Leader to Leader: Colvin Grannum

A Q&A with the president of Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation.

Colvin Grannum, President of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation

Colvin Grannum, President of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation

Leader to Leader is a monthly column that looks at issues of leadership in the New York City nonprofit sector. Each month, the column will feature a conversation with a different nonprofit executive who is wrestling with an interesting challenge. How do you take a good idea up to scale? What are the best ways to raise money without losing your soul? When is it time to hang it up? Leader to Leader will explore these questions and more. 

Over time, the goal is to cover a broad range of organizations in various stages of development, from start-ups to mergers to agencies in need of top-to-bottom overhaul. Leader to Leader is written by Greg Berman, who served for nearly two decades as the executive director of the Center for Court Innovation.

The Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation has an illustrious history. Founded in the 1960s by Robert F. Kennedy and other New York political luminaries, Restoration was the first community development corporation in the country. Over the years, Restoration has created thousands of units of affordable housing and sparked the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in central Brooklyn. The organization’s physical and spiritual home is Restoration Plaza, a 300,000-square-foot commercial plaza that is home to the historic Billie Holiday Theatre, a supermarket and numerous local businesses and nonprofit tenants.

Restoration holds another important distinction: It is one of the oldest black-led nonprofit organizations in the country. Today Restoration is led by Colvin Grannum. Colvin took over the organization in a difficult period, not long before 9/11. He has moved not just to stabilize Restoration but to sharpen its focus and make the agency relevant in a new era. 

I recently talked to Colvin by phone about a range of topics, including the coronavirus, race and the positive and negative effects of gentrification. This is a lightly-edited transcript of our conversation.

Berman: It's a crazy time that we're living through. Have you experienced anything even remotely like this before?

Grannum: No. I don't think anybody alive in the United States has.

Berman: What’s the status of your operations at the moment?

Grannum: We're trying to do most of our human service work remotely. But some of our IT people have to go in. We have a 300,000-square-foot facility that we are responsible for managing and we have a supermarket and three banks, a post office and some tenants who also provide essential services. So we have to go in there and make sure things are operating and that the building is safe and intact.

Berman: What's the mood of the team?

Grannum: I've been sending relatively upbeat messages. And many people have responded, but not everybody. Younger people are somewhat fearless. Older people, I think, are fairly concerned. And then some people are just really absorbed with the work. We're encouraging people, we're sending them resources so they can work remotely. I think working from home is really difficult. 

Berman: So, back up for me because I don't want this conversation to be completely dominated by the coronavirus. You've been at Restoration for how long now?

Grannum: 20 years. I didn't expect to be there 20 years. I practiced law for 18 years and then I started a nonprofit corporation called Bridge Street Development Corporation. I was only there for five years and then I went to Restoration.

Berman: And what was the hook? Why did you start at Restoration, and what's kept you engaged there for two decades?

Grannum: Well, I'm a Bed-Stuy kid. And Restoration casts a fairly large shadow in the neighborhood. And so, when the job opened up, I decided, if I wanted to have a major impact, I should try to go to Restoration, because of its historic significance and the influence it had with many people, in the community and citywide and even nationally. What's kept me there is that we do such a range of different things – from arts and culture to energy conservation, affordable housing, workforce development and financial coaching. But more important than that in some ways for me, is the importance of African American-run institutions. There just aren't that many that are viable, not many survived the financial crisis of 2008.

Berman: Given its origins, Restoration is one of our most famous not-for-profits. The history is obviously a strength for the organization, but can the history also be a drawback as well, because it can limit the way people think about the institution?

Grannum: Yes. I think that's fair to say. Some of the people who work here, and maybe some external stakeholders as well, can dwell in the past, whether good or bad. And we've had cycles of both. There were cycles when we were the dominant community development corporation in the nation, because of Bobby Kennedy and Jacob Javits, we were allocated almost half the community development dollars being spent by the feds. At that time, we had well over 400 employees and you could come to Restoration to get anything you wanted and we had tons of smart people everywhere. So, some people wonder why we can't do that again, right? And then we had troughs where things went very poorly, and there's some people who only remember that about Restoration. What I try to push our team to do is think about the future and see that our brand gives us the ability to do different things. I think we can use the brand to say that what we really are is a forerunner, a pioneer, a paradigm shifter.

Berman: What’s an example of that?

Grannum: When I got here, we had over 1,000 units of affordable housing that we were managing. And we weren't doing a very good job of it. And we needed to start a turnaround, because there were conversations about Restoration going bankrupt. This was 2001. I started in May, and in September we had the 9/11 crisis. We decided that we were not going to manage our affordable housing anymore, that we would bring in third parties instead. The intention was to insure that the properties were well managed and recapitalized. And at that time, a lot of folks said we can't be a community development corporation if we weren’t providing affordable housing. And we said, "Well, we think that we can. And we decide what a CDC does." A decade later, many CDCs have done what we did. Because very few nonprofits are really good at managing affordable housing.

Another example is our work with arts and culture. That was something that was criticized from the inception of Restoration. But now it is all the rage, merging community development and arts and culture. We were just invited to speak at the Fed about what it's like to have done this for 50 years and what can people learn from us.

Berman: What you've described is a multi-faceted, dynamic organization. That’s a good thing obviously. But there’s also a danger of mission creep. How do you guard against that?

Grannum: That is an ongoing challenge for us. Given that we do a range of things, we have to be particularly mindful of it. When we were started, our mission was to improve the quality of life. The mission was so broad, that you could do virtually anything. In recent years, we have tried to narrow our focus to what can we reasonably do with the capacity we have. About three years ago, we reexamined our mission and our vision and we prepared a strategic plan. Now our aspiration is to tie everything we do to increasing the net worth of African American and Latinx households and businesses in Central Brooklyn. We try to work on those areas where there are identifiable, measurable gaps. So whether it's income or health or education, we try to work in those spaces. And then we try to tie all that to some measurable increase in net worth because net worth is actually the best measure of overall well-being. Even modest amounts of net worth substantially improve well being.

Berman: I'm wondering what the relationship is between the shift in your mission statement and my perception that gentrification is a real issue for your neighborhood. Are those unrelated or are they connected?

Grannum: No, they're very related because from my perspective gentrification is highly tied to financial well-being and asset ownership. I think a lot of the gentrification that we're seeing is a product of affluent people coming in and being able to out-compete the long-standing families for housing. The bottom line is, if more of the long-term residents had ownership, and greater liquidity and net worth, I think we would see a lot less displacement. The other part of gentrification is the cultural piece – cultural displacement. And that's where our arts and culture program comes in. We've been doing that for 50 years, but now it takes on a new significance because to many people, it’s the thing that creates a sense of belonging in the community, it's the thing that reminds them that the area was once predominately African American and Caribbean American.

Berman: Is gentrification an unalloyed negative or are there positives from Bed-Stuy's perspective?

Grannum: I think gentrification has positives and negatives. I think the problem is when it’s unfettered, when it's just too much. When it feels like a flood that just sweeps people away, then it's a problem. 

You know, the African American and Latino population in Bedford Stuyvesant is not monolithic. There are low-income people who live in publicly-subsidized housing. They are likely to stay. They're not likely to be the victims of displacement. There are working class folks who are moderate income. They are highly vulnerable. They're the ones living in apartments and brownstones which are not rent-regulated. And then there are more affluent people, some of whom own their own homes, and might benefit from selling to newcomers. 

The most obvious benefits of gentrification have been significant improvements in the variety of amenities and conveniences in the neighborhood, which has been an historic problem. And some of the shops are minority-owned. 

And then there is improved safety. Is increased safety one of the reasons for gentrification or is it a product of gentrification? It felt to me that increased safety actually paved the way for gentrification. Some people feel there's a conspiracy there. I don't believe that. 

Berman: You have talked about being motivated to help the long-term residents of Bed-Stuy. I'm curious to hear how you think about the life of a neighborhood, because you can't ever freeze a neighborhood or the composition of a neighborhood in place. That's not a healthy neighborhood, that never changes, no one ever leaves, no one ever comes in. There has to be new money, there has to be new people coming in to a neighborhood to make it vital. But of course, if you embrace that too whole-heartedly, then you are in fact changing the culture in fundamental ways and making people feel displaced. So it feels like a tricky thing to balance, particularly for an organization like yours that has wanted to spur investment in Bedford Stuyvesant over the years.

Grannum: Well, that's a longer conversation. And you know, what you can say without causing a riot depends on the audience you're talking to. Historically, people of color were steered to Bed-Stuy, as a function of public policy. People were moved from all over the city as a part of urban renewal and other efforts, including blacklisting. There were constraints on where black people could live, where they could buy, and where the affordable housing was being created. So I think the real question is choice, which is something that you and I have, but my dad didn't have it. People of color have not had choice. Even now, as this neighborhood changes, it's not so much because African Americans are deciding to move because it's in their best interest to move. That's not what's happening. I think neighborhood change that is the result of aspiration and free choice, that to me is natural and shouldn't be criticized. But what should be examined closely and criticized is when African Americans are forced to move as opposed to moving by choice.

Berman: I've seen you talk a little bit about the tension between density and aesthetics when it comes to urban planning. Am I reading you right that you come down on the side of density rather than aesthetics?

Grannum: I think that you're reading me right. Because I think our physical assets are there to serve people. People should not be serving assets, right? Housing is a vehicle for accommodating people and improving their quality of life. We should democratize housing. Architectural values shouldn’t prevail over what would be best for all of us. I think density done right and done across the city, so that we truly have a mixed-income city, would be in the best interest of everyone in this city. Where we have to be careful is that as density is created, it's not just created in historically low-income neighborhoods. I'm a big believer in neighborhoods of opportunity. I think Raj Chetty at Harvard has demonstrated that getting people, especially youth, into neighborhoods of opportunity at an early age makes a big long-term difference in their earnings and their upward mobility. And what I am trying get Restoration to be about. We're trying to build out the infrastructure and the partnerships to do exactly what Raj Chetty is talking about, which is moving people from the bottom 20 percent of asset owners to the top 40%.

Berman: Talk to me about what the vision is for Restoration Plaza going forward.

Grannum: Well, it's up in the air now thanks to this pandemic and the financial devastation that is being projected, but we are planning to take the whole plaza down. Many of the buildings were built in the early 1900s and they've been repurposed in some form or fashion numerous times. Today they have probably about $30 million of deferred maintenance. Restoration Plaza also presents a lot of mobility challenges in an era where everything ought to be accessible. There's also a lot of visual barriers. We have a theater that you can't tell that it's a theater from the street. We have an art gallery that you can't see from the street. Even the supermarket has no glass at eye level. So, we want to change all of those things. The vision is to use the Plaza more effectively to achieve our goal of closing the racial wealth gap. So we are planning on building two towers that would be office towers that would have about 400,000 square feet of class A space and we were hoping to attract tech and creative sector employers. There is very little diversity in both of those sectors. And so, we were also proposing a tech sector training and employment program, with more emphasis on executive functioning skills as well as hard skills. Our goal was to focus on those jobs paying $70,000 and above. So, training and placement and tech sector jobs, and then a beautiful new arts and culture facility with different pavilions for dance, theater and visual arts. And then 100,000 square feet of retail space, which is double the amount of retail space we have now. And then a beautiful open space that connects it very nicely with the arts and culture space. Those are the main elements of our vision.

Berman: What is giving you hope at the moment? What's got you the most excited, if you can even imagine such a question at a time like this?

Grannum: I remain excited about the direction that Restoration is headed in which is to close the racial wealth gap. Closing the racial wealth gap, or even disrupting it, is a huge undertaking but it is not insurmountable if we have the right political will and the right level of investment. And this is a subject that did come during the Democratic primary. And so we were feeling quite optimistic about that. And I have to remain so. 

I read a Pew research poll that said that the average white American family thought that African Americans had about 80% of the net worth of the average white family. Well, it's not true. It's 7 to 10% and getting worse. And a lot of that is systemic. A lot of that is attributable to policy that was intentionally created to advance white Americans without caring about black Americans. I think if we can ever get to a place where people fully understand where this disparity arises from then maybe we can get to a place where people feel collectively responsible for solving it.

This coronavirus pandemic, people who are looking at the issue are saying that it is going to cause even greater devastation than the Great Depression. So there's going to be more work to do, both on the policy side and the practice side. Maybe people will understand going forward that we all are the same and that when something like this happens, that none of us is immune. I'm not saying that people don't care for each other now. Because I think there's a lot of goodwill and a lot of generosity. But I think we have to be a lot more focused.