched by Starbucks was kicked off in Chicago. It’s a terrific demonstration of how the private sector is working together – Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz spearheaded a coalition of executives from some of the nation’s largest companies, including CVS Health, JPMorgan Chase, Lyft and Walmart, to pledge to hire 100,000 youth by the end of 2018. It is a great effort, but it is still a small percentage of the population of disconnected youth, estimated to be the equal population of Minnesota. So, I was struck by a quote that Howard Schultz gave to USA Today, how it applies to our work building a new urban practice at Living Cities. How encouraging that employers are bringing attention to their part of the solution:

“What we’ve learned over these last many years is that rules of philanthropy, the rules of engagement have radically changed,” Schultz told USA TODAY. “You really have to build a coalition of like-minded organizations and people who have the kind of experience and skill base and local knowledge to tackle a problem as complex as this.”

Happy Reading!