USC Price Centers Convene National Forum on Place-Based Initiatives

USC Price Centers Convene National Forum on Place-Based Initiatives

December 2014

Geographically concentrated poverty in the United States remains a vexing challenge, despite decades of public and philanthropic initiatives aimed at eliminating it. To share new insights, promote more effective solutions, and elevate the national dialogue on such efforts, The Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy and the Sol Price Center for Social Innovation convened Prioritizing Place, a national forum on the current state of and renewed potential for place-based initiatives.

Held at USC in December, the two-day event united policymakers, foundation and corporate executives, and thought leaders from across the country to unravel the myriad complexities of place-based work. The gathering built upon a yearlong inquiry by The Centers into philanthropic and public-sector initiatives that included high-level experts who served on a National Advisory Board, as well as in discussion groups held in Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C.

The results of that research culminate in a forthcoming monograph Place-Based Initiatives in the Context of Public Policy and Markets: Moving to Higher Ground, an advance copy of which was provided to forum attendees. The monograph examines an array of efforts from across the country and features the perspectives of leaders, many who have spent entire careers focused on place-based work.

“Although place-based initiatives have been a strategy used by foundations and government for decades, there is a renewed surge in interest in the corresponding flow of resources to these efforts,” said James Ferris, Ph.D., Director of the Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy and Emery Evans Olson Chair in Nonprofit Entrepreneurship and Public Policy, in his opening remarks.

“The new smart wave of place-based work is not about isolated initiatives that are operating in a neighborhood here or municipality there,” said Emerging Markets Managing Director Elwood Hopkins, who helped spearhead the inquiry. “They are situated within much larger economic forces and they’re nested within larger public policy frames.”

Robert K. Ross, M.D., President and CEO of The California Endowment, discussed the opportunities, challenges, and lessons that he is learning leading a ten-year $1 billion commitment to improve the health and welfare of residents living in 14 targeted sites across California.

One of the enduring challenges, he said, was the issue of scalability. “Remember that the president and the White House had designs for a billion-dollar package — about the cost of one B1 bomber — to try and move the Harlem Children’s Zone [a place-based initiative providing educational and health programs to underserved families] into a replication model. They couldn’t do it.” Ross also spoke of the importance of having a multi-tiered strategy that empowers residents to make their own communities better by giving them a voice to influence policy-making processes. Despite the difficulties, he said that the rationale for doing place-based work is clear. “We know that your zip code means much more than your genetic code in terms of predicting health status.”

Plenary discussions at the national forum ranged from theories, assumptions and approaches to the everyday challenges of making place-based initiatives work. Breakout sessions focused on such issues as connecting people to economic opportunities in places, examining differences in how the philanthropic and public sectors work to maximize impact, braiding philanthropic and public funding streams, and building the capacity of both communities and the sectors to make a bigger difference. Participants also addressed how place-based programs can be replicated and scaled, as well as how they have expanded beyond the inner city to reach rural communities and Native American reservations.

Boston Chief of Economic Development John Barros reflected on his leadership at the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, a comprehensive, community-driven neighborhood revitalization effort in the Roxbury/North Dorchester area of Boston, and how he is translating its quest for economic empowerment and social justice into citywide policy. “There’s nothing that’s more helpful to making local, state, and federal government more effective and responsive than local voice,” he said.

In his remarks, Andrew Plepler, executive for Global Corporate Social Responsibility Executive and Consumer Policy at Bank of America, observed the growing role for the private market in place-based initiatives. “On our best days, we can be a great partner in these efforts,” he said. “But it’s going to require a conversation and a lot of humility to think about where we’ve been and how we harness the best of what we offer going forward. I think the silver lining of the financial crisis is that that conversation has occurred not just at our company but at corporations across the globe.”

A wide-ranging plenary on replication and scale moderated by Kresge Foundation President Rip Rapson featured Policy Link President Judith Bell, GreenLight Fund Executive Director Casey Johnson, and White House Senior Policy Advisor Luke Tate.

“Place-based initiatives are essentially incubators where we’re really learning about solutions,” said Judith Bell, President of PolicyLink. “I think what we’ve failed to do is to set them up from the beginning as building blocks for policy solutions.”

Xavier de Souza Briggs, VP for Economic Opportunity and Assets at the Ford Foundation, echoed the important role business can play in moving the field forward during a closing plenary with Tonya Allen, President and CEO of The Skillman Foundation and Michael Rubinger President and CEO of LISC. “What is encouraging,” Briggs said, “is that place-based work is increasingly about improving mainstream business practice, incorporating environmental and social values, looking beyond quarterly earnings and what companies themselves often describe as the tyranny of quarterly earnings and the short term view they impose, which is often bad for workers, bad for communities, bad for the environment.”

VP for Economic Opportunity and Assets at the Ford Foundation

Henry Cisneros, chair and CEO of CityView, and former Secretary of Housing and

Urban Development (HUD), delivered closing remarks that placed the convening in historical context. Cisneros, who also contributed to the original monograph, reflected on the evolution of place-based initiatives and their future in philanthropy and in influencing public policy.

He said he first considered the field’s potential decades ago while at HUD. “In contrast to many other federal agencies, we looked at budgets, programs, and delivery systems that in some cases went directly to individuals.” However, he added that it took some effort to create the accountability needed to take advantage of these place-based possibilities. “I like to think that we were successful reorienting the department’s thinking with an orientation toward place, but I hadn’t heard anyone really seriously articulating that logic in a very long time.”

That is, Cisneros said, until “Elwood and Jim started this dialogue over a year ago.”

In the context of the national conversations taking place today about race, equality, and justice, Cisneros further noted that while “Ferguson, Missouri has been described as a crisis around policing practices or a failed environment of economic opportunity for young African-American males, it is also the story of a place:  a place where poverty has become concentrated in a way in which poverty is also isolated.  A place where there’s a lack of opportunity for young African-American men.  A place where there’s a lack of education and training pathways and, therefore, few pathways toward improvement in life.” He suggested that the next evolution of place-based work should focus on issues of equity and the integration of that value in everything that happens next.

As attendees prepared to build upon these discussions in moving the field forward, they agreed that not only must more resources be raised, but also that cross-sector partnerships are essential — from community residents to politicians.

“For many years, place-based advocates saw themselves standing in opposition to policymakers,” said Ferris. “But the fact is that local initiatives can demonstrate new approaches that can be incorporated into public policy and serve as vehicles for public resources. The government can also create conducive environments for initiatives by being place-conscious.

The forum was sponsored by the Ford Foundation, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, JP Morgan Chase & Co., Bank of America, and The California Endowment.

The Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy focuses on philanthropic strategies for public problem solving, while the Sol Price Center on Social Innovation emphasizes the development of ideas and practices to enhance the quality of life in low-income communities. Both centers are part of the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, which works to improve the quality of life for people and their communities, here and abroad.

 Download Monograph Here

More information, including videos from the forum, can be found here.