What challenges did you face in starting your nonprofit?
I had an idea for what could be done with this troubled building in Times Square that would bring together housing for low-income people and historic rehabilitation of an important asset, deal with a serious crime problem and contribute to a Times Square revitalization plan. The challenge was how to make this all come together and work in a real place in real time. Making the puzzle pieces fit was the hard thing. I couldn't find a not-for-profit to take it on. I had to start Common Ground to make the idea happen. The first step was the basic outline of the plan and getting funding. Next was meeting with whoever would help improve the idea and anticipate questions from a diverse array of people in the community — the property owners, business leaders, civic leaders, public officials, people at various agencies, not-for-profits, churches. It was an intense consultation process.
The Center for Urban Community Services was a key first partner who has assisted tenants with mental health, social services and employment needs. Ben & Jerry’s was another early partner. This first project had to weave in employment and the need for a different type of retail environment. Times Square was a chaotic and dangerous place then with a lot of X-rated places. I met with someone from Ben & Jerry's board. We were surrounded by people walking down 8th Avenue to the Port Authority bus terminal. He said, “There are a lot of people here and nowhere for them to stop." They were willing to take a leap and take over the first of the commercial spaces we converted. They actually donated the franchise to us.
How did you learn how to lead change?
I'm a cautious person, but I’m comfortable getting my hands dirty right away as a way of learning to get a sense of how to take the next step. You've got to get close to the problem to see its dimensions. It may appear we take on big things, but our progress has been a series of incremental steps. I often find I'm committed to staying with something before ever having made a big "I'm going to take this on" move. It's a steady unpeeling. I have moments when I think, "Boy, this is complicated." We're also pretty good at identifying who is willing to be part of this exploration with us. That builds confidence and expands your toolkit.
What is an example of a great relationship with a public sector agency?
The New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. People there definitely thought the Times Square idea was nuts. But they hung in there. It challenged their assumptions, as in, "We haven't done anything like this, but if it worked it would be game changing." They stuck with the project when there are all sorts of reasons for the government not to take risks. Folks worked hard to make the case once they were satisfied the numbers worked and the project could happen the way we described.
In 1995, we moved to buy the Prince George Hotel. It was a complicated situation with the mortgage, foreclosure and an uncooperative seller. The housing agency stepped forward in collaboration with two banks, JPMorgan and Bankers Trust, at the time. That was amazing. We got them to provide a buy-sell agreement. The banks came up with financing to buy the mortgage from the Resolution Trust Corporation. A wonderful 416-unit building for formerly homeless and low-income people reopened in 1999 because a public agency was willing to work creatively with a not-for-profit.
What elements lead to an effective partnership?
Being a good team player, sharing the vision, sharing credit, being attuned to other people's needs and what they're trying to accomplish and looking at the world through their eyes. The most important thing is having a clear goal and helping everyone around the table see how they benefit from the group reaching that goal. Without that, you can have all the meetings and good will in the world and you won't move anything.
What lessons did you learn from working at Covenant House (a privately funded child-care agency) and how are you applying them?
The biggest lesson was learning to ask the right questions. Early in what was the modern wave of homelessness, we had young people coming in and out of a well-run and thoughtfully managed shelter, but it was clear that we were not solving the problem. Many people who were persistently on the street didn’t want shelter. But it didn't mean they didn't want permanent housing. That misjudgment really stalled progress in many places for many years.
What lessons can federal leaders adopt from social entrepreneurs?
There's too rigid a culture around risk. Certain elements of government excel at working flexibly and adaptably. Think about recent disasters in Alabama, or the military. How do you take the sensibilities and creative discipline from operating in urgent situations and pull those into the ongoing work of government? Perhaps we need to protect government employees willing to take reasonable risks to test ideas. Make it transparent what you're trying, and what you're trying to learn, as a tool for risk mitigation.
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