Cultivating Thriving Communities: A Conversation with Ryan Chao

Posted February 12, 2013, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Newsrelease ryanchaonamed 2011

Ryan Chao, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s vice pres­i­dent for Civic Sites and Com­mu­ni­ty Change, leads the Foundation’s ongo­ing efforts to cre­ate sup­port­ive, thriv­ing com­mu­ni­ties for chil­dren and fam­i­lies. With a back­ground in afford­able hous­ing devel­op­ment, finance and archi­tec­ture, Chao says his new role presents an oppor­tu­ni­ty to have a pos­i­tive impact on neigh­bor­hoods and con­tribute to the com­mu­ni­ty change field as a whole. A father of two, he and his fam­i­ly moved to the Bal­ti­more area from Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia, in June 2012.

Q: You have a degree in archi­tec­ture, an MBA and broad expe­ri­ence in devel­op­ing afford­able hous­ing. How did all this lead you to com­mu­ni­ty change?

My inter­est has always been in the built envi­ron­ment — how it can effect pos­i­tive com­mu­ni­ty change and serve as a vehi­cle for equi­ty and social jus­tice. I want­ed to have a role in pos­i­tive­ly shap­ing how com­mu­ni­ties can devel­op or revive to some degree, which led to work­ing in com­mu­ni­ty devel­op­ment. In doing that, I saw that a lot of the work is about shield­ing the most vul­ner­a­ble from the effects of the mar­ket, so I devel­oped a skill set in finance and lend­ing — a path that ulti­mate­ly led me to hous­ing. Hav­ing a safe, decent and afford­able home is such an impor­tant plat­form for human devel­op­ment, and that’s what steered me toward focus­ing on hous­ing as a plat­form for fam­i­ly and com­mu­ni­ty strength­en­ing. My role at Casey fus­es togeth­er a lot of my dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences and inter­ests, from work on the phys­i­cal built envi­ron­ment side to the human cap­i­tal side, which includes sup­ports that indi­vid­ual fam­i­lies and neigh­bor­hoods need to be healthy.

Q: The Foun­da­tion has worked for years to trans­form neigh­bor­hoods in Atlanta and Bal­ti­more, known as the civic sites. How would you describe this work and its accomplishments?

The civic sites in Bal­ti­more and Atlanta are the Foundation’s most direct, mul­ti­fac­eted, longest-run­ning place-based work. Because they are home­towns, we are com­mit­ted in a spe­cial way to being a civic leader and advo­cat­ing for their most vul­ner­a­ble res­i­dents. The work in both places has had some note­wor­thy suc­cess­es, and we will con­tin­ue address­ing some of the biggest chal­lenges over the long haul. In Bal­ti­more, the Foun­da­tion was the most impor­tant advo­cate for ensur­ing res­i­dents who moved as part of the [East Bal­ti­more com­mu­ni­ty] rede­vel­op­ment were looked after in terms of their finan­cial needs and oth­er sup­ports. We also helped cre­ate demo­li­tion pro­to­cols that led to a much more sen­si­tive approach to the envi­ron­men­tal impacts of that work and can serve as a basis for repli­ca­tion beyond Baltimore.

Oth­er sig­nif­i­cant devel­op­ments include hous­ing for low-income peo­ple, a move toward a more eco­nom­i­cal­ly diverse com­mu­ni­ty and oth­er com­mer­cial ameni­ties that will ulti­mate­ly lead to a more vibrant area.

We’ve also seen the pos­i­tive rip­ple effects, with new and bet­ter hous­ing in sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties and a real turn in the curve in terms of blight and aban­don­ment. There will be a great new com­mu­ni­ty school in that neigh­bor­hood — the first new school built in Bal­ti­more in decades, pro­vid­ing a lev­el of qual­i­ty that many have nev­er seen before.

In Atlanta, we first focused on cre­at­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for fam­i­lies in job train­ing and eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty, build­ing a world-class ear­ly child­hood edu­ca­tion cen­ter and lead­ing to pos­i­tive improve­ment in the schools. We’ve worked with com­mu­ni­ty part­ners to pro­vide many res­i­dents with greater assets and eco­nom­ic sta­bil­i­ty than they ever would have enjoyed before. Impor­tant work is hap­pen­ing now to stem the tide of fore­clo­sure and seize the oppor­tu­ni­ty to pro­vide bet­ter-qual­i­ty hous­ing that is more sus­tain­able in terms of afford­abil­i­ty and con­tin­ued qual­i­ty over time.

There’s also been tremen­dous progress in involv­ing neigh­bor­hoods and res­i­dents in the plan­ning and vision­ing process. Through Casey’s efforts and an amaz­ing num­ber of con­cerned cit­i­zens and civic lead­ers band­ing togeth­er, we have actors involved in mul­ti­ple lay­ers of sup­ports. These efforts demon­strate what’s pos­si­ble when a car­ing and com­mit­ted com­mu­ni­ty insti­tu­tion part­ners in a sin­cere way with the com­mu­ni­ty to turn around decades of disinvestment.

Q: What is the Foundation’s com­mu­ni­ty change strat­e­gy beyond site-spe­cif­ic work?

One thing we’ve learned — through our expe­ri­ences in com­mu­ni­ty change ini­tia­tives and by study­ing lessons from the field — is that it’s pos­si­ble to make pos­i­tive change in a com­mu­ni­ty with the right ser­vices and lev­els of fund­ing sup­port, but one of the biggest chal­lenges is sus­tain­ing these changes. We’ve come to believe the most effec­tive way to do that is by hav­ing local own­er­ship and lead­er­ship of the work and a broad range of part­ners so that the effort is mul­ti­fac­eted. The peo­ple who are there in the com­mu­ni­ty, who will be there for the long run, must be deeply involved.

All of this helped inform Fam­i­ly-Cen­tered Com­mu­ni­ty Change, our new strat­e­gy to sup­port some of the most promis­ing work on the ground in dif­fer­ent cities on a fam­i­ly-by-fam­i­ly basis; to explore ways for com­mu­ni­ty change efforts to be last­ing; and to explore the role that Casey — and per­haps the broad­er field of phil­an­thropy — can carve out. The Foun­da­tion wants to join as a strate­gic co-investor in a lim­it­ed num­ber of strong, mul­ti­sec­tor exist­ing part­ner­ships demon­strat­ing sol­id results and strong momen­tum, sup­port­ing the over­all ini­tia­tive and nest­ing with­in it a two-gen­er­a­tion approach to serv­ing fam­i­lies. At the com­mu­ni­ty lev­el, this approach means knit­ting togeth­er ser­vices in a way that sup­ports chil­dren and par­ents or care­givers with­in the same fam­i­ly as a whole.

This is emerg­ing work, but we’re excit­ed about part­ner­ing with inno­v­a­tive efforts under­way in Buf­fa­lo, N.Y.; Colum­bus, Ohio; and San Antonio.

Q: What is your vision for the Foundation’s civic site and com­mu­ni­ty change work?

The Foun­da­tion has a broad goal of improv­ing vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties and fight­ing to ensure that low-income chil­dren don’t have their des­tiny deter­mined by where they live. To achieve that goal, we’re try­ing to sup­port part­ners and groups, at the nation­al and region­al lev­els, that are mak­ing a sub­stan­tial impact in the field of com­mu­ni­ty change and equi­ty. Some sup­port is through fund­ing, but also through under­stand­ing the pow­er of influ­ence and fos­ter­ing learn­ing com­mu­ni­ties, which Casey is unique­ly posi­tioned to do. In our home­towns, we remain com­mit­ted to a lot of the most dif­fi­cult and impor­tant work in our com­mu­ni­ties, but we’re also look­ing at con­tin­u­ing to bring in as many effec­tive part­ners as pos­si­ble to improve these com­mu­ni­ties in every way we can.

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