In September, Ben Hecht, president and CEO of Living Cities, an innovative philanthropic collaborative of the world’s largest foundations and financial institutions, spoke to an audience of a mayoral chiefs of staff from some of the largest US cities concerning the ideas in his latest book, Reclaiming the American Dream: Proven Solutions for Creating Economic Opportunity for All. His talk addressed proven paths leaders can take to improve the economic mobility of minority populations. Citing case studies from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, he described ways in which forward-thinking coalition builders aren't waiting to address the issue of racial inequity, but instead are seizing the opportunities at hand.
For example, some government leaders are working with local education providers to establish early-college high schools where students can quickly earn an associate's degree on top of their high school education. Other leaders are introducing the conversation around racial equity to their constituencies through consistent public outreach. Whatever the approach, Hecht urged that the time is now to undertake this critical work, and that the opportunities to begin abound.
In this interview, Hecht explores the concepts presented in Reclaiming the American Dream a bit further.
Where did you find the inspiration to write Reclaiming the American Dream?
I have this unique position where I get see what's happening across the country over an extended period of time. In a way, I get to see a whole movie where others only see snapshots.
I always say that the most important part of my job is pattern recognition. I ask myself, "What are the new ways that people can work or are working?" If [an approach] has been adapted and adopted in tens or hundreds of places—if it's helping not just 20 people but 200,000 people— then I think, "Okay, maybe there's something here."
I saw incredible approaches to reducing racial inequality and improving economic mobility started with just a few philanthropic dollars. Then, leaders from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors took those approaches and adapted them to their own environment.
We live in a time with so much hopelessness, when in fact we have many solutions that could help millions of people get on a path to the economic mainstream. We're simply choosing not to take the right paths.
So, I felt like I had to tell that story. Some of the case studies from the book are so compelling that people say to me, "I can't believe this isn't being done in my own backyard. What's keeping it from happening?" The answer is, "Actually very little, except poor leadership."
What are the first steps that government leaders should take to reduce the racial disparities in their jurisdictions?
I think the first step—and it sounds so basic, but it's really foundational—is that [leaders] need to understand the problem in a deeper way. The solutions that we thought were really built for everyone do not and have not benefited everyone. You have to take off your rose-colored glasses.
Leaders need to start with competency-building. Leaders should ask themselves, "How do I build my racial equity competencies so I can see what I just didn't see before?"
[Former New Orleans Mayor] Mitch Landrieu is a good example. Mitch, with more than 1,000 civic leaders in New Orleans, went through a two-day racial equity competency training called "Undoing Racism." That was step one. The next step is to devise the long-term plan while making sure that an organization can achieve some short-term wins.
Mitch and I agree that no single program is going to solve everything. That doesn't mean you don't do a program; it just means that the program is not going to be enough. Leaders need to continue to deliver the message about the importance of improving racial equity. When Mitch speaks publicly about tearing down confederate monuments, he's saying, "We're acknowledging that this is a historic problem. We're not bad people, but we were wrong in assuming that these monuments actually don't mean anything and that they aren't sending a message to the people of color in our community. It's just not true."
Mitch took a stand by giving that speech about taking down the monuments. Yes, the monuments are symbolic, but part of the way that we attack the issue of racism is by attacking the symbolism.
In addition to Mayor Landrieu's work in New Orleans, are there any other projects that you would like to highlight from your book?
There are 10 cities that I talk about in Chapter 11. Each of these cities has in place a Boards and Commissions Leadership Institute. The idea is that if we are actually going to have a strong and stable democracy, then we need to do much more to have the new racial majorities of our population be engaged and future leaders.
Instead of using the boards and commissions solely for the appointment of political friends and allies, local governments are using them to put in place future leaders from black, Latino, and other communities. In Minneapolis, they set up the Boards and Commissions Leadership Institute of the Twin Cities, which has now been around almost six years. One of their graduates is Ilhan Omar, who just became one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress.
Mayors are the ones who can put those people on these boards and commissions; no one else.
Many public officials feel they don't have time to take on the challenges of racial inequality, or they feel it takes too long and they'll be out of office by the time anyone sees results. What would you say to those officials?
Leadership is risk-taking. What you say when you have a public forum matters. When public officials and other leaders say things that other people are afraid to say, it normalizes the ability to have those conversations.
People will then say, "Oh, I was at a press conference with Mayor Fischer, and he talked about the importance of racial equity in our town." What you say matters.
Even if you don't buy the moral argument for improving racial equity, elected officials have to acknowledge that their regional economy is 75 percent or more powered by consumer spending. For many leaders, the new racial majority in their communities doesn't have the economic power that the old majority had. For their own self-interest, for their tax base, they have to figure out, "How do we all come together to create a new way of educating our kids, getting people into the workforce and creating jobs that acknowledges the reality of the new majority?"
We need a new normal. Right now, high school education doesn't give you an education that's good enough for the current economy, so we should consider establishing more early-college high schools where we can give kids an associate's degree that replaces what was the high school degree.
It's not a radical idea; it's just the new normal. The hurdle is that changing the old is so hard.
I'm going to skip to the end of the book. You note that "the time is now" to undertake the work of improving racial equity. Could you speak a bit more on the challenges and opportunities of working in the current sociopolitical climate?
Elected leaders are coalition builders at the local level. I would not say that about the federal level, and sometimes I wouldn't even say that about the state level, but at the local level, they are the chief elected official to solve problems and to lead. Truth-telling is foundational to their work. They can say, "This doesn't make us bad people; it's just going to propel us into the 21st century, and it's going to actually stabilize or grow our tax base." The solutions that I talk about in my book—which were built primarily for people of color—turn out to work for white people, as well.
The systems that we have in place are often hundreds of years old, and everything has changed except those systems. So, we need to modernize the systems, but we need to modernize them for who our population is today. White, brown, or black, it turns out that the [racial equity] solutions that were built over the last decade—which were seemingly built to solve the exception—really work for everyone.
The idea is that we're creating opportunity for all in a very intentional way with solutions that have been proven to work for everyone.
This interview has been edited for clarity.