…Be authentic. Take the risk of being who I am and who we are. For The Collective, that means being unapologetically Black. I resist the “minority,” and “people of color” labels. Black people (African-Americans) have a unique and peculiar history in this country unlike anyone else. When we first started developing our marketing materials, the PR firm kept referring to us as “people of color.” We kept reinforcing the message that we are a Black-owned and led company and that we are focused on closing the racial wealth gap as it impacts the Black community. It’s our obligation. We have attracted a huge amount of support from outside the Black community, and I think it’s because people are drawn to authenticity.
In many large cities in the US, there is a crisis caused by a shortage of affordable housing options. This has led to a host of social challenges. In this series called “How We Are Helping To Make Housing More Affordable” we are talking to successful business leaders, real estate leaders, and builders, who share the initiatives they are undertaking to create more affordable housing options in the US.
As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Sandra Dungee Glenn.
Sandra Dungee Glenn is Founder and Convenor of The Collective, a group of Black real estate developers, investment professionals, and policy experts advancing social impact development in Philadelphia. Sandra is a seasoned leader with forty years of experience in public policy, electoral politics, education, and community organizing. She has served in executive level positions and is skilled in creating public engagement strategies and managing political and institutional relationships. Sandra is an experienced convener who brings diverse stakeholders together to attack multi-faceted, interdisciplinary urban issues.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Sandra! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I was born and raised in Philadelphia. My mother was a teacher and my father a pharmacist who owned his own drugstore, Dungee Pharmacy, from the 1950’s to the mid-1960’s. I was blessed to grow up in a pretty ideal environment; my neighborhood was almost 100% Black homeowners and solidly working class with a mix of professionals like my parents. Some things that made a deep impression on me were how the neighbors knew and cared for each other. On report card day, I remember being asked about my grades before I even got home. I remember my grandmother hosting the Block Club meetings and the care and pride that went into making sure the refreshments were “just right” for our neighbors. Finally, I remember my two next door neighbors, Mr. Ewell and Mr. Morgan, who were my grandmother’s age and took such pride in my father; they called him “Doc.” My dad represented what Black progress looked like to them. My childhood wasn’t perfect by a long shot — there was gang war violence and hardcore racism in housing and education — but my block was a refuge, providing protection, safety, and support. After college, I returned to Philadelphia and over the next forty years watched the disintegration of neighborhoods like mine. As a school board member, nonprofit CEO, charter school leader, and political operative, I’ve been on a mission of self-determination — more specifically for my people, but for fairness overall. Philadelphia is on a positive trajectory on many fronts, but it’s also moving toward a “tale of two cities.” To date, the prosperity isn’t benefiting Black businesses, neighborhoods, or residents. I launched The Collective, along with my partners, to disrupt this tale of two Philadelphias.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
This is a funny story. I think of my professional life in segments. One early segment was the twenty years I worked in electoral politics, working on candidate and voter mobilization campaigns. In the mid-1990’s, I was hired to lead the voter registration/mobilization effort on a mayoral re-election campaign. The candidate wanted me, but my direct boss didn’t. He wanted someone else, so he did everything he could to undermine me. First, he put me in a closet. Literally, my office was a closet. Next, he refused to approve a budget for my operation. I was expected to run a citywide voter registration campaign with no money. The funny thing is everything he tried backfired. When he assigned me to the closet, one of my colleagues said he wanted to be in there too. So, we shared our closet, and it became the most active part of our office suite because we were the staff members with the most volunteers. Second, when my candidate, the mayor, heard I had no budget, he intervened and personally approved my budget every week. Our voter registration drive was a success, the closet crew turned the vote out for our candidate, and by the end of the primary, my boss invited me into his big empty office to congratulate me for a job well done. God don’t like ugly.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
I don’t know if it’s a tipping point toward success, but it was a turning point for me taking ownership of my career and taking more risk. It started when I left a very secure position as senior adviser to a state senator to become CEO of a charter school in distress. The school had lost its founder due to a sudden death and the next leader got in despite having no administrative experience in education. It was tough, but after three and a half years, the school was in a much better position — functionally organized and financially sound. However, I made a decision because I could see that a different type of leader was needed to take them to the next level. It was the first time I felt in full control of my professional career. I had confidence in my judgement and faith in my decision. I had objectively evaluated the school’s needs against my strengths and weaknesses. I gave myself full credit for what I’d accomplished but was okay with admitting that they needed something different to move forward. The lesson was that I didn’t lose sight of the mission. I went into the job to “reset” the school and that’s what I did. Sometimes you have to know when to let go, even when it hurts.
The next example was when I once again left a secure job, this time to run for city council in Philadelphia. I didn’t win, but it ignited a passion and belief that I needed to be a “change agent” for reshaping the city. After the campaign I decided not to go back to the safe job. I took a risk and started working on the concept that grew into The Collective. Running for city council and launching The Collective were both about directing my energy toward “lighting a candle” instead of cursing the darkness.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have to say my mentor, former boss and friend, and former member of the United States Congress, Chaka Fattah. The story that best exemplifies his guidance and unselfish support is a rather long one.
In the early 2000’s, I was appointed to the School Reform Commission (SRC), the governing body for the School District of Philadelphia. It was a very volatile time politically between the Republican-controlled state government and a Democratic city. The Republicans were pushing an agenda to privatize the school district. They’d lined up Edison Schools, a for-profit company, to manage a portfolio of 100 of the district’s 240 schools. The community and local officials were strongly opposed to this, but the state Republicans controlled three of the five seats on the SRC. I was one of two mayoral appointees. My colleague and I were in the minority; plus, I was the only woman on the SRC. It was coming down to one key meeting where the vote would be taken. I was new, overwhelmed, and feeling a lot of pressure. As a minority board member, I didn’t have any staff at my disposal. But what I did have was a mentor and friend in Congress. He and his staff researched everything about Edison, a company with a very questionable history. The icing on the cake was that Chaka reviewed, packaged, and personally delivered the research to me the night before the big vote. I stayed up half the night and went to my office at daybreak to prepare my remarks. At the meeting I spent the better part of an hour putting the Edison story on the record. In the end, my partner (the other mayoral appointee) and I were able to beat back the takeover and offer a series of resolutions that added programs to many of our schools. Edison did end up with a small number of schools to manage, but there were enough controls in the contract that they were gone from the district within three years. I could not have handled the pressure without Chaka. His advice to me was, “Figure out where you stand, plant your feet, and stay there.” So, that’s what I did.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
I have to say the Book of Nehemiah in the Bible. Nehemiah was a Jew in exile in Babylon. A Cupbearer to the King, he was in a comfortable position but was driven to return to Jerusalem to lead the rebuilding of the wall and his people who had been laid waste by the Persians and Babylonians. That’s the way I feel about the Black community in Philadelphia and in many Black communities around the country. We have been attacked and assaulted by systemic racism and white supremacy, which have laid waste to our communities and decimated our wealth. My personal circumstances have allowed me to live a privileged life in the midst of the struggle. However, I can’t separate myself from my people. Through community organizing and now The Collective, I’ve been an activist for change and self-determination.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Not to have participated in the actions and passions of one’s time is to be judged not to have lived.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes.
I’ve never been one to just talk about the problem; I’ve always worked on what I see as solutions. I’ve registered thousands of voters, run campaigns, been a labor and community organizer, dedicated twenty years to education reform and equity, run for office, and started The Collective. The common thread through all of these experiences was a passion to make change, progress, and a difference.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the shortage of affordable housing. Lack of affordable housing has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities. I know this is a huge topic, but for the benefit of our readers can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?
I will share some of the history that, as reported by the National Trust, has left Black neighborhoods with higher rates of demolition, undervalued housing, underfunded services, and reduced access to financing. The history includes our federal government taking a leading role in the development and promulgation of racist and discriminatory housing policies, such as redlining maps, restrictive covenants, and the outright denial of federally-insured mortgages to Black applicants. As recently as 2016, Black applicants in Philadelphia were 2.7 times more likely to be denied conventional mortgages than white applicants.
The history includes zoning ordinances that excluded Black residents from white neighborhoods while siting toxic dumps and incinerators near Black neighborhoods. As an example, this left neighborhoods in Southwest Philadelphia with two Superfund sites. The history includes an urban renewal policy that was more successful at dismantling Black neighborhoods than renewing them. It’s estimated that up to 10,000 people were removed from a stable West Philadelphia neighborhood, the Black Bottom, to make way for University City. It includes federal highway construction that cuts through communities and displaced a million people across the country. Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch recently wrote about Nicetown, where 300 homes were demolished to make way for the Roosevelt Expressway, connecting a predominantly white Philadelphia neighborhood and adjacent suburb with Center City. Nicetown never fully recovered. Redlining, zoning, urban renewal, and highway construction were intentional policies that devalued Black neighborhoods, undermined Black property ownership, and diminished Black wealth. These were all major contributors to the racial wealth gap.
Today, that gap shows up as:
- A 75% homeownership rate for Philadelphia’s white households, compared to 49% for Black households.
- 75% of adults with bachelor’s degrees in Philadelphia’s higher-income neighborhoods, compared to 25% of adults in predominantly Black neighborhoods in West, Southwest, and North Philadelphia.
- And last spring, the pandemic closed 41% of Black businesses compared to 17% of White businesses.
Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?
In many ways, Philadelphia is thriving. The real estate industry is thriving. But to date, the prosperity isn’t benefiting Black businesses, neighborhoods, or residents. The Collective is disrupting this tale of two Philadelphias. We are a group of experienced real estate developers, investment professionals, and public policy experts who came together in November 2019. We are Black-owned, operated, and led. We are committed to creating and growing real estate assets that produce attractive returns while increasing ownership and generating wealth within the Black community and for neighborhoods victimized by systemic racism. We have brought together stakeholders with the expertise, relationships, and power to attract investors, while protecting residents and cultivating vibrant, thriving neighborhoods. We have launched two separate entities with complementary missions. The Collective Network (TCN) is the social enterprise arm of The Collective. TCN will facilitate knowledge exchange, promote effective impact investment approaches, develop the evidence base for impact-driven investments for the real estate industry, and produce valuable tools and resources. TCN will work in tandem with The Collective Investment Group (TCIG), which provides communities and Black real estate developers in Philadelphia with access to capital that is traditionally not available to them.
Success looks like greater access to capital for Black real estate developers and entrepreneurs to grow and scale; an increased number of communities and individuals of color who are positively impacted by affordable housing projects and holistic neighborhood development; strengthened internal technical and operational capacity for Black real estate developers and entrepreneurs; a robust network of real estate developers, investment professionals, and public policy professionals; increased public awareness and policy coherence around racial equity issues and increased transparency and accountability across the stakeholder ecosystem through Impact Measurement and Management best practices.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
The power of an idea. Since my partners and I shared the straightforward strategy behind The Collective, we have been amazed by the way it has been embraced. We launched the enterprise in January 2020. Since then, we have secured a wonderful partner/adviser, 17 Asset Management, garnered $90K in pro bono legal services, received hundreds of volunteer hours of public relations services, impacted local development policy, and are poised to close on our first $25 million of investment capital for our real estate developer members.
In your opinion, what should other home builders do to further address these problems?
Recognize, contract with, and invest in Black real estate professionals including developers, construction managers, contractors, architects, appraisers, engineers, etc.
Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this crisis? Can you give some examples?
- Value Black lives in the full context of humanity. In 2018, researchers from Gallup and the Brookings Institution published a report on the widespread devaluation of Black-owned property in the United States, which they discussed in a 2019 hearing before the House Financial Services Subcommittee. The report found that a home in a majority-Black neighborhood is likely to be valued for 23% less than a near-identical home in a majority-white neighborhood. It also determined this devaluation costs Black homeowners $156 billion in cumulative losses. Black Homeowners Face Discrimination in Appraisals — The New York Times (nytimes.com)
- Reparations. The case for reparations began in 1619 with the delivery of the first 20-plus enslaved Africans to the English territory in North America. It continues through 246 years of chattel slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow terror and subjugation, de facto and de jure segregation, to redlining, discrimination in employment, housing, and education, and the current efforts to disenfranchise Black voters, suppress citizen dissent, undervalue Black property, and deny equal access to services and resources. CitiBank’s 2020 report, Closing the Racial Inequality Gaps, asserts that $16 trillion would be added to US GDP if racial inequality had been erased 20 years ago.
- Embrace new models of community development that embrace the idea that builders and developers should be public health advocates, positively affecting the social determinants of health (SDOH) in the communities where they are building. I was impressed by the THRIVES Framework (healthyurbanism.net) and the words of Dr. Leon Caldwell, Founder of Ujima Developers and a member of The Collective who said, “… I believe public health should be the focus of community-centered real estate development. Neighborhoods can rebound and thrive when we’re invested in both the financial return on investment and the return on community. … The former is a common driver in the $6.2 billion residential real estate development industry. The latter is a long-term perspective. …” (West Philly-bred developer seeks ‘return on community’ when eyeing new projects — WHYY. WHYY.org)
If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws which you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
Using the framework of the federal Opportunity Zone (OZ) legislation which allows investors to defer for up to seven years any capital gains taxes on the money they invest in business or real estate development projects in any one of over 8,700 opportunity zones around the country. Most of the zones correlate with census tracts that are undercapitalized. After 10 years, the investor can cash out and not owe any taxes on the profits. I would require that every OZ project demonstrate a measurable improvement in at least five social determinants of health for the population in residence at the beginning of the OZ period AND require the dollars to be invested into businesses and projects that reflect the majority population in the zones. The Economic Innovation Group estimates it as a $6 trillion market. (Opportunity Zones: Tapping into a $6 Trillion Market — Economic Innovation Group (eig.org))
The median family income in OZs is 49,900 compared to $77,300 nationally. The average homeownership rate in an OZ is 45% compared to 64% nationwide. Black Americans are overrepresented in OZs, making up 23% of the population compared to 12% of the national population. (Opportunity Zones Facts and Figures — Economic Innovation Group). Harnessing $6 trillion in targeted capital not dependent on government spending into under-resourced communities, with a very significant amount flowing to Black and brown entrepreneurs, would do more to close the racial wealth gap than any current government program.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- As the founder, I am the keeper of the mission and purpose. Our mission is to use real estate development to create and grow assets that increase ownership and generate wealth within the Black community. We are committed to cultivating a pipeline of Black developers whose projects deliver financial returns and positive social impact. However, it is very easy to default to projects that deliver the highest and fastest return to investors. Just this week, I was approached by a well-connected developer who wants to use the ethos of The Collective to attract investors. We’re not interested because there is no serious commitment to community-centered development.
- The Collective lives with me 24/7. To be most impactful and successful, I’m constantly thinking about what we are doing and what we could or should be doing, talking about the company to clarify and better define the work, and learning about reports, best practices, trends, and more. I just enrolled in a six-week course, “Introduction to The Quadruple Bottom Line of Real Estate Development.”
- Be authentic. Take the risk of being who I am and who we are. For The Collective, that means being unapologetically Black. I resist the “minority,” and “people of color” labels. Black people (African-Americans) have a unique and peculiar history in this country unlike anyone else. When we first started developing our marketing materials, the PR firm kept referring to us as “people of color.” We kept reinforcing the message that we are a Black-owned and led company and that we are focused on closing the racial wealth gap as it impacts the Black community. It’s our obligation. We have attracted a huge amount of support from outside the Black community, and I think it’s because people are drawn to authenticity.
- The intangibles matter most. Building a team around the intangibles of trust, integrity, commitment, and honesty is at least twice as important as technical skills. Our strategic partner, 17 Asset Management (17AM), an impact finance firm, has contributed thousands of unpaid hours to launching The Collective. Several months ago, one of their team members tried to convince 17AM firm partners that they should demand a bigger stake in The Collective. Our partners’ response was swift and decisive: they severed relations with the team member, informed us of the situation, and made internal changes to avoid a repeated occurrence. Going through those events strengthened our relationship and reinforced our shared commitment to the mission.
- Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know. I have a working knowledge of public finance and capital projects in the public sector, but I knew very little about real estate development in the private sector. I am so thankful that I was led to find and connect with people who know what I don’t. One of my partners, Tayyib Smith, is a developer who owns several businesses, and my other partner, Steven Sanders, has been in institutional investing for over 30 years. His company has $1.8 billion under management. They bring a wealth of experience and knowledge in finance, investing, and development. What I have is the vision and a persuasive personality. After several months of talking to them and dragging them with me to talk to other people, the vision caught fire.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
An international Reparations movement. There is some awareness in the U.S. of the debt owed the Indigenous people and the descendants of enslaved Africans, but when I think about the people of Haiti, South Africa, Ireland, the Congo, and so many other places who have had their land stripped, their resources taken, and their labor de-valued, it calls for reckoning and restoration on a global scale.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
This may sound like a strange choice, however the person I’d like to meet is Doctor Joel Fuhrman, who wrote a book called “Super Immunity.” It really changed my life because it changed the way I eat in a fundamental way, and it changed my understanding of how my body uses food. I’ve always tried to be a healthy eater, staying away from red meat. I gave that up thirty years ago. I don’t eat much poultry; I’m basically a pescatarian. I keep a vegan base to my diet. But “Super Immunity” gave me a whole new understanding of how food works on a biochemical and microbiological level. It made so much sense to me. I think if we approach healthy eating from a positive direction, stop telling people what they can’t do and promote how to have a life-sustaining, life-prolonging and disease-free life, it would be much more effective. As African-Americans, we are disproportionately dying from hypertension, heart attacks, high blood pressure, and cancer. I believe, and many people believe, that the roots are not only our environment, but in our diet. Dr. Fuhrman takes a deep dive into how critical micronutrients are and why. How as Americans, we can overeat yet starve ourselves. I think it’s critical that we get a better understanding of this. It would be fascinating to have a conversation with Dr. Fuhrman. We could brainstorm how we create a national network of “Eat to Live” food ambassadors who are evangelizing his message across the country. It’s educated consumers who will change the food industry and the health industry. So, Dr. Fuhrman would be my choice for a person I would love to meet. I think it would be life-changing to get his message out into more of the mainstream.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.
Sandra Dungee Glenn of The Collective: How We Are Helping To Make Housing More Affordable was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.