By Phillip Hendersonphil_310

Some years ago, I picked up the book The Reluctant Metropolis, by William Fulton.  Fulton describes in this very engaging history the way politics and power dynamics shaped the modern era of the Los Angeles megalopolis.  I grew up just down the road from downtown LA, in what was once the fruit trees and farmland of Orange County.  I had often read about how metropolitan LA had sprung up over the course of the twentieth century.  But as a person who arrived as a youth in the late 1970s, LA had always seemed a fully formed place, traffic, pollution, movie stars and all.  What Fulton's book made me realize for the first time was that LA, and in a larger sense the world, was being shaped right under my nose.  In fact, LA hadn't been the static, fully formed place that I'd experienced in my youth.  Many of the key factors that embody the current version of LA, from water policies, to demography, to tax and education policy, were slowly and imperceptibly (to me) being shaped and developed during that time.

By the time I picked up Fulton's book I had lived and worked for many years in Eastern Europe, arriving just a couple years after the fall of communism, so I'm not naïve about the pace of historical change or the possibility of deep upheaval in a society.  But I had never really considered that this was just as true in a place like Los Angeles or Chicago or Des Moines as it is in Bucharest or Berlin.  What had once seemed like a mature, solid, unchangeable country now seemed fluid, evolving.  Fulton had opened my eyes to the change that is happening everywhere.

Fast forward a few years to my time at the Surdna Foundation.  This is a foundation that has, for the last 20 years, taken on big social problems.  These are problems that no single foundation, certainly not one of the modest size of the Surdna Foundation, can solve on its own.  These are problems like climate change, transportation systems, structural racism that are many years, decades, generations in the making and require the concerted effort of dozens of foundations, governments, private companies, individuals, and movements to solve.

In my "pre Fulton" days, I would have perceived these problems as fixed, as a given, immovable and unchangeable realities of the society in which we live.  I would have thought that while change is possible around the edges of these problems - a new road here, a better rail line there - what we have is what we've got and that the core issues remain constant.  But in my "post Fulton" mind, I see things much differently.  I see now that the world we live in has been created slowly, one decision and one event at a time.  The shape of our cities, the way we live, the way we think about our neighbors is constantly evolving.  So we shouldn't be overwhelmed by the immensity of the kind of change we might need - a smaller carbon footprint for our cities, more holistic educational experiences for our kids, a deeper level of integration among Americans of all racial, economic, and social backgrounds.  We should not seek to change things all at once or overnight.  Complex societies can and do change, but they change one decision at a time, one building block after another.  When viewed that way, I see the role of the Surdna Foundation more clearly.  We are right to focus on big problems.  We can and should seek to ensure that the next decision about how our cities grow is a good one, followed by another good decision, followed by another and another.  Incrementally, over the next 5, 10, 20 years ensure that the incremental changes are in the right direction, following the best advice, the most advanced thinking.  Little by little, decision by decision, society is changing and we can help ensure that it changes for the better.

Foundations have the advantage of taking the long view.  Surdna Foundation has been around for 92 years and we expect to be around another 92 years.  That long term perspective allows us, no, it obliges us, to tackle the big dilemmas our society faces.

Fostering sustainable communities in the United States — communities guided by principles of social justice and distinguished by healthy environments, strong local economies, and thriving cultures.