Evidence in Action Podcast Michael McAfee on Equity in a Multiracial Democracy
Subtitle
Michael McAfee, president and CEO of PolicyLink, and cohost Kimberlyn Leary discuss who evidence tends to serve and who it doesn’t, what it takes to fuel lasting social change, and how to build a thriving democracy that recognizes our shared humanity.
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About this episode

We’re joined by Michael McAfee, president and CEO of PolicyLink, for a wide-ranging conversation on what it means to lead and carry out work that’s in service to all people. We discuss the tension between individual worldviews and what evidence shows, especially when pursuing social change that is enduring, scalable, and genuinely centers people most in need. We also explore what McAfee calls a “hierarchy of human value” operating system, how to marry idealism with practicality as a leader, and what it will take to create a thriving democracy that recognizes our shared humanity.
 

 
 

Interviewer

Kimberlyn Leary, Executive Vice President, Urban Institute

Guest

Michael McAfee, President and CEO, Policylink

 

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. I’m 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.

Kimberlyn Leary:
On today’s show, I’m talking with Dr. Michael McAfee. He is the president and CEO of PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing racial and economic equity. Michael is a powerful voice, working to realize the promise of equity. He led the way in securing Promise Neighborhoods as a permanent federal program, which has improved outcomes for children in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.

He has also played a critical role in advising national and federal leaders on advancing equity over the last several years. In addition, he’s a catalyst for corporate racial equity. Under his leadership, PolicyLink has developed the first comprehensive tool to guide private-sector companies in assessing and actively promoting equity in every aspect of their company’s value chain. Welcome to the show, Michael.

Dr. Michael McAfee, guest:
It’s a pleasure to be with you.

Kimberlyn Leary:
Michael, you’ve been the president and CEO of PolicyLink since 2018. PolicyLink has had an enormous impact on national conversations, especially on delivering equity in a multiracial democracy. As you think about the work that you’ve done since your tenure began at PolicyLink, and perhaps over the last several years in particular, what are the three most important dimensions of the work that you’ve tried to sponsor?

Dr. Michael McAfee:
Our work is born out of the voice, wisdom, and experience of everyday people, solutions that we offer up and try to advance in the world that they will really matter. They will fundamentally change someone’s life. That’s the first thing. Do these solutions really matter to how someone lives their life today, and will it change? The second is, is it at scale? When you have 100 million people living at 200 percent of poverty, that’s 1 in 3 people in the nation.

There are times, there’s a place for boutique efforts, there’s a place for pilots, there’s a place for initiatives. But with that level of pain, we’ve got to quickly get to solutions commensurate with the scale of the problem. And then third, these solutions that we are advancing are structural, that they are not simply temporary efforts to alleviate human suffering, but that they fundamentally transform the nature and logic of our economy and our democracy so they’re enduring.

And this is an important point of accountability for us. Our population is the 100 million in America, living at 200 percent of poverty. And we center that population so that we do not get seduced into thinking that because we create a new dataset or because we put a new report out in the world, that our job is done. Those things are absolutely critical, and they must be in service of a broader result.

Kimberlyn Leary:
Mm-hmm. So you’re asking us to ask more of ourselves.

Dr. Michael McAfee:
That’s right.

Kimberlyn Leary:
We had the privilege, really, Michael, of having you at the Urban Institute a few months back for one of our Equity Dialogues. I remember you talked about transformative collaboration and advocacy, and you told us a little bit about how you became a change agent for communities. Since some of our listeners weren’t in the room when you visited us, I wonder if you could reprise a bit of that story and tell us, here, how you became a change agent for communities.

Dr. Michael McAfee:
Well, I learned early on, sometimes we think we know what we want to do with our lives, and we think we know where we stand, but I think you have to have that tested sometimes. And when I was thinking about my career, my parents knew enough to send me to private school and to say, "Baby, get a good education." That’s what they could offer me. And I did that. And when I finished my schooling, I went into the military when I was 17, so I was in the reserves, but I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. So, after I sold life insurance to all my family members, I worked at a Sprint call center.

I worked at Associated Wholesale Grocers, and I realized those were things that I did not want to do. And even in those early days, I had, for some reason, developed a skill to sniff out money and power. And I looked in the Crain’s magazine, and my eyes were drawn to a Jesuit priest named Father Thomas Savage. He was the president and CEO of Rockhurst College. And I cold-called him, and I asked him if he would help me raise $20 million to seed innovations in education. This was my way to say, “I’m going to just go for it right now." And he did that.

Now, he knew I was not going to raise the money. I did not have the credibility. But he took me around and began to introduce me to the civic elites in Kansas City, Missouri. And he introduced me to a woman named Jan Kreamer. Now, this is about a year into me trying to struggle to make this happen, walking all around Kansas City trying to sell this vision, and I’m about to get evicted because I don’t have any money.

And Jan offers me a job at the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation. And overnight, I went from struggling to a star because of my proximity to money and power. The Greater Kansas City Community Foundation in the 90s was a phenomenal place. It was very innovative. It was the first time that a sports team had been sold to the foundation. The Kansas City Royals was sold to the Community Foundation.

Kimberlyn Leary:
I did not know that.

Dr. Michael McAfee:
Yeah. So it took our assets to over a billion dollars. And so I got restless and wanted to continue to run things. And so overnight, again, I went from a star to an angry Black man because everything I was doing was perceived as aggression. I ultimately got fired. But I tell you that story because it was the best time of my life because it made me choose.

Here I was, all I had to do with the foundation, as Baldwin would say, “The price of the ticket was just to be nice, just to be able to put a sentence together,” and I wanted to do more. And I ultimately got back on my feet. But it was the best gift to get early, to say, “Who do you serve? Who will you fight for? And who will you suffer loss for?”

Kimberlyn Leary:
That is a powerful set of lessons to learn early in one’s career. I also appreciate your openness as you address the importance of power and money in being able to mobilize change in this country. Other things are important too, but without those resources, it’s often very difficult for other voices to gain traction.

Dr. Michael McAfee:
You can be right in this nation and wrong at the same time. That’s probably one of the most important lessons I learned of getting fired in Kansas City, which is that one of the most important skills that us, as leaders, can hold and manifest in the world—John Gardner called it the ability to exercise nonjurisdictional leadership.

Kimberlyn Leary:
Mm-hmm.

Dr. Michael McAfee:
You may think that a person like me, who sits in these seats, we have power, but most days, it doesn’t feel like it because no one has to listen to us. We’re only as good as the value that we bring. And that’s sometimes hard when you’re... you still have an idealistic notion about what’s possible in the world. And then that gets... it meets really, quite frankly, the inertia of how things move in society.

And so I’ve learned to absolutely hold that revolutionary fire in the belly for this work. But that also has to be met with the emotional intelligence, the political savvy, and an eye towards the long game to understand how change happens in America and to be able to get in relationship with your peers so that you can move in unison and actually accomplish what you want in the world. And lastly, what I would say is, I also learned that you got to decide where you want to sit. People romanticize being in the streets.

That is an important place to be, but it’s also important to be in these institutions because it is actually those of us inside institutions that have an opportunity to digest the hopes and aspirations from the street into enduring solutions. And so I’ve chosen that I want to sit at the nexus of money and power within institutions to be able to do just that.

Kimberlyn Leary:
Let me ask: As you look back on your career, when you thought about social change early on, what do you appreciate now that would’ve surprised your younger self?

Dr. Michael McAfee:
I am far more tolerant of divergent viewpoints. One of the best things I’ve learned over the years is to stop judging people because they didn’t get it as fast as I thought they should have or as fast as I got it. They have a different point of view. They want to do something very different. I’ve had to learn how to suspend that judgment. I’ve had to learn to work with folks who, quite frankly, don’t mean my family well.

They will make my mother stand in line for eight hours to vote, but I still have to be in the cause of Congress and figure out how to work with them. I’ve had to learn how to not be consumed with the anger and the contempt that I have for folks who, we live in such an abundant world, and I ask myself all the time, “Then why do we have to crush people? Those of us who have made it, what is the problem of just serving well?”

And so it’s hard for me to sit in rooms with folks who just seem to, not just crush people but relish it. Can’t see the humanity of another person. And I’ve had to learn to center myself and recognize that that’s my problem to deal with. It’s not theirs. One of the best things that I’ve learned is, stop offering the critique of everything else, and figure out, “Where am I going to plant my flag and build something that is in response to making the world the world that I wanted to see?”

Kimberlyn Leary:
Let me ask you another question, Michael. As you think about your current self as the leader of PolicyLink, such a critical organization on the national stage, what about your passion as a young changemaker have you brought forward in your current career?

Dr. Michael McAfee:
I’ve actually brought all that passion forward. I’ve brought the idealism forward, but it’s also been met with a stone-cold practicality of how things happen in this country. It’s met a clear-eyed understanding of just how organized and financed, well-financed folks are that want something very different than what I want in America.

I want PolicyLink to be a place where you can do your soul work, where there is a loving and accountable culture, that you will be paid well, you will have the space that you need to take care of your family, et cetera. And all you have to do as a repayment is to deliver results for the people out there that expect us to deliver for them. And that’s what we get to create right now.

Kimberlyn Leary:
That’s a terrific statement of an organizational culture that really is designed to help people be themselves on behalf of others and on behalf of the communities they serve. You have served in federal leadership roles at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD]. What did that role teach you about the importance of evidence and making an impact in the community?

Dr. Michael McAfee:
Well, the first thing I would say is that, at times, I didn’t find that HUD used a lot of evidence-based practice. The entitlement programs give cities, counties, and states the flexibility to do whatever they want to do with them. And in a place like Chicago, I often found that those things became like, how do you spread peanut butter everywhere, just to make everyone happy? And so, I would often say, that HUD is probably one of the biggest funders in most cities and one of the most irrelevant organizations in terms of how the people are treated that are trying to advance work there.

The mayors are like, “I know you won’t take my money away, so I don’t care if you are mad that we didn’t fully affirmatively further fair housing even though we certify that we would do that.” And so I was a little frustrated by the lack of evidence there. Entitlement programs stuck in the ’60s and ’70s may not be what’s needed today, and we should be able to critically self-reflect on these things and revise them and enhance them.

Now, evidence also to me has been a frustrating point throughout my entire career because when I look at wealthy communities, they’re not held hostage to evidence. They build those parks. They provide those supports for their children. What they get intuitively is that those experiences do provide a greater probability that your child will have better life outcomes. And that’s what Putnam’s research has shown us as well. And yet I feel sometimes that evidence, when it comes to that 100 million, is used as a proxy to take money away or not do anything.

Kimberlyn Leary:
I see.

Dr. Michael McAfee:
Right. And so, well, we don’t have the evidence, so we can’t act. You saw this in COVID. People are struggling. You’re telling them, “Don’t go to work,” and we’re debating whether we should give them $300 or not. And yet the reality is when you look at really good research done by JPMorgan Chase and others, you see people spent those dollars wisely. They didn’t just frit them away. And so, evidence is absolutely important, but if you hold a hostile worldview towards groups of people, evidence will not save you.

Kimberlyn Leary:
Mm-hmm.

Dr. Michael McAfee:
Right. Evidence can’t save you from your own worldview and your ability to say, “Will you act or not act?” And I’ll give you a practical example today. The work of Michael Tubbs and so many other mayors around the country, mayors for guaranteed income, this is a phenomenal path, a game-changing solution. It’s been around for years. There’s plenty of evidence about it. A lot of the evidence, 20-plus years worth of it, comes from overseas. They called it direct cash transfers.

We know they work. And yet, we would rather have all of this nonprofit and government infrastructure that is highly inefficient, versus just saying, “We can get rid of the majority of that and give direct cash to people, and they would have better outcomes.” Like, if you and I fell into poverty, we would not say, “Let me run the gauntlet of 20 organizations in Oakland, California.” We would say, “No, let me keep some gas in my car, be able to stay in my house or my apartment, and let me figure it out.”

That’s what we would ask for. So even there, when it comes to evidence with what we would say from a product standpoint, the user experience, if you will. The user experience for pathways out of poverty, we don’t even honor in this space, and we don’t honor it because of that hostile worldview. We think people are shiftless and lazy even though the evidence suggests something else.

Kimberlyn Leary:
Now, when I think about PolicyLink and evidence, I know about the remarkable set of resources that your organization has produced that focus both explicitly and urgently on racial equity. You have a racial equity atlas that tracks communities’ progress on inclusive prosperity, and you also put together possibly the first blueprint for how the federal government could advance equity. So tell us about your evidence, your tools, and reports. What do you stress when you’re speaking to federal leaders, and are there data streams on evidence that changemakers find difficult to accept?

Dr. Michael McAfee:
What I often say to people, “If it was simply about evidence, it would already be done,” because places like Urban and others, your scholarship, folks have been providing us the evidence for years. There’s reams and reams of evidence out there. This operating system of this hierarchy of human value trumps evidence every day. It’s why you will actually let people starve and get evicted versus give them $300 extra so that they can survive in a pandemic, like what we saw happen in America during COVID. We try to help people understand that it is time to hold a population-level focus. Can you see an entire population?

That’s what that 100 million represents, and can you work in service of their thriving no matter whether they’re in the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia, or the South Side of Chicago? It doesn’t really matter where they’re at, or in an Indigenous community. And what we have found is no matter where we go, in spite of how hard it is, there are change agents in every corner of government, business, nonprofits, every corner of society. And these folks are looking for these tools to be able to do the work. And so, in many ways, when it comes to evidence, the guidance that we provided for the federal government during the early days of the Biden administration, it is about sharing some of what works, but it’s also about building a new body of evidence that is still not fully developed yet.

And that is what we call our “governing agenda for the all.” Our democracy is imperfect, and we all have an invitation to continue to participate in it. And it is time for us to be able to live into this operative word that is in our founding documents, and even in the “equity” definition. And that word is “all.” And so, what we are trying to do with these new bodies of work is answered the question: What does it take for institutional leaders and those institutions to love all, act in service of all, at the scale commensurate with the problem? That’s the journey of evidence discovery that we’re on right now.

Kimberlyn Leary:
Recently, you’ve been a catalyst behind PolicyLink’s leadership and promoting corporate racial equity. How did PolicyLink identify the need to become involved in the field of corporate equity? And who are the key stakeholders, not necessarily the people, but the key groups that you’ve needed to consult in order to be mobilize on racial equity within the corporate sector?

Dr. Michael McAfee:
Well, when you think about achieving results at scale, it’ll make you do things that you most likely would never think of doing. And the corporate work was a perfect example. When you think about the outsized market capitalization of the corporate sector, when you think about their outsized influence on the economy and democracy, there is no way you can achieve equity in America and not include them.

It just doesn’t happen. And so if we say, “Really, we want to get results for that 100 million.” Well, we better be working with corporate America, and I believe that you can have a really good economic environment and you can take care of people as well.

Kimberlyn Leary:
So that’s the bridge.

Dr. Michael McAfee:
That’s the bridge.

Kimberlyn Leary:
So let’s go to another moment, a more difficult moment. As we all anticipated, the Supreme Court ruled against the use of race-conscious admission programs at Harvard University, where I know you’ve studied, and at the University of North Carolina. And although the ruling was, my legal colleagues tell me, technically narrow, the Supreme Court’s actions certainly seem to have emboldened other actors.

Just as a few examples, books and curricular materials that teach about race and history have been banned in some jurisdictions. And DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] offices have been shuttered at some public universities in some states. What is the data and evidence that we need to be collecting now to understand what is happening in real time? And with the loss of some of these policy tools like affirmative action, where can we use data and evidence to continue working on unrealized equity goals?

Dr. Michael McAfee:
So the first thing I would say is this is one where I don’t think data and evidence won’t help you because these folks are using a law from the 1800s to advance something that is very diabolical. And what I say to us at PolicyLink all the time is, “It really doesn’t matter because we were about the ‘all’ anyway.” I said, “So you want to think about evidence? Let’s just talk about empirical evidence of everyday life.” The racist doesn’t say, “I’m going to exclude you.” They just do it, right?

And so, in many ways, we were always going to have to get to a colorblind nation, a nation that doesn’t want to deal with race, a postracial America. I know we’re not there by a long shot, but if we were ever going to have a breakthrough, we were going to have to get here. So to me, this is not a problem. This is why I focus on the “all.” Making sure, that since you want to be postracial, you want to be colorblind, that the impacts of our institutions are not constantly hurting me and folks that look like me. And so I’m not actually worried in this moment. So if your heart isn’t filled with exclusion, what’s the problem? Now I get the point that, “But yeah, Michael, but they’re never going to really focus on our issues.”

Well, they haven’t been anyway. This is why you go back to that COVID example. You basically told a whole new generation, “You’re on your own.” So this is where our institutions have already become irrelevant to that 100 million. They’re not working in service of them anyway. So just from an empirically street-smart standpoint, they’re already on their own. And so this is where we have to have, now, the courage to do what is right, the courage to stand for inclusion for everyone, and belonging for everyone, and the courage to not be consumed by folks who are fighting a battle that they’re going to lose anyway.

Kimberlyn Leary:
So what about evidence about the 100 million? Do we need more information about the places where we are struggling together? Do we need more information and evidence about the impact of experiments that we’re trying to run? What’s your take on that?

Dr. Michael McAfee:
Evidence gets trumped in our space by how you’re socialized, and we’re asking an entire country to say, “Hey, you know what? I know you were raised to just be ‘me, me, me,’ and ‘get yours,’ and now I’m asking you to do something else.” You see, housing as a human right has no home in that situation.

Defund the police has no home in that situation. Guaranteed income has no home in that situation. Universal child care, universal health care. You can’t get to those things when you have these humans who have not been socialized to see their fates inextricably bound. What we need new evidence around now is, how do we create a new ideology of mutuality?

Kimberlyn Leary:
So that’s a place where we can begin to put our attention, our evidence, and our science.

Dr. Michael McAfee:
That’s right. Until we get there, we’re pretty much checkmated on being able to implement the solutions that we know even today will work. So this is why I’m excited to be in the field still. I mean, to have the gift of thinking, how do you continue to advance this democracy by creating a new body of evidence around: What does it look like for our children to be enculturated with a consciousness of mutuality?

Kimberlyn Leary:
So we love to end this podcast by asking for an example of when high-quality evidence has helped improve people’s lives. And for this particular conversation, I’m wondering if you could speak about a special collaboration that PolicyLink has had with the Urban Institute.

We’ve had the pleasure of working with you on a project to score legislative proposals for their equity impacts, similar to the way in which CBO [the Congressional Budget Office] scores estimate proposed legislation. Can you describe what you think of as the most meaningful evidence that came out of our project and what makes it a critical tool for advancing equity?

Dr. Michael McAfee:
Well, and that work continues, and I’m so grateful to be able to work with the Urban Institute around it because here’s what I think happens. We’ve not built the flourishing, multiracial democracy that we want and that we have. We’re building it. We also need new tools to do that. You can’t continue to design new federal programs and be like, “Oops, they missed the mark of millions of people.” Well, with the brilliance of the team that you’re working with and leading, Kim, we are creating these tools. We’re going to be able to show people that we can design public policy that is financially responsible and also adds value to everyday people.

To me, that is the frontier of the work as well. And the Urban team is expanding our horizons in terms of understanding the complexity of how you think about this work and how you do it. To me, these are frontiers of evidence building for equity, and that’s what I’m excited about right here, is that we have a chance to say, “You know what? The CBO score is a good tool. It doesn’t have to be the only tool.” And every generation can start thinking about, now how do we have a founder’s orientation to the nation and create the tools that are necessary for us to do the work that sees everyone’s humanity.

That’s the gift that the Urban team is giving us. We can begin to put new tools out there that would do that work. Now, this is going to be, again, another 20-plus-years journey to get that tool adopted, but you all have given us the gift of understanding the methodological ways in which we can do this. What it’s going to take, and that’s why I’m excited when I get up every day, is that I get to struggle with the problems that will make this nation stronger. And, man, when you know you’re not going anywhere, you can relax a little bit and be like, “You know what? I get up tomorrow, and I go right back at it because I’m not going anywhere.”

Kimberlyn Leary:
And in partnership as well.

Dr. Michael McAfee:
That’s right. That’s right.

Kimberlyn Leary:
Well, Michael, thank you so much for being on the show. As promised, you are a powerful voice for equity and a powerful voice for helping us to challenge our preconceptions and to really think about what it takes to get things done on behalf of the 100 million and all of us. So thank you so much for being on the show.

Dr. Michael McAfee:
Thank you for having me.

Kimberlyn Leary:
Join us next time on Evidence in Action as we have conversations about important ways to drive change with our talented and captivating guests. And if you’d like to learn more about us, go to our website at urban.org. You can also follow the show on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Amazon Music, and wherever you listen to your podcast. This has been Evidence in Action, created by the Urban Institute and Pod People. I’m your cohost, Kim Leary. Thank you.

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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted 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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Research Areas Economic mobility and inequality