Raised by his grandparents in rural Virginia, Maurice Jones knows from personal experience how challenging it can be to live in an underresourced community. Encouraged by his family and teachers, Jones was awarded a full merit scholarship to attend , a small liberal arts school in Virginia, and was selected as a Rhodes Scholar, enabling him to earn a master's degree in international relations at .
Jones went on to earn a law degree from the ; worked in the private sector at a Richmond law firm; became a special assistant to the general counsel at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, where he helped manage the nascent ; and followed that with a stint at a private philanthropy that invested in community-based efforts focused on children in Washington, D.C. Subsequently, he spent time as the deputy chief of staff to Virginia governor Mark Warner, as commissioner of the Virginia Department of Social Services, and as general manager of the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk (before becoming president and publisher of the paper's parent company). From 2012-2014, he served as deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Immediately prior to becoming president and CEO of the in 2016, he served as secretary of commerce and trade for the Commonwealth of Virginia, where he managed thirteen state agencies focused on the economic needs in his native state.
PND recently spoke with Jones about LISC's work in underresourced communities, the power imbalance inherent in such work, and his vision for unlocking the abundant talent and creativity that exists in those communities.
Philanthropy News Digest: LISC works to equip underresourced communities with the resources — capital as well as knowledge and information — they need to thrive. In 2018, what is the one thing underresourced communities in America need more than anything else?
Maurice Jones: They need more investment in the talent that can be found in all these communities. And this investment needs to come in many forms.
We need to prepare people with the work skills and competencies they need for the work opportunities that already exist, as well as for the new opportunities that will be created over the coming years. This is true in every community we work in, whether it's urban or rural, large city or small municipality, town or county.
We also need to help people in these communities master the basics of finance — what people often refer to as "financial literacy," so they can break out of the cycle of debt and build wealth.
People also need to be better informed about the supports available to them. For example, a parent needs child care in order to devote hours to a job or to skills acquisition. That parent needs to know there are childcare funds they can take advantage of so that he or she can take the steps they need to achieve financial security and the kind of economic mobility so many of us take for granted.
We also need to develop more quality, available housing, and we need to find ways to attract more employers to more areas.
Everything I just mentioned is true in both the urban and rural areas in which we work, but there is one thing that is more acute in rural areas: a significant lack of development when it comes to broadband. In this day and age, if a community is going to grow in all the ways we want communities to grow, it's got to have this critical infrastructure. Broadband is like oxygen is to breathing. There are still significant swathes of rural America, however, which are inadequately supplied with high-speed broadband, and it's a problem. This underdevelopment of broadband is a huge barrier and challenge in terms of making both wealthy states and less wealthy states economically viable in the twenty-first century.
PND: What can we do to fix that?
MJ: We, as a country — the private sector, the public sector, states, localities, and companies — have to commit to getting broadband into rural areas. It's a commitment issue. And it will require significant investment. We all know that the market for broadband favors places that are densely populated. So, the economics of broadband are not favorable to rural areas. But we've simply got to figure out how to subsidize broadband in those markets and forge partnerships of providers schools, businesses, and other stakeholders to make the economics work and get that infrastructure laid. We just need the will to do it. If we commit to it, we can make it happen.
PND: I imagine you spend a lot of time thinking about the power imbalance inherent in the kind of work you do with underresourced communities. How do you address and mitigate that dynamic?
MJ: Our work is always informed by what we learn from the people who are going to be impacted by the investments we make in their community. So, we make sure they are at the table when programs or initiatives are being designed, and we spend a lot of time making sure, number one, that the residents of the communities where we work are empowered to make decisions about what that work will look like. Number two: we help residents organize and become powerful, both individually and collectively. We convene local groups, play a supporting role in terms of keeping people together, help them to develop a collective agenda, and see that agenda through to its conclusion. The third thing we do is equip community residents with the resources they need — skills, know-how, networks, relationships — so that they have more power and more agency.
PND: A growing number of foundations — including the , which provided the seed funding for LISC nearly forty years ago — have moved to apply an equity lens to their grantmaking. Has the renewed focus on racial equity in philanthropy affected the work of LISC?
MJ: LISC has always embraced an equity lens in our work. You can’t work in the communities in which we work without it. Equity is part of the problem we’re trying to solve. It's something we’ve been intentional about and will continue to be intentional about. If you look at the clients we serve, 66 percent of them are people of color, 60 percent are female heads of households, minority female heads of household, and between 30 percent and 40 percent are people reentering the community after incarceration. So, there's no question you need to have an equity lens and be intentional about using it if you hope to successfully address the issues that we wrestle with in the communities where we work. We’re delighted more funders are adopting that lens, and we hope the numbers will continue to grow.
PND: Are you optimistic about the future?
MJ: I am, and the thing that makes me optimistic is that in every community in which we work, whether it's Buffalo, or New York City, or Jacksonville, or San Diego, or San Francisco, we find incredible talent. Many of these communities are considered to be "outside the mainstream," but in all of them we are constantly reminded that genius can thrive in the most unexpected places. The question is, what do we do as a society to ensure that these people are able to fulfill their promise? But, yes, the biggest source of optimism for me is that every time I'm out in a community, I encounter incredible entrepreneurs and activists and artists, and I see firsthand the things that people are doing to make their communities better. We just have to make sure they have as much opportunity to achieve their potential and dreams as anyone else living anywhere else in America.
— Matt Sinclair