Spotlight Exclusives

‘Underserved’: Using Lincoln’s Vision to Help Communities In Need

Ja'Ron Smith and Chris Pilkerton Ja'Ron Smith and Chris Pilkerton, posted on

Abraham Lincoln casts a giant shadow over policy debates to the present day. In their new book “Underserved: Harnessing the Principles of Lincoln’s Vision for Reconstruction for Today’s Forgotten Communities,” Ja’Ron Smith, the former director of Urban Policy in the Trump administration, and Chris Pilkerton, former acting administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, make the case that Lincoln’s focus on building community is crucial for today’s policymakers. Smith and Pilkerton spoke with Spotlight recently about their new book; the transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why don’t one of you give some background on how the idea for this book came about?

Pilkerton: Ja’Ron and I got to know each other a few years ago when we were working together in the White House. In fact, we got to know each other a little bit even before that. Ja’Ron had been really running point on a lot of the key components of legislation that came out of the Trump administration for underserved communities, including Opportunity Zones, the First Step Act, and a number of other areas. All of those impacted small business and impacted the SBA. But then in March of 2020, I went over to the White House to run something called Opportunity Now, which was a program that Ja’Ron was very involved in and came out of a group called the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council that focused on opportunities for underserved communities in particular.

We worked really closely on implementing all kinds of agenda items, but particularly in the context of the pandemic and looking at different agencies and how you could maximize their impact, minimize duplication, and find pockets of money in ways that would be impactful with real data and outcomes associated with it. So, we continued that work after we left the White House and we started to realize that a revitalization of these government programs needed to be something that was not only bipartisan, but needed to be able to demonstrate that it was part of conservative philosophy.

So, we started doing some research into conservative economic philosophers—Tocqueville, Burke and others—and found a lot of evidence that supported that idea. And then when you look from a historical lens, where was this opportunity and where did present itself most recently? And we saw Reconstruction as the kind of perfect example, particularly when you’re talking about Republicans as the party of Lincoln. Lincoln had a vision to support this, and we can talk about that. The book kind of lays out where while he was dealing with the inhumanity of slavery, he also had this vision for all of Americans. Just given his background as being a poor person who grew up on the prairie, color didn’t matter as much as finding opportunity did. And so, we really saw this connectivity of events—both our experience and then what history has shown us as a way to put this together in the book.

Ja’Ron would you like to add?

Smith: No, I think Chris has hit all the major points. I think that what we’ve done with the book, we thought not only that we want to make the case to conservatives, but we also wanted to make the case to the American people that this work can be done now. It just takes some intentionality similar to what Lincoln was thinking and the courage to just make it happen. We feel that history has taught us that politicians in general have kicked the can down the road on underserved communities and we give an example of how intentionality can work with some of the work that we did in the Trump administration,

Well, going to Reconstruction, are there specific policies that you think are applicable in the current moment? Or is it more the mindset that Lincoln had, or a combination of the two?

Smith: The mindset. We want to be totally practical in how we can make it make sense; the world’s changed a lot in the last 200 years. So, we certainly think the philosophy behind the policy solutions is the piece that we’re advocating for.


Pilkerton: We talk a lot about the importance of communities and communities really determining what they want for their community. And that was something that Lincoln focused on even before the Civil War. In one of his early elections, he talked about this fictional city of Huron that was going to be bustling as a port city with trade and with workforce opportunities. And then even in 1862, when he supported the Morrill Land Act, which ultimately ended up founding the vocational and then state university system, he was envisioning growth out into the West and the ability for folks to learn agricultural and skilled labor. And to Ja’Ron’s point, this was his mindset.

When you look at 1865, he was positioned because of his political skill to be able to implement that. And then obviously with his passing, Andrew Johnson became president, and he didn’t have any of the political skill of Lincoln or the passion for this. The ideas were passed on to President Grant, who by the time he received it, was fighting his own sort of social and political wars on all fronts. Lincoln would’ve been that person to do it, which is why we focus on that period of 1865 and the missed opportunity, but also the possibility that we could revisit that now.

Are there particular policies in the current day that you think exemplify this? Are Opportunity Zones, for example, one of those sorts of policies that could be thought of under this rubric?

Smith: Sure. We talk about we Opportunity Zones. We talk about community safety and how the real first step at reform is the way we approach public safety. But the biggest thing that we really advocate for is holistic solutions, because there’s not just one issue. When we’re dealing with the underserved, there’s a multitude of different issues. I mentioned two of them—economic development and public safety. But you also have capital access issues, the ability to be an entrepreneur, education and workforce issues, which also feed into why you have public safety issues. We also talk about the behavioral health issues from years of trauma and emotional abuse and neglect—all of that has contributed to the economic mobility of underserved communities.

What we really champion for is a kind of thinking about these things and how they are interconnected, and that the solution should be an all-of-the-above approach between the government and civil society. We don’t think it’s just a government approach or just pull yourself up by your boot straps, but we envision both working together. And that’s what we think is similar to Reconstruction. You’re doing something very bold, where everyone’s playing on the same team to create a new infrastructure for opportunity for underserved communities.

Chris, did you want to add to that?

Pilkerton: I think the Opportunity Zones that you point to is a perfect example. I was literally just having a conversation yesterday with someone that’s been pretty active in Opportunity Zone investment. And in the book we look at the history of enterprise zones and empowerment zones that go back to Jack Kemp and others, and President Clinton. And while all of them had good intentions, the Opportunity Zone model has really presented a community focus. And we talk about places like Birmingham and Erie, where the Opportunity Zone is a tool, but it’s up to the community—the mayor, the town council, the economic development officials—to say, this is what we want here.

Opportunity Zones are one example where you saw bipartisan cooperation on a policy to help underserved communities. Are there other potential entry points that you can see. The expanded Child Tax Credit? Paid leave?

Smith: We talk about our methodology that we used in the Trump administration, which included being intentional. But the most important piece is building trust. That trust building exercise starts with just meeting and actually having the courage to sit down, to have off-the-record conversation where you can kind of put your guard down and not worry about the politics. Once you build that trust, that collaboration and partnership is the key ingredient with driving outcomes. And then after having the outcomes, creating data analytics that can kind of keep you all glued together to see if you were able to accomplish what you intended to accomplish if you were able to accomplish it.

And if you didn’t, how do you go back to the well, and that’s playing out right now with Opportunity Zones. The bipartisan nature of Opportunity Zones was great, and we’ve got a lot of work done, but politics did get in the way. And right now, I’m working with a coalition to try to reinforce what worked and what didn’t work and go back to Congress in a bipartisan way to see how we can further extend the program.

Other examples include how we worked on HBCUs. In that case, we actually listened to the community, the HBCU community, directly. And we worked in good faith by delivering an executive order in short time that moved the initiative back into the White House, which built trust with that community. And after moving that initiative into the White House, we were able to kind of do a number of policy reforms. But if we hadn’t built that trust initially, it wouldn’t have happened.

A third example would be around criminal justice reform. We worked directly with Hakeem Jeffries and Doug Collins on that piece and we worked in good faith, and even against our own DOJ. Once we were able to find an area of common ground, which was reforming the prisons in a meaningful way, and then having organizations like Families Against Mandatory Minimums that actually represent the families that were in prison come on board, we were able to kind of slice through the toxic partisan environment. But it was all based off of building that initial trust and locking arms and building a partnership that we knew would create the right outcomes. I think a similar methodology can work now and so we’re spending a good amount of time working in those grassroots environments, continuing to build on the trust that we established in the Trump administration, and then coming back and trying to get bipartisan leaders to the table with the people.

Pilkerton: Bill, if I could just chime in. All the work that that Ja’Ron is talking about was just so critical. And when you mentioned bipartisanship, you know, elected officials are responsible to their constituents. And I’m going to use criminal justice reform as that example. The work that the White House team did was something that was really important. And that happened in 2018. Well, fast forward to the summer of 2020 and because that trust was established, we were able to reach out to those same people, bring them into the White House in the wake of George Floyd, and talk about what can we do around an executive order. And these weren’t people meeting for the first time. These weren’t people saying, I don’t trust you. I don’t know you.

How much difference does it make to have someone with lived experience in these discussions. You mentioned earlier that President Lincoln grew up dealing with issues of poverty and lack of economic opportunity.

Smith: It makes all the difference in the world. When you talk about building trust, part of that is being truly authentic to the constituencies that any type of legislative reform may affect. I think in fact, my experience here in Washington is that the elected leadership on either side doesn’t always speak for the constituencies. It’s that connectivity that we are trying to help reinforce. It’s diverse communities that want to have a voice here in Washington or overall, in the revitalization of their communities. What we talk about in the book is a theory around capitalism that talks about mutuality and mutual benefit. That’s what the future should look like as we try to advocate for free market principles: how does the system mutually benefit both end users? We know that there’s a better way to do capitalism, where it’s mutually beneficial, when you can pay someone a fair wage for work and that work can also grow a business.

Pilkerton: If you’re putting yourself in the shoes of the constituencies that you’re trying to help, that’s a huge, uphill climb. If you bring their words to the table during policy discussions, that’s fantastic. But to Ja’Ron’s point, if you can put them in the room so you can see their body language, hear their reaction, feel their reaction, and they can tell you, yeah, that might sound like the most amazing academic policy in the world, but let me tell you how it really is—those conversations and getting that information is just absolutely critical on all these things.

Are there other things you’re doing to get some of the book’s ideas into the political and policy bloodstream?

Pilkerton: We have the good fortune to do Speaker Gingrich’s podcast the other day, and in his closing remarks, he said that the book is a significant contribution to the policy debates of 2024 and the policy actions of 2025. And that’s where our focus is, to be able to get to stakeholders, to get to the elected officials, and really talk to Ja’Ron’s point about the fact that there’s no need to start from scratch. There’s a blueprint here. Let’s look at the successes that have occurred and let’s figure out how we can get some more. Because, as Ja’Ron said, kicking this can down the road is not benefiting anybody.


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