The following is a conversation between Sarah Rosen Wartell, President and CEO of the Urban Institute, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City. 

Sarah Rosen Wartell, President and CEO, Urban Institute

Denver: It was just over 50 years ago – 1968 to be precise – that the Urban Institute was founded to measure and evaluate the effectiveness of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Tonight, we’ll talk about how it has evolved since then, but more, how it is preparing for the challenges of the coming half-century so we have a country where everyone can rise. And we’ll do that with Sarah Rosen Wartell, the President and CEO of the Urban Institute

Good evening, Sarah, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

Sarah: Good evening. It’s great to be here.

Denver: People hear on the news all the time that “according to the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research organization…” and then they go on to report the story. But that’s about the extent of what most of us know. So, who is the Urban Institute? 

Sarah: Well, we are a nonprofit research organization. We’re made up of people who are passionate about building empirical evidence and doing analysis of data to help decision-makers make better choices all across society on things that improve people’s lives, strengthen communities.

We have a special focus on looking at things that will help to close equity gaps, expand economic opportunity for families and individuals, and things that help us build a kind of prosperity that’s shared where everyone can benefit. 

Denver: Now, for people I know who are familiar with your organization, they described it as “rigorous, factually accurate, and maybe a little left-leaning.” Would that be a fair assessment or not? 

Sarah: I think the institution doesn’t have a lean, but the people we draw to it are diverse and have a variety of perspectives, but they are people who are committed to looking at questions of poverty and opportunity. 

Denver: You recently commemorated your 50th anniversary at what was dubbed the “Next50 Changemaker Forum.” What is a changemaker, and who can be a changemaker? 

Sarah: So once upon a time we thought of changemakers particularly as people in elected offices of power – 535 members of Congress, a few agency heads at the federal level… and if you’re being broadminded, city and state, too. But today, people who are changemakers can be found all across society.

They are social entrepreneurs, people who run nonprofits who are trying to deliver services. They are philanthropists, who in communities and the grandest, most successful of our titans, who are investing their resources in trying to drive change. And we want today to be a partner to help improve the decisions of all of these different influencers in society.

Denver: That’s really interesting because, essentially, what you’re saying is that the federal government’s role has changed pretty significantly from what it was 50 years ago in solving these problems because of what you just described, these changemakers. Would that be a fair assessment? 

Sarah: I think that’s absolutely fair. I think it’s not that the feds have left the playing field, but I think that their capacity to be innovative and drive change, at least right now with the partisan divisions that we have across society, is more limited, but they can be influenced by seeing good, promising ideas from across the country.

And so, we want to be sort of handmaidens, helping to empower good decision-making and spark new ideas in places that will ultimately be able to work at scale. 

Denver: So you’re sort of an incubator – get those ideas, and once they prove that the proof of concept is there, let’s see if we can ratchet it up with the federal government.

Sarah: And if there are bad ideas, it’s important that people know that they’re not working sooner rather than later after we spend a lot of energy and effort on them, too.

Denver: And let’s include money. 

Sarah: That’s right.

Denver: Give us some insights, Sarah, and some examples of how racial injustice is baked into the important social issues we are facing today, and what you guys are doing to try to address that.

Sarah: Let me use where we live, and how people’s homes have value is just one great example. We made policy decisions shameful, I would argue – policy decisions in many cities, many communities over many decades to segregate where people have a chance to live. 

And as a result, if you still look at how we sort ourselves across geographies, our society is deeply segregated, which also means our schools are deeply segregated. It also means that the homes that people live in, in neighborhoods that are concentrated black, for example, don’t always appreciate at the same levels as homes that may be in majority-white neighborhoods. There’s nothing different about the homes. There’s nothing different about the families and the people.

And even if today, you take those two homeowners from the similar starting place, their ability to accumulate wealth is different, and that we enforce this perpetuates wealth inequality, which today is greater than it has ever been. The number of black homeowners today is the same…the same rate of black homeownership we have today is what we had in 1968, which was the year the law that made discrimination housing illegal was first passed.

So, these things are kind of baked into society in ways, and we’ve got to go look, not just describe the disparities, which if you reinforce something often and often enough, it actually becomes sort of self-fulfilling and reinforcing of our own society’s misfortune. But instead, we’ve really got to actually look at the root causes and try to help us unpack and disentangle those causes in order for us to overcome the past.

Denver: Let me stick with baking. Are you concerned that the algorithms that are being baked into artificial intelligence could have a legacy of discrimination and are really just merely exporting that from the analog world to the digital world? And if that is the case, what do we do? 

Sarah: I am concerned, and part of what we need to do is we need people who are thinking about that problem involved in the design of the algorithms. I don’t believe we’re going to go back to a world where we don’t use knowledge, but we need to make sure that the knowledge we’re relying on to make decisions is better and doesn’t have these negative forces.

So, for example, we have a working group right now that is working with lots of other actors across society to see how the algorithms that are often used by employers to decide which resumes to interview, which candidates to consider, they may have norms built into them from the past that have segregation and discrimination at their heart. But it is also possible that we can use algorithms to figure out who has maybe not the credential for the job that we’ve once looked for, but they may have the capability to do the job. And those same analytic tools, AI and others, could help us find that.

So, it really requires somebody to look behind…it’s the “black box” that’s scary. If we don’t know what we’re relying on and we can’t analyze its effects on sorting, we could end up baking these in more firmly and hardening the inequalities. But it’s possible even that you could use some of these algorithms for good,  that they could help unpack some of the very structures that I was talking about before. And so, my hope is that we develop the expertise to be a sorter of those effects. 

Denver: I think sometimes the way we hire people is pretty antiquated, and somebody has to take a look at it and just review it from top to bottom. First off, as you were just saying, you have to look at a person’s potential, not everything that they’ve achieved.

And I had a fellow on the show once who talked about that perfect cover letter and how all the English and all the grammar has to be perfect, and he had a hard time getting a job; he’s now a CEO of a nonprofit organization. But he said, “Nobody asked me in this: Does it make any difference that I speak five languages, and English is my fifth language? You know what I mean?” But he had an adverb wrong, and that was essentially it. 

Well, sticking with structural racism, you’re doing a lot of things around that such as Measure4Change, which is an initiative examining racial equity and inclusion within organizations. Let’s talk about the Urban Institute for a moment, and what are you doing within your own organization to try to address that? 

Sarah: For the last five years, we’ve been pursuing what we call our “DEI roadmap,” and it has three components, the most obvious of which in some ways is the composition of our workforce. People think of that principally as being about hiring, which is critically important, but equally important is about retention and making sure that everybody has a chance to get ahead within the organization on a level playing field, which means clarity about what it takes to succeed. Too long in society, those norms were communicated sort of informally in ways that really advantaged some who are more like us and disadvantaged others. 

Denver: Yes. So a big thing about an organization, too, is that people, if they can see the fairness because it’s transparent, it makes a big difference. 

Sarah:  That makes a big difference. And I wouldn’t pretend that we have this all right, but this is something we’re working hard on.

Beyond composition though, we think it’s critically important that you really examine racism and its consequences in the root of the content of your work. If what we did was to continue to simply describe disparities, describe the disadvantage that some populations have over others, without any examination of its roots using language – I always use the example “some people say a person earns less than another, but you could say a person is paid less than another” – you convey a very different thing about the worth of the individual. So, we really want to examine the language we use to talk about justice-involved populations or Latinx communities or others.

Sarah Rosen Wartell

At the end of the day, you need a place where every person, regardless of where they come from and their lived experience, feels like they can be their own true selves. That means listening and hearing some hard truths and really getting comfortable being uncomfortable.

Denver: That’s great.

Sarah: So, with the content of the work and what questions you ask is critically important. 

And then the last component is about the culture of the organization. At the end of the day, you need a place where every person, regardless of where they come from and their lived experience, feels like they can be their own true selves. That means listening and hearing some hard truths and really getting comfortable being uncomfortable.

I’ll tell you that in the last couple of weeks in my organization, we’ve had some very painful conversations around assumptions that people used in pursuing work. You kind of just go through that livid and own your responsibility for the hurt and harm that sometimes people experience in ways that people aren’t even aware of. And do a lot of listening.

…retention is important, not just because you want to be an organization that has a rainbow color in your workforce. It goes to the quality of the work we do. We can’t understand the society that we’re trying to help improve if we don’t have all of the different experiences at the table…

Denver: Do a lot of listening, that’s right. And as you say, if you don’t have that inclusion component going there, you’re not going to get the retention because you think your numbers look good, but people don’t feel like they belong, and that makes all the difference.

Sarah: And retention is important, not just because you want to be an organization that has a rainbow color in your workforce. It goes to the quality of the work we do. We can’t understand the society that we’re trying to help improve if we don’t have all of the different experiences at the table when we’re figuring out what questions to ask, collecting information, interpreting the results. It really requires that we ourselves, to be good at our jobs, are different in who we are. 

Denver: You are involved in so many things. Let me ask you about a couple of your initiatives and projects. One of them, you were doing in coordination with The Kresge Foundation, the Brookings Institution, and Living Cities, and it’s called the Shared Prosperity Partnership. What are its objectives, and what have you been able to achieve? 

Sarah: Well, at the most obvious level, the objective is that when cities, whether they’re cities that have long struggled, places we’ve been working with like Detroit and Fresno that are really struggling to get some economic momentum, or places that are thriving like Arlington, Virginia, where Amazon HQ2 is about to land. We’re working in all those places. But that the growth that they experienced when they experience it is designed to be the kind of growth with benefits enter all the population and not just the top. That’s the critical challenge we’re finding in our society, and it’s mapped on our cities as well.

So, the aim of that initiative is to go in and help those places, make sure their growth is an inclusive kind. In order to do that, the problems that you work on those challenges are different depending upon what’s important to local leaders. So we’re very unusual, I think, in “We’re here from Washington and we’re here to help, not to tell you what to do, but for you to tell us what you’re trying to do and see if we know something or could analyze data or we could bring in experience from another city that would be helpful to you.”

And so, this is a case where our work plan is designed not by us, not by Brookings or Urban or Living Cities, but by a group of local leaders who say, “This is what we want help on.” And then we look into our institutions each and say, “What do we have that can be of support?”

Denver: Back to listening again? 

Sarah: Back to listening.

Denver: And you know what? There is that history of national organizations coming into communities and just sucking all the wealth out of it and not having those locals benefit from any of it. So, it is an inspiring program. 

There are many challenges that we face in this country, but I don’t know if there is any one of them that is more difficult than affordable housing. You have focused on a regional housing framework for the Washington D.C. area. Tell us about that initiative and how’s it going.

Sarah: Well, I would say we’re making good progress, not perfect. And in fact, the arrival of Amazon to D.C. had a really powerful benefit, although there are concerns about the growth and whether the growth there will be one that we can control and avoid some of the adverse consequences of Seattle.

Denver: We’re familiar with that here in New York, you know.

Sarah: Just a little bit, my hometown. But it’s also focused the conversation on this problem. 

So, at the root of the problem of affordable housing is the laws of supply and demand. What Urban has been doing is we looked at the population growth and the incomes of the people that are in the area and the supply of housing, and we’re growing much faster than we’re increasing the number of units. So the strategies you need are: to produce more units, affordable at the levels where people need them in the market; to preserve units that are naturally affordable; don’t let them get swept up in the market; and protect the character of neighborhoods and tenants.

So, we did analysis, jurisdiction by jurisdiction: How many units at what income levels do those communities need? And we got the regional council of governments to adopt it, the business community to put some muscle behind it, and now each of those jurisdictions has to map plans out to produce the quantity of affordable housing that they have. Some of them are honestly further along than others, and some of them would say, “We don’t want that kind of growth, and we’re struggling to get a consensus.” But now there’s a roadmap and a plan that allows people to work towards a goal that will hopefully put downward pressure on rents over time.

Denver: Well, that’ll be great. We’ll keep an eye on that one. 

Last year, you launched the Prison Research and Innovation Initiative. Now, this is one of the few issues that people can agree on on both sides of the aisle, albeit for different reasons. What are you taking a look at?

Sarah: When we as a society about 20-, 25 years ago, sort of decided that “lock ’em up” was the best plan to deal with our real deep concerns about crime, one of the things we did is we sort of closed the door on looking at what happens inside prisons. And even as it’s important… and I think we’re doing other work to try to find alternatives to prison because in many cases, it’s not particularly effective… we also have to recognize that we’re going to have an incarcerated state for some time, and the experience of prison shouldn’t be counterproductive to what we’re trying to achieve in society, and shouldn’t be inhumane.

So, one, is we need to understand the experience of prison and what it does to people and whether it’s effective at preventing crime in the future. But we also need to understand sort of data and efforts that prison… being this sort of black box… we don’t have any transparency into the experience. So we’re working with five states which have identified individual prisons in their system that are interested in innovation. We’re helping them to create, collect a whole lot more information about the lives of the prisoners there and their experiences, and trying to help figure out what kind of programs work to make the population become more successful when they’re not in prison. 

Denver: Stop the revolving door. 

Sarah: Stop the revolving door.

Denver: That’s great. 

Every field learns and evolves and gains new insights, sometimes recognizing the way they’ve been approaching things is not doing much good, or actually can be counterproductive and making the problem even worse. Since you arrived at the Urban Institute back in 2012, what new understanding about these challenges has the field come to?

Sarah: Goodness. So many. Well, let me talk about two things that we’ve come to realize about how we do research that I think are really important. And I started to talk a little bit about this before. I’ll give an example. Urban Institute essentially defined the field of peer testing to help us document and understand the extent to which we have housing discrimination. That work, which I think I’m immensely proud of, was done over many decades by a largely white-led team, without anyone with lived experiences of the communities that we were studying. 

Today, we increasingly try to use community-engaged methods, which means involving the community that we’re studying in understanding the very question we’re trying to study and what is most important to know, collecting, helping us to collect the information, helping us to interpret the information because their experiences may bring insight to the data that we can’t have—

Denver: Closer to the problem, closer to the solution.

Sarah: — and then be part of designing solutions as well. 

So certainly, thinking about research is not…you have to be independent, and you have to be rigorous, but that is different than being removed and disengaged and unaware.

Denver: Yes. It’s something that the field has really lacked, I think, which is constituency feedback that we always… I’ve been in nonprofit organizations. You ask your fellow employees, you ask your board, you bring in experts, you do everything. No one goes to the population that you’re serving and asks them, “Is this working or not?”  Or “What do you need?”

Sarah: Just recently, we were designing a project, and this was my own blind spot where we were talking about who should be involved. We looked at national experts on this question and academic experts and all that. And then our staff said to us, “Wait a minute. What about the communities who this intervention is going to be applied on?” We’ve got to constantly remind ourselves that lived experience is evidence, too, and there’s expertise in communities that we don’t have.

Credibility with the other scholars gives you credibility with a broader audience, but at the end of the day, impact comes from having more people see and engage with and give us feedback on the work that we do.

Denver: Yes. And it also gets those communities to buy-in when the so-called “remedy” or whatever you want to call it is being introduced.

You talked about academia, and I think there are a lot of people who have the impression that these reports are “written by academics for other academics,” and they don’t really get out there to the real world. And I know that trying to get a greater clarity and coherence and impact, and communicate more effectively is one of your top objectives. You have a new book called Elevate the Debate. Tell us a little bit about it and what those recommendations are. 

Sarah: Well, about eight years ago, we started on a journey to think about: How do you take the insight from the research and lift it up in a way that doesn’t sort of simplify it, doesn’t dumb it down, but instead really communicates it so you have a bigger audience?

And we kind of think of this as almost a pyramid in which the smallest, tightest insight – it could be 140 characters in a tweet – can reach a very broad audience. But for us, you might want to click down through that tweet to a brief or a data visualization or a graph, and then from that, you could get to a research report. And if somebody wants to know the Greek letters and the design of the formulas that were used for the research, they can find that, too, and maybe they can even find the underlying data. 

So there’s a transparency about the work, but that we realize that we’re aiming for lots of different audiences out of the same insight. Credibility with the other scholars gives you credibility with a broader audience. But at the end of the day, impact comes from having more people see and engage with and give us feedback on the work that we do.

Denver: So you’re really building gateways, and people will stop at whatever gateway they want, but at least you will have gotten them that much information, and that’s an interesting way to do it. 

Let’s talk a little bit about facts because I’m not too impressed with facts sometimes, at least in terms of persuasion; they don’t seem to change anybody’s mind. But there are factful facts and there are emotional facts. Speak a little bit about how you have to communicate to get somebody to see things in a different light. 

Sarah: Well, at the end of the day, what we’re hoping people will do is connect and hear evidence.

We know, unfortunately, that people often close their minds to facts that aren’t consistent with their worldview, but you may be able to connect to them through empathy or emotion. Stories are a very powerful way of connecting people to someone else’s experience. On the other hand, as a rigorous researcher, you’re not convinced that your anecdote is just as good as my anecdote; then suddenly, we don’t have any consensus about what the truth is.

So that the art of research in this environment is to be able to start, take a look at some data, form hypotheses, test that against lived experience, and if you’re confident that the storytelling that you’re doing, that the individual cases or the emotional connection that you can make through video or other efforts is consistent with the underlying facts, then have confidence and again, use that mode of transparency so people can test what you’re sharing with them.

Denver: You mentioned a moment ago: impact, and you’re a little different than other nonprofit organizations in that you are doing research and facts and insights. How do you go about measuring your impact? 

Sarah: it’s a really good question, and every think tank I’ve ever been involved with wrestles with this. But there are, I think, two principal metrics we look for.

The first is where you can see a change – in a law, in a regulation, in a policy. Recently, the governor of Michigan changed the rules on their public benefit programs like TANF and SNAP food stamps to help allow people to, for example, retain a car or have a little bit of money in emergency savings without losing their benefits. They did that based on a report we’d written five or six years earlier, but when a new secretary came into the agency, he convinced the governor to make this change. For us, that’s hugely powerful impact. 

But sometimes impact is getting the conversation to change and force decision-makers who are debating something in a much more political environment to at least reckon with the facts. So recently, we did analysis of all of the different proposals for expanding or shrinking our health insurance system in this country, everything from repealing the ACA to Medicare for All, to just building on the existing system, and we put out information about how many people would each of these different plans cover, and how much would it cost society. And we saw in the presidential debates, candidates having to defend their plans; they had to reckon with the facts. It’s not going to necessarily change the outcome of what policy alone. You have to get people excited about your ideas. 

But now, we feel like we really elevated the debate in that circumstance, and we knew we had an effect when there was a Saturday Night Live skit that they did a few nights about the presidential debate. “Some economists say…” and we at the Urban Institute puffed out our chests because we were the “some economists.”

Denver: Now, I know you’ve really made it. 

Sarah: Exactly. John Oliver cited us the other day, too. We said, “Okay, that’s impact, too.”

Denver: Well, both of them will beat The Business of Giving, I assure you of that. 

Speak about your philosophy of leadership, Sarah, the influences in your life that have helped shape you as a leader, and maybe a lesson you’ve learned that has served you well in this role.

Sarah: For much of my career until I was in this role, I was often a second to people who were in different kinds of leadership roles, supporting and facilitating and helping them. And I’ll be totally honest, it was a hard transition from the COO to the CEO because I kept wanting to do the work rather than try to create a vision and then lead people toward it.

Denver: That’s interesting.

Sarah: And because I could imagine doing the work for a long time, I kept thinking, “Well, let me share how I would do it because then we’d have more people…” But then all we would have is a whole bunch of people doing it my way, and they would aim to maybe either resist because they didn’t think I was listening, which isn’t good, or we might lose the benefit of their creativity and what they would have to contribute if we said together, “Well, here’s a goal. Now, let’s think about what’s your idea to get there?”

So, I’ve been working really hard lately on trying to find ways to lead like one of my former board members, a guy named Freeman Hrabowski. He is my role model on this.

Denver: Baltimore?

Sarah: Yes. He runs UMBC. 

Denver: The college there. He’s a great guy.

Sarah: He’s an extraordinary leader who’s produced more future PhDs of color than any institution in the country.  I’ve been a benefit of his support and mentorship as have thousands of others. He kind of smothers you in confidence and makes you believe that you’re capable of great things. And then urges you to think about what those great things might be, and then lets you know that if it doesn’t go okay, he’s there to be your support. And that confidence allows you to try things you never would before. Now, I’m not necessarily exactly a Freeman Hrabowski, but I’m trying to get there more every day.

Denver: Well, let’s face it. We all have limiting beliefs. And if somebody can help us eliminate those limiting beliefs, what’s possible is much more than we even ever imagined.

Let me close with this, Sarah. If you can reallocate resources that are directed to the issues that you’re concerned with, where would you put more money because it’s working, and maybe where would you take it away from because there simply is a lack of evidence as to its efficacy? 

Sarah: Well, I think I would put more money towards providing affordable housing for people at the bottom of the income spectrum. We know that housing is a platform, that stability– not going through a cycle of eviction and “couch surfing,”– has a huge effect on the outcomes for children and families, and for parents and their ability to maintain stable employment and create opportunity for their family. 

And so, if the incomes that our society is paying is insufficient to the cost of housing in many of our most opportunity-rich places, we’ve got to find a way to do it. Today, only 20% of the people who are eligible for public housing assistance programs of different kinds actually received the assistance, and that’s millions of families who I think would have a better start in life if their housing was stable. That’s worth money, I think, because we’re paying for it on the backend. 

On the other hand, on things that maybe we should spend a little bit less money on, I do believe higher education is a fabulous pathway to economic opportunity. But right now, both society through Pell grants and all kinds of aid, and individuals are investing money in a lot of educational programs that don’t actually work. By which, I mean either they have very low likelihood of people completing and getting a degree of value, or they’re educating people for things that aren’t well-aligned with what the labor markets are going to need in the future. 

We have to be more discerning about where we give the support to try to encourage our institutions to provide the kinds of opportunity. And for some people for whom classroom learning may not be the right way, we’re huge believers at the Urban Institute in apprenticeships and other kinds of workforce training programs that help people get opportunity and become lifetime learners rather than four-year degree earners.

Denver: Well, Sarah Rosen Wartell, the President and CEO of the Urban Institute, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Tell us about your website, what’s on it, and how people can help if they’re inspired to do so.

Sarah: Please visit us at We have a blog called Urban Wire, which makes a lot of this research quick and accessible. You can read five, six paragraphs, tells you a little bit about what we’re finding. We’d love to hear your ideas and what are the problems in your communities that you think we could help to elevate the debate.

Denver: Well, thanks, Sarah. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show. 

Sarah: Really great to be here. Thanks so much. 

Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.

Sarah Rosen Wartell and Denver Frederick inside the studio

The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at

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