August 16, 2021 - From the August, 2021 issue

HR&A LA’s Andrea Batista Schlesinger on Building Inclusive Cities

Andrea Batista Schlesinger, HR&A LA's new managing partner, recently shared with TPR how the firm’s national Inclusive Cities practice is examining fundamental questions of racial equity, economic justice, and the failure of traditional economic development approaches to address persistent challenges facing cities today. Schlesinger also elaborates on HR&A’s ongoing inclusive governance, citizen engagement, and community engagement work in Los Angeles, HR&A's founding city.


Andrea Batista Schlesinger

“My ambition is to build on what we have done, expand the services that we provide, and expand the set of clients that we work with—governments, the developer community, advocacy, philanthropy—so that we're taking all that we've learned from around the country and put it in the hands of those that are working to define what the next chapter is for the city and for this region.“—Andrea Batista Schlesinger

Andrea, while you have just recently come to manage LA’s HR&A office, you've been both with HR&A for more than four years and possess a distinguished background in working with city and civic leadership nationwide. With that as context, share your vision and ambitions for the LA HR&A office?

Andrea Batista Schlesinger: First of all, the LA office is unique because it's our founding office, so there is a historical significance to our firm. The partners here have done an incredible job growing our presence, especially on issues of significance to the city and to the region.

My vision is that we can build on that incredibly important foundation to bring more equity, resilience, and inclusivity to the city and to the region and expand who we serve, take the methodologies and the work that we do and deploy it towards making racially equitable and economically just cities and regions.

My ambition is to build on what we have done, expand the services that we provide, and expand the set of clients that we work with—governments, the developer community, advocacy, philanthropy—so that we're taking all that we've learned from around the country and putting it in the hands of those that are working to define what the next chapter is for the city and for this region.

I think the region is grappling with fundamental questions of racial equity and economic justice excess of the failure of traditional economic development approaches to address very pressing and ongoing concerns—whether it be who's housed or the degree to which your identity determines how you fare. Everything we know in the firm can be of relevance at this moment. I want this to be a place where everybody who cares about cities wants to work.

Share the niche that HR&A fills in the marketplace?

You've got firms that can communicate, some that can do policy work, planning work, and big projects, some that understand issues of equity, and some with people who have extensive experience in government land. I believe it's unique that we have all of those perspectives under one roof, and we're trying to figure out how to deploy all of these areas of expertise in the service of our clients.

We can think as deeply about policy planning as we can about racial equity, we can think about systems as deeply as we can pull off transformative projects, and we can be a bridge between advocates and folks who have ideas and address the realities of what it means to implement something. That makes us unique, and that's why I'm here.

 What HR&A work and experiences inform your vision and agenda for the City of Angels?

The firm is working on the most pressing challenges facing cities, counties, and regions all around the country; it makes it an incredibly interesting and dynamic place to work. Yet, we have practice areas from resilience to racial equity and governance. The work that I have done around inclusive governance, citizen engagement and community engagement has not yet found its home here in the LA office, and my vision is that it will.

Right now, I'm consulting with a city in Massachusetts that wants to evaluate how its policies and practices as a local government may be inadvertently contributing to racial inequity in their city. They want us to do an equity audit of their policy and practice.

I'm working with a newly elected mayor of Miami-Dade County. She's a total disrupter to the status quo as the first woman, first Jewish person, and first Democrat, and we're doing her external engagement. We surveyed 27,000 people around the region and did a civic week, got thousands of people and tried to introduce to them how the county works. Now, we're working deeply with the County department heads to figure out how all that data becomes the basis of her year one plan.

I'm working with a foundation in another city that brings a lot of assets to the table—soft power, hard power, money, stature—to think about how they want to weigh in on the future administration of New York. I'm working with a county in the South that bought a shopping mall because they didn't want it to fall into private hands; it's in a community where no ethnicity is the plurality, and they want to make sure that what they do with that mall benefits the surrounding communities.

Elaborate on your work experience with cities and other philanthropies.

My real first start was trying to elect the first Latino mayor of New York. I lost, which would not be the only losing candidate that I would then work for. Election Day was right after 9/11, and he lost. He was en route to win, but then the city wanted something different. After that, I ran for eight years, with the candidate who lost, a think tank that was founded during the Civil Rights Movement.

I went into government to work for Mayor Mike Bloomberg who had defeated my candidate, where I led his initiative focused on young black and brown men and boys that became a model for My Brother's Keeper, Obama's initiative. Then, I went to Open Society Foundations, George Soros' philanthropy, where I was the deputy director of the US program. Then I came to HR&A.

Given your New York and East Coast experience, allow TPR a Rorschach test, question:  when you hear, California, what do you imagine?

It's really new for me to learn the power of the City versus the County. Going from a place in which the mayor in New York is everything, that's been an education. I think the bursts of organizing and successful advocacy are impressive, then there's kind of a civic vacuum that I observe.

For me, I find a resignation to what the expectations are from the LA city government, which might be related to my first observation about who has power and who doesn't. I can't tell if that's because the power doesn't really exist or because the city has become accustomed to it not being wielded in recent years.

The dynamics of what equity means are new and different. But the depth of love of people who are from here and the commitment they feel is similar to native New Yorkers. When people talk to me, even the people who are working to make change, that comes across in a striking way.

I'm learning a ton of governance shifts. I work around the country but this is a unique landscape in which I have to understand the outsized role of propositions and the relative power of cities versus the county. Understanding the relative power of quasi-public-private agencies is also a learning curve for me.

Advertisement

Given your professional focus upon equity, how different is Los Angeles from its similar east coast metropolis? For example, New York, many contend has a much more pronounced black and white demographic divide, whereas California is a more multi-ethnic mozaic.

The divides are new ones for me in terms of the strength of the Latinx population here demographically. It's a little bit different, coming from a place where, like in New York or and other places where I work, where it is much more of a White-Black power contest. Although I would say there's a pretty strong Latino organizing and political community in New York as well.

What intrigued me when I was thinking about coming here was the feeling that a lot of folks on the frontline shared with me, which was that this was an unprecedented moment for Black and Brown coalitions that they hadn't had in decades. The observation that others have made is about this moment being one where post-COVID uprisings, where there is potential for Black-Brown coalitions that may not might not have existed before, and that notion excites me.

In the 2020 election, locally in California, a number of very experienced and progressive mayors and leaders lost their seats, partly because it was the first election in which we melded federal and local elections on the same ballot. Mayor Tubbs in Stockton, leadership in West Sacramento, and leadership in Santa Monica all were defeated. What's the lesson that Mayor Tubbs and the rest should take from that fall 2020 election, given how much they advanced a similar agenda?

I don't know enough about the case of each city to be able to make a generalization, but the lesson I take from this is my motto. Even though I had an addiction to working with mayors, the mayors won't save us. If you don't have folks on the outside who are equipped with an understanding of the levers of power and who are deeply engaged in policy and know what's happening, then you're overly dependent upon who occupies that office and your fate rises and falls with it.

Whatever happens, the organizers and others on the ground are grappling with the question of "We won, now what?".

Elaborate on 'Talking Transition' and the work you did in Harris County, Texas as a model for more transparent and community-responsive engagement. 

'Talking Transition' operates from the premise that most people aren't that engaged in municipal elections; turnout is incredibly low, especially in our big cities. We have this moment after election day where generally things very much turn to inside baseball: who's going to be appointed and who's going to get the job. What was already a pretty low participation in elections turns then to non-existent participation in a transition that determines what the next chapter of the city is going to look like.

We try to use that moment to set the parameters for the next administration to try to tap into what people want, to engage with them in an authentic way to understand their concerns and hopes, to introduce new ideas, to get people in the administration whose ability to engage with community and set a new tone for an incoming administration.

We try to reclaim that time of transition from one of inside baseball to one in which people are engaged and aware, and hopefully where the incoming administration is taking that wisdom. Not only what people say, but the importance of engagement. Even when people are elected who bring hope, or present themselves as such, there are community actors who at one point are going to disagree. If those leaders don't know how to engage with the community in an authentic way, the pattern is that they retrench from the agenda and become defensive or insular. I can point to many times over the last few decades where populist mayors have done this, especially on issues of economic development and criminal justice.

There are implications of setting the right tone of engagement, trust, partnerships, and accountability. We did this work in New York for Mayor de Blasio and in DC when Mayor Bowser was elected, but where we really got the hang of it was when Harris County's Lina Hidalgo was elected county judge. I would love a place like this to think about transitions as a movement for excitement and dialogue.

There was some interest in LA in public banking under former City Council President Herb Wesson.  Is there much in the way of technology or legislation at the state and federal level that suggests the need and feasibility of public banking?

There's energy among cities around the country for public banking, but I also think of the failure of the private banking landscape to meet the needs of cities, either in terms of service or in terms of people and businesses. When you look at this through the lens of racial equity, I don't think it's surprising that a city would look for alternatives for how to get loans and capital to people of color who are otherwise profoundly underserved as the means of starting and scaling businesses and creating jobs.

There's tons of FinTech and other companies that are making it easier and cheaper to get accounts. The problem is that their model doesn't sustain that on an ongoing basis so eventually, those accounts are going to cost money, and eventually people are going to opt out. We don't have enough longitudinal data to see whether those business models are actually sustainable without doing what other banks do.

My take on public banks is that cities are frustrated and looking for alternatives. We did a feasibility study for Seattle and their main interest was divesting from Wells Fargo. They wanted to start their own bank, and we wanted to show them what was involved and how significant the appeal would be.

In Philadelphia—and they've since introduced a resolution to create their bank—they're just fed up. We quantified the actual gap in lending in Philly, and it's significant. The private banking landscape was not doing anything to help their black and brown entrepreneurs to create businesses. They wanted to start a bank for that express purpose of poverty alleviation via small business creation. We went under the hood to see, is it feasible? Yes. Is it going to be really hard to do? Yes.

California has taken a huge step that multiple places that I just described have not done by passing enabling legislation at the state level. One of the obstacles is already off the table, and they've invited feasibility studies and business plans from cities. We're going under the hood with a city in California who's hired us to look at whether or not it's feasible. I'm not going to say which city yet, but they're more interested in a multi-city entity. If you could get enough cities to bank their municipal deposit together, they could get favorable lending and do their public infrastructure projects without having to put things up for bonds.

Pivoting back to HR&A , what typically leads clients to the firm?

It depends on our clients. Some are drawn to us because of our work or the rigor of our analysis. Others trust us, because they know that when we talk with the community we will be effective ambassadors, and that we understand the reality of what it means to implement. We're not going to waste their time.

I like to think of us as an idea import-export because of our work all around the country. That perspective is also of value and one of the first things that our clients ask us: what's happening around the country? Being able to deploy that expertise and perspective instantly is valuable.

<

Advertisement

© 2021 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.