As I was drinking my coffee this morning, I came across an article in the LA Times about the new investment in Las Vegas’s Fremont neighborhood by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. The wealthy tech entrepreneur is investing $350 million of his own money to revitalize the neighborhood just east of the Fremont-area casinos in Las Vegas.
Despite the history of the neighborhood, Mr. Hsieh allegedly believes it is a “blank slate” for his vision. Soon, bars, condos, and even a “Silicon Valley in the desert” will be appearing in the area thanks to Tony’s investment and a City that is desperate for capital and solutions to poverty. He’s even moving his whole 2,000 person company there.
While Tony’s commitment to Las Vegas is commendable, I can’t help but feel angry.
Cities are not blank slates. Each have rich histories and valuable resources that should not be disrespected and replaced. While we may need strong private sector partners to catalyze redevelopment in some cases, we should also outline clear commitments to incorporating the community in those plans. Identifying existing community assets in “decaying” urban areas, is an important step to ensure that long-standing residents and businesses have an opportunity to stay if they choose to.
While Tony is investing an extraordinary amount of money to help; he may not realize that he can’t outright by the assets that make a neighborhood great. Indeed, he may be pushing them out.
Last week, Uncle Phil, from the famous “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” television show, passed away. I love that show. Every character is great, and Uncle Phil was no exception.
But since his passing, I’ve been thinking about the video that has been circulating on the internet of a scene between Uncle Phil, Will Smith, and Will’s estranged father. For those of you who don’t know the story of the Fresh Prince (get with the program people!), he moved in with his Uncle Phil because his Mom thought he needed more structure and resources after his father abandoned them.
I’ve watched the video a few times, and it hits me emotionally every time. My father was/is just like Will’s father on the show.
I haven’t seen my father in 14 years. And before that, he only showed up a handful of times after him and my mom separated. I was in elementary school.
I tell my close friends that I remember my father missing more than he was ever present, and the times he did choose to visit were full of abuse, death threats (towards my Mom), lies, and drama. Ultimately, he chose alcohol and his lifestyle over us. He acted selfishly, but I don’t think he was selfish because he loved himself too much; I think he behaved that way because he didn’t love himself enough. He was broken, and so he broke things around him.
Just like Will, I had to learn to do things on my own: shave, play sports, and tie a tie (thank God for the internet). I still don’t know anything about cars or fishing, but AAA is great, and I don’t like eating fish anyway.
My Mom filled the void magnificently in countless ways. I’m extremely lucky to have her. She is a warrior who overcame tremendous obstacles to take care of her two sons on her own. Her bravery and risk-taking are what helped us survive and succeed. She always used to get upset when I forgot to get her a Father’s Day card, because in her case, she was both a Mom and a Dad.
But, Uncle Phil and Will also made me revisit the fact that my situation sucked. I have always been quick to disregard my past and its impact on me, but I’m coming to a place in my life where I’m realizing that its okay to admit that things were less than ideal. Surely my experiences have helped me survive, and perhaps have equipped me with some valuable tools to keep surviving, but there are also characteristics that I’ve acquired that are not serving me anymore. I’ll spare the details here, but in short, it’s time for me to start loving myself. Not doing so is hurting me and my pursuit of happiness. (plug for another cool movie with Will Smith)
There’s no question that I’m better off without my father, and while I wouldn’t want to change my experience in anyway, growing up like I did is something that nobody should go through. Indeed, what’s concerning is that the likelihood of youngsters experiencing a fatherless household is only increasing; especially in low-income neighborhoods. Single parent households have tripled since the 60’s. In fact, I find myself surprised when I encounter folks whose parents are still together.
I think its time for me to heal, and its time for us to consider how we can catalyze community-wide healing around these issues. It’s not only about fighting poverty, eradicating drugs, and preventing teen pregnancy, we also have to build a dialogue around how we acquire tools to cope with whatever life throws at us. I think learning how to love ourselves is key. We don’t talk about that enough, and we need to stop trying to convince ourselves that people, especially youngsters, can tough it out when they are experiencing harsh conditions.
I think part of the answer lies in building communities of folks who are okay with being vulnerable, as well as sparking dialogues on touchy subjects like domestic violence, alcoholism, and rape.
I admit that I don’t have all the facts on this bear of an issue. Some people fight tooth and nail against gentrification, others advocate for it, and some others assert that parts of gentrification are good while others are bad.
Amid the nuances of how outside investment impact communities, I do think we should be clear about at least one thing: market forces don’t always help people, and we should do something when those forces are aggressively pushing long-time residents out of their homes and businesses.
The “do something” needs a little work though. What does that mean? What do we do? How do we compete with big money players who buy property in cash? How do we empower residents to have a voice in the development of their community and the future of their home? How can that voice translate into capital?
I’m obviously not going to answer these questions in this blog (somebody help!), but I was heartened to read this article about the artists in Fort Point, Boston. Threatened with being ousted from their homes and studios, they banned together to do something extraordinary: they pooled their cash to put a bid on the building.
They made a decision to participate in the market, putting their own money in, and partnering with a developer who can show them the ropes.
Luckily their bid was accepted because of a compassionate seller, but what do we do if the seller isn’t compassionate? How can we effectively organize the hearts and wallets of communities in neighborhoods undergoing transition? What is the role of policymakers in supporting new investment while protecting existing residents and businesses?
A few weeks ago, Twitter made the news by joining the ranks of other huge companies with a successful initial public offering. What I loved about their approach was that it was done relatively quiet; making the announcement with a tweet and conservatively pricing their offering.
They’re not the first social media company to join a major stock exchange, but the fanfare they received made me think about the IPO process in general and how it could be applied to raising resources for smaller groups of businesses; perhaps even targeted eco-systems of enterprises like those found in urban neighborhoods.
Ultimately, stock exchanges are just platforms where investors can invest in a set list of businesses. When a business is accepted into an exchange the public is offered the opportunity to invest in the businesses through the purchase of “shares.” In many cases, big institutions with tons of capital own significant portions of businesses (in Twitter’s case, about 6 major funds own most of Twitter). Raising money through a public exchange is often attractive to businesses because they’re able to raise a significant amount of capital.
My favorite things about stock exchanges are:
A limited set of business to invest in (businesses have to go through a process to enter the exchange);
Anyone can buy shares (i.e. crowd-funding); and
It helps the business raise money quickly by pooling everyone’s contributions (or share purchases).
So why can’t we do it in a neighborhood-based way? Why can’t we create our own exchanges that invite the public to invest in businesses in our community?
Fortunately for us, this isn’t a new idea, and various interpretations of this model have seen success. One of the coolest leaders in the arena of pooling wealth and investing is Reverend Leon Sullivan from Philadelphia. Realizing that economics was at the root of poverty, racism and other bad things, he mobilized his community (mostly through his church) to pool wealth. How did he start?
By asking 50 members to chip in $10/month for 36 months.
The amount from that first ask (or initial public offering) was directed into a scholarship fund, as well as the development of a new entity (for-profit) called Progress Investment Associates. Each contributor received one share. Through this entity, they invested in and started new businesses in the African-American community.
Pretty awesome, right?
We should explore more ways to find capital to local businesses. Part of the work, I think, includes organizing consumers and educating them about this type of micro-investing, but another part is policymaking, helping businesses re-structure their businesses in a way that will allow them to easily issue stock. New Mexico seems to have a relatively easy process to help small businesses issue stock when they need capital.
I love this stuff, and I may write about it more moving forward. If you’re interested in reading more, check out this cool transcript from a speech Michael Shuman gave on the topic. It inspired me.
Sal Castro passed away today. He was part of an amazing vanguard of Chicano leaders who inspired many youngsters to fight the system that treated them as second classes citizens and do something revolutionary…go to college and graduate.
The example he set, leading his students in the “Blowouts” of the 60’s and encouraging them to love themselves and their culture, changed my life. As a “lost” kid trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, Sal Castro and other leaders like Cesar Chavez and Corky Gonzales, opened my eyes to what was happening in our communities and they inspired me to do something about it. Sal helped awaken a passion in me that drives nearly everything I do today.
We should all pay respect to the man who lived his life for others. A tireless educator and one of our community’s most fearless advocates.
I was doing some reading last week and I came across some awesome blogs and articles from the scholar celebrity, Clayton Christensen. He’s most known for coining the term, “disruptive innovation.”
It’s a fascinating concept, and one that has inspired some of the biggest names in business to change the way they do business. Most notably Steve Jobs, who was depicted in his posthumous biography grappling over Christensen’s book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma.”
So what is disruptive innovation? If you have 8 minutes check out this interview with Clayton himself. If you have half that time, here’s the answer:
Disruptive innovation doesn’t call for something new per se. It’s the act of taking something that exists (product or service) and making it more accessible.
Because accessibility is key, disruptive innovation often emphasizes access for the “bottom of the pyramid;” folks that can’t afford the product and service at its original price.
I love this theory for two reasons:
It’s relatively simple to understand.
It challenges leaders to consider a “new market,” even though that market is not new, it’s the folks at the “bottom of the pyramid.” And unfortunately, the folks that make up that section of the consumer pyramid is growing.
I think there’s a lot of opportunity for community development practitioners here. With our experience, we can think of a multitude of products and services that could be more accessible for our constituents. And, we can probably imagine the ways in which they would use those services to improve their lives. In many cases, we can say we have a firm understanding of this “new market.”
By connecting the dots and adding a dash of creativity, we can craft a variety of disruptions that will change the lives of the people we work with and the systems that preserve the status quo. Here are some probing questions:
How do we design financing products that make capital accessible to low-income people? Can we disrupt financial markets by modifying existing products so more people can use them?
How can we democratize City Hall? Can we make the building more accessible to constituents? How do we disrupt policymaking so new laws serve the people more effectively?
How can we lower the cost of healthy food so it’s more accessible to the poor? Can we create a “new market” for kale and other food not found in low-income neighborhoods?
Can we make healthcare more accessible to the poor? Are there delivery systems we can design that will disrupt the healthcare system and create new markets for them to look into?
What disruptions would be helpful in your work and for the constituents you serve? If we look at our work via this lens, we may not only disrupt outside institutions, we may even disrupt our own field. In this case, disruption is good.
I’m having a nice nerdy Saturday evening reading the Harvard Business Review, and I came across this awesome article on President Kagame from Rwanda and how he’s “running his country like a business.”
Pretty fascinating stuff, and it sparked some thoughts on how some of his management philosophy could help community development work here in the States. Putting the human rights violations aside, here are some things I took away from his interview with Justin Fox:
What’s wrong with running things like a business? – Per President Kagame, sometimes its helpful to address an issue with a “glass half full” mentality (his words not mine, lol). Instead of diving deep into learning about a problem (god knows we have a ton of reports telling us that our communities are poor), it can be helpful to focus on existing assets and how they can be transformed to attract investors. Needless to say, one of the most important existing assets are the people themselves, and by working with them, we can find ways to build strong local economies.
Don’t talk too much – I thought it was interesting how President Kagame was only able to answer two questions when he guest lectured in Michael Porter’s class. He got caught up talking about politics and trying to get ahead of what he may have suspected were jabs at his leadership in his country. Being a good listener is an important trait that all leaders should try to acquire; also the ability to answer questions in a succinct manner so the audience can take it in easily and have a chance to engage more.
Start Small - I think its cool how President Kagame can say that the Rwandan GDP is being driven by 3 things – Coffee, Tea, and Tourism. Sounds crisp and focused. What’s cooler is that he knew that there was more he had to do, but he wanted to get a few things done right before tackling other industries. It seems like the service industry and energy may be new additions to his list. In the nonprofit and community development sector, we’re often afraid to start small and are always in a rush to scale things up. Sometimes you just have to start small to get it done right.
Build a Diverse Coalition – I’m still trippin’ out that President Kagame is friends with Michael Porter. But what I love about it is that the leader of the Rwandan rebel army was wise enough to say, “You know what? We need to mix up the expertise here…let’s bring in that dude from Harvard.” That’s just awesome.
There are more tidbits I took out of this great piece, but I’ll leave it at four.
I was in a fundraising strategy session yesterday with some colleagues in Boyle Heights, and as we were ideating on new projects and possibilities, we kept coming back to the idea of “community,” social connections, and the type of environment one needs to cultivate that will allow a community to grow.
What is community?
Webster’s dictionary provides several definitions for the word, all providing great key words for community — people with common interests…, an interacting population…, a group linked…, a unified body…
How do we build more “community” like this in Los Angeles? Surely we’re all part of at least one community, and perhaps even several, but how can we activate different types of communities to change our City and its built environment? Or, how can we build an environment that fosters community?
As we were talking about this, one of my colleagues noted his interest in the idea of the “Parisian salon,” a place where the intellectuals of Paris used to come together to hang out, drink coffee (or some other beverages), chat, and build community. It reminded me of the co-working sessions I have with my friends, and of this short film that one of my favorite fashion photographers produced featuring some of his favorite male subjects.
If you take a look at the film, its obvious that the guys have an affinity towards each other, despite coming from different parts of the world and maybe speaking different languages. They are coalescing around their common community – fashion. And aside from the awesome outfits, I also thought of how the venue (open air seating!!!!!) catalyzed what seems to be such thoughtful conversation. I can only imagine the types of collaborations that must have resulted from this dinner.
We need to create more spaces for people to come together like this. For diverse people — jardineros, waitresses, corporate executives, hipsters, street vendors, techies, etc.— to learn from each other, collaborate with each other, and build community.
Before too much time passed, I wanted to post this awesome lecture Ben Chestnut, the founder of MailChimp, delivered at Creative Mornings in Atlanta. A good friend shared it with me last week, and I watched the whole thing while eating my cereal and ironing my shirt before the work day. Really awesome presentation.
I like the presentation so much because Ben was hilarious and dropped so much knowledge on his career path, his leadership style and how he cultivates creativity at MailChimp. Instead of focusing on outputs, Ben dedicates his energy to fostering an environment where his team can be the best creators they can be. Sometimes they make relevant stuff, sometimes they don’t. But in the end, they produce more than many other companies. And even some of that irrelevant output ends up coming in handy. His workplace seems free, and everyone is welcome to bring their own quirks to the table in all their glory.
I hope that as we work to build a better City, we can employ some of this same spirit of freedom. Freedom to think outside the box, explore new projects, and learn things that may not feel relevant right away, but will certainly make our work more whole.