At the SPUR Board of Directors’ 2019 retreat, Alicia John-Baptiste, SPUR’s new president and CEO, gave her first address to the board and staff. The following is excerpted from her remarks.
I am so thrilled to be talking with you today as SPUR’s president and CEO. I come to this role as a changemaker. I have spent the past 20-plus years learning how to create sustainable change and how to do it effectively. From the earliest I can remember, I have always believed there is a better way we could be living, a better way we could construct our society that would produce more positive outcomes for people.
This belief has led me to a continuous exploration of how to use my talents to help create this “better version” of society. Fairly early on, I discovered that I am a systems thinker. I studied public policy so that I could understand how to either make or change the rules that impact our lives. I managed organizations for the City and County of San Francisco in an effort to produce better outcomes both for the people working in those organizations and for the people using their services. I ultimately left the city and came to SPUR because I realized that to effect the big changes that we need – both at a city level and at a regional level – I needed to lift my perspective up so that I could see the full context: the systems operating upon each other across the region.
What I have learned over the past 20 years or so is that to create sustainable change, you must align systems, resources and people. I ran quite a few initiatives in my early days that focused on changing the system by itself. I thought that if I did that, the people would come along. Sometimes that worked, but often I found that if I didn’t keep constant personal pressure on holding the system in place, eventually it would unravel because people wanted to do things differently. It reminds me of the “desire line” maps that pedestrian planners use: They look at where people want to walk based on how they’re actually traversing an area — and often it’s not where the crosswalks are.
Over time, I came to understand that to align people around change requires a combination of power and love. When I started inviting other people to help with problem-solving, and when I started listening more carefully to how people defined problems in the first place, I became more effective in developing the allies and partnerships necessary for sustainable change. I learned that the bigger the challenge, the more I needed a foundation of love to find the solution. And the more I could approach a situation with an open heart, the stronger the result. Because at the end of the day, if we want to move people, we have to connect with their hearts, and this takes love.
At the same time, I learned through experience that love by itself is insufficient. When we are grappling with really big challenges, we can hit stumbling blocks that people find very difficult — and perhaps not very appealing — to surmount. In those situations, I have found that keeping a really fierce commitment to the goal is required, and this is where power comes to bear.
Over the past couple of years I have been building a movement at my kids’ school to eliminate — or at least reduce — the racism and bias that they routinely face. Because I am a white person living in a black family, I see on a regular basis what a huge role race plays in our experiences. My children live different lives than I do — not because we live in different places or have different socioeconomic circumstances or have access to different social networks, but simply because they are black and I am white. We have evolved socially in the United States such that the vast majority of people — certainly in the Bay Area — think that racism and bias are wrong. But because those of us who are white tend to assume that our experience is the “normal” experience, and because so many of us who are designing social systems are white, we perpetuate bias through our systems — usually unintentionally, but it is there nonetheless. One core component of the equity movement is the call-out: a demand that we acknowledge the truth of others’ experiences. SPUR’s work going forward will only be stronger the more that we are able to do this.
Working with other parents to address bias at my kids’ school has been a classic example of a situation requiring both power and love. Power has been necessary to get people to engage on something that is scary and risky and fundamentally hard. Love has been necessary to get to a point where we can come up with real solutions for something that’s so deeply entrenched in our society and in our systems and in the American psyche.
Our mission at SPUR is to promote good planning and good government through research, education and advocacy. Our tagline is, “Ideas + action for a better city.” Underneath these statements is a question: What are we trying to create? What is our aspiration? What are our dreams?
This is a critical question because establishing a vision helps us define our path. And looking at people’s desire lines is a key component of this. Because vision becomes reality when people believe in it, when they can see themselves in it, when they have a hand in creating it.
Being human beings, we all dream differently. The imagery in our minds as we picture a better future is different depending on who we are. It’s important to gather and hear and respect these different dreams, and this is where SPUR’s structure and ethos as a big-tent organization is so critical. Because if we can collectively build a vision that incorporates the unique ways in which people dream — that can address and resolve the interdependencies and contradictions among those dreams — we can build a vision that holds incredible power. SPUR is already so good at understanding and explaining the steps that are required to achieve a goal. And that means we also have potential to expand what people believe is possible — to formulate a vision that speaks both to people’s rational minds and to their hearts.
Putting ourselves on a track toward a better future — with as much force and momentum as we can possibly build — is critical and it is urgent. For many of us, the Bay Area today is a place of cognitive dissonance. We understand this to be a place of opportunity that is thriving economically. We have a liberal political tradition that embraces people of all backgrounds: We were the birthplace of gay marriage and the Black Panthers. We care deeply about our environment and safeguarding our natural resources. And culturally, we understand ourselves to be a place of belonging, that we are people who care about the welfare of others and that diversity makes us stronger.
But simultaneously, we have unhoused people living on our streets. We have chosen not to invest in the systems we need to support a sustainable high quality of life — things like transportation and housing. We are underprepared for climate change. We worry about displacement and the major demographic shifts we’ve been seeing as entire populations leave cities and neighborhoods, but our solutions don’t address the underlying causes.
And critically, we struggle to solve our problems at scale. We pass local transportation and affordable housing funding measures, but the amount of money they raise is a drop in the bucket compared to the need. Our most recent effort at a grand bargain on housing has resulted in elected officials in some areas losing their jobs. We have failed to balance local and individual perspectives with collective and regional needs, and we consistently fail to recognize that our individual wellbeing and our collective wellbeing are two sides of the same coin. Even those of us privileged enough live in lovely communities in homes that we own with children in good schools are impacted by what’s not working: suffocating congestion, wildfires that feel like the apocalypse, fellow community members clearly suffering on our streets, feeling constantly like we’re at the edge of security.
Something is not working. There is a gulf between who we believe ourselves to be and the region we are actually creating and living in.
The time to change this is now.
The better version of society is one in which we recognize the essential value in all people and in each person. One in which we recognize that we are interdependent. In that version of society, we have very different outcomes:
People are housed
People have meaningful work
People have enough to eat
Kids of all backgrounds get a good education
Our air and water are clean
People move around in ways that are environmentally conscious and supportive of human dignity
People have easy access to nature
We can tell that we value the social systems that serve us — things like public transit and public education — because we pay good salaries to those who do this work
We take care of our commons
I believe that we can achieve this.
To do so, we have to start working at the scale of the challenges we face, which in many cases means working regionally. And to make the kinds of changes that are needed — which are big and which people have been working on for decades — we must be able to move people.
I believe that SPUR is exactly the organization to lead the changes that the region needs.
We are already both a local and a regional organization. We understand that local decisions aggregate up to create regional impact. That we must work across both dimensions if we are to meet our goals.
We already understand the importance of both the private sector and the civic sector. We know it is essential to support wealth creation and to thoughtfully guide wealth allocation to support both the individual and the collective wellbeing.
And perhaps most importantly, we are a collective. Together, we can create a powerful vision for the region that expands what people think is possible.
I am incredibly excited to be leading SPUR in partnership with each of you. Thank you.