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Why Kresge Supports the Working Cities Challenge: Reach, Impact and Strengthened Capacity

American Cities

It’s a privilege to be here with you, Dr. (Gary) Gottlieb (CEO of Partners in Health), Gov. (Charles) Baker and President (Eric) Rosengren (of the Boston Fed) –  alongside so many mayors and civic and community leaders who have driven the transformational achievements of Round 1 of the Working Cities Challenge.

And let’s be clear – the Challenge has been transformative in each city we celebrate today. I know, because I haven’t just watched the video – I’ve read the evaluation. Not the executive summary, the whole thing. That’s right – it’s me, I’m the one. So, on this Jewish New Year, Mazel Tov and Shana Tova to the civic coalitions from Lawrence, Chelsea, Fitchburg and Holyoke. I may just be your biggest fan.

Prabal and the team at the Boston Fed gave me two and only two jobs here today: to keep things short and to explain why a national foundation dedicated to expanding opportunities for low-income people in America’s cities, is such a proud funder of the Working Cities Challenge. Why, in other words, did a foundation based in Detroit – a city not lacking its own challenges – end up supporting a reimagining of main street Fitchburg?

I’d like to share three answers.

  1. Reach and Relevance

First, reach and relevance. The economic challenges facing Americans, and so many American cities, are extraordinary. That’s true of all cities, not just the big coastal ones that get national press. America’s generational challenge of gaping inequality, of opportunity, mobility, and who has access to the American dream, touches every city, large and small. Our team’s rough estimate is that about a quarter of Americans below the poverty line live in small and midsized cities (with populations below 500,000). So if we hope to move large numbers of Americans out of poverty and up the economic ladder, our work can’t begin and end in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston or even Detroit.

But the alternative presents a tough equation for national foundations like Kresge. We don’t have an office or staff here in Massachusetts, nor do we have deep, historic ties to local funders. I’d wager that most of my colleagues would struggle to pronounce Leicester and Needham. That’s a recipe for Kresge looking dumb, arrogant, lost, irrelevant, or worse, in trying to find places where we might make a difference in Massachusetts – let alone authentically partner with communities.

Enter the Working Cities Challenge. For us, so much of the genius and appeal of this program is tied to the institution of the Boston Fed, and its role in:

  1. Insisting that applicants build multi-sector tables in their cities, and drive to consensus on shared challenges – offering the sort of grounded, community-driven intelligence, integrity and participation that national funders dream of;
  2. Massively expanding our reach to cities and communities that might never have otherwise made it on our radar – or us theirs; that is a chronic issue for national foundations, and the Challenge is among the best models we’ve found to address it; and
  3. Helping local funders leverage national dollars to pursue transformational change in their communities – we have never been so happy to be leveraged.

I don’t know how many other organizations could have pulled together those elements all at once; that is a distinctive and remarkable achievement of the Boston Fed team. The sum effect has been that the Working Cities Challenge has helped Kresge extend its reach and relevance – reflecting that creative community-driven change is as needed in Chelsea, Holyoke and Fitchburg as it is in Detroit, Memphis and New Orleans.

  1. Impact and Bold Leadership

The Challenge’s second distinction lies in the impact and bold leadership it has supported. The cities here today all reflect that: from increased employment in Lawrence to decreased crime in Chelsea to small business development in Holyoke, the cities here have so much to be proud of. But one statistic from the evaluation really stood out for me: 76 percent of Working Cities Challenge stakeholders believe that low-income people are better off because of the Challenge.

Seventy-six percent: that is a remarkable number – particularly when we’re talking about the least well-off, in an era when ZIP code determines destiny to a greater degree than it has in decades. But I’m not surprised that small and midsize cities are responsible for such signs of light.

Recent research published by the Urban Institute looked at the places in America that have experienced both economic growth and improvements in racial, economic and overall inclusion – where inequality decreased, rather than increased, during periods of sustained growth. It gives me no pleasure to report that there weren’t many great examples. But the cities that seemed to come closest were disproportionately small and midsize. In fact, a central case study in the report was none other than Lowell, Massachusetts – a second round Challenge participant.

The Working Cities Challenge demonstrates that a lot of progress can be made in small and midsize cities, places that are ready, willing and able to tackle wicked problems – be they racial inequity, unemployment or neighborhood revitalization. That boldness of vision, that shared commitment to action and – most importantly – those results, create models for communities nationally.

There’s another important example of bold leadership in this work, and here, I’m talking about the Boston Fed itself. The Working Cities Challenge, and the leadership of President Rosengren and the team here, is and should be a national case study of how public sector organizations can step up and push beyond past practice, expanding their ambitions and impact, becoming powerfully relevant in new, unexpected ways in response to the challenges of our day. This probably was not exactly an obvious thing for the Boston Fed to have done – but because of its convening power, expertise and vision, I’m reasonably confident that only the Fed could have pulled it off, bringing national foundations like Kresge along for the ride. As this work extends from Massachusetts to Rhode Island to Connecticut and beyond, I believe and hope that folks have taken notice.

  1. Renewed civic alliance

Third, and most critically for Kresge, the Challenge has been a powerful vehicle to build civic capacity and a renewed civic alliance. The work featured today is in many ways a rejoinder to the clichés of our moment: Here we have communities that have built a common table across sectors and turf and political lines to create a sense of common purpose on a shared challenge and achieve real results in the process. I don’t mean to sugarcoat or idealize those tables: The evaluation, for instance, highlights the need to more explicitly address “racial inequities while strengthening these capacities” – a principle that is core to Kresge’s mission.

And yet – at the very heart of the Working Cities Challenge is an approach to community change that works, even in this jaded time. And by building civic capacity and the muscle to identify challenges and deliver solutions to them, it deserves attention. Historically, that has been the easy excuse of national foundations like Kresge – in the face of overwhelming challenges in cities all over the country, we have gone to where the capacity is. Well, today’s event demonstrates that it is very real and very present in Lawrence and Chelsea and Fitchburg and Holyoke – and in other Challenge cities. So there goes that excuse.

There you have it: reach, impact and strengthened capacity. What an honor to be associated with this work, how inspiring to hear the creativity and innovation being played out across Massachusetts, and truly, what a pleasure to have been able to join all of you today in Boston.