During our 50th anniversary year, we’re inviting people to share their Miami stories. Local native Xavier de Souza Briggs now serves as Ford Foundation’s vice president for economic opportunity and markets. His experiences growing up inspired him to champion social justice on a global level. Because of his expertise and deep Miami ties, we brought him back down here to share with us how philanthropies and nonprofits are uniquely positioned to bridge our city’s inequality gap.

Xavier de Souza Briggs grew up the child of a single mom, with Brazilian, European and Bahamian heritage. He moved to Miami at a young age and landed among the Cuban-American community at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School. Xavier and his mother lived in a modest apartment, just a few blocks from a public library – a place that opened the world to him. The academically rigorous, values-based education he received at Belen, where a commitment to service was implicit, led him ultimately to faculty positions at MIT and to serve in the Obama administration, before joining Ford Foundation as vice president of economic opportunity and markets. Briggs would go on to become part of a momentous change at the foundation, which, two years ago, announced it would devote all of its grantmaking to combating inequality and recently pledged to divert $1 billion of its endowment to mission-related investments.

Xavier brought a dose of research-fueled optimism, shaped by his own Miami story and experiences, and shared lessons he’s learned as a global leader with a passionate crowd of almost 200 at The Miami Foundation’s 50th anniversary “opportunity” breakfast on June 2nd at the University of Miami. During the conversation, guided by Miami Herald Editorial Board Editor Nancy Ancrum, he discussed ways the social sector can help bridge Miami-Dade County’s inequality gap.

Even though Greater Miami’s economy is robust and unemployment is down, not all of the gains are being shared across the community, Foundation president and CEO Javier Alberto Soto said during his opening remarks. “There is a Tale of Two Cities in Miami. We have an obligation to ensure that everyone who calls this place home – no matter where they live or if they were born here or not – has the economic, social and political opportunity to build a life for themselves and to thrive here.”

He went on to announce that The Miami Foundation will invest $300,000 in five nonprofits leading the way in creating a more inclusive community, part of a $1 million commitment commemorating the Foundation’s 50th anniversary. Each will receive $50,000. They are Breakthrough Miami, Carrfour Supportive Housing, Overtown Youth Center, Voices for Children and Grameen America, which will also receive a $50,000 program-related investment to help fund its micro-business financing initiative for low-income women in Miami. Javier also announced a $50,000 gift from Maria Elena Wollberg and The Ortega Foundation to the Miami Forever Fund.

Foundation President and CEO Javier Alberto Soto stands with representatives from Breakthrough Miami, Carrfour Supportive Housing, Grameen America, Overtown Youth Center and Voices for Children Foundation. These organizations each received a signature grant in the second quarter of The Miami Foundation's 50th anniversary.

Xavier offered examples across the country of communities that have made progress in closing the inequality gap:
– Denver’s MileHighConnects has helped connect people to jobs, literally, by bringing together public transportation, education and workforce leaders to open up economic opportunity via transit.
– In Ohio, the Greater Cincinnati Foundation brought together a cross-section of leaders around a common agenda, then invested in six backbone organizations to move the needle on education, workforce readiness and neighborhood redevelopment.
– Seattle is creating affordable housing in a high-cost region by bringing together an uncommon coalition of community and businesses.

To find localized solutions, Xavier offered lessons Miami-Dade business and civic leaders, elected officials and donors can use:
1. Avoid investing in shiny objects: Donors and funders should stop chasing the cool projects. He challenged us to think instead about where our community needs to be in 10, 15 years, then reverse engineer the solution to get there and that will create systemic change.
2. Form coalitions to win change: You can put Band-Aids on the problems or look at the systems that are producing them, Xavier said. It’s not a coincidence that all three examples cited above – from Denver, Cincinnati and Seattle – grew from cross-sector collaborations.
3. Pursue a “high-road business” strategy: Corporations should go beyond the corporate social responsibility model to put community impact at the heart of their business, he said. When the CEO of Aetna, for example, realized his lowest paid people were earning poverty-level wages, he prioritized raising them $16 an hour, affecting some 5,000 employees. Other corporations look at their supply chains to make sure they invest in providing opportunities to small and disadvantaged business owners, Briggs said.
4. Scale solutions: When you discover something that works, find ways to scale it, whether it’s through public policy changes, market-based solutions or even by changing cultural norms. Think for a moment, he said, about the practice of designated drivers in the United States. That didn’t result from a law – but by Harvard University’s School of Public Health, who worked on public service announcements, and later with Hollywood producers, on popular shows such as Cheers, to introduce the concepts in scripts and change the cultural norm.

During the conversation, Xavier returned to his time growing up in Miami, thinking back to how an affordable home, located near a library, and the gift of an excellent education influenced his life. Our job as a community, he shared, is to see that we have the systems and structures in place to help give people a fair shot at getting ahead. The work nonprofits do in Miami to bridge the gaps are crucial, but they can’t do it alone – problem-solving and finding solutions is going to take bringing different sectors of the community together.

Marika Lynch is a Miami-based writer and communications consultant for foundations and nonprofits.


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