Guest Blogger: Aaron Rose on Salon Session #7: Stack, Leverage + Access

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Ethical Redevelopment Salon Series
Session 7: 02.16.17
By Aaron Rose

stack, leverage + access
concepts: scaling up, strategy

“One thing I like about the conversations we’ve been having today is they haven’t been really joyful. People are bringing the real problems and troubles that are happening in their communities: segregation, discrimination. Having a place where you can throw stuff on the table, where we can have real discussion and be yourself is important... A lot of people don’t complain to funders because they want to get funded!”
—Will Towns

After several Ethical Redevelopment Salon Sessions that addressed Principles with poetic, evocative themes—Pedagogical Moments, The Indeterminate, Place Over Time—here comes a Principle that rings like a clear directive, even a command, straight from the gut exigencies of what drives redevelopment projects and process: relationships and funding, or who you know and how much money you have.

While a phrase like “[p]rojects like these require belief and motivation more than they require funding” may be true, honorable, and inspirational, it can be cold comfort when you need to hire a staff person and pay a salary; elevate a budget so that a funder will even look at you or slash a project budget to get the work done.

So, yes, “[s]omething that you passionately believed in, but had little external backing for, can grow in scale and scope to become a sophisticated version that many stakeholders support and believe in.” But it’s also true that for many people who are struggling to get projects off the ground, especially working in communities with the least resources, “stack” can take on the passive and pejorative “stacked.”

Certainly, as a professional development consultant, I approach this topic with some skepticism. But I don’t think I was alone in feeling a little less enthusiastic for this super-important, totally necessary Ethical Redevelopment topic. Scheduling conflicts and special circumstances, like the birth of a baby aside, this Salon was less well attended than the others. And whether there is a connection or not to the Principle will perhaps forever remain undiscovered, but, among the Salon Members who attended, there were roughly two-dozen women and only two men. I don’t know if there was a correlation between the topic and the gender skew of the participants, but I do think it shifted the tenor of the event. 

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Evening Salon
Being the innovators they are, the Place Lab team structured an entirely new format for Salon Session #7. Theaster was not present; neither was regular Emcee Steve Edwards. This was to be a mobile session with a nimble format. Naomi Miller, Operations + Administrative Manager, and Project Specialist Carson Poole organized the cohort into three groups. The groups met for dialogue, in round-robin fashion, with three groups of guest experts.

The individuals and institutions represented at the Salon included Robin Schabes, from Illinois Facilities Fund, Joanna Trotter, The Chicago Community Trust; Kendra Freeman, Metropolitan Planning Council; Richard Sciorinto, Brinshore Development; Rosa Ortiz, Enterprise Community Partners; Jacky Grimshaw, Center for Neighborhood Technology; Will Towns, Benefit Chicago; Calvin Homes, Chicago Community Loan Fund; and Robert Rose, Executive Director of Cook County Land Bank Authority. Rob Rose is a Salon Member, as is another Illinois Facilities Fund staff member, Susana Vasquez.

A group of funders and nonprofit professionals who are part of the national SPARCC  (Strong, Prosperous, And Resilient Communities Challenge) initiative, also attended the Salon Session that evening. SPARCC’s current focus areas are Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Memphis, and the San Francisco Bay Area. The Chicago initiative, “L-Evated,” is using the city’s built transit system to “transform decision-making structures so that low-income residents and people of color strengthen their power and influence, and so that values of equity, health, and climate resilience are embedded in development outcomes.”

Years ago, I attended a fundraising event for a client organization with a friend, who remarked afterwards that the funders seated around our table were such kind, genuine, caring people. I knew them and they were. It was true. But the friendliness and generous spirit of many philanthropic program officers—or any executives and administrators—should not obscure another attribute of staff in the philanthropic/social impact sector.

Make no mistake: philanthropy and nonprofit management are very serious business. Executive and program staff, especially of large institutions, are charged with awesome responsibilities with very high expectations of integrity, expertise, and commitment. The corporate world may demand longer hours—or not, slavish attention to a financial bottom line, and negotiating in a heartless environment, but nonprofit management is an ethically, intellectually, and emotionally demanding enterprise that requires extensive knowledge, as well as understanding, empathy, and responsiveness, and profound, nuanced adherence to an ethos, mission, and ever-evolving community culture. There is no faking it in the business of philanthropy—on either side.

And so I find dialogue like this a double-edged experience. Individuals one connects with are generally how my friend perceived them: genuine in their desire and commitment to being supportive and helpful, and to serving as the connectors between organizations and their aspirations for success. One hopes that in well-run institutions their voices, too, are represented and respected. But it’s not their money, and they don’t make the decisions.

During the round-robin meetings, we had 20–30 minutes for brief introductions, and to respond to a prompt, one question that had been posed for each group. In our meeting with Group #1, there was more presentation and less dialogue. The Cook County Land Bank is a fairly new enterprise and Rob Rose took some time to explain their work.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Group #1
My group met first with guest experts Rob Rose, Executive Director of Cook County Land Bank Authority, Joanna Trotter, Senior Program Officer in charge of Economic & Community Development for The Chicago Community Trust, and Kendra Freeman from Metropolitan Planning Council, Manager in the areas of Equitable Transit-Oriented Development and The Cost of Segregation.

The question we discussed was this:

What are the philosophical underpinnings of your work from the foundation or organizational perspectives and what values drive the work that community practitioners enact?

Joanna started out the conversation. The Chicago Community Trust released, about a year ago, new strategic funding priorities that bring issues of race and equity to the fore. This has always been a priority of The Trust, but race and equity are now the lens through which they see their work. They’ve supported affordable housing for many years, along with other funding areas such as arts and culture and health and human services, but Joanna’s new portfolio is specifically about creating more inclusive economies: how to unlock potential and reduce barriers in communities that have suffered from economic disinvestment for decades, primarily because of institutional racism.  

Kendra from Metropolitan Planning Council focuses on research and policy change, with three main focuses: housing, transportation, and sustainable development, particularly that ensures good stewardship of natural resources. They focus on building a vibrant and inclusive region, especially in the areas of community development and advocacy for affordable housing, and bring businesses, government, and communities to examine policy issues to improve existing structures to promote equitable development.

Through their Corridor Development Initiative, MPC identifies vacant properties in communities and, with the assistance of architects and designers, works with community residents to help them understand the development process, including market conditions in their area, as well as issues of density and transit-oriented development. The MPC team works with residents to articulate a vision by providing tools to conduct “table-top” charrettes. After participating in a three-day charrette session, residents are able to make recommendations about land development, during the critical community input phase of an RFP in ways that expand and strengthen a community’s role and voice in the redevelopment of their neighborhoods. The redevelopment of Graeme Stewart School, a former Chicago Public School in Uptown, is an example of this initiative.

From the other side, as Rob Rose pointed out, strong community input forced the City of Chicago to abandon plans to allow the Lucas Museum to be built on Chicago’s lakefront.

One of several around the country, the Cook County Land Bank is relatively new—established only four years ago. They focus on acquiring distressed real estate and vacant land, and remove barriers to redevelopment, such as back taxes and code violations, the things that preclude developers or potential homeowners from wanting to invest in a property. They return the properties or land to productive use by opening up and democratizing access to property. Initially, land banks were set up as a “sweetheart deal” for developers, giving them the opportunity to aggregate land and put big development project in place. The purpose was to allow aggregation for a select few.

The Land Bank’s philosophy is that it takes a big village to redevelop. To give everyone access, they are intentional about removing barriers to owning. As Rob noted, “government agencies like process.” But the Land Bank’s process is straightforward: they will sell a house or property one time to anyone who has the funds. If the owner fulfills their promise, they can have a second property. With a good track record, they can get a third. There is no need to go through credit checks; they do background checks only for financial, identity, or credit theft. Other criminal records do not preclude people from buying a house. Their process is simple and straightforward, yet radically different from conventional city or state agency processes for acquiring delinquent properties.

They serve primarily the South and West Sides of Chicago, and more than 60% of people they serve are people of color. They are trying to make their impact broad. “We would rather have one hundred people doing one project than one person doing a hundred projects,” Rob said. Typically, in a city, one or two people or entities with access continue to be fed development opportunities. They acquire property and amass wealth, while making decisions that cause disinvestment in certain communities. The Land Bank system allows access to any qualified individual with capital or access to capital, including people who pool resources, to acquire property. The Land Bank primarily sells properties at five, 10, and 20 thousand dollars. Because of state regulations designed to ensure people don’t easily lose their property, it can take time to acquire delinquent or abandoned properties.

Rob explained that the Land Bank is self-funded; they’re not seeking to make a profit, but to break even. When founded, they were 90% reliant on grant funding; last year, only 12% of their revenue came from grant funds, and their budget has increased four-fold. They also invest in people, in partnership with other organizations, cultivating someone’s skills so that a handyperson can evolve into a rehabber. The driving force is democracy, access to participation. Their revenue is from the properties they sell. Because they don’t make a profit, a property’s selling price allows buyers room to spend funds required to do a good job redeveloping their properties. It’s a balancing act. The sale of some commercial properties helps subsidize costs of single-family homes.

Cook County Land Bank was started with a grant from the lawsuit settlement, following the 2008 financial crisis, when 10 banks were sued by all 50 states. Illinois received an allocation from the Attorney General to staff the Land Bank and to purchase initial properties.

Some justice.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Group #2
The question was this:

How does the process of gaining access to support unfold? What are the stated and unstated rules and nuances of access to investment, relationships, and influence?

Our second meeting was with Robin Schabes, Vice President of Community Development Initiatives at Illinois Facilities Fund, a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that invests in and assists nonprofit organizations throughout the Midwest to provide quality of life services to communities, including affordable housing; Rosa Ortiz, Senior Program Director at Enterprise Community Partners; and Richard Sciorinto, Founding Principal at Brinshore Development, an innovative real estate company specializing in the development of residential communities that foster conservation, collaboration, and affordability.

Robin asked Rosa to start our conversation, and Rosa invited members of the group to share their perspective on this “nuanced” and challenging question about gaining access, asking first about the second part of the question, if it was relevant. “What comes to mind when you think about that? Is there such a thing as access to capital? Is there such a thing as access to relationships? Is there such as thing as access to influence?"

Members jumped in without hesitation, and shared their challenges.

One Member does community-based, placemaking work as part of a large cultural institution, and has difficulty raising funds for her project—serving a small community of people downtown who are suffering in a state of crisis and chaos—because of the prominence and assets of the organization.

One of the salient problems that emerged was the challenge of access: many of the communities identified for services

Another Member talked about her experience transitioning from working for many years in the government sector as a city planner, and now working with a nonprofit, where her work is dependent on nurturing partnerships and developing access to capital. This is now 75% of her job, when “all she really wants to do is get the work done.”

The larger challenge she faces is trying to use influence, access, and relationship to put the people in need in the same room with the people who have the resources. How can they serve these people, she asked, when they don’t talk to them, don’t see them? Being close to the problem you’re trying to solve, she noted, is everything, and asked: are we being efficient if we have 10 meetings about an issue and the people we’re trying to serve aren’t in any of the meetings?

Another Salon Member noted that funders may give grants to organizations that have been successful with raising money, but are not doing the due diligence to determine whether these organizations implement grant-funded programs and services effectively. In the same way, large organizations may be skilled at compiling data about the communities they purport to serve, but not have genuine ties that enable them to truly serve the community. I understand that funders need the assurances of someone in a position of authority who can be responsible, but I wish they could connect directly with the right people.

Rosa interjected to point out that it can be frustrating for both sides, grantees and prospective grantees, and funders, and asked: how do the people who distribute the money, or who do the metrics, quantify what’s really important? Everyone struggles with this problem. What kinds of things can we measure that really tell the story?

In response, Jennifer Mahar, Senior Director of Civic Initiatives at Fairmount Park Conservancy in Philadelphia, an organization whose staff does not represent the demographics of many of the communities they serve. It can be difficult to know what questions to ask, Jennifer noted, to elicit the information you’re looking for; information that will be helpful to communities you’re trying to serve.

As part of a large park improvement project, the Conservancy did a door-to-door survey of neighbors, in a community where 43% of residents are living in poverty, around questions of social cohesion. They asked about connections to their neighbors, the neighborhoods, and the park. When the project is completed, they will do a post-project survey. They plan to do another survey in 10 years, and again in 20 years to test ways to measure impact using social/emotional connections to address broader questions of the relationship of health to cohesive neighborhoods.

One Member shared a story about the founder of a community development corporation (CDC) who tried to explain the problem he had raising funds because people at foundations in leadership positions tend to be white and middle class—and that she, as part of a large institutions, was part of the problem. The Member had protested that she was not part of the power elite and didn’t have that authority. But when a funder pulled her aside and asked if he should give a large grant to the organization, she understood what the CDC founder was talking about. She now partners with the CDC to raise funds that she is able to channel to the CDC organization.

The conversation segued into challenges of data collection and metrics. It can be overwhelming for an organization to develop useful metrics without staff resources to do the work. This begs the question of which metrics are useful. Most funders expect quantifiable outcomes. If the outcomes are not measurable in quantifiable ways, does that make them meaningless?

Group #3

What is the future of urban philanthropy or urban development: How do funders or organizations see it and what are the emerging needs from practitioners seeking funding?

This group included Jacky Grimshaw, Center for Neighborhood Technology; Will Towns, Benefit Chicago; and Calvin Homes, Chicago Community Loan Fund.

The conversation centered around frustrations practitioners face when developing and funding programs.

Joan Vordergrudden, Director of Public Art and Placemaking for Hennepin Theatre Trust in Minneapolis, started off the conversation noting that the Salons are the only convening where she has the opportunity to meet regularly with other place-based practitioners, cultural workers to share stories and challenges, and to find affirmation for her work. She leaves feeling inspired and supported, and has talked with city officials and funders about bringing people together to talk about issues and to come up with ideas. Someone offered to provide $1,000 to hold a convening, Joan noted, but who would be responsible for pulling it together?

It’s not the same, but someone brought up the On the Table event that The Chicago Community Trust now holds annually—a day-long event for people across the region to convene for conversation about a topic of interest to them. In May 2017, more than 100,000 people participated in the event over meals, via social media, and at workshops.

One Salon Member brought up a trend toward urban pop-up events that are “shiny and fun,” but was emphatic about doing projects that are sustainable, that effect change in public policy, and that serve a long-term purpose by making real changes that benefits a community. She would like to be able to ask for funding to create an Ethical Redevelopment toolbox. But her experience is that a practical project like this doesn’t appeal in comparison to flashy events.

Another Salon Member noted that in a community where people are used to attending planning meetings, and who have also become accustomed to things not changing, arts and culture events, including pop-up events, can be a way to draw people in, to make a connection that can lead to longer-term projects and engagement.

Before closing, the group talked about funder guidelines and the funding process lacking flexibility, about the amount of time and energy it takes to negotiate and be awarded grants, which are designated for a specific purpose. And people have to spend so much time fundraising, they don’t have time to look down at the problem.

“One thing I like about the conversations we’ve been having today is they haven’t been really joyful," Will noted. "People are bringing the real problems and troubles that are happening in their communities: segregation, discrimination. Having a place where you can throw stuff on the table, where we can have real discussion and be yourself is important... A lot of people don’t complain to funders because they want to get funded!”

Will used to work at the University of Chicago, in the Office of Civic Engagement, and he used to hold agenda-less meetings. He would just tell the community he was coming, and whatever they wanted to talk about is what they would talk about. And the reason he set that up is because once an institution, particularly the University, sets an agenda, there is an agenda. Sometimes we just need to gather and talk about what’s on our mind. The agenda will come naturally.

Afternoon Workshop Session
What are the potential outcomes of Ethical Redevelopment? How have you incorporated these Principles into your work? What can we do as a collective group to further this work outside of the Salon Sessions?

Salon Members met for the first of three afternoons to talk about each of the 9 Principles. During the afternoon session of Salon #7, we talked about the first three Principles: Repurpose and Re-propose, Engaged Participation, and Pedagogical Moments.

We talked about the importance of the 9 Principles as tools and a language for learning about Ethical Redevelopment among different stakeholders: nonprofit staff, developers, community residents. It’s important to adjust the language of the Principles to be relevant to each audience, but also to see the Principles as a tool for teaching new language. It’s also important to bridge the divide between the written content and making the Principles actionable; having the Principles include best practices.

Photo by Naomi Miller

Photo by Naomi Miller

One Salon Member has gone back to her organization and done teach-backs on the 9 Principles of Ethical Redevelopment. Another Member said participating in the Ethical Redevelopment Salon series has given her work more credibility. She wants people she works with to understand how the Ethical Redevelopment approach views challenges as opportunities rather than problems.

I raised a question, from a broader perspective, about the responsibilities and challenges in all relevant industries and fields. How do we bring different sectors—government, nonprofits, developers, and community members—to the table so people begin to understand and appreciate the concerns and constraints other sectors face? So we can work on solutions that draw on everyone’s strengths and contributions, and respect everyone’s point of view and needs?

We talked about evaluation. One Member talked about wanting to measure how the work has affected the quality of life of community residents. She expressed frustration about funders just wanting quantifiable data, such as how many events have been held and how many people attended an event, without regard to whether people felt the event was valuable. Measuring “brush-ups” is also important; the number of times people meet and develop relationships.

Joan from Minneapolis talked about the work Scott Chazdon does with ripple effect mapping (REM), and about Kumu, "a powerful data visualization platform that helps you organize complex information into interactive relationship maps."

Salon Member Lauren Hood, Co-Director of Live6 Detroit, raised the possibility of creating a certification program in Ethical Redevelopment for community residents, who would benefit from some kind of formal recognition of the work they do.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Salon Dinner
The evening concluded with a lovely sit-down dinner on the second floor of the Arts Bank, in the long room lined with cabinets that hold the University of Chicago Glass Lantern Slides collection. Two tables running the length of the room were set with black tablecloths, fresh flowers, and individual place settings.

Everyone came together for a meal, drinks, and conversation. It was fitting, coming at the end of an evening of conversations that hadn’t been “really joyful.” It was fitting that so many of the Salon Members who are women were served and honored.

The Principle of Engaged Participation states that “[t]he value of the relationship is in the intimacy, not in the duration.” Gatherings like this can also be an opportunity to amplify the scope and impact of our work by creating moments of connection across distance and time; bridges that can lead to new ways of knowing and understanding ourselves and our work, and, because we share them with others, amplify possibilities for new opportunities. We don’t know at the time where they will lead, but entering in good faith into dialogue and mutually supportive relationships, as Members have been doing at the Salons, ensures that a portal is open—for access to many things, beginning with ideas and inspiration to address new challenges.

The Principle of Stack, Leverage + Access reminds us that “[m]aking change requires conviction and commitment utilizing belief, brainpower, energy, time, and dogged perseverance.” The meal was an opportunity to celebrate these efforts.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields