Cultivating Thriving Communities: A Conversation with Ryan Chao

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

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.