Local governments can play a critical and necessary role in advancing system and policy changes to support communities, but it can be challenging to understand the complexities within local government and how best to work together.
In this episode, Forum Director of Programs and Partnerships, Courtney W. Robertson explores how to partner with local and city governments to advance collaborative work in a conversation with Anthony Smith, Executive Director of Cities United.
Cities United is an organization that advocates for a holistic approach to reducing gun violence and supporting public safety, and does so through building movements within cities, connecting local government stakeholders with community partners and youth to create safe, healthy, and hopeful communities.
Anthony shares what Cities United has learned from over a decade of work partnering with cities across the United States, including what to think about when engaging with local government, what readiness factors to consider before launching a partnership, what capacity and knowledge building may be necessary to understand how your local government and its branches work, and what connections and levers may be needed to strengthen your partnership efforts.
Please find a transcript of this talk further down this page.
Resources and Footnotes
More on Collective Impact
Welcome to the Collective Impact Forum podcast, here to share resources to support social change makers working on cross-sector collaboration.
The Collective Impact Forum is a nonprofit field-building initiative that is co-hosted in partnership by the nonprofit consulting firm FSG and the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions.
In this episode, our Director of Programs and Partnerships Courtney W. Robertson explores how to partner with local and city governments to advance collaborative work in a conversation with Anthony Smith, who is Executive Director of Cities United.
Cities United is an organization that advocates for a holistic approach to reducing gun violence and supporting public safety, and does so through building movements within cities, and connecting local government stakeholders with community partners and youth to create safe, healthy, and hopeful communities.
Anthony shares what Cities United has learned from over a decade of work partnering with cities across the United States, including what to think about when engaging with local government, what readiness factors to consider before launching a partnership, what capacity and knowledge building may be necessary to understand how your local government and its branches work, and what connections and levers may be needed to strengthen your partnership efforts.
Let’s tune in.
Courtney W. Robertson: Welcome to the Collective Impact Forum podcast. My name is Courtney W. Robertson, director of programs and partnerships with the Collective Impact Forum, and I’m your host.
This episode features a conversation about partnering with city governments with Anthony Smith, executive director at Cities United based in Louisville, Kentucky. Anthony, thank you for being with us today. If you could, just start by introducing yourself, your work, and the work of Cities United.
Anthony Smith: Thanks for having me, Courtney. It’s really exciting to be with you all and talk about something that’s near and dear to my heart because I think cities have the capacity make a lot of things change. It’s just really how we partner and how we move with them I think is key and important.
So, again, Anthony Smith, executive director with Cities United. Cities United has been around since 2011, was founded under the leadership of Mayor Nutter, former mayor of Philadelphia, Mayor Landrieu, former mayor of New Orleans, Dr. William C. Bell, who’s the president and CEO of the Casey Family Programs, and then also Shawn Dove, who ran the Campaign for Black Male Achievement at the time.
Really as a space and this is about me and the work at the same time because sometime it’s hard to separate when you’re working on purpose and when you’re doing the work that we do every day, it becomes, you are part of it even before you get in the lead and the roles that you’re in.
They have been putting this together and the conversation between Dr. Bell and Mayor Nutter really started around Mayor Nutter was really concerned about the number of young people he was losing to gun violence in this community and not having a place where he could talk to other mayors, elected officials about this issue. So that’s how Cities United was born and birthed. They brought in Mayor Landrieu, Shawn Dove, and then also our friends at the National League of Cities, to really run this thing as an initiative.
My first encounter with Cities United was when I was working for Mayor Fisher in Louisville, helping him open up his office for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods which focused in on reducing community violence and homicides and shootings. One of the first things I did when I took that job was to sign up for Cities United because Mayor Nutter and Landrieu were asking more and more people to sign up. So I got involved with Cities United as I was working for city government in Louisville, which was my first city government job ever. That was a new experience for me going from doing community organizing, youth development work and youth engagement work to really being inside of a system, a city system that’s a little bit harder to navigate, a little bit more difficult to process and move. But my belief is that cities are still places, city government, are places where you can get things done, and that if you can help cities understand the right infrastructure and the right partnerships, then they can do a whole lot of good things as long as they stay in their lane but partner with folks who can do other work.
So if Cities United does that, we work with cities across the country helping them develop what we call comprehensive public safety plans that would not only help them reduce and interrupt the violence in their communities but also create better outcomes for those who are most impacted by community violence. When we look at it across the country that’s young Black men and boys and their families and their communities, so that’s where we’ve got to spend our investment and our time.
That’s it, Cities United in a nutshell. That’s me. This is my purpose work. This is the work I would be doing—I never say for free anymore because we all need to get paid and eat, but this is the work that I would choose to do if I had the opportunity to. I’ve just been blessed to be able to find my way in it at different levels just because of the work that I’ve done at the other places. So, again, excited to have this conversation and talk about this work that’s both personal and professional, but I think more personal than it is professional.
Courtney W. Robertson: I appreciate that, Anthony, and I receive you’re saying of working on purpose. A lot of times we talk about people that walking in the purpose, like finding their purpose but like working on purpose is super powerful, so thank you for sharing that.
Anthony, you started touching on this a bit, but I’m curious to know who are Cities United’s partners within a city, so what do those partnerships look like, how they are structured, and how do you connect the dots across the partnerships?
Anthony Smith: Thank you for that. We go in initially through mayor’s office or other local elected officials that are usually the ones who invite us in and really who we want to work with because part of this for us is helping cities not only connect their work better with community but also better organized internally, because there’s, as you know, a lot of us know, and folks who are listening to this podcast understand that there’s so many things that are happening in cities that are so disconnected in siloes. So that’s one thing we’ve got to do so let’s get internally and figure out how we focus on that.
One of our partners is city government, county governments, and folks who are leading the effort on behalf of their mayor or on behalf of their county commissioners. So that’s a partner of ours. We also partner with community-based organizations who are not only doing the outreach work and the intervention work, but community-based partners who are also providing the wraparound services to this population of young people or people who are most at risk.
Another key partner for us on the ground are young leaders, especially young Black leaders ages 18 to 24 who are also thinking about this issue around say public safety who are also working either organizing, either protesting, whatever they’re doing to really say we need to see something different. We believe their voices need to be front and center and that they need to be leading and helping to guide the work along the way.
We really come in and really look at a—one, we have mayors think about who their partners need to be and how they pull them to the table, but then two, we also got to make our own partnerships on the ground so that as we build our work out, we just don’t have one partner to rely on. We have multiple partners to really spend time with and work with. We have this ideal and this matrix of our own making sure that as the city builds out its table of folks that it’s planning with and working with, that all those key stakeholders are already at the table and helping to move the work forward.
Go in usually through the city or county but quickly make sure that we have relationships with other folks on the ground because this is a collective effort and this is a—you’ve got to be coordinated and really—sometimes cities don’t know who to bring to the table so we’ve got to help them understand who they need to bring to the table and our team of folks that we work with at Cities United are all about relationships so we believe great relationships are the thing that really helps work move. So we’ve got to have those strong relationships with multiple stakeholders on the ground not just with the city government.
Courtney W. Robertson: Got you. I imagine that that, of course, varies based on the city. Some cities may be further along in who they’re engaging, stakeholders and others, to your point, have absolutely no idea who we need to be engaging.
Anthony Smith: Some folks, to your point, who are farther along still have missing pieces so part of what we get to do is help assess that because if you don’t have young people, if you don’t have the people who have been directly impacted by gun violence at the table, you don’t have their families at the table, you don’t have the community-based partners who are working in those neighborhoods at the table, you’re missing voices. There’s still some assessment to do.
I think, you know, when we think about big table, we usually go to systems folks first and we’ve got to get away from that conversation and say, OK, yeah, these folks who provide services and move systems matter, but they also need to be at the table with those who are directly impacted by this issue.
Courtney W. Robertson: Absolutely. Our context experts, right? That’s how we like to think about it.
I appreciate that. Touching on this is a good, I think, lead in to the next question. In the collective impact approach we have these factors that we really push folks to consider before, and particularly as they’re thinking about taking on this approach to collaboration so things such as having champions in the work, having some resources dedicated to jump start the work, having a sense of urgency around an issue. In your instance, gun violence, which we know there’s a lot of urgency around that. There’s sort of this foundation for collaboration and this trust are some of those key factors that we ask people to think about as they start thinking about building a collaborative.
I imagine if you’re coming from a space where folks are either not used to collaborating or they’re collaborating and it’s not been effective, there’s broken trust, etc., it can be really difficult. So thinking about sort of like readiness factors, I guess, in the same sense, what are some of those readiness factors that you all look for in partnering with cities and you’ve touched on some of this, but what are some of those things you look for in a city government partner and those community-based organizations, etc., or just in partnerships or partners, excuse me, in general, what are you looking for in terms of readiness to work with them?
Anthony Smith: Yeah, that’s a great question, Courtney, and I think you it. We think about cities, so I’m going to start with cities. When we go into a city usually looking at what the political will looks like, so that executive who runs that city, what’s their political will and how are they talking about this issue, whether it’s the mayor, the city manager, however the city is set up, what is their—do they have a vision or do they have a thought and are they advocating for something new around public safety. Is their political will there?
Even if there’s a councilmember or an alderman, alderperson who is ready to move the needle and an agenda, that shows that there’s some political will somewhere. Somebody who’s been elected for public office is having a conversation around this issue and pushing an agenda. So that’s one thing. And also looking—
Courtney W. Robertson: I’m sorry. I’m going to ask a quick question. With you saying they’re having conversations, for you does it matter what type of conversation they’re having around gun violence?
Anthony Smith: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Absolutely. I appreciate that. Thanks for that clarity because there’s not we need to lock everybody up. This is a conversation around prevention and intervention and how do we get to the root causes. So we want mayors who are questioning and having conversations around how we do things different because what we’ve done in the past is not working, so we have mayors who understand, hey, we have law enforcement, they have a role to play, but we also have all these other community-based partners and solutions that we can also put into place. So that’s the conversation that the mayors are having that we think is important. Mayors, again, mayors, councilpersons, alderpersons, and our city managers are saying, hey, what other opportunities and what other models can we be putting in place.
Also, thinking about the people that are having a different conversation about the people who are most impacted by it. They’re not calling them criminals and thugs. They’re really saying we know we messed up as a city. We know the systems have failed you. Let us put together strategies and opportunities for us to do better.
And also, the leadership, political will is that I’m also willing to think about creating an office that would focus on this. We’ve had offices of violence prevention, offices for community safety, the mayor’s office of neighborhood safety and engagement across the country, so people are calling them different things, but where you invest your money also shows us where your political will and how you’re using it to move an agenda forward.
Then you think about public will. What’s the public saying about this issue? And is the public going to come to the table? Do we have public trust of this administration to get stuff done? Are they going to sit down with this and have a conversation with the elected leadership to say we want to be in partnership with you on this issue.
I think it’s political will, public will, and then it’s also looking at the investments that people are making on the ground and the public safety ecosystem that they’re running.
Lastly, I’ll say to you too, it’s also—part of our struggle and part of the work we all got to do when you’re working with cities is, is this just a political scheme to get reelected or am I really—just trying to manage all of these different things as we assess and look at, but a lot of times we take mayors and the communities at face value. We go in and do good work and they’re usually really, really engaged, and really lean all the way in, but there’s some places you go and it’s like pulling teeth and we’ve got too much to do to be going into cities where we’ve got to pull teeth, but if we’re thinking about readiness, it really is looking at the political will, the public will, investment, and then what does the parent CVI ecosystem look like? Do they have folks up and running in the community violence intervention space? Are people doing good work there and can we add value to that conversation?
Courtney W. Robertson: That’s so powerful. What I’ll add to what you shared around some of those factors, at least from what I heard is like the mindset piece, which I think goes into that public will and political will. Do folks have the right mindset around this work? And then ownership and accountability from cities, like we understand that yes, you may have gone out and committed this crime, but like we also have a role in this where our systems aren’t set up to be supportive so how do we rethink those systems in support of. I just wanted to highlight those as things I also heard.
Another question for you, and you touched on it a little bit, we don’t have time to do this, but I’m curious about, for cities who might may be having that other conversation around locking, you know, increased police presence, locking up, zero tolerance, like those types of conversations. For cities who may have that frame of thinking around it but are like, but we really want to work with you, I guess, how do you all approach that? Because it’s very different from what you just described. Have you approached that?
Anthony Smith: That’s another good question, Courtney, and I think it’s both/and, because again, to get cities to see the bigger picture, you’ve got to work with them, you’ve got to be at the table, you’ve got to be there. There’s a number of places where we are—you know, the mayor’s conversation is usually when we start seeing reduction, they only talk about law enforcement. They don’t talk about the other pieces of the work. But you’ve got to continue to remind folks that this is a comprehensive strategy but what we’re trying to do is break people’s mental models and their mindsets to say, hey, when you say public safety, it don’t just mean these three things. It actually means all of this stuff.
And I think even with elected officials and other folks we’ve been also conditioned to believe public safety means just law enforcement, jails, detention centers, EMT, and things like that, and that’s part of our public safety system but that’s the reactionary part of our system and when we start thinking about public safety more upstream, it really is around affordable housing. It really is around quality work with a fair pay. It really is around walkable communities and neighborhoods. It really is around making sure everybody have quality education. When you can start getting people to see that bigger picture you can get them there.
You know we’ll work with folks, and we’ll be in cities until we get to a place where we don’t believe we can move and then that’s the hard part, but I think part of this conversation that we’re having is that sometimes the readiness is not 100 percent there, but there’s some levels of hope or light that you can see that you want to lean into, and you want to start doing some work.
So you might not do a heavy, like all-in approach but you stay close enough to help people start seeing and move in that direction. But one of the things I would always say to you too is in this work of public safety, mayors also just got to have a balanced conversation because they too know that police are needed for some things and a good portion of their constituents are still asking for police. So we’ve not made the shift that we can really believe that we can have a smaller police force and still be safe because police still equal safety for a lot of people. So how do you help mayors have a balanced conversation, help them see the bigger picture, and hopefully get them down the road where they can start shifting that conversation and being more holistic in it. We do both/and. We would rather work with folks who get it all the time and move but that’s just not the country that we live in right now. So we’ve got to make do and work with what we’ve got to work with.
Courtney W. Robertson: Absolutely, and I appreciate you painting that picture because I didn’t want to give the sense that every person that you—or every city rather that you all are entering has all of these things in place, and even to your point about the safety piece, psychological safety, we never think about that in the conversations. Then essentially, you’re talking about meeting cities where they are which is the same as meeting people where they are. Not everybody in their journeys are at the same place, and so being able to calibrate for that and really understand what are the needs right now and what do we need to do to get this city or to get this set of partners to the next step essentially, so I appreciate that.
You mentioned something about are mayors or cities particularly invested in this because this is the right time. I’m going up for reelection and this will look great. So with that, we get a lot of questions from folks in the field and one of the things that really prevents collaboratives from working with cities and particularly working with them in a very robust way is that fear of being overridden by either a political cycle or even by egos that exist within the political space, and you know this, that it can be a lot to juggle so what are your thoughts on that tension and how do you all navigate that?
Anthony Smith: I think that’s why for us—not I think, that’s why it’s important for us to make sure that we have a community-based partner who is co-convening with the city, who is a partner with the city, not only a convening partner but an accountability partner.
One of the things, Courtney, as we do our work, we hope every city—because our goal is to move all these cities to having a comprehensive, written public safety plan, and a plan that will guide the work for the next five to 10 years, and this plan is in partnership with the city, community, and all of the folks who want to see something different when it comes to public safety or when it comes to homicides and shooting reduction.
We believe these plans should guide the work for the next five to 10 years, and those plans are the plans that will outlive any leadership, not just a mayor’s leadership or your city manager’s leadership but also the community-based partner’s leadership too because as we go into this work, we’ve just got to be real clear the transition’s going to happen, that city priorities might shift but if we have a clear document that has supported by enough people who will hold everybody accountable to it, then you have a better chance of having better outcomes.
So the way we try to set the plans up in cities is like we come in and say, hey, mayor, you need to have an executive team of other community-based leaders that you meet with quarterly so a mayor would have a table where the superintendent is at, all of your prosecutors are there, all of your defense attorneys, your heads of corporations, heads of foundations, and all of these folks are coming to the table thinking about how we reduce homicides and shootings in our communities but more importantly how do we create better outcomes for those who are most impacted by it. There’s another table of folks that you’re bringing together who is like your action table, your table who is doing the coordination work. These are the folks that are making sure stuff is getting done. I was very accustomed with your podcast, I caught myself. These are the folks who are making sure we’re getting stuff done, and then you’re also bringing in other folks to help with like we think about what we call workgroups, and the workgroups are folks you’re bringing together to really help you identify your goals, your desired outcomes, and then all of that goes into a plan.
If you have all these people at the table, all these people who are invested in this plan and they don’t care which mayor is in the office, they just want this plan to work because we’ve spent all of this time putting it together and now, we’re ready to implement it, so these plans and these reports should be the thing that keeps everybody moving.
What we also say is these plans are living documents so we want you evaluating these things twice a year, annually, however you want to do it, making updates but you continue to have public conversations around what this plan is doing, who’s doing work, what the outcomes are going, and so for us, that’s the thought for us, is that to get beyond transition and to get beyond political whims and political processes, that we can put this plan together and this plan is then something that’s owned by everybody, and we continue to move that plan and partnership with the community and the city as a whole.
Courtney W. Robertson: It sounds like build enough both demand and investment in the plan to where folks will be scared to touch it almost, like this is the work because it’s being demanded by the people.
Anthony Smith: Absolutely, absolutely. You can check out—we’ve got friends in San Jose, I think it’s San Jose, they had their plan, gang reduction plan in operation for like 30 years, have been through all these mayoral changes but it’s still—they update it, they keep it up but every mayor who has come in has adopted that as their plan because just what you say, Courtney, it’s the demand for it and it’s supported by all these folks who have invested a lot of time and energy, and they see the outcomes from it so it’s working, right? So why would you change something that’s working?
Courtney W. Robertson: Yeah, and that’s the thing, right? Like outcomes, actually seeing results from what’s happening.
So, Anthony, sort of a follow up to that, are there cities or what cities where you’ve seen I guess sort of going a step beyond like we have this plan and people really want to be invested in it, have you seen cities where like, I don’t know, the plan has been written into policy or something like it’s been codified with the city or county government, have there been examples of that?
Anthony Smith: Yeah, I think when you see examples of that, that’s when you start getting offices like the office of violence prevention and offices of community safety written into law where this office is here, it’s going to get this kind of budget.
I think one of the things we’ve got to do better just to your question is even giving people policy and agenda to say, OK, this is what policy looks like, so I think right now we’re seeing it more in forms of cities are creating these offices and hiring directors and putting staffs and giving them a budget.
You also see in policy when we think about the amount of resources that they add to the budget either way, so it has its own line item when we start talking about community violence intervention, folks are saying, hey, we’re going to set aside money to do this.
I think about Newark, Mayor Baraka there, has an office that they got through law, gave it the resources but he also said we’re going to take a percentage of our police budget, give it to this group. They were also going to take one of the divisions like headquarters and give them this for the office for neighborhood safety.
Same thing here. I’m in Atlanta today. Atlanta put it in law that they were going to open up an office of violence prevention. They had a director. They just hired a new director, so those things are harder to get pushed away when you have it written in law and policy to your point.
So I think as you continue to see more and more of that, this is how these things become of our everyday conversation but those are the ways that I’ve seen it so far in policy. The office, budget for the office but then also if you think about Philadelphia, I think part of their thing too is they got it in the—they’ve been giving out grant money, a significant amount of money through the city to community-based organizations, and trying to figure out what that all looks like so there’s a lot of cities moving in different ways.
Oh, I would also say to you Oakland actually has a tax that they’re voting on again this year, and that tax takes resources to make sure that their office of violence prevention has the resources that it needs so those are the ways that we’ve seen some policy, but I think there’s other things that we can add to that conversation as well.
Courtney W. Robertson: That’s so cool and refreshing to hear because as we think about systems change and its totality, a huge part of that is around resource flow and policies that protect the work that’s happening even with a lot of the anti-DEI policies and things, racial equity policies that have been coming down the pipeline, it’s even more critical now to get a lot of this work codified so that you can see it sustain so it’s really good to hear that, that you have cities who are thinking it sounds like creatively about how they might do that. There’s a variety of ways to approach it like to your point around having someone in a position or having an entire office established or rethinking how we allocate resources and generate revenue to fund the work that’s happening so hopefully folks are thinking that as they’re listening.
Anthony Smith: Much more work to do but those are just a couple examples but, yeah, you’re right. We’ve moving but there’s more work to do.
Courtney W. Robertson: Absolutely. I’m going to ask this question just to see if something different comes but I’m curious about what learnings have stood out for you in the work particularly in collaborating and working with cities. I’m curious also like what things do you think about now would do differently now versus when you first started out in this work as a result of some of the learnings?
Anthony Smith: Yes, I think lots of learnings over the last eight years of leading Cities United and partnering with cities.
I think one of the big learnings is that mayors of cities got to have skin in the game, right? So you can come to the table with all the resources and say we can do this but it’s helpful when they have skin in the game to keep them more engaged and keep them more accountable because there’s a different level of accountability when there’s skin in the game. That skin in the game can look many different ways. It don’t have to all be financial. It can be I signed this pledge, I’ve done this MOU, I made a public announcement so the skin the game comes in multiple ways, but it’s got to be there. The skin the game could be I opened up an office and I hired this person, so I’ve committed to it. I might not as the executive get to talk about every day, but I have put in place this infrastructure to make it work so that matters. Even with the best political will from a mayor, if they don’t the right support around them, it’s not going to matter. If they’re ready to move but they just don’t have the capacity and the support, so it matters if there’s skin in the game.
I think it also—we’ve learned that it matters to enter a city—I think about entering a city and being real clear around what the election cycle looks like. We got to pay more attention to an election cycle because if I’m freshly in and I’m doing this work, I got three years to run before I got to run again so I’ve got these three years where I can really put my head down and do work. If I come to Cities United or Cities United comes to my city and I’m up for reelection this year, then I’m distracted, and I got to move and run so paying attention to the election cycle matters.
I think also what matters for us and what we’ve learned is that we’ve got to stick to who our core stakeholders are. We can’t provide coaching and capacity and resources to everybody in the city so who are the ones that we can connect to that has the biggest reach. Who are the ones that we can really partner with who can help us move this agenda because we’re not on the ground 24/7. We’re here, we talk to you weekly, monthly, depending on how connected you are to us but having our assessment of who’s who matters in how we connect to them on the ground but not trying to be everything to everybody as a key piece of learning for us.
We’ve learned that every city you go in, there’s distrust of who you are and what you bring to the table, so we spend a lot of time alleviating that distrust but it’s going to happen in every city, so we learned that we’re just not going to be accepted in any city we walk into. There’s some relationships and learnings of us that people need for them to feel comfortable with us helping them think about this issue because every city we go into, somebody’s going to say, hey, we’re not like the rest of the cities in the country, we’re different, right? And every city is special, but every city has the same people doing the same work. You’re going to get the same set of people. They might look different, talk different but folks who care deeply about this work.
I think lastly, we’ve learned that we’ve got to have a true ideal of what this work calls for us to really get it done right. We’ve got to be able to take time and assess and put the right number or a number that’s close enough for cities to understand this is going to cost. We’re not saying that this is not going to cost you, but we can’t keep underselling this work like it doesn’t cost a lot of time and energy and capacity to get it done so making sure that we don’t undersell ourselves or the work on the ground so that folks can get the true resources they need to get the work done. So those would be some of the quick learnings.
Courtney W. Robertson: Appreciate those, and around this piece around cost because we do get a lot of questions particularly around just garnering money to do the work, like how do you fundraise, how do we get grants, etc., to do the work. How do you support cities in thinking about—or just like those collaboratives in general within the cities to think about costs around the work?
Anthony Smith: There’s a number of ways that we help folks think about the costs. One, we want folks to be really targeted and specific about those who are most at risk so when we’re asking folks to think about the work, we’re asking them to think about a specific population, and in most of these it’s about one to two percent of the population that drives all the community violence, right? If you can get to this one percent, get them the right resources and move them, then you can start really seeing the reduction in your violence but also better outcomes for that population.
So a couple of places that we look to when we help people start thinking about this, it’s like what’s your number? People always say what’s it going to cost? One, how many people are we talking about, and then, two, what is going to cost us to engage them? We along with our partners over at the collective, the HAVI, and then the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, we’re a part of this national coalition called the Coalition to Advance Public Safety. We created, with our best estimates and guesses somemethodology behind it. what we call the CVI ecosystem website where folks can go cviecosystem.org I think is what it is. You can go on there and we took the 50 cities who are experiencing the most violence and put their numbers in and came away with what their estimated costs would be, and when you break it down there’s a number of different costs in there.
One, how much does it cost us to provide programming for that small set of population that we’re talking about. Depending on your city you can spend anywhere between $25,000 and $45,000 on programming for those folks. Then you got to think about the staff that it takes to operate them. Then you got to think about the supervisor that it takes to manage the staff who we have out doing the work. You got to think about what it costs the city to have an office and a team inside. You got to think about what the training and the support that it’s going to take to make sure that that team has what they need but then also what is it going to cost for the wraparound services for folks and stuff like that.
So we start with just that baseline, that $25,000, $30,000, $45,000 a year but then you got to start adding other costs in, so we don’t want to give people a small price, and we also don’t want to give people sticker shock, but we want to say this is going to cost you some money annually to address this issue but at the end of the day your return on investment is going to be tenfold. You’re going to have more people alive. You’re going to have less impact on your other systems that deal with a homicide initially, and you’re going to have more revenue from your tax base and then also from the folks who are staying alive and getting jobs and working and stuff like that, and then your property value goes up in those neighborhoods.
So there’s a way for us to think through all of that as we think about what it’s going to cost but we try to start with that small number, that one or two percent, that $25,000 to $45,000 per programming for them, and then start adding those other costs in just to give folks a baseline. Most cities are not even investing about—not even at 10 percent of what the cost would truly cost them so they’re not even there yet so this number that we’re sharing with folks sometimes is big, and like, woo, can we get there? It’s like it’s not just on the city, right? There’s a number of people who can help you pay for that but then there’s also you can say to your organizations and to our system we need to reconfigure how we deliver services for this population and who’s already working with them so you can figure the money out.
So it ain’t like you got to have new money, it’s just how do you spend your money as the key piece to this work. I don’t know if that answered the question, but I don’t want to get too specific because it’s different for each city when you start really running through the whole thing.
Courtney W. Robertson: That definitely does, and I think that paints the picture of, one, that there’s no, you know, one size fits all. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to it, and this piece that I think people often forget is how are we thinking about existing dollars and how those are used. To your point I think people are always thinking about new money like we need to seek new dollars when 60 percent of it might actually be sitting in your face so really doing the work to figure that out, so I appreciate that offering.
My next question sort of aligns to what you started naming that stands out for you but particularly as we think about like we have folks of course in our audience who are new to collaborative and the collective impact approach and folks who have been doing it forever and everybody in between but as people start to either reimagine how they can be working with city government or just thinking about it could be more intentional or just like this is our first shot at attempting to work with city government, what are some things that you would recommend to them? What should they be thinking about? What might be some of those initial steps that they take?
You’ve mentioned things like of course being clear about election cycles, speaking to the stakeholders, understanding really what you named around not being accepted in every city, when I think about local cities or even like for you, what you all are doing the local initiatives out there, you kind of take on if you’re working with government or whoever, you sort of take on some of the stigma that comes with it- by partnering even if that’s not you, but what would you say are some things that folks should be thinking about?
Anthony Smith: You become the man by default when you work with city government, right?
I think one of the things that I’ve watched over the years is that folks need to understand clearly what people’s roles are inside of city government. When you’re thinking about elected officials, what’s the mayor’s role? If you have a city manager, what’s their role? What’s our council’s role because it’s like if we really want to work with cities and move cities to a place where they’re listening and hearing us, we’ve got to be talking to the right people.
Most times we’re all mad at a mayor for the budget and how the resources are allocated but council has a role to play in that too so the mayor in a strong city with a strong mayor starts the conversation but then that budget goes over to the council, the council then takes time to look at it, make suggestions, edits to move things around so when we have a conversation, we’ve got to know what our executive branch does, what our legislative branch does. We also have to know how what the state does impacts what can happen at the city, so I think part of this is we got to get—people got to have some political education around how their city runs and who moves what. What does our school board do, and how does all of these things impact what we’re trying to get done because at the end of the day we’ve got to know who we need to have conversations with, who we need to push differently, who we need to make requests to. What’s our county attorney doing? What’s our city attorney doing? What’s our prosecutors, what’s our judges—all of these people impact how we deal with community balance and if we’re not having conversations with all of them, then we’re missing opportunities.
So working with city government, one, making sure you understand who’s who and what their roles are.
I think, two, going to the table with a strategy and plan is important but also leaving space for the collaboration to say to the city, OK, how are we going to work in partnership together? What does it look like and how do we move but I don’t think we just go into the city and say what are you going to do as a plan and a strategy that folks can put together and move forward.
I also think working with a city and preparing to work with a city or thinking about working with a city, understanding the departments inside of that city too is important because a lot of work happens at the department level, not even at the mayor’s level, and these are folks who are lifers inside a city government who know how to move on issues and get stuff done so you want to have relationships and partnerships with folks like that.
I think lastly, I would say is that you never go to the table with a city or any entity believing they are going to have everything that you need so who or what are the other partners who you need to bring to the table, and who else can have some strong convening power just like the city to help you convene this table and have that conversation. So know what you need to know before you go to the city and then also build your relationships and have a strategy.
Courtney W. Robertson: Everything you’ve mentioned at least to me sounds like this is a cyclical thing. It’s not a one and done because as you mentioned, people ebb and flow in government, the purpose of departments to some extent can change or even be eliminated in some instances so really keeping your ear to the ground when it comes to that.
I’m curious, Anthony, when you talked about the understanding both who we need to talk to but also understanding what I gathered from it was like structures and processes within government, how do you all support your partners and more specifically I’m interested in how are you supporting the lay person like community folks who like my job isn’t to understand government, like that’s not in my realm of everyday life but I’m engaged in this work now, how do you support people to get better educated around those structures and things like that?
Anthony Smith: That’s something we’re leaning more into and thinking about. It’s not been at the top, so we have lessons learned. One of the lessons learned is that there’s not enough political understanding when we hit cities and when we go into places so some of the small things that I’m doing and we’re doing is when we’re in cities.
We were in this place in Texas, I don’t want to say the city’s name because I don’t want folks to think I’m talking bad about them because this ain’t talking a bad story but anyway we were in this city in Texas and the council—not the council, the community, the county commissioners and the city council both put out proclamations on the same day, and these proclamations were really bold, talking about what they were going to do, how they were going to do it, and the community organizers came up to me and said, uh, and I said, that’s good shit, and they’re like, “well, no, we’ve seen this before.” Well, so cool, so I said but here’s what you do now, right? You have this thing. You have these two documents that these two government entities have put out and said that this is what they proclaim so every time you have a conversation with the council and these county commissioners you should bring up points from their declaration, from their proclamation, and that should be tied into your strategy because there’s a way for us to hold people accountable. You’ve got to take what they put out and then study it and know it better than they do and say this is what you promised because I think part of our struggle is we’re so apatheticto the work that we forget how to hold people accountable, how to organize, how to come to a table.
To your question around coordination, it’s like not only do I need to know what they said, I got to tell everybody I know, look at these proclamations, these things tell us this is what our county’s committed to, and I know they do proclamations all the time, but they did these proclamations around gun violence and safety. That can be turned into policy if you use it right. It can be turned into action if you use it right, but we’ve got to get better at taking all of those things and then using them to organize and hold people accountable and say this is—we agree with all that you said so we’re going to take this and put it into a strategy and a plan and move it forward. So I think part of it really is this idea of what political levers do we have to pull, and how do we work with those and how do we move those.
Lastly, I’ll say too part of this is they can’t just hear from Anthony all the time. Anthony’s got to have unlikely allies who are not your typical people who talk about this issue. Another city that we were working in, they were in the process of making ARPA, their American Rescue dollar allocations, and it was around supporting the work around this work and funding the office and getting more dollars in the community.
We had relationships with wealthy donors and other folks in the community and the community foundation, and we said to them, hey, can you all send letters—one, do you support this? Yeah, we support it. Can you send letters to all of our council members and let them know that you agree with this allocation? Those council members were surprised to get letters from these folks but that helped us move the needle so understanding the political landscape and the political levers is key for any kind of work that we’re trying to get done but we just got to get better at knowing who’s who.
Courtney W. Robertson: Absolutely, and a lot of your responses, Anthony, keeps pointing back to the importance of relationships, to your point of having relationships with people who can also then get the message out so it’s not just Anthony at Citizens United or it’s not just the Cities United team but there are local folks in this who we have strong enough relationships with to carry those messages. I love how you’re saying use what they’re putting out and align that to the work that you’re doing, and then use it to hold people accountable because if nothing else, it forces government or just folks in general to be intentional and thoughtful about what they’re putting out and to make sure they can back up whatever it is because now there’s a set of people who are actively paying attention and calling those out, and not calling those out in a bad way but making sure we’re holding to what we’ve said we want to do very loudly and prominently through this proclamation which is so great. I just think proclamations are so great, but you know.
Anthony Smith: I’m just telling you I agree with what you said so how do we make it work. At the end of the day you said this thing, we agree with it. We want to see it move. Let’s get to work.
Courtney W. Robertson: We’re coming towards the end of our conversation. I could talk to you for probably two or three hours, Anthony, so we won’t belabor it but hopefully we can have some offline conversations but just curious to know like for Cities United what’s sort of next for you all, what are you excited about in your work, and how can folks remain connected or if there’s some government officials or folks who feel like, hey, we need Cities United’s presence in our community, how can they reach out?
Anthony Smith: I’m excited about a lot of things. I’m excited about where the work is nationally and locally as a field, this ideal of alternative public safety models, this ideal of community violence intervention, this ideal of we can all come together to co-produce public safety. It’s exciting to me in a way that it hasn’t been for a while so when we have the current administration who is invested in this work, who have created positions to support this work, and have brought in folks from the field to help guide it and move that work, when you see so many cities across the country opening up offices to support this work, you’ve got a number of states who now have statewide offices of community violence, public safety, whatever they call it so there’s excitement in all of that.
When you think about Cities United, our excitement really is around we’ve been hosting a Young Leader Fellowship for the last five years where we take in 18 to 24-year-old, young Black leaders from across the country every year. We take 15 into a fellowship. They go through eight months. This is our fifth one, so we’ve got 15 young folks who are in it today, they do trips and meet-ups but the most exciting piece of this is this is the folks who are going to lead the work for the next leg. They’re leading right now in their own cities, they’re going to be the folks who you’re going to be talking to, Courtney, in the next little bit around what—I mean they’re just amazing people so every city I go into, or we go into as Cities United, there’s an amazing group of people who care deeply about this issue, who shows up every day, who’s passionate, who just want to see people have better outcomes, and people have better opportunities. That’s every city USA you go into. There’s a group of people who are working hard to make this difference so that’s exciting as hell. I also think the exciting piece that cities are leaning into this work and really saying, OK, what does it look like for us to reimagine public safety, redefine it, and then reinvest?
Even though it’s taken longer than I want for cities to move in that direction, they’re moving. People are having harder conversations. People are forcing—not forcing the hand or at least pushing people to think differently about the work so that’s exciting.
We are excited to be hosting our 10th annual convening here in Atlanta October 25th through the 26th. Folks can go on citiesunited.org and download information about the upcoming convening so this is our 10th one. The first one was in New Orleans in 2014, and we’ve just been tracking and moving along. Excited to be in Atlanta. Mayors, local elected officials, anybody that’s interested in learning more about Cities United or trying to get their cities to join can also go to citiesunited.org and you can see there’s a button on there that allows you to put in your information so that you can get more information from us and send us a note and say, hey, we’re interested, want to learn more but the best place to learn more is to come to the convening in October because you’ll get to see it in action, not just us but all of our partners. We’re expecting about 600 people to show up so we would love to have all your listeners come and join us in the great city of Atlanta with Mayor Dickens and his team as we do this work together.
Courtney W. Robertson: Absolutely, and I take that as my official invite to the convening.
Anthony Smith: Yes, it is.
Courtney W. Robertson: You might see my face in the place because I am a local to Atlanta, but I appreciate that, Anthony, and congrats on 10 years of the convening and 10 plus years of doing this work with cities. We know it’s not easy and so much has changed about the world in 10 years which means so much has to change about our approach to the work.
I really appreciate you and your team’s commitment to solving gun violence and for sharing a lot of the lessons that you’ve learned that I’m sure is going to resonate with our audience so thank you for your gift of expertise, knowledge, time, talent, and I want to thank our listeners for your continued support of the Collective Impact Forum podcast.
Anthony Smith: Thank you for having me, Courtney.
(Outro) And this closes out this episode of the Collective Impact Forum podcast. If you are interested in learning more about what was discussed, you can find links to resources in the footnotes for this episode.
We would like to acknowledge that this episode was produced and edited on the unceded, traditional lands of the Coast Salish people, including the Duwamish, Suquamish, Stillaguamish, and Muckleshoot tribes. We honor with gratitude the land itself and the past, present, and futures of these tribes.
The Intro music for this episode was composed by Rafael Krux and our outro music is composed by Kevin Macleod.
In Forum news, we’re excited to share that registration is open for a number of upcoming online workshops. On October 13, we have “Navigating the Dangers to Collective Impact.” On October 26, we have “Building a Culture of Trust in Collective Impact.” On November 8, we have “Supporting the Conditions to Advance Systems Change.” On November 30, we have, “Exploring the Relational Core of Systems Change Work.” And on Dec. 12 and 13, we have our primer course Introduction to Collective Impact and the Backbone Role.”
Please visit our events section of our website at collectiveimpactforum.org if you would like to join any of these upcoming online sessions.
This is Tracy Timmons-Gray, Associate Director here at the Collective Impact Forum, and your podcast producer. I want to say thank you so much for listening, and we look forward to connecting with you more in our next episode. Until next time, we hope you are safe and well.