Before coming to Living Cities, I knew very little about cross-sector work. I admit embarrassingly that, in my mind, I cast the two sectors, public and private, as rivals. The private sector was the villain while the public sector was the hero. In the private sector, individuals worked for self-interest, and in the public sector individuals selflessly worked for the greater good. Looking back on my former way of thinking, I realized there was no way logically that the two sectors could act independently of one another, but thinking of it in that way made it all easier to process, so I acted accordingly.
In a capitalist society, self-interest is the way individuals, corporations, and organizations make money, and money is necessary for all business ventures. Even nonprofits and philanthropies need money to operate. The public sector and the private sector depend on each other. The public sector needs the private sector for sustainability, and the private sector needs the public sector to act as the moral conscience of society.
I would like to say that the readings assigned to me at the beginning of my internship were the basis for my new understanding, but I can’t. The readings were helpful. I learned about the history of Living Cities, its partnerships with financial institutions, and its take on racial equity. I began to comprehend more concretely why you can’t separate America’s history with racism from its class narrative. Most importantly, I now understand why implementing a racial equity lens is necessary if you want to ensure the current system benefits low-income communities of color instead of solely America’s white elite. But these were all aspirations that felt distant from reality; I needed to see the work in action. And I did eventually, thanks to Ellen Ward.
Ellen is the chief of staff of the Living Cities ‘Capital Innovation team. She works with governmental organizations and private sector entities to create initiatives and programs that will economically empower low-income people of color. I worked with her to promote Living Cities’ new homeownership initiatives in New Orleans and Charlotte. My job was to write a series of blogs that would explain both the initiatives and the importance of homeownership to building wealth. In doing so, I learned about public sector counseling programs and educational facilities established to help low-income people of color understand the importance of homeownership. These programs further demonstrated the importance of policy in advancing the racial equity agenda.
It wasn’t until I understood Ellen’s work with financial institutions that I realized the significance of cross-sector work. After a series of conversations with her, I realized that the public sector programs were ultimately worthless if low-income people of color were unable to receive loans and adequate mortgages from banks. Again, you needed participation from both sectors to bring about impactful change. I had to communicate the significance of both so that our financial partners would understand their culpability in these matters as well as acknowledge their necessary role in helping Living Cities achieve its goal of racial equity.
Cross-sector work is important. At first glance, this statement looks like a scripted phrase that would exit the mouth of an aspiring politician. But at Living Cities, I learned that this statement is true. The public and private sector need to work together if there is ever to be effective change within American society. Thanks to Living Cities I no longer think of societal systems in a divisive manner, and more importantly, I feel better equipped to be a future change maker.