Investing in an America where racial equity and economic mobility rise together
Dear friends and colleagues,
This time last year, we at Blue Meridian began rolling out our next strategic plan – a multiyear roadmap for growth that centered on racial equity and focused on expanding our regional investing, readying more organizations for scaling, and innovating across all aspects of our work.
And then the world turned upside down as the global pandemic forced us into lockdown and upended our lives.
The events that would follow – the compounding, persisting effects of our nation’s health, economic, and racial justice crises – led us to accelerate and adapt our plans across the board to be responsive to the moment.
We’ve been fortunate and humbled over the past year to work with investees, staff, and Partners whose commitment and leadership helped meet the urgent needs of millions of people while continuing to advance our long-term efforts to boost economic mobility and catalyze our nation’s inclusive recovery.
We know that the pursuit of a truly equitable and just recovery will require a sustained cross-sector response to the enormous challenges and opportunities our nation faces. That intensified commitment is now woven through our strategic plan. We’re glad to have this opportunity to share with you our priorities for investing in 2021 and beyond.
Expanding our regional investments because “Place Matters”
We have long known that, in America, geography is destiny: your life chances are inextricably tied to where you are born and live. For people born into poverty, their talent confronts too many roadblocks and their resilience is taxed by systemic racism, baked over generations into the fabric of their environments. To address these intertwined challenges, we are working to more comprehensively align and scale solutions at nationwide, regional, and local levels.
We began exploring how to do this in 2019, when Jim Shelton first joined Blue Meridian as entrepreneur-in-residence. From that work emerged our strategy to expand our regional investing portfolio, building upon our early experience with place-based collaboratives in Tulsa, OK and Guilford County, NC.
When the pandemic hit, Blue Meridian Partners, with additional anchor funding from Ballmer Group, fast-tracked the development of the Place Matters portfolio to channel capital for early planning and targeted initiatives to a dozen place-based partnerships across the country, from Spartanburg, SC to Fresno, CA. These investments enable proximate, local leaders to build stepping stones for equitable recovery and strategies that support young people’s success from cradle to career. We’re also working with several leading organizations to provide catalytic supports essential to the success of these partnerships – resources like data collection and analysis, technology, and policy development and engagement.
Together with these local partners and others, we will explore questions such as: How can we help shift and support the building of local power and increased opportunity within historically disenfranchised communities? How do we stimulate the flow of more capital, blending local and national public- and private-sector investment to scale and sustain place-based work?
Leaders need more access to capital; America needs more scale-ready leaders
Many have long recognized – and continue to wrestle with how to address – the gap in access to capital that faces social sector leaders, especially leaders of color. This stubborn gap makes flexible funding for growth, innovation, and experimentation woefully scarce. One approach we’re deploying to help address this challenge is The Studio @ Blue Meridian, which provides capital and tailored guidance to leaders looking to test and refine their models as a stepping stone to bolder growth and scale.
In response to COVID, we accelerated the launch of our second Studio cohort to support organizations that are able to immediately help children and families hit hardest by the pandemic and are also positioned to pursue greater scale in the future. We will share more on these investments this spring.
To help more leaders pursue impact at scale, we’ll address challenges such as: How can we catalyze and enable greater capital flow and access for leaders working on scaling strategies – especially leaders of color, for whom research has shown substantial gaps?
Criminal justice reform – pooling capital and influence to catalyze focused change
There are certain issue areas where a set of aligned investments can have an outsized impact on economic mobility. The Justice and Mobility Fund, launched in 2019 with the Ford Foundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, has worked to realize that impact in the criminal justice reform space.
The toll of COVID-19 and pervasive racial and economic injustice has been crushing for communities heavily engaged with the criminal justice system. As municipalities across the country were releasing thousands of people from jails and prisons to limit the spread of the virus, the Justice and Mobility Fund helped the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) put desperately needed cash in the hands of people re-entering their communities to meet urgent needs in the absence of meaningful public assistance and help them transition on stable footing. The Fund has continued to speed efforts to build the infrastructure of the justice reform field and develop an employment strategy that helps justice-involved individuals overcome barriers to employment and employers adopt policies and practices conducive to their hiring and retention.
Going forward, we will seek to learn: How can philanthropy work with public and private systems to make it mainstream practice to hire and advance people with prior justice system involvement? How can we best center the voices and power of people with lived experience in our justice and mobility work?
We are a “work-in-progress,” prioritizing racial equity
As we move forward, Blue Meridian Partners will continue to build our investment strategy and organization, centering our work on racial equity in order to meet the evolving needs of our investees and the people and communities that together we serve. Before the crises of 2020 brought the systemic racism and racialized violence that pervades our society to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness, Blue Meridian had prioritized racial equity as a key driver of our growth strategy. The events of last year were humbling because they not only revealed the urgency of this effort but just how early we were – and are – in our learning journey.
Key questions we commit to addressing include: How do we eliminate any existing bias in our sourcing and selection processes? How do we ensure that Blue Meridian’s values of equity and inclusion show up everywhere in our culture and work with investees?
We, for sure, do not yet have clear answers to these questions. But we are certain of our deep commitment to challenging ourselves to do more and learn more, in partnership with our investees and others who are further along this path. We know we cannot hope to succeed in our ultimate mission to build upward economic mobility in America if we don’t tackle the racist systems, structures, mindsets, and practices that stand in the way.
Building capacity to work deeper, faster, and more comprehensively
To support the acceleration of our efforts and diversification of our investing portfolios, we have expanded our team significantly over the past 18 months, adding colleagues whose varied backgrounds and experiences strengthen our work. Among our newest leaders is Tia Breakley, who joined last week as Chief Strategic Development Officer and Chief Governance Officer. Tia comes to us from Blackstone, and we’re eager to benefit from her experience blending best practices across the corporate and social sectors.
This spring, Chuck Harris is retiring from Blue Meridian but will stay involved as a Special Advisor. Chuck has been instrumental to the start-up of this enterprise – without his steady, thoughtful co-leadership, Blue Meridian would not be what it is today.
One additional lesson from 2020 stands out: the transformative capacity of collective action to confront the systemic challenges and biases that inhibit economic mobility and our nation’s progress. Seeing our community come together to accelerate progress toward expanding opportunity and combating inequity – particularly in this most extraordinary of years – has underscored for us the power and potential of this partnership.
Five years in, we at Blue Meridian are still early in our journey, and we see there is much to learn and do in order to partner well. As we chart this next chapter, we welcome the opportunity to collaborate with more philanthropists who share our conviction that it’s only by working together that we can marshal the resources our social sector leaders need to fundamentally change the trajectory of economic mobility and equity in America.
We are profoundly thankful for the dedication and vision of our investees, Partners, board, staff, and collaborators and look forward to our continued work together.
Nancy and Jim