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Russ: This is The BusinessMakers Show, heard on the radio, seen online at TheBusinessMakers.com. It's guest time on the show and finally I'm very pleased to have with me Angela Blanchard, the CEO of Neighborhood Centers. Angela, welcome to The BusinessMakers Show.
Angela: Hi Russ, thanks for having me.
Russ: You bet. So before we get into the interview just recently there have been 3 big time books that profile the Neighborhood Centers about what you're doing here how did - how did that make you feel?
Angela: Well, I think it's wonderful. I think that most Houstonians feel we're in this really remarkable moment when the rest of the world wakes up and discovers what's so special about this region and they're writing about us in all kinds of publications and we're making all the big lists. But these 3 books, they mean a lot to Neighborhood Centers because they really highlight what's really important about the work we've done and they why; why we do the work we do and what it's meant to the region. So, they're great books, I recommend them of course, but I think they're provocative as well and they make you think differently about possibilities and opportunities.
Russ: Well Houston is a unique city for sure, but Neighborhood Centers seems to be embracing its uniqueness and taking it to the next level. So, the 3 books are The Metropolitan Revolution
Angela: By The Brookings Institution.
Russ: Okay, and Confronting Suburban Poverty in America
Angela: And also a Brookings Institution publication from this year.
Russ: Impressive. And also Investing in What Works for America's Communities
Angela: And this book is a combined project of the Low Income Investment Fund and the Federal Reserve looking at community development practice across the country and what's really working.
Angela: Well, I like these books because they say we're partly responsible for this being a welcoming place of opportunity for everyone. I particularly like The Metropolitan Revolution because in every way, the argument made in there says we're living in this rather extraordinary moment when regional economies are actually the engines that are rebuilding the new economy. So new ideas, innovations, real get-it-done kind of stuff is coming out of regional leadership.
So Metropolitan Revolution is about what's working to generate, to really crank up the economy and with great stories about regional leadership and people just - I like to call it cities just doing it for themselves and not waiting, because no one's coming. There's nobody bigger, smarter, better, no new policy, no revolutionary, you know, legislation that's going to pull us forward. And it's so perfect that Houston's featured in this book because that's the way we think down here. It's this way we have of embracing people and then getting that human capital, that remarkable human capital realized, employed, at work, doing something that makes a difference, on the ladder, on that economic ladder; that's our whole purpose at neighborhood Centers.
Russ: Well, you know, when I look at your purpose and how you've been executing, it seems like there's nothing that emulates business as usual here. I mean the way you present it…
Angela: There is no business as usual in the world. So we're in an unusual time. I think if you think about the past few years that and the amount of disruption and the kind of huge shift in the way we're able to communicate - there are so many big things and trends that indicate we're in a new world, new geography. So, as a non-profit we have to embrace that new world, which means you have to go out there, not with a single-minded focus on what you do, but with an unrelenting sort of commitment to why you exist. We're here to keep this region a place of opportunity for everyone, no matter what rung of the ladder they have to start on; so sometimes that means building the first rung. But that why, that clarity about why, allows us then to shift the what and the how as times change, as new issues emerge.
Russ: Interesting, interesting for sure. And from what I understand from the research I've done, you are the most successful in some of the categories that rank organizations like you compared to everybody, now.
Angela: Well, we're, you know, we're always proud to be acknowledged, but I have to say - I mean, I think that we have tried to grow with the city. I mean we're - our growth has been a reflection of what's happened in our region. You know, we expect as a region to grow by a hundred and something thousand plus people every year for the next ten years. Well, as a non-profit dedicated to that first rung, you know, we know that most of the people that'll arrive here will be arriving on that first rung, so we have to evolve so that we can continue to do that. But we've landed in the top 1% of non-profits in the country and that's getting we're getting used to being noticed and it's been a really kind of fun to share about Houston's generosity and about the kinds of things we do down here that really work.
Russ: Well, big time congratulations. And you've been leading, driving, captaining the ship for a few years now, right?
Angela: Yeah, one or two or three, maybe more. Yeah, I think my whole career - what I consider the most important part of my career - has been at Neighborhood Centers and I started as a board member in 1985 or in 1984, in there, and then came on as the Finance - Chief Financial Officer and then became CEO about 17 years ago. We've grown in that time from an organization of 7 million dollars in '86 to a 270 million dollar organization, so we really have grown with the region and really have sought to continue the legacy.
And, so everything you see here today is the more modern manifestation of the spirit that says if you come here and you work hard, there'll be a place for you; and that's Houston's really special and unique offering.
Russ: Absolutely. When you say, you know, work hard, I kind of watch the way things work around here and - and - and the way you talk about it sometimes, but you have this statement that seems to also be picked up in - in the press and lots of different cities across the country, this Figure It Out Mentality; share with us how that evolved and how you champion that cause.
Angela: Well, we just spoke about the world has shifted, right? I mean, we have if we have a storm, it's an unprecedented storm and in every way it - it exceeds the plan we made for how we were going to deal with that; if we have an economic disruption, it presents all kinds of surprises, things that we didn't anticipate. So disruptions in the world cause new influxes of I mean, we have - we - we're the number one destination for immigrants and refugees and you can really trace the pattern of who's coming here by tracing the pattern of unrest in the world. So if you see a troubled spot in the world today, those folks will be arriving here soon. And so we have to be prepared for that and to continue being a welcoming city.
I say look, there's the known world and here are the things that we can - we already know how to do and we do those when we need to and we do them well, make routine what ought to be routine, but most of the critical stuff - all the important work is a figure it out job.
You know, figure out how we serve undocumented immigrants; we know they're here, there are 400,000 of them, we can't get Federal Immigration Reform like Houston wants it so badly - we know we need it, we can't get it now - so what can we constructively do between now and the time the Federal laws line up with what - with human aspiration? So we go to work in that vein.
So I think there are lots of people here that really know how to do it when we know how to do it, but they also know how to figure it out when we don't have a clue. And I love it because I watch those people go to work every day and just, you know, you just keep heading the direction you need to go in and you've seen it, you know what it's like.
Russ: Fantastic. No, that's really cool. Talking with Angela Blanchard, the CEO of Neighborhood Centers, and this is The BusinessMakers Show, heard on the radio and seen online at TheBusinessMakers.com. We'll be back with more with Angela after this. This is The BusinessMakers Show, heard on the radio, seen online at TheBusinessMakers.com; continuing on with Angela Blanchard, CEO of Neighborhood Centers. Now Angela, when we left we were talking about how so proactive you and Neighborhood Centers are about immigration and not waiting on some sort of national initiative, but I understand they've invited you to Washington recently, you were recently there, right?
Angela: Yes, I've been spending a little bit of time in D.C., at very special invitation I might add.
Russ: All right, how special might that be?
Angela: So - well, it was very special. So on August 29th the President - President Obama invited 10 leaders from the - around the country, and he invited us to meet with him for 2 hours at the White House - and his - the topic of the conversation was jobs and neighborhoods; really, how are we restarting the economy, what does that look like for people who are at this rung of the ladder and how are we transforming neighborhoods? So, in both ways I think Neighborhood Centers ended up on the screen for the folks looking around the country to see what's working.
And it was really an incredible meeting and I think the - for me, you know, this administration has embraced the idea that transformations in neighborhoods are complex jobs. You know, that's an undertaking, it takes a while and we live in a very siloed world, so to really change things we have to have non-siloed approaches. We have to have non-siloed approaches in the face of siloed policies and non-slioed approaches in the face of siloed funding. So in every way, when you do something in a more transformational, in a more comprehensive way, you're going to have to work pretty hard to weave these streams and funding sources and policies together in a way that really works for the residents of the neighborhood.
Russ: Well and I hope that you were able to speak up in this 2 hour session.
Angela: Yes. Well, I - you know, my whole goal was to represent well. I really think that what's going on in Houston is worth - Houston is the nation on demographic, economic fast forward, so what works here ought to be of great interest to folks in the rest of the country because if it works here, they're going to need it in a couple of years, if not already. So I really did, you know, the - the President was most gracious to give them - us 2 full hours so we all had an opportunity to talk about what's working and how things might work better, so - and those conversations will continue. So I was - I was extremely proud, I mean it makes me very proud of Neighborhood Centers very proud of Houston to have gotten that notice, so.
Russ: Do you think he knows how unique Houston is?
Angela: You know Russ, I think one of the things in the last three years I've learned is that Houston's story is just now really getting told in a way that the rest of the country's paying attention to. And I want to qualify that by saying on the issues that are of great concern to Neighborhood Centers, Inc. - that's low income families and communities and how they can make it their way forward through their own effort - in that way, policies and programs designed to help low income families have largely been designed for cities with a geography very different than Houston's.
So sometimes, when they're just looking at the map of the country, we're not on it; certainly we are for the President, I mean obviously I got the invitation which was wonderful, but I think whether you're looking at national funders, national policy makers, they carry a map in their head of a city that looks like Chicago. So you have to first say no, we're not Chicago or Boston or New York or San Francisco, I mean we're really a different kind of city, but there are a lot of us in, you know, fast growing, Southern cities with unique demographics that are embracing the next economy. We're worth studying because we have something to teach the country about - in Houston's case, really how you take advantage of human capital and put human aspiration to work to really fuel a regional economy. That's the story here, it's the human capital story.
Russ: Okay, so not too long ago Angela I saw you speak, it was a cool presentation and you talked about appreciative inquiry as though that's kind of a normal practice here at Neighborhood Centers, is it?
Angela: Yeah, I think we - this is an approach. Appreciative Inquiry was developed at Case Western by a man named David Cooperider; it's an approach to asking questions. It's a way of looking at the world also. So when - when we set out to work with communities that are troubled in some way, when you think about what you read about poor neighborhoods or low-income families, often times the story's about what's wrong with them. Appreciative inquiry, we latched onto it. When we found it, it came out of a conversation where we said we're so tired of presenting the people we work with from the standpoint of what's not working because many of the people that work at this organization - we have 1200 employees - quite a few of our folks really have come out of the neighborhoods and they come out of the kinds of families that we help. And, so we all know that these families are more than what's wrong with them. We're all about what's right with people; what are the strengths and skills and aspirations? What are their deeply held dreams for themselves and their children?
So, when we go and work with neighborhoods the questions we ask are not the old needs assessment questions, you know, what are your problems, what's not working, what are the needs? It's all about what's working? Who in this community is a real leader? What are the things, the sights and sounds and smells in this neighborhood that make you feel at home? Tell us about a time when you were struggling with an issue and your neighbors helped; what did they do? How did that work?
So - and then when you - if I say to you, you know, tell me something that you do really, really well and how could you do that in a way that would benefit the community, that is a completely different kind of question. So we build these profiles of communities and families and neighborhoods based on what's working, what are the strengths and skills and aspirations? And then out of that picture we learn what to build, what to - where to - what to do next. So you can truly help people if you'll stand with them as they're working on what matters most to them.
Russ: Wow, I get so completely changes the tone of the discussion.
Angela: It changes everything. I mean really, it changes everything and the power from an - if you're a non-profit using this - an approach to study a neighborhood or community - and then you want to share that story with the broader community. So imagine the story that says, for example, about Gulfton - the highest juvenile crime, the high - you know, all this litany of problems versus the story that says there are unbelievable people in Gulfton. It's the most diverse neighborhood in the community. Everybody who's there has come here to work for a better life, let me tell you some of the things these folks are capable of; what they've already done on their own without our help. So it's a very different story when if I want you to invest, you need to know why these people are such a tremendously, I mean what - why - it's just an incredible opportunity to invest, but we find that in every neighborhood, in every community, in every family. There are strengths, there's something - you know, let me just tell you my Cajun summation, you can't build on broken.
Angela: You don't study what's broken and then try fix that, you really work with the strengths and you build on those and that's been very powerful for us and, yeah, so.
Russ: And did I hear you correctly too, 1,200 employees?
Angela: Yes. Well, we're - we're reaching over 400,000 people, so you need 1,200 folks to do that, plus 3,400 volunteers. And so, you know, we've got folks working on - volunteers who work on taxes, we do tax returns - we have a free tax service for low income families, we have volunteers that help with immigration services, we have schools and Head Start program, we have a community development credit union, we have a number of senior - senior centers where people come during the day to be with one another and support one another. So, I mean there's a lot of activity going on in 70 locations throughout this whole region and it's all about the same thing, it's a realized human potential. It's about opportunity and hard work, so yeah, it's a very, you know, it's a really incredible organization with a lot of really fired up people.
Russ: Wow. Well, I must also tell you that in preparing for this, I came across this film that apparently the Neighborhood Centers is just now releasing that kind of took my breath away; talk about that.
Angela: Well, it's the start of a series, H Town Stories. So, when I tell you 400,000 people, that's a huge number, I mean that's a city, right? But every one of those is an individual, it's a person striving for a better life; working through their neighborhood, through their community, with their family, with their own set of circumstances and strengths. So I can tell you their story, but it's not the same as when you meet them and I have this really incredible benefit to my job; any day, any time, any day of the week, any week of the month, any month of the year I can go to a center and I can see something really remarkable happening, some extraordinary thing.
And we always have sought to figure out how to bring that, how do - how do I give that to you; you know, somebody that cares and supports and you don't get to see it. So H Town Stories is really all about meeting the people that really benefit from what we do. It's not a story about Neighborhood Centers, it's a story about the people that we work with and why they matter so much and that's what makes it extraordinary. And it's real and it's raw, it's not a Hallmark card, doesn't have always a happy ending, it's really a story about the journey and the struggle and the things that people are able to do in their lives.
Russ: Well what I saw was very touching.
Angela: So H Town Stories is about the people we work with and it's - it's our way of giving to the community a gift of knowing the people and why they matter so much. So we showed this at Sundance and the remarkable part was the people featured in the film were there, so there's an opportunity, you know, for connection beyond the film but the film's available online. You can go to our website and there's a link - you'll see it, H Town Stories - and you get to meet some neighbors, people that you might pass on the street without ever knowing how extraordinary their lives are and how courageous they've been everyday and the challenges that they faced
Russ: Well Angela, I really appreciate you sharing your story with us.
Angela: Thank you, thanks for having me. Thanks so much for asking all the questions that we longed to answer.
Russ: Great. And that wraps up my discussion with Angela Blanchard, the CEO of Neighborhood Centers and this is The BusinessMakers Show, heard on the radio and seen online at TheBusinessMakers.com.