Evidence in Action Podcast Local Solutions, National Impact
Subtitle
In episode 2, host Sarah Rosen Wartell and Stephen Benjamin, White House director of public engagement, discuss thoughtful fiscal leadership, being present with communities, data-informed policymaking, and “listening like you’re wrong.”
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About this episode

We explore the potential of applying locally sourced solutions to address national problems. We examine how research organizations can harness evidence from grassroots initiatives, community-led projects, and local expertise to inform national policies and drive meaningful change. Join us in our conversation with Stephen Benjamin, who served as mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, for three terms over 12 years and as the president of the African American Mayors Association. In 2023, he began serving as the director of the Office of Public Engagement for the Biden administration. He tells us about policymakers’ and community advocates’ push for the power of localized evidence in shaping effective, inclusive, and sustainable solutions that have a positive impact on people and communities nationwide.
 


 

Interviewer

Sarah Rosen Wartell, Urban Institute President

Guest

Stephen K. Benjamin, Assistant to the President, Senior Advisor to the President and Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement

 

Transcript

Sarah Rosen Wartell, cohost:
Welcome to Evidence in Action, a podcast from the Urban Institute. I’m your cohost, Sarah Rosen Wartell. I have the honor of being Urban’s president.

Kimberlyn Leary, cohost:
And I’m your cohost, Kimberlyn Leary, executive vice president of the Urban Institute.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
In this podcast, Kim and I are going to explore the role of evidence, what it is, who makes it, who can use it, who should be using it, and how it can help us to shape policy and achieve better social, economic, and environmental outcomes.

Kimberlyn Leary:
And on every episode, we’ll be joined by a brilliant guest ranging from federal policymakers, local leaders, philanthropists, social entrepreneurs, and those who meet community needs.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
We’ll be asking them how they use facts, data, and evidence to improve lives and strengthen communities, and also about the limits of these tools in today’s complicated world. On today’s show, I’m sitting down with Steve Benjamin. Steve is now senior advisor to President Biden and director of the Office of Public Engagement at the White House. He served three consecutive terms as mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, the first Black mayor in that city’s history. During his tenure, he was also elected president of the US Conference of Mayors and president of the African American Mayors Association. He brings his experience on the frontline to his new role. He describes the current job as being the front door to the White House. Steve and his team interface with every aspect of the American community—business, labor, advocates. Their job is to hear what matters to people, what’s happening across the country, and bring that perspective into the room where it happens. Steve, today, I know you are a high-ranking White House official, but since you’re at the Urban Institute, I will address you with the title that I consider your highest calling. Welcome, Mr. Mayor.

Steve Benjamin, guest:
Well, thank you. I think “Dad” might top that, but I’ll take Mr. Mayor.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
Okay. Fair enough. All right. And there’s a partner who may also think that’s important too.

Steve Benjamin:
She would. Yeah, she would.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
I take your point. So you and I both grew up in New York City. I was just a few years ahead of you, but talk for a minute, if you would, about what it’s like growing up in Queens, and how did the New York City experience shape the person that you are today?

Steve Benjamin:
Growing up in the city prepares you really for almost anything, anywhere. My parents are, I would tell people, they’re migrants, that last wave of migration from the South, the “warmth of other suns” narrative. Reverend Jesse Jackson years ago, told me, “Steve, your parents weren’t migrants, they were refugees.” They were leaving an old South that they knew that their children couldn’t grow up to live up to their God-given potential. And they went in search of opportunity on their own, left their home, left their families for a chance to make it in the big city. And I will tell you that my formative years in New York really did help prepare me for my life to this day. There are lessons learned, relationships forged the fact that my family, we were kind of on our own. It was just our nuclear family, made us a stronger nuclear family.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
So Queens, Columbia, South Carolina—kind of different places. What was that like? Was that culture shock or had you had enough family to know it as home?

Steve Benjamin:
It was culture shock to the nth degree. Most of my family was in Orangeburg, South Carolina. I was in Columbia, not far away, 45 minutes away. But for a 17-year-old who didn’t have a driver’s license or a car, it was a good ways away. My transition and my matriculation at the university was fairly unique in that I also was a smart kid, a very, very intelligent elementary school kid who kind of got a little wayward as a junior-high school student and a high school student, my parents were praying over me every single day. I often go and tell young people, I told a group of students yesterday I was suspended from high school twice, Sarah. I had to go to night school to graduate. It wasn’t because of academics. I was just a bit of a handful, and thank God again, my mom and dad who kept me as straight as they possibly could.

But I did really, really well on the SATs, and that allowed me to apply to four colleges, and I got into all four of them. But I got there still as a 17-year-old who really wasn’t ready for college. And I was incredibly fortunate, blessed, I’d say, to find some mentors my first few weeks in college who, just kind of, covered me up, decided to help me use all that energy I had for good. And I got involved in civil rights and social justice and community service. And we were, back then, we were marching to take the Confederate battle flag off the state capitol and South Carolina. We were marching to free Nelson Mandela and push out state pension systems to divest in companies doing business with South Africa. It was a really wonderful opportunity to take all this energy and kind of leadership skills that I honed as a teenager in New York and really put them in some good use. And thankfully I found a welcoming community that embraced me at that time as a young man.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
I was also a 17-year-old high school graduate, and I do think New York City helps you get ready for things. It helps you gain some maturity. You started out as mayor during the great recession. You ended at the start of the pandemic, probably a lot of challenges over that 12 years. What are you most proud of?

Steve Benjamin:
I’ll tell you, it was the most rewarding personal and professional experience that someone could have, serving the city that you love, the city that really gave me everything, gave me a career, gave me a family. My wife is from Columbia, our daughter’s born and raised there. It was a chance to serve people who needed probably a different brand of leadership. We had a genuinely good man, Bob Coble, who continues to serve as a mentor to me to this day, who served as my predecessor. But as you mentioned, coming out of the Great Recession, we were dealing with some challenging times that needed some tough questions answered and occasionally really some tough votes taken. We were, at the time, the capital, largest city in the state, facing some systemic challenges around infrastructure. We were the most diverse city in the state as well and with the capital.

So even if something’s not happening in your city, it’s happening on those 16 acres that you have to work to manage whatever might flare up. When we were taking down the Confederate battle flag, the Ku Klux Klan of Western North Carolina and the New Black Panther Party of Northern Florida decided to come and rally on the same day at the same time at the state capitol. And you’re trying to find ways, you’re thinking, okay, this is a state capitol, this is not Columbia, but trying to find ways to manage through that in a way that doesn’t allow it to seep out into the rest of the community and keeping people to together. But I’ll tell you, the opportunity to lead a city and you really just have to be very thoughtful and pragmatic and focused on solving problems. And if you’re lucky enough to lead the type of city that I was fortunate enough to lead, people give you a wide berth if in fact they know that you’re focused from an earnest position on actually solving problems.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
Mayor Tony Williams is one of our board members, former mayor of DC, and he also talks about mayors making decisions that are hard for politicians to make because the fruits of those decisions will come well beyond someone’s political tenure. And we know that’s hardened government to not be able to always show results in the near term. How did you think about that?

Steve Benjamin:
You have to make the case. You really have to make the case. Some decisions we made, I would just say Mayor Williams, he wrote the textbook on thoughtful fiscal leadership and being able to show people that you can do the right thing for the right reason at the right time, when literally people will not see the fruits of those labors right now. But being able to make a case to the people that if you take good care of their resources, that yields benefits down the road, and we’ll see the benefits of his leadership for decades to come. And that’s as part of what I tried to model in Columbia, but it’s not easy.

I mean, especially when you always have this dynamic of town versus gown. You’re making these decisions for the university’s benefit or for the downtown business suits. And I would have to sit down, and I was that weird mayor, I’m a public finance attorney by trade. I actually read our consolidated annual financial reports. And I think it’s important to show people that again, you have respect for their resources and limited resources in the public purse. And that’s not just the businessperson downtown, but that single mom who’s trying to make ends meet when she sees that you’re being a good steward of her dollars. But we would get into the power of storyteller, say helping people understand that this investment that you’re trying to make in downtown, in this new 20-story building that pays 6 percent property taxes at this millage rate, how 63 percent of every one of those tax dollars that will come in off this new investment that you did give a bit of a tax benefit to incentivize that development, but how 63 cents to every dollar goes to the school district.

And how it helps kids all around the city. And this is why all the kids in the district now have iPads because we were able to do this. But it does require public officials who keep their eyes on the financial ball to also focus on storytelling and be able to explain to people who are much smarter than we think they are, be able to explain to the people who you represent, the importance of these decisions and how again, we’re investing in the future. Oftentimes, we won’t see the immediate benefit, but it’s not an easy challenge.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
I want to pick up on your comment about the wisdom of the community. At Urban, we do a lot of work to study how to strengthen communities, but just looking at the numbers doesn’t always answer the question for you. We have to get proximate and, in many cases, the best expertise about the solutions for places come from those people who live there and have the experience every day of what works and what doesn’t. So whether you were in City Hall or now in the White House, how do you stay proximate? How do you connect to community to make sure that the choices that you and others are making are grounded in that expertise?

Steve Benjamin:
Sure. Well, you mentioned the remit of our office and serving as the front door to the White House and all these amazing portfolios, and I’m blessed to have an incredible team that I work with every single day. And in order to stay proximate, you have to be present. You just got to be in the community. You have to be present. You have to make sure that everyone knows that you’re here, available, that you’re doing what my grandmother would say: “God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason.”

You’re supposed to listen twice as much as you talk, but then you also have to make sure you get out of the building. So you have to go to them. But it really does start with having two ears and one mouth and fighting like you’re right and listening like you’re wrong. So just making sure you’re taking in some of this amazing wisdom that’s out there and some wonderful examples of local leadership that properly supported in an intergovernmental, intersectoral way—smart public, private, philanthropic partnerships. You can find some really awesome ideas that are replicable, that are scalable up and down and solve a lot of problems in this country.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
So one of the goals of this podcast, we call it Evidence in Action, is talking about how insight that may come from research analysis engaging with people can then be put into practice to make change. So I wanted to ask you about an experience when you were mayor, where you used sort of fact-based policymaking.

Steve Benjamin:
I understood the power of being a city in the Deep South. South Carolina sometimes gets press coverage for things that we don’t want it to get press coverage for, but I knew the importance of policymaking in a city like Columbia that would give license to leaders in other places of the country that would say, “They did it in South Carolina, we can also do it here.” We were really trying to keep our eyes on this epidemic of gun violence and what happens when you have a country that has more guns in the street than it has human beings. The issues that I would resolve with some of my childhood friends in a fist fight in the 1980s in New York City don’t get to that level anymore. It’s immediately resolved by gunfire. So we became the first city in the country to ban bump stocks, was very proud of that and look forward to continuing to see how other cities might follow that lead.

I would say though I’m convinced we all suffer from some degree of maybe even PTSD as we continue to emerge from the darkest days of the pandemic and what that looked like; we’re talking about the greatest pandemic since 1918 and immediately after it began, starting to see dozens and then scores and then the hundreds of lives lost on a daily basis, combined with probably some of the greatest economic shock we saw since 1929. And then with the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and others, probably the greatest social unrest we saw since 1968, all wrapped up into one moment. And then, when we got out of the darkest day of the pandemic, we’re going to do everything we could to protect livelihoods. And that was a very difficult time, but I would constantly talk about testing data, intelligence, policy in that order. And then we found also one of the best things about following this evidence-based, data-informed policymaking is that we were able to build some brand-new intergovernmental and intersectoral relationships that were okay before the pandemic, but nowhere near as strong as they were when we were done.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
I love the story you tell because in some ways you’ve just described our theory of change here, where we try to empower people with that kind of information and help to support finding the things that are working and help rapidly spread those to others. Sometimes we’ll do work about finding a solution to a problem, and that work seems to sit on a shelf, it doesn’t have an audience, and yet there are these, what I call, teachable moments. The moment when suddenly somebody needs for some reason to turn to that. And the pandemic was an extraordinary teachable moment when we were able to put in place things like the child tax credit expansion that literally saved millions of children from living in poverty that year whose families lost their wages. And we know the long-term effects of poverty. So there are those chances where you need to be engaged with decisionmakers. So when they need that information, they have the ability to access it quickly.

Steve Benjamin:
And the power to tell the story.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
And I love your storytelling.

Steve Benjamin:
Yeah, because oftentimes, we get to the conclusion and we kind of forget all the challenges we had to get to that point and how it also required some unique opportunities for, yes, a profile in courage, but even more importantly, some collaboration that sometimes evades us in politics nowadays—and it’s pretty sad.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
Steve, I want to talk to you a little bit about equity. The President has, from his very first day, very first executive order, made a huge focus on ensuring that we really weigh whether or not our choices are helping to lift people up, or are we exacerbating and worsening existing structural disparities in our society? And I think that’s sort of implicitly how you governed as mayor and how this president has set priorities. But we also see an enormous pushback at this moment and people who argue that instead of bringing people together and along, is somehow divisive. And I wanted to hear how you are thinking about this in this moment. How do we move this agenda forward and build bridges while continuing to tear down the parts of our society that make it so hard for some to get ahead?

Steve Benjamin:
The president’s been very clear about his desire, his deep belief that we’ve got to build an economy from the bottom up and the middle out, and that there are unique opportunities and moments in our time where we have to not only correct the wrongs of the past, whether they be through social policy or infrastructure policy, transportation policy, but that this is one of those moments. And yes, from the very first executive order or to the cornerstone pieces of legislation that he and the vice president have been able to shepherd through Congress, the principle of equity is certainly embedded and leads each and every one of them. It has led, as you indicate, to a significant conservative backlash. And I use the word “conservative” loosely because I’ve worked very well with a lot of strong, thoughtful conservatives who also can tell you that one plus one equals two.

I sat with the president this last week and I will tell you, I’m always proud and thankful for the opportunity to work for him, but moments when you’re just really proud when he starts, you’re just taking off. Not only what this administration’s been able to do, but why he does it. The challenge is that it has certainly elicited the interest of a few NGOs and conservative foundations and billionaires who see the world very differently. And we see it manifest itself in court case after court case. And it’s going to be important that he continues to do the work that he’s done and helping rebuild a judiciary that looks like America and works to speak to our better angels while properly interpreting the Constitution, but that we continue to move forward posthaste on implementing some of the key provisions of these landmark pieces of legislation.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
So I want to talk about one of those in particular before we wrap up. At Urban, we recently released a tool which allows us to look at where some of the infrastructure bill funds are being spent and to analyze how equitably some of those funds are being dispersed and how well they’re supporting communities that have historically been left behind by infrastructure investments. And there’s a lot of great stories for the administration in that information, particularly in the places where the criteria for how the money is used is established through the programs.

But some of those dollars are also formula dollars, and in places that need to get the money out the door quickly, many of the old patterns also, we still continue to see happening. Understanding how different decisions influence people, allowing them to be mobilized and to activate, to be part of change in their communities, to advocate for where the dollars go is as important as federal policymaking. How do we empower local actors to be able to be part of the conversation about how decisions are being made? As a mayor, I can imagine this is something you understand very well.

Steve Benjamin:
Well, it’s central to a healthy working democracy. You can get things done, you can get things done for the right reason, but if you’re not leading in a way that pulls your community along with you and people feel the literal ownership that they have in the process in this federal republic, then you lost something along the way. We would go around our city again, going to people who probably can’t find the time to come to city hall during a workday to meet with us. But I think that’s so incredibly important. So you think about a smaller city that has very small staff. So those resources are so key, and I think that’s a key role that so much of our philanthropic and nonprofit community has played and helping folks access information to receive these dollars in a thoughtful way while at the very same time supporting the civic process in thoughtful ways, because I mean, we’re getting some really great things done.

You’re talking about a goal of replacing 100 percent of lead pipes in this country when we’re thinking about critical access to water; $185 million coming out of transportation. The Secretary, Buttigieg, looking to reconnect communities that were divided by highways 50+ years ago, destroyed communities. The resources that’s being very intentionally sent to communities, again, that haven’t seen the largest of their own tax dollars coming back home for years. It’s important and it’s meaningful. But I do think it’s important that, as you mentioned, that the process of involving people on that journey is so important that we have to make sure that is the ultimate meaning of building inclusive, informed societies and citizens.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
So let me ask one final question. It’s my favorite, I ask it of everyone who joins us on this show, as you know, we are about helping people use evidence. So do you have a favorite example of a place where high-quality evidence has informed a choice that you can trace, that you can tell that story of how evidence actually led to action that led to making lives of people better?

Steve Benjamin:
I was literally just speaking to my successor the other day, but we were able to, when I was mayor, work very closely with Uber and Lyft, dealing with the issue of a growing issue of food deserts in our community and how people did not have access to healthy food. We saw the data, we saw the challenges with the lack of brick-and-mortar grocery stores being built at all, and certainly in some of our communities that might live in the lower two quintiles of the American economic community, not being able to access healthy and fresh food. So we work closely in a wonderful partnership with them and our regional transportation authority in which we were able to get vouchers to people to take rides to grocery stores, to get information while again fed by good data. But now I’m also using just the power of technology and innovation and iteration.

My successor has built a wonderful partnership with Instacart in which we’re now having food brought to families who are in some challenging periods of time. Again, smart, thoughtful, public-private partnerships using public and philanthropic resources to meet people’s needs. I mean, some of the very basic needs that many of us obviously take for granted, they’re still being missed in communities all across the country. So that’s just one example. As you think about the, I’m very proud, as you know, I’m very proud Columbian and thankful. It’s home. It’s home. And I’m fortunate enough to maintain a good and strong relationship with my successor. We are from different parties, different backgrounds, but we share a deep love for the city and have found ways to continue to work together to make sure we meet the needs of the people of our city. And those are just examples that could be replicated anywhere. They’re fed by good data and good evidence.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
You still say “we” whenever you’re talking about the city—we’re very excited actually to be working with some hunger groups and one of the companies you mentioned looking at where those kinds of models might be replicated, and I didn’t know you were going to use that as an example. So that’s a wonderful case of evidence in action. So thank you so much. I can’t thank you enough, Steve, for being with us on our new podcast. Appreciate you being with us.

Steve Benjamin:
Thank you so much, Sarah.

Sarah Rosen Wartell:
Join us next time on Evidence in Action as we have other conversations about important ways to drive change with captivating guests like Steve. If you’d like to learn more about us, go to our website at urban.org. You can also follow the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, and wherever you listen to your podcasts. This has been Evidence in Action created by the Urban Institute and Pod People. I’m your cohost, Sarah Rosen Wartell. Thank you.

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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Co-hosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.

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