Spotlight Exclusives

Robin Hood Foundation Launches Mobility LABs

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The Robin Hood Foundation Monday announced an ambitious new four-year $25 million initiative to develop sustainable paths to opportunity for low-income families in five U.S. communities: New York, Chicago, Baltimore, the San Francisco Bay area and Northeast Pennsylvania.

The program, called Mobility Learning and Action Bets, or Mobility LABs, will be carried out in partnership with the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, Tipping Point Community, and an anonymous donor, with additional support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The project, unveiled at Robin Hood’s No City Limits: Reimagining the Poverty Fight 2019 conference in Manhattan, marks a new strategic pivot for the philanthropy, which previously has been focused on New York.

“This is a really important evolution,” said Robin Hood CEO Wes Moore. “Robin Hood is very proud to be New York born . . . but we also understand that poverty is not a New York issue.”

WATCH: Wes Moore Outlines New Mobility LABs Project:

Nisha Patel, Managing Director for Narrative Change and National Initiatives at Robin Hood, stressed that Mobility LABs will rely on a heavy use of data and community engagement to find scalable solutions that can produce real results. “We want a springboard up for communities, not just a safety net,” she said.

Rachel Garbow Monroe, President and CEO of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, said the test for Mobility LABs would be its ability to tell a resident in any of the five communities targeted “how this work is going to affect me and how my life is going to be better. The narrative has to be driven by the men and women we’re going to meet.”

By the end of this four-year initiative, Mobility LABs and its partners hope to:

  • Increase learning about effective short-term predictors of mobility from poverty and identify new metrics to guide future investments.
  • Measurably increase short-term predictors of mobility from poverty in diverse demonstration communities.
  • Create an active cohort of leaders who understand, embrace, and promote new narratives about mobility from poverty.

The day-long conference featured a deep dive into cutting-edge data from Harvard University researcher Raj Chetty and his Opportunity Insights program, which tracks mobility patterns down to the most granular neighborhood level.

“The path forward from the academic, evidence-based perspective is to use historical data to see which place-based policies are, in fact, incredibly effective,” Chetty said.

“We have to use this kind of data to show folks in philanthropy, business, and politics that we have to come up with solutions that match the scale of the problem,” said Geoff Canada, President of Harlem Children’s Zone.

Another use for that data within Mobility LABs will be intensive attention to ways to change the negative narratives that persist about poverty and mobility – including the notion that the poor only need to strive harder to pull themselves up “by their bootstraps.”

“There are so many myths out there,” said Tipping Point Community founder and CEO Daniel Lurie. “We need to shatter these myths because they are holding us back.”

New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, interviewed by Robin Hood board member and fellow journalist Katie Couric, said one of the major obstacles to progress in building pathways to mobility is the excessive American emphasis on self-reliance in recent decades.

“This narrative of personal responsibility became excessive,” Kristof said. “There is something real to that … as long as we also have the conversation about collective societal irresponsibility when we fail to even invest in children.”

Participants also highlighted the need for a real dialogue with the communities Mobility LABs will be serving. “When I think about community engagement, we define it as ‘did you listen to the community?’ But to me, real partnership is about serving that community,” said Kaya Henderson, Head of Community Impact at Teach For All’s Global Learning Lab.  “You might have expertise and data but the community has expertise and data as well.”

“Changing the narrative, fixing the narrative, those things are important. But making sure we provide space for people to tell their own stories if they so choose, that’s the most important thing,” said Oscar-winning writer and director John Ridley.

For Robin Hood, the enlarged geographical focus of Mobility LABs is daunting but exciting.

“We’re treading into new waters, and that’s ok,” said Moore. “We’re doing it with a fundamental understanding that even if it’s risky, if it works, that can bring a fundamental change.”

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