The following is a conversation between Carol Naughton, President of Purpose Built Communities, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: One of the complaints you so often hear in the social sector is that some of the very best programs which have a proven track record are rarely replicated or can’t be customized to work under a different set of circumstances. But tonight, we’ll discuss one that is being replicated…and around one of the most difficult challenges we face, revitalizing the poorest urban neighborhoods in America. It’s called Purpose Built Communities. And here to tell us about it is their President, Carol Naughton.
Good evening, Carol, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Carol: Good evening, Denver. I’m delighted to be here.
Denver: Give us a snapshot of Purpose Built Communities and what the organization does.
Carol: Purpose Built Communities is a nonprofit, pro bono consulting organization, and we help local leaders around the country revitalize neighborhoods to create healthy, sustainable places that have deep, broad and durable pathways out of poverty.
Over 40 million Americans continue to live in poverty. This is 50 plus years after we started a War on Poverty in the early 1960s. And while we have certainly won some victories, we have not yet won the war.
Denver: Before we get into the model that inspired this movement– and that was the East Lake Community in Atlanta– let’s look at the overall issue of poverty, Carol, if we can. How many Americans are living in poverty today? And how many of those are children?
Carol: Over 40 million Americans continue to live in poverty. This is 50 plus years after we started a War on Poverty in the early 1960s. And while we have certainly won some victories, we have not yet won the war. And what we have learned is that when low-income families live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, their row to hoe is simply harder than if they happen to be a low-income person in a more economically diverse neighborhood. And when we look at poverty and how it affects children, we see that almost 1 in 4, 1 in 5 American children continue to live in poverty. And when I’m talking about poverty, I’m talking about a family of four living below $24,000 and change. So, we’re talking about people living on very little money.
Denver: What are the human and economic cause of childhood poverty?
Carol: As a country, we lose about $500 billion. That’s billion with a B, in economic output every year as associated with childhood poverty. Many people in America don’t see the problems associated with concentrated poverty in their daily life. They get up in the morning; they drive to the train; they take the train into the office, and they do what they do and then go back home, and they may not see the consequences. But when you start to think about these economic impacts, people today and our children are going to be dramatically impacted by issues associated with poverty unless we do something about it.
Denver: One of those impacts is life expectancy. In fact, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation mapped the differences in life expectancy from one neighborhood to another just a couple miles apart. How dramatic can those differences be?
Carol: In New Orleans, for example, there are two neighborhoods three miles apart where the life expectancy difference is 25 years. 25 years.
Denver: Wow. That’s incredible.
Carol: And that’s not uncommon. If you go to almost any city in America and map out the life expectancy based on where people live, you will see a 20-25 year discrepancy as a result of geography. Geography should not be the determining factor of our life expectancy in this country.
Denver: And you know, many might suspect that the cause of premature death in these communities is lack of access to healthcare. But there are far more significant factors than that which are shortening these lifespans. What would some of those be?
Carol: You’re exactly right. What we call the social determinants of health. In the public health world, the social determinants of health are things like access to housing, good education, jobs, living in an environment that’s free or has reduced pollutants, all those kinds of things that can get in the way of living a healthy life. And what we know now from the work of Dr. Jack Shonkoff and others is that when you live in a neighborhood of concentrated poverty, there’s this concept of toxic stress. It absolutely impacts your body and your brain and changes who you become, and that’s terrible. We’re supposed to be better than that in America.
We’ve been able to document for the last 10 years or so that poverty and place are intimately tied together in this country. And I want to be very clear. Lots of the places that we are talking about are neighborhoods where people of color have been concentrated as a result of racist policies that have been implemented over the last 120 years by the federal, state and local government.
Denver: Let me ask you this, Carol. It hasn’t always been taken for granted that poverty and place were really tied together. When did we as a nation finally come to that realization?
Carol: We’ve been able to document for the last 10 years or so that poverty and place are intimately tied together in this country. And I want to be very clear. Lots of the places that we are talking about are neighborhoods where people of color have been concentrated as a result of racist policies that have been implemented over the last 120 years by the federal, state and local government. Policies associated with Jim Crow in the South, but also every city in America. In fact, I’m reading now Richard Rothstein’s book, The Color of Law, which documents city by city, state by state, all the different policies that our government put in place that have resulted in creating these neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. And while none of us who are here today are responsible for creating that problem, we are all responsible for trying to fix it.
Denver: Absolutely. Well, as I mentioned a moment ago, the model that Purpose Built Communities is based upon is a neighborhood in Atlanta called East Lake. Tell us about East Lake and how did this whole thing originally get started.
Carol: East Lake was a neighborhood, and is a neighborhood, in Atlanta. In the late 1960s, a public housing community was built out there called East Lake Meadows, and it was as far east as you can be in the city of Atlanta and remain in the city limits. So, it was as far out as you could be. At that point when the public housing project was developed, there were very little social services available to support the neighborhood. And so as people moved in, immediately, the consequences of being isolated, being warehoused, being stigmatized started to play out. The children who lived in that community went to one school while the people who lived in single-family homes nearby went to another school. So, there were no real ways to kind of break up that experience of living in concentrated poverty.
When I first came out to East Lake in 1995, it was a neighborhood that was struggling in every single way. The crime rate was 18 times the national average.
Denver: Eighteen times?
Carol: Eighteen times the national average. Andy Young used to say that the only times the haves and the have-nots came together in East Lake was over the $35 million a year drug trade that emanated from that neighborhood. If you looked at any statistic, if it was bad to have a lot of it, East Lake had a ton of it. And it was good to have a lot of it. East Lake didn’t have enough of it.
But East Lake had some amazing people who lived there, including a great leader named Eva Davis, who had had a vision about creating a wonderful community that served children well, that was integrated racially and economically and felt like any other good neighborhood.
And at the same time, as Davis was having this dream, an Atlanta businessman, a guy named Tom Cousins who was really an Atlanta business legend… Tom had started Cousins Properties in 1958, and by 1964 had started his first family foundation. Giving back to the community was really part of his DNA. But I think by the mid-1990s, he was really a frustrated philanthropist. And he had this “Aha!” experience when he read about an op-ed piece in the New York Times that said over 70% of the men in the New York State prison system came from just eight neighborhoods. He couldn’t believe that that could possibly be true.
Denver: It’s a statistic.
Carol: It’s stunning, right? And so, Tom called the author. He called the chief of police in Atlanta and said, “ I read this about New York. It’s been verified for me. Do we have the same situation in Atlanta?” And the chief said, “Well, yeah, Tom. Everybody knows that.” And he started telling him about East Lake, and Tom went out there to see it and was stunned by the hopelessness, and stunned that really the opportunities that he had had in this country were not available for the children who lived out there.
Denver: So you get involved in East Lake, in this revitalization project in 1995, and as you mentioned, the community is pretty flat out — 30% high school graduation rate, 5% of fifth graders are hitting the math standards, 40% of the housing is uninhabitable. But as you mentioned a moment ago, you really had to start by building relationships and trust in the community… probably it had many, many promises made to it only to see them broken. That is not an easy task, Carol. How did you go about doing it?
Carol: It wasn’t easy in East Lake either. Miss Davis was a very strong leader. She was nobody’s fool. And because people had tried to come in, and some people said, “Hi. I am from so-and-so, and I’m here to help,” or other people had come in and really tried to take advantage of the people who lived there, people had their guard up. And the reality is that this plan that the Elena Housing Authority and the East Lake Foundation that Tom Cousins had created, the idea of the plan… because there wasn’t a plan when we first started, but the idea was so audacious of creating a really brand new neighborhood with better housing and new schools and new opportunities for folks. It was almost stunning, and I think Miss Davis had to go “Okay. Let’s take a minute.”
But we met every week for two-and-a-half years for about a two-hour planning committee meeting that were often very, very difficult meetings. Miss Davis chaired those meetings, and the vitriol of living a hard life for 60 years came out in those meetings. And they really were difficult, but we kept coming back. And I think the secret was to continue coming back even when you had had a really bad meeting the week before, or you had been called some really bad names the week before, or somebody had thrown down and said, “Hell, no. We’re not going to do this.” Keep coming back, and coming back with an open mind and an open heart about what we were going to try to do together.
Denver: Your approach in East Lake and in the other communities where you work, they were built upon three major pillars. And the first–and where you started in East Lake because of the acute need–was mixed-income housing. Why was that so important? And how did you approach it?
Carol: We knew that concentrated people in poverty wasn’t working, and we wanted to create a way to create affordable housing within a more economically diverse apartment community. And so, that’s called now mixed-income housing, and we had to figure out the legal and financial model to be able to do this. So, the Atlanta Housing Authority and its development partners were really on the cutting edge of creating a legal and financial model. And in fact, I worked for the Atlanta Housing Authority at this point, and I was the deal lawyer. So that was really what my job was although I got to do a lot of other things. My job was really creating the legal and financial model to do mixed-income housing.
Our theory at that point, because it had not been done before, was that by integrating people into a more economically-diverse community, you would change some of the things about the neighborhood. You would be able to attract investment into the neighborhood. So, for example, where there hadn’t been a grocery store in 40 years… As a result of doing mixed-income housing, we were able to attract a Publix grocery store into the neighborhood. We’ve been able to attract branch banks. We’ve been able to attract the kinds of neighborhood-serving retail that everybody wants.
Denver: And we all take for granted.
Carol: And we take for granted if you happen to live in a neighborhood with resources. But if you live in a neighborhood that is under-resourced, those are the things that are missing. And mixed-income housing helps attract that additional investment. It’s also kind of a reset for the neighborhood because it signals to the community that this is a neighborhood worth your time and your investment. And that’s part of the definition of a healthy neighborhood.
Denver: Yeah. It sure is. And mixed-income housing, it was really 50:50 wasn’t it?
Carol: It is in East Lake, 50:50. Fifty percent of every apartment building is rented to families who qualify for public housing assistance, and the other 50% are rented at the market rates, whatever the market will bear. Now the great thing about that is if you’re a low-income family and living in a subsidized unit in that building, the quality of the services delivered are the same as the people paying market rate. So, if you call because you’ve got a problem in your apartment, you’re going to get the same level of service that somebody who is paying top dollar does. And that frankly hadn’t happened for many low-income families… maybe ever. So, it’s that idea that you are delivering the kind of service that people are willing to pay for. It creates a sense of pride and a sense of, “Yes, this is my community, and I’m going to be engaged and be a part of it.”
Denver: Yeah. And with every building 50:50, nobody really knows who’s paying market rate and who’s getting the subsidies, which is absolutely fantastic.
Carol: That’s right.
Denver: The second leg of the stool, and so important to break in the cycle of intergenerational poverty, is education, a cradle-to-college pipeline. And the centerpiece of that was the first charter school in Atlanta. That has been quite the story. Tell us about it.
Carol: This is one of my favorite pieces of the East Lake story. Drew Charter School is now in its 17th year of operation, I think, and we serve about 1,900 young people from pre-K all the way through high school. In fact, we had our first graduating class.
Carol: Thank you. It was a big day. We had 100% graduation, and every single young person who graduated was accepted to college. And when I think about college, I think both about 4-year colleges… we had kids who went to the Ivy Leagues and kids who went to the University of Georgia, and Georgia Tech and Georgia State. But we also had kids who said, “I want to do something more technical in nature,” who are going on to learn how to code or to do something else that made sense for them. So, we think about college in a really broad way, but we know everybody in this country really needs post-secondary education.
Denver: And the final piece, it was around health and wellness. What took place in East Lake to address that important issue?
Carol: One of our most important partners early on was the YMCA in East Lake, which is why it’s actually called the East Lake Family YMCA, and they were really kind of but-for partner early on. They were one of the first places where people came together across race and income and ethnicity and religion to recreate together, to take better care of themselves. And they were a great partner. They remain a great partner. In fact, one of the things that they do so well is they provide the PE instruction for the elementary school at Drew Charter School. So, they’re really embedded into the school. It’s a terrific partner, and there are others, but the Ys in my heart will always be one of the most important early partners.
We think that the community quarterback is really the secret sauce. It’s what creates the opportunities for these really complex cross-sectoral, long-term partnerships to work really well to help create a great platform that will allow people to work their way up and out of poverty. That community quarterback is typically a newly created nonprofit whose only reason in life is to make sure that this initiative works. It’s not an add-on some place. It’s really a separate organization, and you recruit board members, some from the community and some from other places, who can help expand the constituency of people who care about this neighborhood, people who are willing to use their relationships, their chits, sometimes their treasure, to help make this happen.
Denver: Well, this is fairly complex, Carol, and it’s got a lot of moving parts, and the linchpin for a real successful revitalization program is something that is referred to as the “community quarterback.” What is a community quarterback, and what role does it play in this undertaking?
Carol: I’m so glad you asked that question. We think that the community quarterback is really the secret sauce. It’s what creates the opportunities for these really complex cross-sectoral, long-term partnerships to work really well, to help create a great platform that will allow people to work their way up and out of poverty. That community quarterback is typically a newly created nonprofit whose only reason in life is to make sure that this initiative works. It’s not an add-on some place. It’s really a separate organization, and you recruit board members, some from the community and some from other places, who can help expand the constituency of people who care about this neighborhood, people who are willing to use their relationships, their chits, sometimes their treasure, to help make this happen.
Denver: Yeah, and they coordinate and they connect. And I guess you also have a single point of accountability, don’t you?
Carol: You really do. When I left the Atlanta Housing Authority in 2001, I became the executive director of the East Lake Foundation, which is that community quarterback in the East Lake neighborhood. And again, our role is to make sure that all these partnerships are firing on all cylinders, that everybody is working together correctly and working together in a way that makes sense. It’s almost like… have you ever renovated your home?
Denver: No. I can’t do anything.
Carol: Well, you are a lucky man then. If you’re going to renovate your home, you don’t have all the subcontractors sit around your kitchen table and have them decide what they’re going to do when. You and your family have a vision.
Carol: And you will talk to your general contractor about what that vision is, and then your GC is responsible for executing upon that vision and making sure that you and your family get what you want. The community quarterback, it does a lot of that same kind of thing. So, they help work with the community to create the vision. What are we trying to get to at the end of the day? And then help hold all the partners accountable for doing the right thing at the right time for the right amount of money to achieve that vision that had been articulated by the community.
Denver: Yeah. Make sure that people do what they said they were going to do in the timeframe they said they were going to do it. And today, you can’t overstate how important that all is.
Carol: Can I give you one quick example of how that can work?
Denver: Yeah, please do.
Carol: So, when you have all these really well-meaning partners in the community – people delivering early learning, and health and wellness services, and housing and education – they all bring a way of doing business to the table, how their institution does business. And sometimes that is decided by people in another office downtown because they’re running maybe 15 different early learning centers. And so, one of the things that a community quarterback can do is kind of get up to that 15,000-foot level and identify small ways that your implementation partners can change how they can do business in order to be able to work better together, and that’s really important.
So for example, we coached the early learning provider in East Lake to change how they selected children who will be served in the 136 spots in their center. We asked them to put a geographic filter which they had never done before and in any of the other 20 centers. And they recognized that by putting that geographic filter, they can make sure that children who were served in their early learning center were then going to be eligible to go to Drew Charter School and be eligible to take advantage of the rest of the services. So, we were able to get multiple opportunities and multiple touches and make sure we were on the right track to helping children move forward in their lives.
Denver: And another example of that would have been First Tee, which essentially all the kids who were going to the First Tee Golf Program were coming from neighboring communities and not in the area of East Lake.
Carol: That’s exactly right. That happened when I first became the head of the East Lake Foundation. I went out on a Saturday and saw kids out on the golf course and thought, “Man, this is great.” And then I noticed in the parking lot that all the license plates were from out of the county. And it made me think, “Ha!” We, again, we were letting people come to us as opposed to going out and recruiting the right people, the people that we wanted to serve. And so we changed our priorities, and the First Tee of East Lake said, “Okay, we’re only going to serve people who live in this particular geographic spot, and for others, we can send them someplace else.”
Denver: Yeah. And if I just can stick with golf for a moment, the FedEx Cup has their culminating event called The Tour Championship, and that’s at the East Lake Golf Club, the one and same. Correct?
Carol: That’s right. Golf had been a part of the East Lake community for over 75 years. In fact, the East Lake Golf Club is where Bobby Jones learned how to play golf. He played his first and his last round of golf there. In fact, when I was walking into the studio today, I saw the mark on lower Broadway that showed that Bobby Jones had had two ticker-tape parades held right here back in the late 1920s and 30s when he played so remarkably.
Denver: He actually won the grand slam. He won all four majors.
Carol: That’s right. I think the only person ever to have done that, even to this day. So golf had been part of the community, and we wanted to provide opportunities for young people to be able to play golf, too, which is why we started the First Tee Program in East Lake. And it’s really cool that the East Lake Golf Club has become a place where golf, the motto was “Golf with a Purpose” because the Tour Championship and the other events at the club and the cash throw off from the operation of the club come back to support programming in the neighborhood. So, it’s really a social enterprise.
Denver: Yeah. Very nice story. Well, let’s just close East Lake here. We started with 1995, and what the community looked like then with the crime rate and the low educational achievement and the housing being uninhabitable, let’s take a look… fast forward 22 years later. What has been the impact of this?
Carol: It’s really amazing. Honestly, we were trying something because we had to try something; shame on us if we didn’t. But I think we’ve all been, we would all say we were more successful than we ever could’ve imagined. So crime rate has been reduced… 75% reduction in crime for the last 17 years, and that’s been sustained. A 90% reduction in violent crime, that’s been sustained. And we’ve done that without a focus on police or without a focus on security. It’s because of all of these other great things that have happened over time. Kids are doing great. They’re going to Drew Charter School now, one of the highest performing schools in Atlanta. It is every year, continues to serve a majority of the children who come from families who qualify for free and reduced lunch, and those are low-income kids at Drew Charter School outperform the non-low income kids in both the city and the state of Georgia. Our kids can compete against anybody. In fact, they compete favorably with children who live in the ritziest neighborhoods of Atlanta and outperform schools where very few children of low wealth go.
Carol: We think there are about 825 urban neighborhoods that are ripe for this kind of disruptive innovation. We think those are the places where more than 30% or 40% of families live below the poverty level, and that they are in urban centers really that have the possibility of having this kind of dramatic success.
We think there are about 825 urban neighborhoods that are ripe for this kind of disruptive innovation.
Denver: That is quite a story. Well, we said at the outset, the mission of Purpose Built Communities is replication. So, looking at the possible universe out there, Carol, how many highly distressed urban neighborhoods are there in this country?
Carol: We think there are about 825 urban neighborhoods that are ripe for this kind of disruptive innovation. We think those are the places where more than 30% or 40% of families live below the poverty level, and that they are in urban centers really that have the possibility of having this kind of dramatic success.
Denver: And you guys provide free consulting services to community leaders interested in implementing this model. How do you go about identifying these communities and judging whether this is going to be a good fit or not?
Carol: We have a pretty rigorous process now of identifying — when we’re invited to a community, we have this rigorous process now of vetting to make sure that we are a good fit for what that community wants to accomplish and that the community has both the stick-to-itiveness, the leadership and the access to resources to be able to do that. The big buckets that we look at in terms of whether or not we’re a good fit first is leadership. Most important thing is: if you have great leadership at that community quarterback level, if you have civic and business leaders who are willing to step up and say, “I want to help solve this problem,” that’s the single most important thing.
Denver: Sure. Things will happen.
Carol: Exactly. We also have to be able to do mixed-income housing. And while lots of the places where we work also include a single-family strategy, our model always needs to be able to have a mixed-income apartment rental development at the heart of it because that’s the only way you can get to scale and size and continue to be able to serve really low-income families at the same time. Then the third piece is around education. Can you really create that neighborhood-serving school that will help lift kids up and be an anchor in the community?
Denver: Let’s talk about a couple of these communities if we can. One of them is Omaha where the community quarterback is an organization called Seventy-Five North. What impact have seen you there?
Carol: Oh, I’m so proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish in Omaha. Seventy-Five North is led by a remarkable man named Othello Meadows, and they have a great board that supports Othello. But we just held our conference out there, our annual Purpose Built Communities Conference, and so I just came back last Wednesday from Omaha. They’ve built now their first 108 units of mixed-income housing. They’ve got about 200 more units planned that will be implemented over the next couple of years. They’ve got a great partnership with Omaha public schools and have reconstituted Howard Kennedy Elementary School with support from my colleagues at Purpose Built Schools and have really brought that steam and project-based learning model to this school which will serve as an anchor to the community. They’re partnering with health and wellness providers and are building this amazing community center called The Accelerator, which is really marrying up for-profit, nonprofit, educational and health partners who want to be in the community. Everybody from Big Mama’s Soul Food to Whispering Roots… Aquaponics will be there. It’s a pretty amazing place. It’s really transforming that neighborhood, how people think about the neighborhood and improving opportunities for people who live there.
Denver: Very cool. Let me cite one other. Birmingham, Alabama. Woodlawn Foundation is the community quarterback. What’s unique and distinctive about them?
Carol: The Woodlawn Foundation. Sally Mackin is the executive director of the Woodlawn Foundation, and I think one of the things that they have done so well has really been to become a part of the community. They were invited into the neighborhood by a lot of existing nonprofits who recognized that they were all doing little bits and pieces, but nobody was thinking about the whole. And so the Woodlawn Foundation was created and invited to be able to serve that role as the community quarterback… and Sally calls herself …somebody who leads from the middle.
Denver: Yeah. Pushing the pile.
Carol: Pushing the pile, exactly, which I understand now is a football term.
Carol: I thought it had something to do with dirty laundry, but no. But Sally pushes that pile forward and gets a couple of extra yards on every single play. So they’ve had a great relationship with the Birmingham public schools. They built new housing. One of the coolest things they have done is they use money from the federal mortgage fraud settlement case to do a homeownership repair program for single-family homeowners who lived in the neighborhood. And I think they’ve done over 160 houses in the community to help improve the housing stock for people who live there.
Denver: Yeah. And I can just hear hope in your voice. And I guess that’s what you see everywhere you go. These communities, after so many years, are really having hope.
Carol: That’s right. I think that’s one of the most important things that we can bring in our work…is real hope for our folks who live in the neighborhoods… that they too can participate in the American Dream. And it sounds a little corny every time I say it, but I believe it to my core being that if we can help create these healthy places with broad, deep, durable pathways out of poverty, we’re going to tap into this huge human potential that our country has been missing for years. And I find that so hopeful and joyful that I get excited about it.
Denver: I gather, and I do too just listening to you. Let me close with this, Carol. Through the East Lake initiative, and now taking the model to other communities and getting the same kind of successful outcomes, you have a pretty good idea of what’s working. So, what do you see as the biggest impediment, the biggest obstacle to having more, and more neighborhoods… and they’re about 825 as you mentioned, take this on in their own community?
Carol: I think the biggest impediment right now is identifying local leaders. Once we have the kind of core group of local leaders, anything is possible. But sometimes it’s hard to find those local leaders, and sometimes we’re invited to a place by a university or a philanthropist or a Mayor or somebody, and when you say, “Who are the people in your city who helped make great things happen?” They will look at you kind of blankly because they don’t have that kind of social capital, or they don’t have the culture of people stepping up to help solve problems. And in cities where you don’t have that kind of culture, where people say, “Oh, woe is me! It’s bad. It’s always been bad and it will never be any better,” that’s a hard place to get started. But most places in America have this wonderful history of civic and business leaders stepping up to solve problems. And if we can tap into that, we can largely make this happen.
Denver: Well, Carol Naughton, the President of Purpose Built Communities, I want to thank you so much for being with us this evening. For people who want to learn more about the organization and how this model works, maybe even in a community where it could be implemented, where can they go to access that information?
Carol: I think the best place to go is our website. Start at www.purposebuiltcommunities.org.
Denver: Thanks, Carol. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Carol: Thank you. I love being here.
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