political review | NATIONAL
A Conversation with Xavier Briggs Victoria Sgarro
avier Briggs is a self-described generalist.
Budget, where he supervised policy, budget, and
Ferguson, Briggs takes the same balanced
Currently on public service leave from
management issues for about half the cabinet
approach to look for solutions.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology to
agencies until 2011.
serve as vice president of the Ford Foundation’s
“There has to be civilian oversight. ‘We the
Along the way, Briggs published his research on
People’ need to have a say. That has to be
economic opportunity, democracy, and racial
reconciled with an understanding that policing
and ethnic diversity in cities in three award-
is a tough function, a tough job. And ultimately
winning books: The Geography of Opportunity:
we need police commanders and beat cops
Race and Housing Choice in Metropolitan
and detectives and so on, all the people that
“The real question for me has always been how
America (2005), Democracy as Problem-
work with them, to be an active part of the
to make a difference…[When] you’re early in
Solving: Civic Capacity in Communities across
conversation, and not to hunker down and to
a process of figuring out the range of things
the Globe (2008), and most recently, Moving
feel that they’re universally being demonized.”
you might do in the world, it just takes time
to Opportunity: The Story of an American
to explore,” said Briggs in an interview with
Experiment to Fight Ghetto Poverty (2010).
Briggs believes that the factors that produce and
January 22, 2015.
Today, Briggs credits his success to his
poverty in America are no mystery. But solving
comprehensive approach to problem-solving
these kinds of pervasive social issues requires
As Briggs began his own process of exploration,
and the advantage which overlapping
creative thinking and a multidisciplinary outlook.
teachers encouraged him to pursue his
knowledge in multiple fields offers: “[I realized]
So, his advice for aspiring future leaders?
inclination towards math and science.
at some point in my career, probably 20
Captivated by the United States’ energy crisis
years back, that in a world of more and more
at the time, Briggs followed his teachers’
specialists and specialization, generalists are
advice, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in
correspondingly more valuable. Because they
engineering at Stanford University in 1989.
can be lateral thinkers, because they spot
Economic Opportunity and Assets Program, the sociologist and urban planner’s varying interests have led him down a winding path throughout
the Washington University Political Review on
perpetuate segregation and concentration of
“I do think if you discover that you’re a curious person, you have a range of interests, you like to spot connections — the arts and technological innovation and community organizing, or
housing and health and community, or
that stood out to Briggs during his time at
Briggs has applied this interdisciplinary method
most exciting breakthroughs and a whole lot
Stanford. Rather, it was a class on infrastructure
to create social change throughout his career.
of leadership in this country have always been
planning in developing countries that managed
While he has held prominent and influential
about working the bleeding edge and working at
to pull together Briggs’ seemingly divergent
positions in government, top-tier universities
the intersections. And I think it’s very important
interests in engineering, social development,
and national and international organizations,
that young people in particular have that
and political economy.
he refuses to rely on one institution to promote
courage and take those risks.”
But it was not the traditional engineering classes
“I sort of bumped into [urban] planning. It gave
social justice, preferring the balanced solution.
me a set of tools and a lens for looking at the
“There’s been a tendency sometimes among
world right around me,” said Briggs.
movement builders in social change to expect
The infrastructure class would influence Briggs’ career trajectory after graduation, introducing him to the interdisciplinary field of urban planning. After leaving Stanford, Briggs collected a Master in Public Administration at Harvard University in 1993, and then a Ph.D. in Sociology and Education at Columbia University in 1996. His knowledge of multiple fields brought him from community planning in the South Bronx in the 1990s to academia, and eventually to the White House. In 2009, President Barack
that government alone can rewrite history, rewrite destiny. And that’s a bit naive…you’ve got to have the kid, the parent, community leadership, teachers who care. It is a village, there’s no two ways about it, and government can’t legislate that. It can’t legislate what people should commit to in their everyday lives…I don’t think we can afford to fall into this binary of either you believe in government action or you don’t, or if you believe in it, you believe it’s the be all and end all. That doesn’t make sense.”
Obama appointed him to Associate Director of
When confronted by pressing contemporary
the White House Office of Management and
social issues such as the recent tragedy in
something else — go with it. Many of the
For Briggs, that bleeding edge is the site of social change. Xavier Briggs is currently vice president of the Ford Foundation’s Economic Opportunity and Assets program, where he “leads the foundation’s work promoting economic fairness, advancing sustainable development, and building just and inclusive cities in the United States, Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. He also oversees the foundation’s regional programming in China, Indonesia, and India, Nepal and Sri Lanka.” To listen to the full exclusive interview, visit www.wupr.org. Victoria Sgarro is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at email@example.com.