Friday, August 14, 2015

Who we are?

"The psyche is a historically determined individual relentlessly looking after itself. In some ways it resembles a machine: in order to operate it needs sources of energy, and it is predisposed to certain patterns of activity. The area of its vaunted freedom of choice is usually not very great. One of its main pastimes is daydreaming. It is reluctant to face unpleasant realities. Its consciousness is not normally a transparent glass through which it views the world, but a cloud of more or less fantastic reverie designed to protect the psyche from pain."

Iris Murdoch. 1970. The Sovereignty of Good. New York: Routledge.

Ah, summer days.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Sandtown and community development?

"Sandtown-Winchester is crumbling and there is little to suggest that two decades ago visionary developer James Rouse and city officials injected more than $130 million into the community in a failed effort to transform it." 

Michael S. Rosenwald and Michael A.Fletcher, "Why couldn't $130 million transform Sandtown?"  Washington Post, May 3, 2015.

The article has the contours of the story right. Housing-led community development without economic foundations and connections cannot ultimately address jobs, neighborhood development, and market-building. Important islands of development remain islands of development.  We knew that 20+ years ago at the start of the Sandtown-Winchester development. Why it went forward the way it did is an important question.

At the time, in fact, James Rouse, was already leading an effort in East Baltimore adjacent to Johns Hopkins called the Middle East Partnership.  Several years old, it was also primarily housing focused, and built or renovated hundreds of homes that were later demolished in the 2000s as part of the East Baltimore Revitalization Initiative.  East Baltimore was the home of "Du" Burns who lost the mayoralty to Kurt Schmoke, with his west-side political base. The reverse happened with new mayor, Martin O'Malley. And, contrary to O'Malley's memory, the city was involved in development designations and financing.

What surprises me in the coverage of Sandtown and Baltimore is the narrative of a blue collar, manufacturing city that has recently lost its base of jobs and businesses. This story was largely complete by the time of the start of Sandtown-Winchester in the 1990s, except for a few biggies like General Motors and the remains of Sparrows Point. Baltimore's recent history is the story of a "roused" up downtown that is insufficient. It's a long-time "tale of two cities."

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Adaptability or Flexibility?

"As we look back at a decade of grant-making in the Linked Learning Field, we might be tempted to view it as a logical progression...But 10 years ago we did not lay out such a plan. Had we done so, it would have been a waste of time--and it would have been counterproductive." Anne B. Stanton and Alison Powell, Adventures in Adaptation, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring, 2015.

The Linked Learning initiative is an impressive story of focused, long-term philanthropic investing by the James Irvine Foundation. I'm not sure it's really about adaptability, but my concerns may just be semantic. In the article, at least, no mention is made of mistakes that required midcourse corrections or confronting unexpected changes in the institutional and policy environments -- two typical reasons for adaptability in approach. For me, the story is about sticking with a population-level goal (all young adults graduate college in California), a necessary focus on scale, and a commitment to flexibility in foundation tactics and approach. They employed grant-making tactics that built on accumulating evidence and practice -- pilots, evaluation, intermediaries, local adoption, policy advocacy, organized stakeholders and strategic grant-making. Nothing unusual here. Sticking with a population-level goal, however, is unusual -- and they were path-breaking. Now it is a core element of collective impact approaches. In the end, laying out a rigid blueprint to scale makes little sense -- especially when you know where you wanted to go.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Bad Shortcut

"Confirmation bias is a tendency to seek information that confirms our existing beliefs and opinions about how the world works, and to overlook or ignore data that refute them." Tanya beer and Julia Coffman, How Shortcuts Cut Us Short: Cognitive Traps in Philanthropic Decision Making. Center for Evaluation Innovation, May 2014. I title one of my favorite mistakes stories, "Me and My Theory." It's about innovation and how we sometimes get blinded by the seemingly fresh perspectives embodied in our latest bright ideas. We clean out the closet of old approaches, funding mechanisms, research and common sense -- and grab onto the exhilarating possibilities of untested ideas. We put off evaluation as long as we can, arguing its killer effects, and opt for a few good stories laced with a good dose of our theory. When contradictory evidence breaks through, we deny its relevance or the credibility of the messenger. At some point, innovators just leave the field as fast as they can for greener pastures -- refusing to acknowledge the past. Luckily, new funders are always standing in line ready to make another mistake, "swinging for the home run." Paradoxically, I've called some of these organizations and programs, "high innovation, low results." The best way for avoiding this mistake is to watch out for social innovators who want to throw everything out everything and start from scratch.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Failure Praise?

"Reckoning with failure is key to kids' growth, but they're buried in mountains of flattery. How did we get here? And why can't we stop?" Heidi Stevens, "In criticism of Praise." Southwest The Magazine, January 2015. Every once in a while I'm surprised by what I find in the seat back of my ever-shrinking airline cubby, and I don't mean garbage or sharp objects. I snuck the this magazine into my backpack hoping they really meant free. One never knows these days. It's been standard parenting advice for the past few years that we should all cut down on the over-the-top praise and a gushing focus on the innate wonderful qualities of our children. Instead, we are told to moralize about hard work paying off and the distance traveled. Sometimes, however, I can't help but saying "great job," especially when my praise stinginess is read as a parental propensity for criticism and never being satisfied. Young adults, especially, are sick of parental lectures as they struggle for emotional, community and career footholds in the modern world. Try...Try again wears thin. We're also afraid of complete transparency about our own mistakes, fearing a loss of our own standing and our beloved family rules. What's worked for me in this light is praising my kids for picking themselves up, learning and doing better. This works for soccer, schoolwork, family relations and friends. But maybe this is an indication of my own indication of praise. I hope not.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Planning Future

"Looking back, I see that I spent much of my professional life searching for good urban forms and model planning processes." David R. Godschalk, "A Planning Life: Bridging Academics and Practice," Journal of the American Planning Association. Vol 80, No. 1, Winter 2014 "Planning is a diverse field and it can be hard to figure out if it will the right fit. Some years ago a committee of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning ...developed...six core themes in planning...(that) provide a good starting point for prospective students. They include: Improving human settlements; Making connections; Dealing with the future and 'pathways of change; Identifying diverse needs and how they play out in human settlements; Engaging 'open participation in decision making; and Linking knowledge to action." Ann Forsyth, "How to decide if Planning is for You," Planetizen, November 26, 2014. I started planning school forty years ago at the University of Illinois at Chicago and went on to get a Ph.D. in city and regional planning at Cornell. I wondered whether these reflections and kernels of advice would resonate with me after all these years and mirror, to some degree, my motivations for studying and pursuing several careers in city planning. I happily found myself engaged and enthused. For me, it has always been the combination of envisioning community and taking collaborative action that made planning so attractive -- in addition to the melding of theory, practice, and a wide array of humanistic and social science disciplines. I do wish both pieces had better addressed some of the conundrums of domestic U.S. planning efforts. The social equity dimension of planning is somewhat stalled despite many valiant efforts -- and planning as a public profession still remains a follower of many economic and political trends. Planning's future is bright given the need for smart, green, livable human settlements -- but I worry about its relevance for an increasingly bifurcated, unequal and segregated society.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Failure Porn

"I recoil when the merits of failure are so vastly overstated and its agonies so trivialized...'Failure' as fast fashion, peddled by wildly successful people, packaged for mass consumption, that is no more reflective of real failure than commercially produced pornography is of real sex." Geof Lewis, "Failure Porn: There's too much celebration of failure and too little fear." Washington Post, December 4, 2014. Lewis makes several key points. Much 'failure celebration" is done by those who haven't carried the consequences of failure or even, for that matter, failed -- their stories are about "pivots" and rebounds that ultimately produce successes. In the nonprofit world, failure celebrators frequently celebrate the failures of others, sometimes their own grantees but rarely themselves. Or failure celebration is about the misty past, not about the gut-wrenching present. As Lewis argues, "The investor class is complicit in the rise of failure porn." In another bit of failure bashing Lewis states: "Empirically, it's not clear that an entrepreneur can learn anything from failure. Even the most successful start-ups have multiple problems...at any given time. Any of these issues alone or combined, could lead to failure." In other words, all entrepreneurial ventures are complex and identifying single failure explanations may be impossible. But it may be possible to identify the most significant contributing mistakes -- I hope so. The point of thinking about failure in my mind is to avoid it when possible, not to celebrate what could have been prevented. Lewis concludes: "The failure pendulum has swung too far toward celebration. I'd like to see it swing back a bit toward fear."

Monday, October 27, 2014

Planning Archives

"Chicago Works Together II cross{es} the linguistic line into the netherworld variously known as plannerese, urbabble or the patois of process." John McCarron, "Mayors New Goals Run from A to B by Way of Zzzz," Chicago Tribune, September 1, 1987. I didn't go looking for this review, but it brought back memories. I was looking for a copy of the original Chicago Works Together plan published in 1984. I was involved in both plans. McCarron's a strange bird, relishing the pumped-up planning for Chicago's failed 1992 World's Fair bid, deriding anyone who opposed the undermining of Chicago's manufacturing base as a matter of good civics, yet ending up documenting the more effective neighborhood plannerese of LISC's New Communities program and its quality of life planning. The first Chicago Works Together plan became a model for urban equity planning in the 1980s. It grew out of Harold Washington's grassroots, oppositional campaign for mayor in 1983. It was based in part on the Washington Papers, the electoral policy agenda, and made jobs a key priority. Chicago Works Together II developed out of four years of governing experience and a contentious re-election campaign. It included more government and civic stakeholders and a more formal planning process. Yes, it was less than inspiring, but kept the focus on jobs and neighborhoods. Chicago Works Together I was a living document; Chicago Works Together II, I'm afraid, sat on the shelf as so many plans. Harold Washington died several months after the plan was published in September, 1987.

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.