Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Second Read

"Throughout our lives, an outcome orientation in social situations can induce mindlessness....In contrast, a process orientation...directs attention toward defining the steps that are necessary on the way.  This orientation can be characterized in terms of the guiding principle that there are no failures, only ineffective solutions."

Ellen J. Langer, Mindfulness, Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

On first reading, I was perplexed by the notion of outcomes being bad and process good. I read again and Langer contrasts "Can I do it?" from "How do I do it?"  I was equating an outcome orientation with the question, "What do I do?," not with her notion that  only on outcomes produces doubt about capability and ultimately mindless action. But, setting a goal of "what to do" is not always easy and individuals and communities are frequently distracted by too many options. And how many times have you been asked, "What is your definition of success?"

Friday, October 10, 2014

Beating the Odds

"What Makes Humboldt Construction Company Valuable to Bickerdike?  It promotes Bickerdike's economic development mission through guaranteed local hiring and use of local and minority-owned subcontractors."

Bob Brehm, "Keeping the Jobs in House." Shelterforce, Fall/Winter 2013/2014, 28-33.

My attempt at starting a nonprofit construction company in the 1970s/1980s counts as one of my early and biggest failures -- and one that has stayed with me for years.  Just up the road in another Chicago neighborhood, the opposite occurred, Humboldt Construction Company, started by Bickerdike, a housing and community development CDC. The temptation to start a construction company when you are already in the development biz is hard to resist. As Brehm recounts, it's about the jobs and who gets them. Unfortunately, there are more failures than successes.  The lessons from Humboldt and its success provide an inspiring yet cautionary tale of how to get it right for as long as you can.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Mistakes Quotes

"If as Foucault had also argued, 'life is what is capable of error,' and error itself is 'at the root of what makes human thought and history,' then to prohibit error would be to end evolution. Error lifted us out of the primordial slime."

"The British critic Nigel  Andrews once wrote, 'If something or someone doesn't work, it's in a state of grace, progress, and evolution. It will attract love and empathy. If it does work, it has merely completed its job and is probably dead."

Quoted in: Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Failure Fuss

"What we really need is a pathway toward strength and success that doesn't require a near-death experience -- and a future in which fewer people rank prison as the best thing that ever happened to them."

Daniel McGinn, "Do You Really Have to Fail to Succeed," Harvard Business Review, July-August 2014, 126-127.

This critical review of several recent books on mistakes and failure argues that big failures do not have to always be a prominent part of our entrepreneurial resume or a requirement for our child's first grade diploma in grit. Yet, there is no denying effective learning is naturally about trial and error, do overs and resilience. Overblown rhetoric about "failing fast, "failing forward" and making only "new mistakes' suggests we know more about the mistakes and success process than we actually do. And most mistakes are, unfortunately, about the daily grind implementing what we already know.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Breakdown Success

"A MetroBus travels 8,260 miles between breakdowns. Did you know that?"

MetroBus Poster on Yellow Line, June 2, 2014

No, I did not know. It's odd that breakdown frequency would be publicly celebrated as a benchmark for success. Would we use the same benchmark for airplanes, nuclear power plants, submarines -- how about our own cars? What happened to preventive maintenance? Of course, a bus breakdown by the side of road is rather low on the list of things that can go wrong. Maybe our goal should be no breakdowns and we should measure our rate of progress towards that goal.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

A New Thought?

"...(A)dmitting our absolute impotence can be politically liberating: acknowledging that as a left we have no influence on who gets nominated or elected, or what they do in office, should reduce the frenzied self-delusion that rivets attention to the quadrennial, biennial, and now seemingly permanent horse races."

"Obama's election is most fundamentally an expression of the limits of the left in the United States -- its decline, demoralization, and collapse."

Adolph Reed Jr., Nothing Left: The long, slow surrender of American liberals. Harper's Magazine, March 2014.

This isn't really a new thought. There is a long-standing question of whether electoral politics at any level advances social equity. And for many, backing candidates like Obama was the best available tactic in the short run while the movement sputtered.  The same argument has been applied to local candidates like Harold Washington in Chicago? He undercut the movement! He won't take over the disinvested steel plant. The more salient question is about a viable left agenda and who is willing to get behind it. Elections come and go.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Progressive Forgetting

"Cities lack the funding to make many of the changes new Democratic mayors seek --most are scram bling to find the funds for universal preschool, for instance -- but, in the spirit of Louis Brandeis's laboratories of democracy, they are incubating the future of liberalism and the nation."

Harold Meyerson, "Cradles of Progressivism," The Washington Post, April 24, 2014.

Commentaries about progressive cities in light of NYC's Bill de Blasio's election invoke the days of FDR and the progressive movement of the early 20th century. I've been surprised and annoyed by their forgetfulness about a score of mayors from the 1970s through the 1990s who played similar progressive roles in advancing social equity, government transparency, and citizen empowerment.  There is much to be learned from mayors like Harold Washington in Chicago and Ray Flynn of Boston -- not only about how to use the powers of local government in progressive ways, but how to keep progressivism alive while governing.  Unfortunately, a few progressive policies, however important, do not make "urban regime" change. At least not yet.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Word Games

"Social movements challenge conditions and assumptions about people's lives. In doing so, they strive to reshape certain core values widely accepted by the mainstream of society. Because these core values influence the distribution of power, movements for social change must, ultimately, seek to change prevailing power dynamics by influencing the public discourse and public policy."

Barbara Masters and Torie Osborn, Social Movements and Philanthropy: How Foundations Can Support Movement Building," The Foundation Review 2010 Vol 2:2.

This important article should be read by everyone in philanthropy and the world of nonprofits and grassroots activism. Many of these challenges require long-term social movement building, not discrete programs or campaigns. Yet, as much in philanthropy, social movement building is the latest phrase on the rhetorical wheel of  doing good, competing with collective impact, evidence-based investing, and scale. Soon the wheel will turn again to capacity, results, and leadership. None of these is easy. But switching words when convenient helps no one.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Co-op Boss

"Worker co-ops might be the key to alleviating inequality, if only someone would give them a loan."

Sheila Dewan, "Lose the Boss," New York Times Magazine, March 30, 2014.

It's great worker co-ops are "back in style," if that is true. And it's certainly refreshing to have a supportive overview in the mainstream press. My worry is that worker co-ops, as we know them, may address business churn and community disinvestment more than inequality. They are a stabilizer, and than is good. Many of the examples, however, provide jobs only a bit better than minimum wage -- or high-end lifestyle jobs  in high cost cities. Some of the enterprises mentioned are also deeply subsidized -- worker co-op welfare, I suppose. And as wonderful an example as Mondragon is, it has several tiers of workers and owners and finds itself rocked by the global economy. And we really don't lose the boss; we become the boss. That said, worker co-ops are worth more investment. Social investors should pay more attention.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Platform Talk

"Jobs?" she said.
"Yeah," I said. "Is there any way we could use this (community health clinic) as a platform for starting businesses?"
"Platform?"
"Or maybe we could have a bakery attached to the clinic, and women could..."
She looked so puzzled, I stopped.
"My English is not so good, I think," she said.

Phil Klay, Redeployment. "Money is the System.

"Platform" is one of those odd words that has increased in usage in the community development world over the past few years. It evokes attributes like sturdy, solid, foundation, infrastructure. Above all, in the community development context, platform suggests capacity, the generative ability to incubate new ideas and attract new resources. In the old days, we might have said CDC -- community development corporation. But today's emphasis on collaboration and collective impact call for something more coalitional, although "backbone organization" has seen increased usage as well.

Sometimes "platform" is evoked when results have been modest and we want to convey that there is ongoing capacity to achieve more results. After all, change takes a long time. Platforms are renewable resources that we can build upon for the future.

I remember curtailing an investment in the 1990s because of lackluster results while another colleague made a capacity-building grant, renaming low performance in a more hopeful way.

Of course, platforms are specialized in their own ways and are not appropriate for all ideas, as this quote might suggest. And, unfortunately, platform is one of those nouns that suggests permanence, when, in fact, community capacity is a fragile asset made up of a web of changing relationships

Friday, March 28, 2014

Learning by Googling

"She knows about farming?" I said hopefully.
"Nope, but I taught her how to Google."

Phil Klay, "Money as a Weapon System," in: Redeployment.

Many of us in the community development field started with more motivation and curiosity than knowledge and skill. And we didn't have Google searches or YouTube videos or TED talks to guide our way out of the thicket of ignorance.  But we were there to help. I feel the deepest gratitude to the neighborhoods and residents who allowed me to gain a modicum of skill while making me feel I was making an important contribution. This debt of obligation has guided much of my work. In a recent discussion about "trauma-informed community development" for the most challenging neighborhoods, someone commented, "Don't send us interns." What they meant was that episodic, social justice tourism can add to the chaos of neighborhoods. Yet how can we learn skills without working in the field?

Monday, March 17, 2014

Mobility Opportunity

"Any meaningful mayoral vision must be built around a policy agenda designed to meet these challenges in the interest of creating a city where prosperity is much more broadly shared."

Jared Bernstein and Wes Rivers, "How will DC's next mayor tackle inequality," The Washington Post, March 14, 2014.

Bernstein and Rivers provide a telling analysis of the economic trajectory of DC down the path of heightened inequality. It seems to be hardwired into urban economic success. Their proposed interventions to ameliorate inequality are really about reducing poverty and increasing economic mobility, inequality not so much. It's a good beginning list but without a lot of specificity except for EITC and minimum wage. Every step of the "cradle to career" pipeline requires new investments and new leadership to get the most out of dollars spent. DC needs to increase inclusionary hiring and housing requirements for new economic development -- and create new transitional employment or conservation programs that provide enriched employment opportunities, especially for youth.  DC has the opportunity and resources to fashion an economic mobility agenda that is more than words. Let's hope its leaders and electorate rise to the occasion.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Alinsky Model?

"The federal Model Cities program in the Lyndon Johnson years attempted to replicate elements of the Alinsky model, especially community-centered social programs designed with 'maximum feasible participation' of residents."

D. Bradford Hunt and Jon B. DeVries, Planning Chicago, Chapter 8, Chicago and Community Planning Innovation.

This mash-up of a book covers a lot of ground. The danger, of course, is getting some of the story wrong or leaving important things out. In this chapter, for example, I would have included some discussion of settlement houses and the playground movement from the late nineteenth century, early twentieth century as well as a discussion of "slum and ghetto." More recently, the story of CDCs in Chicago is much deeper than LISC and there is a great "advocacy planning" story related to the Chicago 21 Plan of the early 1970s.

This quote illustrates some of the problem. War on Poverty legislation articulated the principle of "maximum feasible participation" and established community action agencies and community-based social services. Model Cities represented some federal corrective action to put these investments firmly in the hands of local public agencies. Alinsky was appalled by these policies and programs and community organizing of the time was firmly in the camp of community power, not service delivery. Participation was not what Alinsky organizing sought. That was part of the rub between community planners and community organizers.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Building on the Basics

"In 2000, Chicago had developed an extensive, homegrown industrial policy...Economic development planning in the city had moved beyond the ad hoc efforts of the 1970s and the mostly defensive recommendations of the industry task forces to create a sophisticated and comprehensive industrial policy."

D. Bradford Hunt and Jon B. DeVries, Planning Chicago, Chapter 13, "Defending the Industrial Base: Sector and District Strategies."

I'm very impressed by this effort and proud of my contribution. A few additional antecedents for industrial protection planning are worth noting.  The fight to preserve the 16th and Canal industrial district (the Schoenhofen Brewery) started in the mid 1970s and engaged both Giloth and Mier. It involved 5-7 businesses, several hundred employees (many from the Pilsen neighborhood), urban renewal designation, an historic district, and artist-led gentrification. A central lesson was the invisibility and low priority of small business for city government. A planning studio course at the University of Illinois at Chicago added fuel to the fire.

There were a handful of zoning fights at the same time studies were being done to justify district industrial protection  in the mid 1980s. These fights pitted the Department of Economic Development against the Planning Department in several instances along with favored real estate lawyers known for getting things done. Of course, everyone was declaring another death of manufacturing.

One of the successful strands of the industry sector work of the time was supporting workforce efforts that addressed the employment needs of clusters of similar firms. This started with the work of Ric Gudel on screw machine businesses. One of my first grants with the City in 1984-5 was to the Jane Addams Resource Center for a feasibility study about a partnership with auto-industry suppliers in the Ravenswood neighborhood. JARC is still going strong and was recently mentioned by the President as an exemplar of a sector-based partnership that created access to skilled jobs.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Treasuring a Moment

"Washington's legacy was more incremental and rhetorical than transformational."

D. Bradford Hunt and John B. DeVries, Planning Chicago, Chapter 6, Chicago's Equity Planning Moment.

That's probably right, although the authors note many Chicagoans still mourn the passing of this equity moment. The breadth of Washington's reform agenda was certainly transformational. Are cities and regions still grappling with employment equity issues? What cities have tilted economic development towards a more balanced approach. And there was simply too little time.  Maybe the old adage ruled in the end, "Chicago ain't ready for reform."

A few contrasting perspectives from a participant.

1. Chicago's planned Worlds Fair collapsed as much from its own bloated design and wrong-headed feasibility assumptions. And it never got the undivided support from developers who were already building like mad. Washington may have taken the ultimate blame for not going along with this CEO pipedream, but a closer look shows the wonderful story of citizen planners at work. And Chicago didn't learn -- witness the Olympics.

2. Linked Development was initially pushed by a coalition of white ethnic neighborhoods on the southwest and northwest sides (SUN/SOC) who felt their communities were changing and disconnected from the benefits of downtown development. So, there was a political dimension to looking closely at this set of policy options.  First Source hiring was closer to the Washington agenda and faired a little better.

3. Downtown boomed and many large downtown-related infrastructure projects moved forward or got underway -- the Midway "El," a round of planning for Navy Pier, continued south and north Loop redevelopment. Architects, planners, and developers kept busy.

4. The Washington Papers called for neighborhood planning boards. This proposal went nowhere. Rob Mier preferred a flexible, strategic, opportunistic approach -- and thus supported local community organizations. There were certainly political worries as well.  I think he would have liked LISC's New Communities Program

5. The Washington years upset some liberal Chicago critics and urban observers like John McCarron, formerly of the Tribune. His "Chicago on Hold" series was more peeve than substance but conveyed a mentality quite prevalent for survivors during the reign of Daley 2.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Green Pastures for Whom?

"Urban living patterns have reasserted themselves in most large American cities and some suburbs as well. Design experiments are proliferating. Which ones will lead to happier lives for those who choose them? Improbably as it may seem, we are accumulating the tools to find out."

Alan Ehrenhalt, Greener Pastures, New York Times Book Review, January 5, 2014. Book review of: Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, by Charles Montgomery.

Green spaces and informal, street-level connections make many of us happy neighbors and city walkers. That's good if not entirely surprising news.  If this review had been written forty years ago there would have been a discussion about safety and urban design,  a good first step on the urban happy ladder. I remember neighbors complaining to us neophyte neighborhood planners in the 1970s that fixing up vacant lots would attract gangs. The review doesn't talk about the demographics of who is made happier by which kinds of design interventions. I'll have to check out the book. Lots of the new urbanism, planned or naturally occurring, has meant population displacement and the reduction of affordable housing. Hopefully our future cities will provide greener pastures for all.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Organizing for Results

"(C)omprehensive community development can't be the work of one organization: it must be the work of several...Remember the old adage...'Many hands make the work possible.'"

Jim Capraro, Can Successful Community Development Be Anything But Comprehensive, Shelterforce #172 WINTER '12/'13: 35-38.

I'm coming late to this terrific issue of Shelterforce, Time to Rethink CDCs? Capraro's article is incredibly refreshing. Community Development Corporations (CDCs) need to think comprehensively (beyond housing or economic development), but don't necessarily need to be in the lead. Of course, this calculation differs across organizations and neighborhoods -- the point is to be thoughtful and explicit. Another challenge not mentioned, however, is that working comprehensively may produce a diverse array of poorly designed and implemented investments. The community development world has to think harder about focus, results, and evidence, yet this may run up against the aspirations of being comprehensive and working in coalitions.  The promise of "collective impact" or "aligned contributions" approaches is to grapple with the challenge of getting communities behind the most powerful interventions. Increasingly, many communities and community developers are turning to two-generation approaches that organize "cradle to career" pathways for kids and families. It gets comprehensive, don't worry, but there is a north star of results.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Learning Before Investing

"One hundred twenty million dollars and Sach's reputation were riding on the outcome of this social experiment in Africa. Was anyone prepared to smash the glass and pull the emergency cord."

"'In hindsight it's like we were set up to fail...It's not that Jeff's ideas are wrong--he's a big, inspiring thinker. It's not that the project's ambition moved more quickly than the capacity. It makes me feel like a chump. It makes me feel totally hollow.'"

Nina Munk, The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty.

I'm a fan of the distinction between constructive and non constructive failures I learned in Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War by Eliot A. Cohen and John Gooch. Constructive failures are where we push the limits on what we know by absorbing lessons from the past and relevant theory and practice about design and implementation. Failure teaches us about our assumptions. designs and actions. We learn. Non constructive failures are when we do the opposite -- rush into action without absorbing past lessons and relevant theory. Our implementation relies upon faulty partners and time frames. In reality, I've found myself in a lot of mixed situations of both constructive and non-constructive failure.

The Idealist paints Sach's Millenium Villages Project as a non constructive failure. Too much money, poor site selection, too complicated, too rushed, too driven by ambition -- all undermining factors we know about. This is not to say important improvements for people didn't come out of the project -- or that determined advocacy to end poverty is wrongheaded. In fact, we need more of that. It's just that there was a missed opportunity with a lot of money behind it.

A contrasting story is told about Tostan in: However Long the Night: Molly Melching's Journey To Help Millions of African Women and Girls Triumph by Aimee Molloy. It's a story of patience, listening, building up capacity and voice within villages, and taking bold steps. Village communities are the guide. We've learned that, right?

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Another Way?

"The heart of the political problem is that Americans simply do not favor redistributive policies." 

David Imbroscio, From Redistribution to Ownership: Toward an Alternative Policy for American Cities. Urban Affairs Review 2013 49: 787 (July 2013 online).

Imbroscio takes a whack at just about all social change approaches except worker-owned enterprises. EITC is dismissed even though it is the largest anti-poverty program in the U.S.; the 29 million "middle skill jobs" projected for the next decade are a figment of our imaginations; and he makes no mention of community organizing or community/labor coalitions. Alternatively, he argues Americans may be ready to embrace the worker coops of Mondragon, based upon several highly subsidized examples in Cleveland and San Diego. Imbroscio is right that our policy discussions and remedies are stuck. Unfortunately, his leap of faith (with a few qualifications) doesn't make for a plausible agenda. We need to go back to the drawing board.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

What Cities Know

"So far from our denigrating cities because of the problems they create, we should recognize that these problems are opportunities. What we call faults of cities are really bringing problems to a head where they can be solved."

Jane Jacobs, "The Self-generating Growth of Cities," February 7, 1967. In: Ideas That Matter: The Worlds of Jane Jacobs, Ed. Max Allen. Ontario: Ginger Press.

This certainly represents a radically different approach to thinking about local economic development. It differs from strategic planning or a focus on financing transactions. Jacobs goes onto say that many solutions may exist within the "feeder" internal economies of cities -- those assets, skills, and innovations that can be brought to the task of solving new problems. Much of this is requires entrepreneurship. I wonder whether anyone has created deeply nuanced maps of urban assets of these types?