In 1968, when the Urban Institute was founded, “our cities were on fire,” says Jamie Gorelick, chair of Urban’s board of trustees, in a video commemorating Urban’s 50th anniversary. “The degree of despair about what would happen in our cities and our communities was really palpable to [President] Johnson.”
Tensions from centuries of racial injustice and division had reached a boiling point, and the civil rights movement demanded urgent action from the government. In this setting, Lyndon B. Johnson founded the Urban Institute, seeking “to bridge the gulf between the lonely scholar in search of truth and the decisionmaker in search of progress.”
Johnson understood that building that bridge between action and evidence would boost the effectiveness and power of change. That bridge remains vital today as we face new and evolving forms of division, and we have yet to remedy the legacy and impacts of structural racism.
A foundation of 50 years
Speaking at Urban’s board dinner last week, Urban’s president emeritus Robert Reischauer helped illuminate Urban’s origins.
“Johnson’s vision for the board was that it consist of proven leaders from business, academia, civil society, and public policy,” he said. “He wanted a board that would nurture an institution that would pursue relevant, timely, and actionable solutions to the nation’s most pressing problems, not house a group of ivory tower thinkers divorced from the real problems on the ground.”
These experts supported important national efforts such as the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1974. The law created Section 8 housing, giving poor families more options for places to live, and supported locally led urban revival efforts.
“We looked to the research that was done then in the seventies by the Urban institute, led by [William Gorham], and it really made a difference,” said Carla Hill, secretary of Housing and Urban Development under president Gerald Ford, who signed the bill into law. “We had the statistics, we had the data, and we worked with the localities.”
A modern view of history and new challenges
As some Urban researchers have noted, Johnson’s role in pushing for racial and economic equity is complicated by his own racist words and actions. Acknowledging that truth is part of a broad commitment required by institutions and leaders to confront America’s legacy of injustice and discrimination and to effectively address its modern forms.
Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans, is one such leader. In 2017, Landrieu gave a powerful speech after overseeing the removal of the last of the city’s Confederate monuments. “These statues are not just stone and metal,” he said at the time. “These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.”
Speaking at Urban’s board dinner, Landrieu emphasized the importance of breaking down societal barriers and divides to achieve progress.
“If people don’t feel like they are treated justly or fairly, that can only produce one thing, and that is alienation,” he said. “When a house is divided against itself and people are alienated, and they aren’t pushing in the same direction, there will always be division, and by definition, there can’t be peace.
“Not just physical peace,” he elaborated, “but the kind of peace that means the absence of violence and the presence of happiness, and the kind of joy you get from lots of different people from trying to solve a common problem.”
Landrieu charged Urban to focus on its founding goals of creating a fairer, more just society and not “get lost in the science” of the work involved.
“A car can’t run without all the electronics and the mechanics,” he clarified, “but it is important where the car is going. It is important to think about what it is we are trying to achieve.”
“But facts alone are not enough. When facts are coupled with the power that resides in the American people and their changemakers, only then can we test new solutions, do what works, and hold our leadership accountable.”
Wartell concluded her address with a quote from James Baldwin: “It is certain that ignorance aligned with power is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” Wartell said, “In these times, Urban offers a powerful antidote to that ferocious enemy.”