Reflections on Urban’s Changemaker Forum

June 4, 2019

Dear Changemakers,
 
At the Changemaker Forum, the Urban Institute began a new chapter—its Next50. The extraordinary gathering revealed that Urban’s analytical power, independence, and unwavering embrace of evidence are every bit as relevant to today’s most inspiring change agents as they were to President Johnson when he chartered Urban in 1968.
 
At the same time, the forum reflected a world vastly different than it was 50 years ago—a world where powerful forces of change are hardening inequities, where solutions are being driven by ever more diverse voices from every sector, and where facts and evidence are under attack. In this new context, Urban launched a refreshed strategy focused on using the power of knowledge to advance upward mobility, equity, and shared prosperity by helping changemakers accelerate solutions.
 
The forum convened innovative leaders from diverse fields to explore what it would take to create a future in which everyone has a chance to thrive. We explored technology’s power to create or jeopardize opportunity and the role of business, activists, and the public sector in effecting change. Bookending the forum was a moving performance of Amor de Lejos by the Albany Park Theater Project, with a discussion of young artists as social change agents; and reflections on Urban’s charge, past, and future, at Urban’s 50th anniversary board dinner, with a keynote from former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
 
As I revisited the rich, provocative discussions that took place during our anniversary gatherings, four themes emerged that resonated with me for Urban’s work in the future—themes that could apply to other forward-looking organizations, too.
 
Simultaneously welcome and be wary of technology. We heard how technology can bake our society’s biases into the future. And we heard terrifying tales of technology’s advancement outpacing our ability to understand its consequences. But we also heard stories of how technology is making greater opportunity available by, for example, finding talent not identified through traditional hiring screens. Those who hope to create an inclusive future must have technology fluency to shape how it is used. Urban is already embracing technology to improve research—by leveraging cloud computing, machine learning, and new data sources found in everyday life—to work faster and smarter, and to find new insights that weren’t available before. And we must deploy our sophistication to shape the norms and rules that govern how tech and data tools are implemented.

Embrace an expanded notion of where power and influence lie. Today, many more people have the power to effect change and contribute to solving society’s pressing challenges. As Anna Mason, partner at Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Seed Fund said, the pool of innovators and the power they hold are expanding, not shifting. As Urban looks to the future, we must look beyond government and nonprofits to collaborate with more sectors that could use our data and analysis to power new beginnings for people trapped in communities without opportunity.

Understand the power of narrative aligned with the facts. In today’s polarized environment, an increasing number of people only hear and consider facts consistent with existing preconceptions. Evidence that doesn’t fit within their frame of reference doesn’t stick. But sharing people’s experiences can be powerful. “You saw, you heard, and you know now,” Albany Park Theater Project member Maidenwena Alba told us after their performance, which was developed from interviews with day laborers. “Normally, you don’t have a day-to-day conversation with a day laborer asking them what’s their back story…so it’s nice to humanize the issue [through performance].” The approach challenges a research organization to recognize how important narrative is for persuasion. To shape and elevate the debate, we must think more about how factually consistent narratives—telling people’s stories, sharing the experience of a community—can sit alongside our research findings, and how each can validate the other.

Pursue America’s great unresolved challenge. Finally, as Urban moves into a new era with fresh practices to further strengthen the way we’ve always worked, it’s imperative that we keep racial equity front and center. For researchers, that means ensuring that race isn’t just an independent variable on a spreadsheet. Creating a more just society requires that we reevaluate our methods, our language, and our assumptions, opening ourselves up to hard truths about our world and our own institution, and never stop striving to do better.

I look forward to collaborating with and learning from you as Urban’s Next50 journey unfolds.

Warmly,
Sarah