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political review | NATIONAL

A Conversation with Xavier Briggs Victoria Sgarro

X

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

his career.

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

uncommon connections.”

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

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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 vrsgarro@wustl.edu.

WUPR Issue 22.1: Markets & Power  
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