By F. Philip Barash, Past Boston Foundation Arts & Culture Fellow
To explore more of the lessons, process, and ideas generated by the Place Leadership Network pilot, and meet the members of the pilot cohort, visit tbf.org/learningfromplace.
In August 2019, the Boston Foundation launched an ambitious equitable placemaking pilot. Called the Place Leadership Network, it convened a field of place-based organizations across greater Boston, connecting them to funding, policy resources, and a community of practice. For nearly a year, a cohort of eight neighborhood groups engaged in a peer-learning institute, conducted in partnership with the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and supported by unrestricted funding. Participants explored practical approaches to creative placemaking and placekeeping, expanded access to policy and philanthropic resources, and built a strong peer network.
Out of a disparate set of places and people, solidarity emerged. But it has limits.
Eight PLN teams came together from all kinds of places—geographical, conceptual, emotional. That made for plenty of disagreement and friction throughout the learning process, much of it generative. To make room for difference, we intentionally avoided pressuring the group toward consensus. As we spent more time together, common language and shared values began to appear organically. Among the cohort, simpatico relationships blossomed and mutual assistance was sought and offered. Participants grew increasingly comfortable sharing, online and in-person, professional challenges as well as personal stories. Perhaps the most convincing evidence of solidarity among the cohort was teams’ insistence on transparent, peer-driven grantmaking. Rather than following a typical philanthropic model of application submission and review, the cohort co-designed a non-competitive and participatory process that guaranteed funding to all participants. Funds were distributed based on peer-to-peer recommendations— following a review by an independent panel—in accordance with a rubric that prioritized equity.
Yet this burgeoning sense of solidarity came up against constraints. It was clear, for example, that groups continue to compete for limited resources such as philanthropic support—sometimes with one another, sometimes with other place-based organizations in their catchments. Candid conversations among the cohort highlighted significant differences in their capacity, power, and need. While they may share the same overall values, PLN organizations operate within realites of economic and political pressures and significant inequities in resources that limit the sense of common purpose.
Connections to power and resources are important. But connections to peers are even more so.
One stated goal of PLN was to facilitate contact between place-based organizations and holders of institutional power and resources. Over the course of the year, some 50 people participated in the initiative as guests of the cohort—representing major institutions and marshaling significant influence. We welcomed heads of state agencies, including the Transformative Development Initiative and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. We heard from Alanna Mallon, Vice Mayor of Cambridge, and Kara Elliott-Ortega, Boston’s Chief of Arts & Culture. We engaged with academic thought leaders like Harvard’s Alex Krieger, Northeastern’s Ted Landsmark, and NYU’s Eric Klinenberg. We talked to prominent journalists and directors of advertising agencies, economic policy advisors and real estate developers, filmmakers, visual artists, urban planners, restaurateurs. To various degrees, these contacts enriched the cohort’s learning experience and expanded participants’ access to a multidisciplinary network. Some encounters resulted in unexpected alliances—like recruiting a new board member for a PLN organization. Others challenged the notions that guests brought with them. And in some cases, a new course of action was inspired: Following a session on public value-capture models, the Roxbury Cultural District is exploring a tool that reinvests real estate revenues into community-determined goals such as cultural placekeeping, public amenities, and affordable housing.
But it was apparent from the cohort’s reflections that they found the most benefit in connecting with one another. Again and again, they called attention to how peer learning validated their experience, sparked their creativity, and generated ideas. PLN participants indicated that even without specific objectives, they relished the chance to catch up and commiserate. Put another way, the value of external connections is contingent on first forming a confident community of practice.
When we were first developing the concept for PLN, we spoke with what seemed like an infinite galaxy of place-based organizations. They are as varied as the places in their care: commercial corridors, athletic fields, housing developments, arts districts, public parks. PLN offered proof not only of the range but also of the effectiveness of these agents. Whether they promote economic justice, lead universal design efforts or leverage creative youth development, the organizations in the PLN cohort serve a vital role in their communities. This was vividly illustrated as places grappled with COVID-19. In the context of a pandemic, place leaders were uniquely positioned to respond to the public health crisis with efficacy and empathy.
But in convening a deliberately diverse group, we discovered something obvious, albeit in retrospect: Namely, that PLN is the only nexus where this kind of a group convenes. This is to say that though they share a region, a set of concerns, and values around spatial justice and community self-determination, this cohort—and the universe it represents—has no center of gravity. It is diffuse and disconnected, therefore lacking the means to exert influence over regional policy, say, or a united voice in land development decisions. To be sure, place leaders belong to professional networks such as trade associations; they often enjoy access to local officials; they may take part in other affinity-group programs. But as the cohort frequently reminded us, PLN’s greatest contribution has been to cluster this diffuse sector, and in the process, build critical mass.
In its 100+ year history, the Boston Foundation has incubated game-changing programs that support education access, emerging artists, and racial equity. In addition to its grantmaking programs, the Foundation has also become a leading civic voice in the region. It is an ideal platform to launch an ambitious, cross-sectoral initiative—including PLN. Certainly, we relied on the Foundation’s reputation to open doors to government agencies, for example, or to introduce peer funders to the work of place leaders. The Foundation’s position enabled us to enter into an innovative partnership with the Harvard Graduate School of Design, whose students provided technical assistance to the cohort. As important, the Boston Foundation’s structural position as a community foundation lent us a critical perspective. From the Foundation’s perch, we were able to scan the regional landscape to identify a need, and ultimately to envision a pilot initiative.
As much as the Foundation offered an ideal environment to prototype PLN, the next iteration of place-based work needs to be community-driven, independent-minded and autonomously operated. PLN demonstrated that community leaders can and must fully and justly shape the futures of their shared places. Throughout the course of PLN, we kept hearing a similar refrain from the cohort—if Boston has any hope of permanently altering development dynamics to center community interest and spatial justice, we need to continue shifting the power balance. This kind of systemic shift requires the platform that the Foundation offers. But it also requires a great deal more: a vibrant and sustained conversation among policymakers, developers, open space advocates, lenders, planners, activists, academics, and of course community members themselves. It requires a venue for doing so and a commitment from dominant institutions to support such a venue—while allowing room for independence. It requires the delicate and deeply vulnerable labor of repairing trust between communities and the professionals and agencies that serve them. Then and only then, Boston can transform from a city designed by developers to one determined by communities.