Urban Innovation

Moving the Needle: Engaging With Communities for Urban Innovation

June 7, 2016  • Broderick Johnson & Walter Isaacson

(Photo Credit: istockphoto)

(Photo Credit: istockphoto)

Last night, the White House, Aspen Institute, and Baltimore Corps convened leaders from across Baltimore City — from churches and synagogues, businesses, non-profits, foundations and from city government — to explore new initiatives in the city that are creating job opportunities for young people, improving the education system, and reducing violence and disease.

We heard from social entrepreneurs like Sarah Hemminger, co-founder and CEO of Thread, a non-profit organization that works with low-income students. Thread enrolls 9th grade students who rank in the bottom quarter of their class, giving each student an extended “family” of up to five volunteer mentors who do whatever it takes to help them succeed – from rides to school, to refurbishing houses, to taking students into their own homes. And Thread’s commitment isn’t just for a year or two – it’s for ten years. The results are pretty incredible: 92 percent of Thread’s students have graduated from high school within five years of joining Thread. And for those who have been in Thread for a decade, 86 percent have received a four- or two-year college degree.

We also heard from Damien Myers, the Chief Education Officer of the Medical Education Resources Initiative for Teens, or MERIT. MERIT recruits sophomores in high school for an intensive mentorship and training program that lasts up to 11 years. The program develops the next generation of health care leaders and ensures that health care workers reflect the communities they serve.

And from Dr. Leana WenBaltimore’s Health Commissioner, who has introduced programs like Safe Streets into Baltimore to address conflicts in neighborhoods before they result in violence, and helped Baltimore reduce infant mortality to its lowest level in the city’s history.

Leaders like Sarah, Damien, and Dr. Wen are tackling some of the city’s most complex problems. But Baltimore’s challenges are not unique. Many other cities and towns around the country are grappling with inequality that limits opportunities for low-income people, especially minorities. These challenges won’t be solved overnight, but creative organizations, working closely with city, state and Federal agencies, can move the needle.

That’s why for the past seven years, the Obama Administration has been working to develop a new approach to how the federal government engages with communities at the ground level, abandoning an outdated, top-down approach of the past and replacing it with one where the government plays a stronger, but humble federal role in revitalizing communities, driven by data and powered by partnership. This approach to Federal partnership with communities has led to $17 billion in federal investments across numerous initiatives and partnerships in 1,800 places around the country. Federal leaders are working across agency lines and offering hands-on help to support locally-defined goals and priorities. From Fresno to Detroit, Maine to the Mississippi Delta, federal leaders are helping to build local capacity, provide expertise and unleash resources to help community leaders achieve their goals.

The Administration’s work in Baltimore is a great example. Over the past year alone, the Administration has:

  • Created job pathways for young people by working with the City of Baltimore and One Baltimore to launch Tech Hire, a new workforce development program, and investing $5 million for workforce demonstration projects through the One Baltimore For Jobs Initiative;
  • Made big investments in infrastructure, including awarding a TIGER grant of $10 million for infrastructure around the Port of Baltimore and providing $4 million for a redevelopment project in West Baltimore around U.S. 40;
  • Helped grow small businesses by awarding nearly $2 million to increase access to capital and small business training, including a $300,000 EDA grant to the Baltimore Urban League to create a new mobile Entrepreneurship Center.

The Aspen Institute has been pursuing similar goals from the public sector. The Institute’s dedication to values-based leadership means that it must engage on the key issue of the day: inequality. Through efforts like the Summit on Inequality and Opportunity, the Institute brings together innovators, philanthropists, public officials and influencers to share ideas, learn from each other, and take that knowledge back to their communities. Leaders, like the ones profiled last night at the White House, are what will ultimately beat back the rising tide of inequality in Baltimore and beyond. The Aspen Institute is committed to supporting and inspiring these amazing men and women in their fight against economic injustice.

The White House and the Aspen Institute collaborated on last night’s conference because we recognize that Baltimore is quickly becoming a national center for social innovation. Working together — with private and social sector leaders, and with government at all levels — we can help young people in Baltimore realize their potential, make neighborhoods safer, and create new job opportunities. And in the process, we can incubate models for change that will help other communities around the country.

*This article originally appeared on the White House Blog