Carol R. Naughton of Purpose Built Communities: “Listen more and talk less”

Listen more and talk less. I’ve never learned anything by talking, and listening will take you a lot of places that talking won’t. My husband likes to say, “listen with big ears.” Listening is a very important skill to learn, not just for your professional life, but your personal life too. Over time you learn […]

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Listen more and talk less. I’ve never learned anything by talking, and listening will take you a lot of places that talking won’t. My husband likes to say, “listen with big ears.” Listening is a very important skill to learn, not just for your professional life, but your personal life too. Over time you learn to listen to the words, the tone, and what’s happening between the lines — it will make you better at what you do and lead to stronger relationships.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Carol R. Naughton, CEO of Purpose Built Communities.

Carol Redmond Naughton leads Purpose Built Communities, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving racial equity, economic mobility and health outcomes in communities across the country. Building on the framework developed during the revitalization of Atlanta’s East Lake neighborhood, Purpose Built Communities works with local leaders to help them plan, implement and sustain holistic neighborhood revitalization initiatives that create healthy neighborhoods that include broad, deep and permanent pathways to prosperity for low income families.

Ms. Naughton also serves as the Chair of the Board of the Directors of the Low Income Investment Fund, a national community development financial institution with over a billion dollars invested in low income communities across the country, on the national advisory board of the Build Healthy Places Network, and as an expert advisor to the Fannie Mae Sustainable Communities Challenge.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I might not have set out on this career path if not for the trial of O.J. Simpson. I was a commercial real estate attorney at the time, and I was pregnant with my second child. It was a difficult pregnancy and all I could do for months was rest, and the Simpson trial was on TV. Listening to that trial, it became clear to me that Black people in America had a fundamentally different perspective and experience in the criminal justice system than white people. It was a pivotal moment for me, and I realized I wanted to devote myself to creating more racial justice in society. After a few months, I learned of an opportunity to become a real estate attorney for the Atlanta Housing Authority. That job brought me into the field of community development. That experience led me to the East Lake Foundation. The work we were doing started attracting national attention, which led to the founding of Purpose Built Communities in 2009.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Several years ago, a pediatrician who has become a key ally in our work visited the Drew Charter School in the East Lake neighborhood of Atlanta. He had heard of the academic achievements and other positive outcomes in this community and wanted to learn more about what we were doing. As we visited classrooms and watched the children play during recess, he asked me a question I will never forget: “What did you do to fight obesity? All of these children look fit.” His experience in visiting low-income communities was that a large percentage of children were usually overweight, which was indeed the case at East Lake before the revitalization work began. In that moment, I answered, “We teach every child to play the violin starting in third grade.” Why the seeming non-sequitur? We didn’t have a specific anti-obesity initiative, but rather we focused on the whole community and the whole child. We were trying to close the opportunity gap for the students at Drew Charter School — and one of the outcomes was extremely low rates of obesity. It was a real “aha” moment for me where I realized we were not just building schools, housing and other community assets — we were in fact in the business of improving health outcomes by focusing on holistic revitalization, one neighborhood at a time.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The first time I was called to speak before the Atlanta City Council, I was supposed to deliver a PowerPoint presentation. I worked hard on it, tested the technology repeatedly to avoid any hiccups. When the time came to present, nothing came up on the screen. It was an epic technology fail. My big lesson–things will go wrong and you need to adapt and adjust. Especially when it comes to technology.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Since Purpose Built Communities was established by Warren Buffet, Tom Cousins and Julian Robertson in 2009, we have been dedicated to improving community health and addressing racial equity in underprivileged neighborhoods by focusing on education, housing and community wellness. The neighborhoods we’re most focused on are ones that have historically lacked investment and have been chronically under-resourced. Many of the challenges these neighborhoods face are the result of systemic racism. Because of the enduring effects of racial segregation — from redlining to other restrictive zoning ordinances — the residents of these neighborhoods are often Black and other people of color.

Now, with the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Harlem Children’s Zone and the Truist Foundation, Purpose Built Communities partners with local leaders in 28 neighborhoods in 25 cities throughout the United States to improve racial equity, economic mobility and health outcomes one community at a time.

Our model focuses on quality education, safe and affordable housing, and access to healthcare. We start with building up the health of a neighborhood because, like a building, the health of a community depends on a strong and stable foundation. By making investments in these areas, we are able to move the needle on overall neighborhood health. We get there by coordinating with local leaders to drive these long-term, holistic revitalization efforts in key neighborhoods in their city.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Our work as community developers has helped thousands of children and families. One person who will always stand out to me for her singular leadership is Ms. Eva Davis, the longtime president of the East Lake Meadows tenants association. She was the leader of the East Lake community and it was my charge to work with her and others to plan the future of the neighborhood, specifically the East Lake Meadows public housing development. While initially, I may have thought my job as an employee with the Atlanta Housing Authority was merely to help Ms. Davis and the other residents, that experience impacted my life in ways I could never have imagined. Over time, Ms. Davis became a friend and a mentor. Unfortunately, she passed away in 2012, but her granddaughter, Shannon Longino, who was also a member of the planning team, carries her legacy as a vital community leader in Atlanta. She is also a dear friend.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the health and economic disparities that have long existed in Black and Brown communities. Our local leaders have had to respond to this crisis by strengthening relationships with government, health care institutions, food banks and IT providers to help provide immediate assistance to those in need. This assistance ranges from providing technology for remote learning and employment opportunities to helping ensure people stay fed and can afford rent and utility costs to stay in their homes.

Interdependence is at the root of our community model. Whether it’s local officials working with residents, or sectors, systems and institutions coordinating — working together toward a common goal and purpose is what facilitates healing. That creates healthy people and healthy neighborhoods. By changing the conditions in a place, restoring infrastructure and instituting key resources, we build a healthy environment where people can access and achieve economic mobility, better health and prosperity for generations to come.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

To me, leadership is creating the vision and conditions in which everyone can thrive, do their best and make the most valuable contributions.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Early in my career, I spent a lot of time trying to deliver work that was “perfect” and I wish I had that time back. Iterating — continuing to get better — is the goal, not perfection on the first pass.

Listen more and talk less. I’ve never learned anything by talking, and listening will take you a lot of places that talking won’t. My husband likes to say, “listen with big ears.” Listening is a very important skill to learn, not just for your professional life, but your personal life too. Over time you learn to listen to the words, the tone, and what’s happening between the lines — it will make you better at what you do and lead to stronger relationships.

When people offer to help you, let them. Sometimes it’s harder to do things working with other people but it can be more impactful. There’s an African proverb that says “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” As a young professional, you learn to balance your own role with collaborating with a team and it may take time to learn that balance. As a leader, it’s important to learn how to move a whole team to accomplish big goals.

Be kind. You don’t know what is going on in someone else’s life, and you’ll never look back on an interaction with someone and be disappointed that you treated them with kindness.

If there is one thing I would do differently, it would be to go to bed and get up early. Earlier in my career, I was more likely to get up at 8:15 for a 9:00 AM meeting. As I have gotten older I have found that getting up early and getting your day going can make the difference between feeling behind the eight ball and feeling on top of things.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

At Purpose Built Communities, we believe that everyone deserves to live in a healthy neighborhood. We know from extensive research in several fields that the zip codes in which people are born and grow up have a larger impact on their life outcomes than any other single factor. We are part of a movement that believes in investing in people and neighborhoods that have suffered the harm of systemic racism both in public policy and private actions that have created the staggering racial wealth gap and, in many neighborhoods, huge gaps in life expectancy. We work with other national organizations — like the Harlem Children’s Zone — in addition to the 28 local organizations and initiatives we support, to champion neighborhoods as the place where we can make the greatest impact on racial equity, upward economic mobility and greater health outcomes.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“We are building communities for children of God with unlimited human potential.” My former boss and mentor Renee Glover who used to lead the Atlanta Housing Authority used to tell us that was why we did the work we did. I still hold onto that value to this day.

Is there a person in the world or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.

Serena Williams. First, because she is the greatest athlete of the last century, and second because she is just a phenomenal woman.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow Purpose Built Communities on Instagram @purposebuiltcommunities, Twitter @PurposeBuiltCS, or give us a like on Facebook @PurposeBuiltCommunities. You can find me on Twitter @PurposeBuiltCRN or find me on LinkedIn.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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