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Ravaged Communities: Ja'Ron Smith & Chris Pilkerton on Restoring Underserved Communities

[FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW] In the last few decades, a combination of drugs, crime, and violence have ravaged certain communities in America. At the same time, we’ve seen a shift of jobs overseas, an erosion of civil society, and an overall decline in economic mobility—with many now feeling the American Dream is just a pipe dream after all, according to Ja’Ron Smith and Chris Pilkerton.

They’re the co-authors of the new book, “Underserved: Harnessing the Principles of Lincoln's Vision for Reconstruction for Today's Forgotten Communities.”

During the Trump administration, Ja’Ron Smith served as deputy director of the Office of American Innovation, and Chris Pilkerton as acting head of the Small Business Administration.

How do we revitalize these forgotten communities? How do we reverse the economic damage caused by pandemic-era policies? And how do we unite the 2 sides of the aisle?

We discuss the matter in this episode of American Thought Leaders.


Interview trailer:

Watch the full interview:



Jan Jekielek: Ja'Ron Smith, Chris Pilkerton, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.

Chris Pilkerton: Thank you for having us.

Ja'Ron Smith: Thanks for having us.

Mr. Jekielek: Welcome, and Ja'Ron, it's great to have you back. The last time we had an interview, you were actually heading up the Office of American Innovation in the Trump Administration, and there was some remarkable work done there. You two have written a fascinating book, Underserved: Harnessing the Principles of Lincoln's Vision for Reconstruction for Today's Forgotten Communities. You chart the vision that Lincoln had for the Reconstruction era after the Civil War, and you argue that it ended up being incomplete. Let’s jump in with that.

Mr. Smith: Yes, it was incomplete, mostly because President Lincoln got assassinated. His vice president who took over and became president didn't actualize Lincoln’s vision and actually went in a different direction. Lincoln had a vision for bringing the country together, had a plan for poor blacks and poor whites, and had a plan for reimagining America. He was really thinking about using this opportunity to bring our country together, vs. Andrew Johnson who had his own issues growing up in the South.

Johnson used it as a political opportunity to grant pardons to southern leaders, and set up the tentacles of what ended up being the Jim Crow era. After the Civil War a new America emerged and we never really dealt with some of the issues related to the Negro, except for when Grant took over. We're now talking about immediately after Lincoln passed away.

Mr. Jekielek: Please tell me about some of those issues.

Mr. Pilkerton: Lincoln and his personal vision all started in his youth. He grew up on the prairie and wasn't educated. Everyone's heard the stories about all the books that he read, but the reality was that he was fighting for folks like himself when he was running for Congress and running for elected positions. When he actually went through the Civil War, he saw this as an opportunity to reconstruct America in order to bring economic opportunity for all.

In one of his early campaigns, he talks about this, and it's probably the equivalent of the shining city on the hill. It was an imaginary place he called Huron, a place where there was going to be bustling labor and market activity. That was his vision as he continued down the road.

As Ja'Ron was saying, when President Johnson took over, there was a lot of baggage that he brought to that office. If it wasn't for people like Thaddeus Stevens and others who really held Johnson's feet to the fire and overturned vetoes, then the positive movement that happened during Reconstruction wouldn't have happened. Because essentially, Stevens was reverting back to the southern Democrat that he and many of his colleagues were.

Mr. Smith: After we had this Reconstruction period, you had this whole period of Jim Crow in the South where you had African-Americans who never fully got their rights. They had things like poll taxes, and you still had a robust amount of lynchings in the south. There were a number of different things. Intentionally, they weren't set straight in the beginning right after Reconstruction. It took a civil rights movement to finally give those individuals their rights as citizens, and as a country, we had to participate in forced integration.

To Chris's earlier point, there wasn't a huge focus on the economic piece related to American citizenship, the opportunity piece that we think is so vital. As we moved through the '70s and the '80s and started to be at the end of the industrial movement, labor had changed in a major way. The types of blue collar jobs that pushed people into the middle class in the '30s, '40s, '50s, started to go overseas.

That brings us into where we are now. We've been in an area where economic mobility has continued to slow down for middle class and low income individuals. We haven’t figured out how to bring those individuals into the jobs of the 21st century that pay a living wage and let them pursue the American Dream.

Mr. Jekielek: Certain policies have had an impact on the family, and you could call it the destruction of the family, especially in the black community. There's a huge number of households which are single parent households. Coming from a nuclear family household dramatically increases your likelihood of success. This is one of the very few things everybody agrees on. Then you had globalization and deindustrialization, and at the same time you had these policies that hurt the family unit dramatically.

You end up with these underserved communities, both black and white. The wealth gap is larger, and the upward mobility is very restricted. We just had a series of pandemic policies that were economically devastating, and they affected those communities the most, on top of everything else. It feels like we're in a very dark place.

Mr. Smith: It is, but I will also offer some hope, and hope cuts through our book. Chris and I both have Christian backgrounds, which has helped us be resilient and is the North Star for us to work towards. The future of our country depends on being able to harness our most important asset, which is people. We are now in a darker place, but we didn't get here overnight, and it's from a combination of things.

There has been an erosion of civil society probably over the last hundred years. One important institution that has eroded in many communities has been the church or the faith community. At the same time, we also had a shift with certain government policies that may have encouraged lower income people to not get married.

If you have the erosion of institutions that encourage marriage, and at the same time less incentives by the government to work or to be able to charge your own course, that creates a powder keg. Layer on top of that certain things like more drugs and more crime being in the community, then you really have a strong powder keg and a lot of explosive activity happening to the detriment of human beings. With regards to fixing these issues, over the last 40 years, we've kicked the can down the road. We say, “We're going to study this first, and we're going to study that second,” but then not really focusing on a solution.

We demonized certain populations and sent them to prisons for drug abuse. We got rid of our mental health institutions, instead of trying to fix them in a way that can fix the issues that were wrong with them in the first place. Then we also had that economic mobility slowdown, where there were less jobs and less dynamism. Then in America you saw the tale of two cities; you saw a very vibrant New York, but you also saw an underclass New York. You saw a vibrant Detroit, but you also saw an underclass Detroit.

We actually did just start to move away from that. We were being very intentional in the Trump Administration by making sure there was more access to opportunity. We started to see wage gaps lower and see more employment. Then we actually saw record unemployment, but it still wasn't enough.

As soon as we had the lockdowns, it bankrupted everything that we had created. With the parts of society where that economic prosperity had not yet reached, it set them further behind. Kids that needed access to schools were shut out of their schools. But then you saw how much that school was failing when they were sent home and had to do it virtually. Parents said, "Oh, this is what you're teaching my kid. You're not really teaching them anything."

If the kid was in a household where they didn't have both parents, or parents were at work, maybe that kid wasn't even going to school. In the wake of that you saw high truancy rates, and you saw the kids stop going to school. You saw an increase of crime, more addiction, and more domestic violence.

This is what we're dealing with now. Based on some of the work Chris and I have done, and what we talk about in the book, there is still an opportunity for elected leaders, civil society leaders, and philanthropists to work together on a plan that can help revitalize underserved communities all across the country.

Mr. Jekielek: In the book, you talk a lot about public-private partnership. For some of the viewers of this program, this has almost become a kind of bad word. We have a ton of evidence now of the government working with nonprofit organizations and Big Tech to censor Americans, to create narratives, to remove certain types of information, and to promote other types of information. It's an unbelievable thing we have discovered.

This is a public-private partnership, and many people would argue that it shouldn't exist. On the other hand, you're talking about public-private partnership of a different sort. Please tell me how this will work.

Mr. Pilkerton: For this brief moment during the beginning of the pandemic, there was this massive bipartisanship. When I say massive, we were speaking to folks on both sides of the aisle, civic organizations that may have typically been either Left-of-center or Right-of-center. We would talk to mayors, and we would talk to governors, both Democrat and Republican. Ultimately, we were putting together this massive public policy project and determining where the local government fits in. Where does the federal government fit in? How can this nonprofit help?

Now granted, there is always the bureaucracy of government. But if these groups are working together in an efficient way, then you can actually advance the specific goals of that community. It ties back to Reconstruction and the black churches. The black churches were so critical for the African-American community during Reconstruction. Not only were they there to worship and pray, but they were there to get educated. Folks were discussing politics and how they could get involved in elected office.

What we are proposing here are best practices. Those best practices can only come about if both sides sit down and say, “All right, we're going to simplify the system. We're going to have trust amongst ourselves, and we're going to collaborate.” These are all points that we make in the book.

If you don't have that, then certainly the public-private partnership can become a bad word, because it can be corrupted and abused with all the kinds of things that you're talking about. But at the end of the day, it's really about taking these best practices and applying them across the board. That's where the data and the outcomes come from.

Mr. Jekielek: Chris, this brief moment of bipartisanship that you described, happened around policy which ended up being catastrophic. Let’s talk about that. You were in the room, and it's very rare to hear what was really happening. We saw small businesses absolutely decimated. If people are going to recover, they are going to need more. There's more needed than would have been needed before 2020. Please tell me about what you remember.

Mr. Pilkerton: As far as the policies, all of that legislation started on the hill. There was the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] [PPP] and the CARES Act [Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act]. Obviously, the White House had a hand in that. When you look at it from the small business perspective, PPP was the initial lifeline, and that rolled out to small businesses across the country. There were certainly criticisms of the program with respect to risk metrics and fraud.

But at the end of the day, that program, according to recipients, helped save small businesses. Was it perfect? Absolutely not, but this was also an incredibly unique situation. There were policies that obviously could have been tightened and could have been better, but you have to remember the uniqueness of this situation.

This was a pandemic, and this was once a multi-generation event. But we're going to continue to have economic crises. If small businesses are impacted in a negative way, that's going to affect the entrepreneurs, the workers, their families, and ultimately, their communities. We need a blueprint and a plan to address these situations, whether it's a pandemic or it's just an economic crisis.

We really have to be able to focus on that. Once again, during these pieces of legislation, there are folks on the hill, Democrats and Republicans, that are trying to negotiate. You probably shouldn't negotiate out of thin air. If you have something to point to and that maybe you disagree with, at least that's a place to start.

Mr. Smith: I can add to that, and I'll go back a bit further. When this pandemic first happened, you remember the Fauci curve. I remember seeing that in real time, because we had just done an Opportunity Now Summit in February. We were bringing in federal, state, local government and bringing in private-sector leaders and businesses for a summit to talk about how to create opportunity and what all the different pieces were. Was it public safety and economic development? Was it entrepreneurship, education and workforce? We were all in one building having a conversation, that's the movement we were pushing. This was in February, 2020.

We had just gone to the treasury at the beginning of March, and we had a Freedman's Bank Forum to talk about capital access. That next week I went to a prison in Cleveland, Ohio, with the Cleveland Cavaliers. We were talking about how to help reform the prisons and help those individuals when they leave to become productive individuals. Then I had some meetings with some elected leaders. As soon as I came back I was told that some of the folks on the Cavaliers may have gotten Covid from someone from the Utah Jazz.

Two or three days later we decided to shut down, but I was still called into work. Because they had shut down all the schools and places in New York where we could retrofit schools into emergency hospitals, we needed to look at that. The issue at the time was hospital capacity, and we wanted to stem the amount of people going to the hospital and stem the spread. I remember going to HHS [Dept. of Health & Human Services] and seeing a very empty building. HHS was supposed to lead on pandemic preparedness, but the infrastructure that they had in place just wasn't the emergency infrastructure needed for the pandemic.

These were the challenges that we had as a country. We weren't really ready for a pandemic, even though you had people in that building that had supposedly prepared for it. We ended up doing a merger between FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] and HHS, which put that emergency infrastructure there. We ended up learning that with some of the supply chain needs and some of the issues that states were having with hospital capacity, FEMA knew more about them than HHS did, so that changed our calculus. About a month in we had created this new engine, but we were still late, because by that time the damage had already been done with some of the shutdowns.

I was called back to the White House to get back to my regular job, which was focusing on underserved communities. In the book, we talk about this agency that we put together called the White House Opportunity Revitalization Council. This was led by an executive order of President Trump, and that's how we did the Opportunity Now Summits where Chris and I originally started to work together. We had to take that whole infrastructure and focus it on Covid response, because we realized very swiftly that those communities were getting hit the hardest with the pandemic and specifically the shutdowns.

I suggested that we look at this opportunity, much as Lincoln did, and take this opportunity to fix what we've done in our underserved communities and make a major investment here with the private sector. That's what Chris and I fought for for about four or five months, a real Marshall Plan for the underserved. We never convinced people on this critical piece of it.

Another piece that I was really fighting for was that pandemic preparedness and that resiliency. Because when I was thinking about the war on Covid, I was thinking, “Let's see who are all the healthy individuals in each community and let's make sure they stay at work. All the folks who aren't as healthy or at risk, those are folks that should work from home. Now, we're really fighting against the pandemic with the power and the continuity of the community, but we never quite got there, and part of it was because of the political piece.

While all of this stuff is going on, we're going into a major presidential election. More than anything, that is what really prevented us from playing in one tent together. At a certain point Chris and I were meeting with all these elected officials, and then at one point it became way too politically sensitive for them to work with us. As a result, it then became a game of politics. We started getting into arguments on masking and no masking, and all the other political issues around the pandemic like mandating vaccines and shutdowns. It then became more political, instead of looking at what's right.

Mr. Jekielek: I saw a lot of really good policy coming out of the Trump Administration, not that a lot of people know about it, because it just simply wasn’t covered in the media. The work that you both did was incredibly important and valuable, especially with the Opportunity Zones. Then as this whole pandemic policy came in, it just wiped it all out, and that's terrible.

Mr. Pilkerton: One thing I will add to that, Jan, is that one program that the President implemented was the Pledge to America's Workers, and this is the great thing about this plan. The President brought together all these top CEOs from around the country and said, “We want to create opportunities, we want to create apprenticeships, and we want to create jobs for folks.” They went back to their companies and figured out ways to do that at their companies or within the local ecosystem.

Up to 16 million jobs had been identified for training. It didn't cost any money to do that, it was the ability of the government to convene and then scale these programs. Once again, the president was very involved, and cabinet agencies were very involved. The president's daughter, Ivanka Trump, led the effort. It demonstrates that public-private partnerships can work, but they have to be done efficiently, and the model shouldn't be broken. You should continue to do those kinds of things.

Mr. Jekielek: You've written the book for a conservative audience, but a lot of conservatives imagine government programs to be bad. The types of programs that you envision in the book all involve empowering people in these underserved communities, giving them the little bit that they need to be successful and then to strike out on their own. This is in contrast to a lot of these other programs that we know about. You talk about what a terrible situation it is when welfare becomes the thing that you do, and becomes a generational thing. That's what a lot of conservatives think of as a government program.

Mr. Smith: It's one of those perverse incentives. If you don't have to work and your housing and stuff is paid for, a person may not actualize themselves and use their gifts. What we're advocating for is re-imagining infrastructure for opportunity, but the key word is opportunity. You have to step into it, you have to take that opportunity, and then actualize it yourself. This is completely different than saying that you're just going to get taken care of.

Across the Republican Party that's what you hear us talk more about, whether it's Tim Scott's Opportunity Agenda, or President Trump talking about the America First Agenda. In many cases we talk about it in terms of jobs, because a person's ability to get that first job puts them in a position to start charting their course. Once you are creating resources for yourself, then you can plan and make some decisions.

That's what we're talking about—re-imagining. We realized that a child sometimes can't control the environment that they're bought into, or brought up in. Obviously a person could be born and not have both of their parents, or not have family. Then what's the infrastructure we have for that child to ensure that they can actualize themselves?

That's the type of infrastructure that we're talking about. Things can happen; a person loses a father or has issues that come up in their community. We're trying to create more infrastructure around the things that we haven't traditionally planned for, like not having institutions like churches, or not having a safe community to live in.

We're meeting people where they are now, and let's put on top of that three or four generations. If you have three or four generations of individuals who have lived in a poor environment, that haven’t been economically mobile, and that have lived with sexual abuse or drug abuse, those are a lot of layers to peel off.

Sometimes the government doesn't have the answer to that. They don't have the heart to deal with that person as an individual, and the resiliency that would help grow a person out of that. We're suggesting that this infrastructure of opportunity needs to be led by civil society, a community of individuals that do have a heart.

The government does have the ability to scale, though. We can learn from what worked in a certain community and see if that can scale to another. It may be different, but if you can account for those nuances, the government can articulate what works for the masses.

We're suggesting that it is not just one thing or the other. It's not necessarily just pulling yourself up by your bootstraps alone, and it's certainly not all the government's responsibility to do this. What we're saying is to meet people where they are at. Let's take an all-of-the-above approach and create partnerships that will help collaborate around this new infrastructure for opportunity.

Mr. Jekielek: Ja'Ron, this isn't academic for you. You come from an underserved community and figured out how to navigate your way through that.

Mr. Smith: Yes, and it wasn't perfect. I was blessed to have a strong father and also have a strong mother, but they weren't always in the same household most of my life. I had to deal with the crack cocaine epidemic, just like a lot of families are dealing with the opioid epidemic. I empathize with things like that, that people make mistakes and those mistakes affect other people.

Ultimately, you're responsible for how you want to see your life, and you have to figure out how you can pick yourself up and grow. It takes having people around you that can be encouraging. In cases where my parents weren't encouraging, I had a football coach, I had mentors, and I had my own village with an infrastructure around opportunity to help me become resilient.

In many cases, that doesn't exist for some people, and they give up hope. That lack of resiliency can become very dark, where you don't care about your life and you don't care about others' lives. Then you have anger and violence comes out of that. We're trying to peel back those layers on the human level and help people actualize. Because ultimately, if we as a society do nothing and keep people out on the margins, that comes back on us, because we all live in this country together.

You can neglect a kid, but that kid becomes an adult. That neglected adult could become a very dark individual that can do things that affect society. That's why we're all in this together. That dark age that you're talking about, it's going to be on us as a community of individuals to pull ourselves out of that.

Mr. Pilkerton: Ja'Ron can speak to this really well. You can look at something like the First Step Act where you had very liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans working together. When I came over to the White House, and I give Ja'Ron a ton of credit for this, when President Trump signed an executive order back in June of 2020, during the height of the riots, we had groups from the Left, community groups, and most of the law enforcement unions at the table.

At the end of that process they agreed on 90 percent of what ultimately went into that executive order. That came from the work that Ja'Ron and some of our other colleagues had done to really get that trust during the development of the First Step Act.

Mr. Smith: That comes from the methodology that Chris and I talk about in the book; being intentional, building trust, collaboration, and partnerships, creating outcomes, and then studying what works. When the First Step Act came about, we knew that in states like Georgia and Texas, they had reformed their prison systems in a way that lowered recidivism, reduced crime, and ultimately reduced their budgets because they spent less on the prisons. That's the idea that we used to come up with the First Step Act.

But then when we dealt with Congress, we had to deal with very tough on crime individuals from the past that just wanted to lock everyone up and throw away the key. Then you had other people that deemed the whole justice system to be racist and wanted to get rid of prisons and have no accountability for individuals.

In between that are individuals who are deserving of a second chance, and individuals that probably need to be in prison a little bit longer for our public safety. But we had to navigate that practical reality. It took getting coalitions that represent the families and coalitions that represent law enforcement together to say, “What is the smart way to reform our system in a way that protects public safety, but allows for second chances and creates a more robust system?”

We were ultimately able to get 80 percent of the Congress to support that. But it wasn't because the Congress wanted to do that, it's because the people that they represented supported that; the law enforcement groups, the families, and the community. That's how you really push our elected members and hold them accountable, because ultimately they're supposed to represent us, because we live in a representative government.

That's the movement that we're on—a movement to empower people. We want to educate people, and that's why we wrote the book. These things can happen. You don't have to wait for reform or opportunity, but let's work on this together. Let's reimagine what this looks like and hold our elected officials accountable to make our country into the country that it can be.

Mr. Jekielek: It's fully dawning on me how relatively short a time period this all was, from pandemic policy being implemented in March of 2020, to the BLM riots, and then the election. It's an incredibly short period of time, with what you might even call shock and awe. It's almost hard to fathom being in the government during this time.

Mr. Smith: I'm only laughing because it just makes me more dependent on God. God is funny in that none of us ever saw this coming. Growing up as an African-American kid from Cleveland, Ohio, I certainly didn't see myself working for a Republican president. But all my life experience has prepared me to be in that position to be able to give a different perspective. That's the funny thing about life, you don't know when or where or why God created an avenue for you. Then it clicks and you realize, “This is why that happened, and this is what all of this meant.”

When I left the administration and had children, it made me understand the work that I did in service even more. There's no time to waste, that's why we decided to write this book, because we think it's important to be intentional right now. We want to see our country passed on to our children and be even better than what we had. In order to create that environment we have to be intentional about being the change that we want to see in the world.

Mr. Pilkerton: When Reconstruction ended, Grant had left office and Rutherford Hayes had won the presidency, and there was a dispute in the election. Ultimately, there was an agreement that troops would leave the South and then all of Congress would confirm that Hayes had won, and that was essentially the end of Reconstruction.

The reason we're doing this now is that the time period that you're talking about was traumatic for so many communities. I remember walking into the White House campus at five in the morning. We were writing the executive order and seeing tanks. Obviously the riots had been going on, and you saw the destruction. The reality is we have to do it now. In other words, both sides need to come together and listen to the voices that Ja'Ron is talking about.

The circumstances, as tragic as they have been to this point with the deaths from Covid, the destruction of certain communities and small businesses that have closed, and all of these things that have happened, the reality is we have the ability to reverse that, and we think this plan can really help with that.

Mr. Jekielek: The First Step Act is a model of success in what we're discussing here. Do those coalitions still exist?

Mr. Smith: Oh, yes.

Mr. Jekielek: Are these people still working together, or was it a one-off miracle? Because when you look at the discourse, it would seem there is very little middle ground.

Mr. Smith: That coalition is still working. Honestly, it's not the same environment. We had some other things that happened. I look at rogue DAs who aren't holding certain criminals accountable, and at the defund movement, it makes it harder for a coalition to articulate the promise of a smart on crime policies. The defund the police movement was a political movement. That has hurt underserved communities that need police officers. This whole movement to take a blanket approach with violent offenders on accountability is a political movement. It's not about keeping communities safe.

All of that makes it harder for a coalition like ours, because when people are hurt by a reform of the criminal justice system, that impacts people. People could lose their lives. You have family members that are victims, and those are hard things that we went back to trust on. That has made it difficult in this environment.

But yes, the coalition is still working. The coalition is also still working on opportunity zones that have a lot of promise. We did a lot of great work, with $50 billion worth of new investments in over 3000 different zones throughout the country.

But there's still more work to do there. There are certain areas where they didn't leverage it the right way. There's other parts of legislation that weren't passed that would focus on jobs and small business growth or affordable housing. That wasn't in the original bill so we don't have that data to talk about the efficacy of the program, so there's still work to do there.

Chris and I haven't stopped for one day leaning in with each of these issues. There has not been a week in the last three years where I haven't talked to Chris. We're constantly at work and constantly on watch on these issues. We're inviting more people to grow that coalition, because it's going to take more effort than ever before post-pandemic to pick up these pieces and rebuild our country into what it should be.

Mr. Jekielek: Ja'Ron Smith, Chris Pilkerton, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show.

Mr. Smith: Thanks so much.

Mr. Pilkerton: Thank you.

Mr. Jekielek: Thank you all for joining Ja'Ron Smith, Chris Pilkerton, and me on this episode of American Thought Leaders, I'm your host Jan Jekielek.

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