November 16, 2018

Attention community leaders: Your new don’t-do list

Unconventional wisdom from some of America’s foremost problem solvers

Social entrepreneur Wes Moore, right, spoke with The Atlantic senior editor Ron Brownstein at The Atlantic's Renewal Series in Houston Nov. 13.

What are we missing out on when we don’t invest in our communities? This week, The Atlantic’s Renewal Summit, made possible by Allstate, traveled to Houston to hear from some of the country’s most innovative leaders as they discussed their approach to solving their communities’ major challenges and how everyone has a stake in making sure they succeed.

Wes Moore, the CEO of one of the largest poverty-fighting organizations in America, told the audience in attendance and via a livestream that everyone has a distinct and significant role to play in creating opportunities for our communities to thrive. For this to work, he said, we must change the narrative of us vs. them. “Truth is, there’s just an us,” he said.

Watch the full conversation from The Renewal Summit: Houston, above.

If we all truly play a part in creating change, then a good place to do that is in our own neighborhoods. What’s the best way to begin? As Moore said, let’s change the narrative, starting with what not to do.

1. Don’t be selfless. Be selfish.

Wes Moore is a best-selling author and social entrepreneur who founded Robin Hood, New York City’s largest poverty-fighting organization, which invests over $100 million annually in its community. Moore challenged the audience to rethink why we should care about investing in our communities and what we stand to gain when we do. “We have to make the argument from an asset perspective,” he said. For example, what are we missing out on if we’re not properly investing in children who don’t have the same level of opportunity, but have an extraordinary amount of promise? “If you’re not doing this to be selfless, do it to be selfish,” he said. “If you really want to be in a community that is safe and prosperous and thriving, make sure everybody in that community feels like it is safe and prosperous and thriving.”

2. Don’t stay in your lane. Build partnerships.

Annise Parker served as Houston’s mayor from 2010 until 2016, and is the current President and CEO of Victory Fund and Institute, which advocates for and supports openly LGBTQ leaders at all levels of government. Parker spoke about her community’s response effort to the devastating floods brought on by Hurricane Harvey. In the aftermath of the storm, she helped manage one of the primary evacuation shelters in Houston. From where she stood on the ground, Parker saw how several overlapping jurisdictions were providing excellent services, but there wasn’t a strong collaboration among them. “Many of us were doing things, but we were doing it in our own lanes.” She said that many organizations were talking to each other, but that often, they were working in parallel rather than together. Parker said that this crisis has given the region an opportunity to rethink their strategy.

“We have to build forward, not build back,” added Gloria Moreno, Deputy Assistant Director and FEMA Liaison for the City of Houston. “Building forward requires innovation; requires communication; requires partnerships throughout the county, throughout the city, and throughout the surrounding countries.”

3. Don’t follow the rules. Go beyond the rules.

Gordon Hartman is a Texas philanthropist and founder of The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation. Inspired by his daughter who has special needs, Hartman developed a first-of-its-kind amusement park designed for children and adults of all abilities. Since its opening in 2010, Morgan’s Wonderland has welcomed guests from all over the world who get to enjoy rides like a wheelchair-accessible Ferris wheel and even a water park. When designing the park, Hartman, who made his fortune as a home builder, moved quickly because he knew there was a need to serve the more than 40 million people in the United States who have special needs.

After consulting experts such as doctors, therapists, and engineers, Hartman and his team decided to make the park “ultra-accessible,” which meant going above and beyond even the federal government’s standards, as laid out in the Americans With Disabilities Act, or ADA. “ADA only goes so far,” Hartman said. “If we had just built a park and worked off of what the ADA rules were, then we wouldn’t be what we refer to as ‘ultra-accessible.’ We had to go a step further; we had to go outside the ADA and well above it in ensuring ultra-accessibility, so no matter how acute someone’s special needs may be, they can participate.”

Learn more about The Atlantic’s Renewal Series: Houston, made possible by Allstate, and all of the recent events in the series. Watch more videos from the event on The Renewal Project’s Facebook page.

Margaret Myers

Margaret Myers is the editor of The Renewal Project.