I’ll never forget the scene that I witnessed in New Orleans in 2005. One week after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city, I saw blown-out windows and leveled homes firsthand, and was struck with despair for the immediate suffering and road ahead. Never before had I seen an American city so utterly devastated.
It’s hard to reconcile that New Orleans with the one I see today. The path that the city has charted in the intervening decade is extraordinary. As a collaborative of 18 leading foundations and financial institutions, Living Cities seeks out promising efforts around the country to close racial gaps in income and wealth while changing systems so that all residents are economically secure. Today, New Orleans is an inspiration and leader on the national stage, exemplifying the fundamental elements that characterize a high-performing, innovative and equitable city.
The remarkable progress would not have been possible without the recognition that individual efforts are no match for today’s most complex and pressing problems. In 2014, Mayor Mitch Landrieu convened partners from the private, philanthropic and nonprofit sectors and challenged them to set aside parochial interests and short-termism to collectively pursue long-term, systemic change.
In response, a newly minted partnership — the Network for Economic Opportunity — rallied around a bold goal of reducing the staggering 52 percent un- and underemployment rate for African American men. While no one sector could significantly move the needle alone, each had a hand in achieving the desired results, whether that meant industry leaders committing to local hiring, nonprofits aligning workforce development programs with employer needs, or philanthropy supplying additional resources. The Network’s collective impact approach succeeded in driving that figure to 44 percent.
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These efforts have been bolstered by a local government willing and equipped to innovate. By leveraging its resources, engaging residents, and harnessing data and technology, the public sector can play an outsized role in bettering lives. Landrieu has championed this principle, building innovation capacity within city hall. The results include policy like HireNOLA, a workforce development program combating unemployment, passed unanimously by the City Council in 2015.
Finally, New Orleans has smartly employed capital, ensuring that it flows to people who need it most. The pilot BuildNOLA Mobilization Fund, for example, blends public, private and philanthropic dollars to provide capital to local disadvantaged businesses; this enables them overcome common challenges that bar them from taking on government contracts, such as meeting payroll or staffing up. With approximately $2 billion of post-Katrina funding available in infrastructure projects before 2022, these efforts have already begun to pay dividends for local disadvantaged businesses. In rebuilding its physical infrastructure, the city is simultaneously creating pathways for employment and opportunity.
These are the precise practices that Living Cities works to spread. New Orleans is doing the right things, and it’s doing them in the right way. We want to ensure that, at this critical moment, the energy and progress in New Orleans doesn’t dissipate, but rather accelerates. That’s why we are excited that this work, which has lived in the office of Mayor Mitch Landrieu, could live with the NOLA Business Alliance, an organization of stakeholders committed to building an equitable and sustainable economic future for the community. The fact that the NOLA Business Alliance is willing and able to support this ambitious work is a testament to the thriving civic infrastructure that’s been built — brick by brick and person by person — over the last decade.
There’s still much work to be done if New Orleanians hope to achieve their own bold goals. We hope that the city will continue to demonstrate what’s possible for neighborhoods across America.
Ben Hecht is president and CEO of Living Cities.