By missioncontrol | 1 comments
This week, Governor Cuomo announced a major investment in some of the most disadvantaged and underserved people in the country.
For residents of Central Brooklyn (East New York, Brownsville, Bedford Stuyvesant and Crown Heights)— outcomes like health, employment and education as well as resources liked public space, fresh food and doctors lag behind the rest of the city, and indeed much of the rest of the country.
This is something that not just the community but also the nonprofit sector has known for a long time. Almost a decade ago, the founders of Community Solutions did a detailed on-foot survey of the homeless people in Time Square. They found that of those people who had been homeless for more than 10 years a surprisingly high percent of those had been born in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Determined to get to the root cause of some of the issues underlying chronic homelessness, they worked with local Brownsville leaders to establish the Brownsville Partnership, a collaboration of organizations working with and for the community. Today, in response to community feedback—their efforts are focused on creating employment and improving safety.
Another one of our clients, Just Food, has been working for 20 years to help equip New Yorkers with the tools they need to increase their access to fresh local food. Within their Central Brooklyn neighborhood, they have responded to requests and trained local leaders on how to run farmer’s markets and connecting them with local sustainable farmers. They too recently committed to doing even more, and dramatically increased the volume of fresh food going into these communities.
These are just a few examples of the many local leaders and organizations who have been working closely to make a difference in this community. However, need has always outstripped investments. As Cuomo noted in announcing the Vital Brooklyn program, “all too often politicians avoid the difficult”, but he said, to make a difference it’s better “to run towards those complicated problems… Central Brooklyn needs (the investment) and it has for a long, long, long time.”
So, see here how this program stacks up.
What looks promising: a multi-sectoral approach, an emphasis on working with communities, and a substantial investment.
1. A multi-sectoral approach.
Here at Mission Control—we are all about focus, about organizations working in their areas of respective genius. However—we also believe and recognize that real change comes through these organizations operating in partnership with other focused experts. Social issues are complicated, they require issues to be tackled in tandem. The efforts should be both focused and coordinated.
Recognizing this, the Vital Brooklyn program promises to tackle a multitude of issues simultaneously— affordable housing, resiliency, open space and recreation, comprehensive education and youth development, healthy food, community-based healthcare, economic empowerment and job creation, community-based violence prevention.
2. Working with communities
There was a strong focus in the announcement on recognizing the existing capacity of communities — that’s music to our ears. The Governor said “we are going to provide resources for these communities to design these programs”.
3. A substantial investment
Cuomo himself noted in the past “the approach was always piecemeal. Never coordinated, never comprehensive…” It is true that in most cases, where entrenched disadvantaged exists, you see a pattern of repeated short-term, uncoordinated efforts. In speaking to community members, the biggest message is one of distrust in authority, distrust of promises, and in truth, that is a completely rational response. I have seen this in many communities with similar outcomes to those in Central Brooklyn.
Some causes for concern: is government getting back into service delivery the right answer? What about Early Childhood? Is this a long-term commitment?
1. Government getting back into service delivery?
Cuomo noted that programs like this “requires government to operate”. He said, “I want to show that not only can we pass laws, but we can actually operate and make a difference.” In so doing, he cited some major government efforts as examples to draw upon: Clinton’s Employment zones; and the Cleveland model.
I worry a bit about that statement — it’s a common slice of arrogance I sometimes see in government, the presumption that only government can get things done. Citing recent examples of infrastructure development, the Governor noted, “”we focused on it, we got it done, and it is beautiful.”
But the truth is, nonprofits and communities are great at getting thing done when they have the right resources too.
It’s one thing for government to talk about service delivery when they have the relevant expertise. Indeed, this is the case in many countries, where, for example, governments still run most early childhood centers or deliver health care services directly, but when the government has already moved away from a delivery model towards an outsourcing model—that ship has sailed. The capabilities no longer reside within government, and a more pragmatic approach would be not to build those capacities from scratch, but to support those who already have a track record of success.
There’s much research to suggest that when government has been funding nonprofit work, it’s underfunded — not accounting for true costs. (See here for an interesting discussion on the subject)
2. What about the babies?
I was dismayed not to see early childhood front and center of the program.
It reminded me of meeting a series of Australian indigenous communities in 2014 about how to invest money in their communities… the men talked about infrastructure (and it mattered — roads, solar electricity) and the women talked about early childhood development. To be honest, while both matter — if I had to choose, I am with the women, and so is the research. Nobel Prize winner James Heckman has shown that $1 invested in early childhood yields $16 of savings. There are no numbers that can compare to those in terms of infrastructure outcomes. I wouldn’t ditch infrastructure altogether — safe public transport and spaces are critical, and their inclusion in the plan is fantastic. But I’d dial down the resilience talk (the poor already are resilient), and up the investment in early childhood, investing in programs like Room to Grow (disclaimer — I’m on their Board); and approaches like Children’s Ground, that are having huge long-term impacts on highly disadvantaged communities.
3. What’s the goal?
I’d love to see some clear goals articulated for the next 2-3 years. There are goals sprinkled in the plan, like opening a dozen more farmer’s markets, and so on, but I personally would love to see a focus on upping the extent to which people feel safe in the community, and employment. We already know that’s what the people want!
4. Is this a long-term commitment?
Part of community cynicism stems from the fact that initiatives come and go. It’s one of the challenges of government funding — that these programs are so often (as we are seeing at the Federal level) at the whims of politics, and can be ditched or promoted purely for political expediency. Can any state governor promise to support something for the long-term? Of course not —but by partnering with stable nonprofits, and funding work that extends beyond the life of political terms, there’s a chance of longevity.
All in all, I’m excited by the approach — but approach it with a healthy dose of cynicism.
What do you think?