Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Other Other City

I moved to DC about a year and a half ago with a bunch of friends from college. Mostly, we are white, and mostly, we live in the same sub-sections of the city (Wards 1 and 2), which contain a nice blend of low-rent, nightlife, and easy access to transportation. After moving here, I met others my age through the volunteer service I was a part of. Again, mostly white, mostly living in the same areas.

Coming to DC, I didn't realize I was a part of a major demographic shift for the city. The Washington Post reported recently that DC will soon no longer be a majority black city. Gentrification is quickly raising the rent in many of DC's neighborhoods (including the ones I live in) and condos, coffee shops, and high-end restaurants are popping up all over the place. My friends and I can walk safely around places that, ten years ago, we would never think to drive through.

This issue is usually framed as a "black vs. white" debate. (Especially during last election between then-Mayor Adrian Fenty and now-Mayor Vincent Gray.) But this assumption was recently picked apart by an article in the local City Paper called "Confessions of a Black D.C. Gentrifier," written by a college-educated reporter who did not grow up in DC, moved into the city for a good job and cheap rent, and happens to be black. I'm not going to try and outline all of the points of the article here because I won't do it justice, but I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in the complexities of gentrification and demographic changes.

The author did offer up a new definition of gentrification, one based on class:
And because we live in a “nation of cowards” (as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder put it) where perhaps the only thing harder to talk about than race is class, it’s unsurprising that worries about gentrification boil down to white versus black, instead of educated and privileged versus uneducated and underserved.
I've always thought that privilege, rather than race, was the defining characteristic of a gentrifier. My friends and I are incredibly privileged, which gives us the opportunity to try to have it all: A good job, cheap rent, and a fun neighborhood. In this pursuit, we (not intentionally) push out others, less privileged, who have been here longer but do not have as many resources as we do.

But, this simplification does not capture the whole picture of what people my age moving into DC, usually for only a few years before we pick up and leave, are contributing to the area. Many, not all, but a majority, of my friends actually work in the community and are very engaged in trying to make this region a better place. We are all very privileged, but we also are trying to use this privilege to give back.

I have a very good sense of what is going on in the city because I have friends who work on a variety of different issues in local nonprofits.  Most of these people are either in volunteer programs like AmeriCorps, or doing Teach for America, or who have moved into other nonprofit work after completing these years of service. I also remain very connected to the local issues because of my job. The profile of the typical white gentrifier is one disconnected to his or her community, who works in the day and parties at night. This isn't a reality for most of the people I know.

DC is usually thought of as two cities: The Federal Government and the (mostly educated) people it attracts, including the multitude of political lobbyists and contractors, and the "Other City" of usually poor, usually black or Latino long-time residents of the city. (Mayor Gray ran on a platform of "One City" to unify these two sides.) While I do have friends who are a part of that "Federal City," I like to think I'm a part of the "Other Other City," a bridge between the two. I'm not here to work, drink, sleep, repeat, but I also have not grown up here and I'm certainly not a part of the underserved population. I'm not planning on staying here forever (nor are most of my friends), but I want to help make this city a better place while I am here.

My main question is, then, is this any better than the stereotypical gentrifier? I am still contributing to a demographic and economic shift (which is arguably not all bad), even if I am trying to "give back" in some way. Do the negative aspects of my socio-economic presence outweigh the positive benefits of the work I am doing? And if I am only planning on being here for a few years, can I really create any sort of lasting change?

These are questions I ask myself each day. I don't know the answers, and there probably aren't any. I hope this is a discussion we can have, though. It is probably the most important issue affecting this city, and most metropolitan areas. We need to do it right. What do you think?

Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners

Monday, March 21, 2011

Shameless Self Promotion: March Edition

VPPNews came out last week! Here are some highlights:
  • Mostly, I'm interested in feedback on the redesign of the newsletter. I did this all myself, and my graphic design experience is limited to a semester as opinions editor and a semester in Digital Art. Any thoughts or suggestions would be appreciated.
  • An article about VPP's investment two amazing organizations; Urban Alliance and Metro TeenAIDS.
  • A summary of VPP's open discussion with DC Mayor Vincent Gray. He discussed his "One City" agenda and early childhood education. 
Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners

    Monday, March 14, 2011


    Sometimes, I forget why I am doing what I'm doing. I work in an office all day, and I rarely see much beyond my computer. I talk a lot of talk about things I think are important, but I don't see those things go into action. Sometimes, I feel like the work I do doesn't go beyond the computer screen I create it on. Sometimes, I think that everything I feel passionate about--social entrepreneurship, growing and strengthening nonprofits and their programs, finding sustainable funding to support social change--are  fads, ideas that only have value because people like me think they work.

    I can feel disconnected working in philanthropy, one or two steps removed from the people who need help. The effects of what I do every day are far removed from the office where I work. The change I help to create is system-wide, and long-term, so I won't see the results for many years. Because of this, I sometimes worry if my work is helping anyone, at all.

    But then, I hear a hear a story of a teenager who stopped doing drugs because of a program provided by one of the nonprofits that my organization supports. I walk down a street near my house and see some kids coming out of a school we help fund. While I'm waiting for the bus, I see an advertisement for a health fair sponsored by another one of our investment partners. Then, I begin to remember.

    Yes, this is corny. But these reminders do help ground me and remember why I'm doing what I'm doing. Talking about "scale" and "capacity building" and "performance management measurement systems" all day long can be tiring. It sometimes disassociates me from the big goal: helping people who need it. Scale really means doing more to help more people. Capacity building means helping organizations serve people who need help better than they were before. And performance management is just a fancy word for making sure things aren't going wrong.

    I don't work in direct service, I never really have, and I don't think I would be particularly good at it. I have great respect for those who do this type of work, but I don't think I have the skills (or the personal strength) to do that everyday. I think I am good at what I do, and I want to contribute as best I can. I wish I could always feel the connection through my work that direct service brings, but I can't. I've started to volunteer at a local service organization, I hope that will further strengthen my connection to my community. It is important to me to have this grounding for my work, and I think this is something everyone who works at a funding organization (local or national) should have. It teaches you about the reality we need to change for the better.

    Without these reminders, we forget easily and lose ourselves in the jargon. So take a step outside and look around. See what impact you are creating.

    Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners

    Sunday, March 6, 2011

    Harvard Social Enterprise Conference, Part 2

    There’s a lot to say about today’s events at the Harvard Social Enterprise conference, so I’m not going to be able to synthesize it all into one post. I’m hoping some of the other attendees can comment here to add to the discussion.

    The day started off with a keynote address from Willy Foote of Root Capital and his talk was probably the most entertaining of the day. He weaved interesting stories throughout the speech and even ended by pulling out a guitar and singing a Latin American revolutionary song. Definitely wasn’t expecting that.

    Beyond discussing at length the need to support small and medium enterprises around the world, which is what Root Capital does, I think he gave an interesting story of how he came to do what he does, which serves as a useful model for all social entrepreneurs. He said he started the organization out of a combination of intuition and impatience; a worry that if he didn’t start doing what he thought was necessary, it wouldn’t get done.

    The second keynote of the day, Robert Harrison of the Clinton Global Initiative, gave a different perspective on the journey into public service. He worked in the private sector much longer than most before switching to CGI, and he discussed the reasons for that. He told a story about how he worked on the Hill as a college student, and got the advice to go into the private sector, gain technical expertise, and then leave the private sector to “change the world.” He said in the current climate, young people don’t need to do that anymore, and should go right into social entrepreneurial and nonprofit careers. I thought that Harrison’s story was an interesting contract to Foote’s, and shows the many different ways people can get into (and excel in) creating social change.

    Two of the panels I went to, “Accessing Transformative Social Enterprise Capital” and “Emerging and Traditional Legal Structures for Social Enterprises” complemented each other very nicely. “Enterprise Capital” was a discussion of the landscape of the different financing options available to social enterprises, and “Legal Structures” was on the emerging legal statuses out there for organizations. Both seemed to come to the same conclusion: Mission is more important than anything else. First you should decide on your mission and your goals, and then figure out the best financing and structure to help you accomplish that goal. Financing and organization structure are important tools to help you accomplish what you want to do, but they are only tools.

    Related to this idea of prioritizing mission, the “Survival of the Fittest: Leadership and Scaling Up” panel had a great discussion on the role of scale for organizations. All of the panelists agreed that scale should not be a goal in and of itself. Scale should only serve the mission, and if done for the wrong reasons, can actually corrupt an organization’s progress. Caleb Shreve of the Global Fairness Initiative noted that there is nothing wrong with operating “at scale.” If something is working and doesn’t need to grow, don’t push it.

    A theme that ran through all the panels, but was really brought out most strongly by Foote, was the idea of over extending oneself. He noted that Root Capital isn’t doing anything that innovative, it is just taking traditional models of finance and applying them into new markets. He encouraged people not be innovative for innovation’s sake, and instead to do one or two things really well, and collaborate with others to do the rest. I thought that this advice, along with that from the panels I attended, was a very realistic (and humbling) way to look at social innovation and social enterprise.

    On a side note, I also attended a design workshop from the folks at IDEO. I’ve never been a part of design thinking before, and I have to say, I struggled to keep up. We tried to come up with dozens of solutions to health-related problems in India in under 60 minutes. People were thinking of ideas faster than I could process the words being said. I think I’ll stick to philanthropy, for now.

    Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the final keynote because I had to head back to DC. Hopefully someone else can comment on it who stuck around.

    Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners

    Saturday, March 5, 2011

    Harvard Social Enterprise Conference, Part 1

    If there was one theme that emerged from today's installment of the Harvard Social Enterprise Conference, it was that the federal government should take on the role of scaling up social enterprises.

    Well, that was a theme that seemed to tie the keynote address on the Social Innovation Fund together with the panel on "Social and Policy Innovation in the Obama Administration." The keynote address featured a conversation with Paul Carttar, Director of the Social Innovation Fund, and VPP's President and CEO, Carol Thompson Cole, which was moderated by CNN analyst David Gergen. The "Social and Policy Innovation" panel featured several members of the Obama administration that work on various aspects of his innovation agenda.

    Something that clearly emerged from the keynote address was that the Social Innovation Fund does not aim to find or create social entrepreneurs,  but to scale up tested and proven programs. Paul said that if they focus on finding these effective solutions to social problems, the right entrepreneurs and leaders will follow. Similarly, the panelists representing the Obama administration discussed how they seek to find innovations where they are--be they policy innovations, technology innovations, or product innovations--and scale them up across the country, and with the case of international development, across the world. Mark Newberg of the Office of Policy and Strategic Planning at the Small Business Administration noted that without the federal government behind a particular innovation (he gave the example of LEED certification for buildings), it's hard to create any sort of systemic change. This reminded me a lot of the government-as-an-exit-strategy concept of philanthropy.

    Carol Thompson Cole, in the keynote, gave an interesting glimpse of how the SIF intermediary funders fit into the broader goals for the initiative. This is something I don't think most people have a good grasp on yet, (but, of course, I'm not sure if that's true since I work so closely with this stuff, as VPP is a SIF intermediary), so I think it was good to get that out there. She talked about how organizations like VPP are mediators between the social service subgrantees and the federal government, and how important it is that VPP has committed to five years of its SIF program, youthCONNECT, regardless of federal funding.

    Something that both Carol and Paul discussed, which I've never really grasped before, was the idea that SIF is not just about giving out money to high-performing organizations, but actually advancing a theory of change that isn't typical in the philanthropic or social entrepreneurship field. Paul discussed how he thought SIF would be a success if it can advance the notion of collaborative work towards a shared-outcome framework, either in other areas of the government or in the private world. Carol talked about VPP's commitment to a network for social change, and how this really represents the way forward for the organization.

    Completely separate from that, I went to another presentation with four panelist presenting academic research on the social enterprise sector. I was a little skeptical, to be honest, since it included the word "academic" in the title, but it was fantastic. There was a presentation on what organizations should measure for based on their theory of change and organizational services (which had a matrix involved), a presentation on the efficiency of social enterprises vs. corporate social responsibility vs. charity, a study on impact investing, and a presentation on conscious capitalism that included the question "Can you build a business on love?" (Which I think will be the new question I ponder while I meditate.) Unfortunately, these presentations got pretty close to blowing my mind, so I don't think I'm going to be able to summarize them here.

    All in all, a great, informative, innovative day. Also, the food at the networking reception was fantastic. Harvard knows how to do it.

    More tomorrow.

    Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners

    Friday, March 4, 2011

    Harvard Social Enterprise Conference

    I apologize for not posting for a while, but it seems that life has gotten in the way of many things for me over the last few months, one of them being this blog.

    But, fortunately, life has now brought me to something very exciting: I will be attending the Harvard Social Enterprise Conference this weekend. Carol Thompson Cole, President and CEO of VPP, will be giving the keynote address on Saturday, so I am going to support her, generally hang out and soak up as much knowledge as possible. I'll be blogging from here, and also tweeting from @jraders and @vppartners. Follow either account to get my minute-by-minute insights on all the amazing things going on at the conference.

    Can't wait to tell you all more!

    Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners