McKinsey Institute for Black Economic Mobility

Building Bridges: Closing equity gaps across DC’s Anacostia River

| Interview

In this third episode of the McKinsey Action 9 Fireside Chat series, McKinsey partner Darius Bates chats with Rahsaan Bernard, the president of Building Bridges and an active member of the nonprofit community in Washington, DC, about working toward racial equity for residents east of the Anacostia River. Building Bridges was founded in 1997 with the mission of serving DC’s Southeast residents. It is committed to five pillars of impact: health, education, arts/culture, workforce development, and recreation. Many of its initiatives are housed in its state-of-the-art campus, the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus (THEARC). The following topics are discussed:

  • an overview of the equity disparities facing residents in Southeast Washington, DC
  • how the local nonprofit space works together to prioritize and uplift the needs of the community
  • the impact of THEARC and advice for organizations in other parts of the country on a similar journey to address racial equity

The transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Darius Bates: Hello again, everyone, and welcome back to the McKinsey Action 9 Fireside Chat series, where we are engaging leaders across the country in conversation on place-based efforts to improve equity outcomes for people of color.

Through these discussions, we’re working to surface and share key insights, successes, and challenges from leaders working in the place-based domain in hopes that these learnings will deepen and accelerate impact across numerous geographies. I’m Darius Bates, a partner in McKinsey’s Atlanta office and the partner lead for our action 9 commitment to deploy our firm’s resources toward organizations that advance racial equity for the Black community.

For more information on action 9 or our other commitments, visit Beyond supporting organizations in advancing equity, we have created this forum to highlight the work and learnings from the many efforts in this space, which brings me to our guest for this conversation.

Today I’m pleased to welcome Rahsaan Bernard, president of Building Bridges. Building Bridges is a nonprofit organization that manages four projects in Southeast Washington, DC, all of which are focused on reducing barriers to social and economic mobility for residents of Ward 8 in Southeast DC. Rahsaan is in his sixth year of leading Building Bridges and has deep ties to the DC community in his many roles serving it. Prior to Building Bridges, Rahsaan was the president of Beyond Excellence, a consulting firm working with corporations to advise on health management and corporate wellness. He also serves on the boards of Feeding America and the Capital Area Food Bank. So with that, Rahsaan, I’d like to welcome you and thank you for joining this conversation.

Rahsaan Bernard: Good morning, Darius. Thank you for having me.

Darius Bates: It’s really a pleasure to have you here. Let’s jump in. I just touched on your resume a bit, but those comments don’t do it justice, I’m sure. I like to start these conversations with a bit more background on who you are as a person.

So Rahsaan, can you speak to how you got to DC and the work you’re doing now specifically? How did you get into the leadership position you’re in and begin the work that inspires you daily?

Rahsaan Bernard: In 2005, I started a business with my wife in the corporate-wellness space. My wife, at the time, worked in the financial-literacy sector, and I would spend a lot of time with her because she did it out of a footprint in Ward 8, Washington, DC. One thing led to another, and she introduced me to a guy named Skip McMahon, who is now the cofounder of the organization Building Bridges Across the River.

His desire to serve this community was palpable, and he evangelized me. I sought to learn more about this community through him. Then one thing led to another, and I thought to myself, “Why am I not in this community, serving this community that my wife was a part of and that we loved?”

So after that initial conversation with Skip McMahon, fast-forward another eight to nine years, I’m sitting before him and he’s sharing with me that there is a vacancy for the position of president. So I signed up, and it changed my life.

Darius Bates: And as you think about what you said about your desire to serve, I’m sure you probably started from a place of saying, “OK, well, what are some of the challenges, or how do I think I can be helpful?” So on that point, can you speak a little bit about some of the equity challenges in our nation’s capital and more specifically in the Southeast DC area?

Rahsaan Bernard: It’s interesting because I’ve seen DC change since my advent to this region. So [within the] span of 20 years, we went from a population that was roughly around 500,000 to where it is today, almost 700,000 residents. But even with that growth in the number of residents in DC, the equity landscape has not changed.

If you think about DC, it’s eight wards separated by 900 feet of water, which is the Anacostia River. Wards 7 and 8 are on the eastern side of the Anacostia River. On the eastern side, 90 percent of the residents are Black and Brown, and you have a serious deficit and underresourced communities. That has been the stasis over the last 20 years.

So let’s give you some brief statistics here. From a health standpoint, the life expectancy is 13 years less if you live east of the Anacostia River. The median household income east of the Anacostia River is $34,000, compared with what I believe is $127,000 on the west side of the river. On the east side of the river, you have one full-service grocery store, The Giant, that’s right here in Ward 8, serving 85,000 residents. There are six grocery stores on the other side in not even half a mile. On this side, you have most of the children in the city; actually, the future of the city resides right here. Most of the children in the city live east of the Anacostia River, and most of the poor children in the city live east of the Anacostia River. So, you have all of these things that have really been the same over these years, and that landscape is the reason why Building Bridges Across the River really came to be. We seek to connect the city by building a metaphorical bridge, soon to be a physical bridge, so that we can reduce the structural barriers to social mobility and really make it a more equitable city.

Darius Bates: The way you describe the situation in DC, I think it’s probably safe to assume these dynamics didn’t show up overnight. Before you got involved in the work, did you have a sense of other efforts that were in place to try to improve equity outcomes in the city? And if so, how do you think they were working or what change needed to be made to try to ignite a new type of progress?

Rahsaan Bernard: Great question. I think over the years there have been several investments that have made good progress. There are a lot of wonderful nonprofit organizations east of the Anacostia River that have been in the trenches, doing great work for many, many years and have partnered with corporations and the government in order to move the needle. I think that the key to progress thus far has been collaboration. I think it really has been people sitting at the table and broadening the table; getting stakeholders who really have the conviction to move the needle here east of the river and to sit down and think about how we allocate resources, time, talent, and treasure in a way that really defies conventional math. And so, we’ve seen much of our progress made here through our partnership with city governments and corporations, where there have been huge investments.

More recently, we were a part of a nonprofit collaboration with three other nonprofits east of the river. We partnered with philanthropy and the government to provide the largest cash transfer in the history of America. And we saw that giving people money during the COVID-19 pandemic allowed people to stay at home, allowed people to pay their rent, for utilities, and accounted for a level of stabilization in the homes. And because this is something that we cannot sustain ourselves, we’re working with the government to make sure that it becomes sticky and ultimately becomes a program that they can manage in the long term. So, looking at nonprofits that have been here, Martha’s Table, Bread for the City, they’ve been working with government entities. We have joined in that work. And now I believe that with more of that collaboration, we really can see progress made here east of the river.

Darius Bates: The word collaboration comes up so much in doing this type of work, and I imagine some of it has to do with the fact that lots of folks are trying to have an impact. Maybe they’re not intending to compete, but at times they’re working on similar efforts and are not working as much in an integrated way.

So when you think about collaboration there, what does that look like? What are you all doing to deepen the ties and make sure you’re rowing together?

Rahsaan Bernard: We believe that the community here has enough resources. They have the answers they need to solve their own problems. What they need are trusting nonprofits that are going to be here for the long term.

These nonprofits that I’ve mentioned have been here for the long term. We’ve experienced them in a way that has built what I believe is a real trust bond, which has helped us move the needle on progress.

Darius Bates: That’s a really good segue, because I wanted to ask you about how community voice factors into your work. In our prior conversations, you really emphasized that it guides a lot of what you all are trying to do. Can you speak to how that works? What is the mechanism? How are you sure that you’re hearing from the community and what they value? And then, how do you put into practice taking those inputs and actually creating something that the community values and that drives long-term benefit for them?

Rahsaan Bernard: Yeah, this is a great question. I think it begins with the premise that we believe, and I said this earlier, that the solutions reside in the community. We believe that having a platform for them to articulate those solutions is really the work of the nonprofits that are here. We are vicariously amplifying their voices, aligning resources, and ensuring that those resources are solutions to the problem.

. . . Solutions reside in the community. We believe that having a platform for them to articulate those solutions is really the work of the nonprofits that are here.

I’m a big believer that discretion is the elixir of dignity. And what we have done over the last several years is create a platform where discretion can be provided, voices can be heard and dignified. Those voices that are heard and dignified can be amplified. We can learn from the solutions that they suggest, and we can really create or get to those solutions faster by really managing the resources that we fundraise for and that we partner for.

We’ve seen that things, for example, our community leadership empowerment workshop, (CLEW), give a platform for residents in our neighborhoods to really learn about their own neighborhood. It inspires them to take action either through advocacy, policy, or even volunteerism. And we’ve seen that class [CLEW] multiply over and over again.

Darius Bates: And what does that discretion look like in practice? What does that mean for how you’re engaging folks? Is it that they just have a feeling that what they’re saying is being held in confidence, or are you doing specific things in how you set up the conversations to make sure that folks can truly share their true thoughts and feelings with you?

Rahsaan Bernard: I love that question. Yes, discretion is unpacked and strategized. It means that the agenda is fluid. It means that the agenda is also patient. It means that no one comes with a set agenda besides the framework for what we aim to get from the conversation. It means we provide a place that is belonging, with food. It means we choose the right time when residents can show up. It means we don’t have judgment based on the selections or the suppositions that are brought to the table. It means we encourage every single person to speak their voice, their truth. It means we encourage them when they have spoken their truth, we encourage them to speak even more, and we encourage others to join.

We create a platform where it really becomes a no-judgment zone. And that really has unlocked comments, feedback, and strategies that I think are the requisite discretion needed for community members who really feel like they don’t have a platform to speak, or that they rarely get listened to.

Darius Bates: That’s pretty powerful because I think a lot of times, with folks who are looking to have impact in their communities, they often set up spaces that are very comfortable for the organizers but not very comfortable for the participants. And it sounds like what you’re saying is that you’re being very thoughtful around what it would take and what the setup should be so that the community can come and be comfortable, and therefore they can actually give voice to what they need to empower themselves.

Rahsaan Bernard: Absolutely. And you think about an agenda that’s not created beforehand but is created in real time, in concert with the community that’s entering the doors, and you’re giving enough space and grace for that to happen. You’re allowing people who are long-winded to be long-winded. You know, this work is messy; it’s not proficient. Discretion takes time, but the answers that you get from those are real jewels. And we’ve seen that.

Think about an agenda that’s not created beforehand but is created in real time, in concert with the community that’s entering the doors, and you’re giving enough space and grace for that to happen.

Darius Bates: So, one other element of how you’ve approached this work, that I think perhaps is a differentiator, is that you all have a physical space. With THEARC, you’ve created a center for a lot of the activities you’ve described thus far in the conversation. Can you just talk a little bit about why you felt that space was important and maybe some of the benefits that come with having a space, as well as maybe some of the complexities that might be associated with it?

Rahsaan Bernard: I love that question because when you think about the social determinants of health and you think about an underresourced community that has been impacted by a lack of intentional investment and that faces redlining and food deserts, medical deserts, education deserts, you name it—in [such a] community, it is an unbelievable boon to have a campus that is 16.5 acres, 203,000 square feet of programming space, housing 14 nonprofits in five sectors: health, education, arts, recreation, and workforce development.

Our size and scale make us the largest social-service multi-nonprofit collaboration in the country for a group, for residents, and for the community as a whole to have access to at their behest. This place provides people with what they need to achieve who they want to be. This is a proximate strategy for us. And so, to your question about the space, as I mentioned earlier, the physical environment is an aspect of the social determinants of health.

Our engagement, our solutions, and the dignity that we provide for this community begin in the parking lot. When you drive through our parking lot, there’s not one piece of trash. You drive through our parking lot, and you see people waving at you, saying, “Welcome!” You step into our doors, and the warmth of the community greets you at the front. You look at the floor and it screams longevity—those floors were specifically chosen to be here for 100 years. You see the glass that lines the front of the building and on the second floor, and it says, “Look on in here and be a part of this!” There are no metal detectors at any of our entrances. The physical space is clean, welcoming, and warm.

We believe this community deserves that, so the physical space was really in our equation for restoring this community. The physical space was a big part of that. And I would say that what we have seen is the endowment effect of that, because once you cross the threshold of our gates, we tell you that you belong, you become an owner, and that ownership leads to stewardship.

All of this glass here that people said we were crazy for putting up back in 2005 when we built the building, because people were going to throw rocks at it, they were going to break them; a lot of the soft bigotry to lower expectations that we heard back in 2005—none of it has materialized.

So we are finding ourselves today thinking about how we do this for every place in the country that deserves a place just like this. So in short, the answer is that it’s a proximate strategy. In short, we want people to have the best-in-class resources at their behest. In short, we want a place [for people] to come where they belong that’s clean and dignified. In short, we want a place where people can come and see who they want to be. And it happens right here on campus at THEARC.

Darius Bates: And I love that you’re thinking about that concept of ownership. You know, within the action 9 team, we find ourselves talking about this a lot. And it feels like in our country, in many instances, it’s getting harder and harder for people to feel like they have a piece of ownership, like they have a stake in the outcome. And we know how important it is for communities to feel that they do have a stake in the outcome, because, to your point, it turns into stewardship. I like how you put that. And I love the idea that they seem to be maybe even protecting what is now theirs because they see value there. So that’s really beautiful.

Now, as you think about your other physical spaces, I know you all are working on the 11th Street Bridge Park. Can you talk about what the goal is there, what that project is, and what type of impact you expect to see from it?

Rahsaan Bernard: We’ve been metaphorically building these bridges for 18 years with the THEARC campus. We built the education bridge, we’ve built food access bridges, we’ve built workforce development bridges, all metaphorical. We’ve built arts and culture bridges; we have the largest theater right here at THEARC campus. But people always say, “Rahsaan, you’ve run out of metaphors, and now you’re doing something physical.”

This physical edifice will represent our work. And what we hope to get out of that is not only connecting people from both sides of the river together but to spur progress around the environment by getting people down to the river so that they can be good stewards of the river and get people from the Navy Yard side of our city, which is Ward 6, to come to the Ward 8 side.

We’ve been intentional because the design of the bridge actually has a wider mouth or a wider opening on the Ward 8 side. We want to get more customers for the businesses that we’ve been investing in for the last eight years through our Equitable Development Plan. We hope to get people who we’ve invested in, through our community land trust, in there, and get microloans to other small businesses; we are working to really be a catalyst for revitalization in Anacostia. So we’re excited about what’s to come. And I believe that with the advent of the bridge park, we will reap the dividends of our eight- to ten-year investment in equitable development in that one-mile walkshed of the park.

I’m happy to say that today we have 122 renters in that one-mile walkshed who are now homeowners. Through our Equitable Development Plan, we work with [the nonprofit] Manna to get people from being renters to homeowners. [The landscape of] Ward 8 is 75 percent renters. So when market forces show up, typically those renters are either moved out or bear the cost. We’re excited about the new homeowners who will ultimately gain wealth from what’s coming.

Darius Bates: Yeah, you’re running ahead of me. It’s interesting—we have a similar dynamic in Atlanta on the westside, where there’s a very large renting population. And as you put it, the homes that a lot of those folks are living in are owned by speculators who are waiting for prices to go up. And then you know what happens to the people who are living in those homes when [the speculators] are ready to exit those investments.

Some of my good friends and collaborators are actually on the westside trying to put programs in place that can help residents avoid displacement, and it sounds like you all are doing similar activity, which is actually really great to hear. Do you think the rising potential risk of gentrification is something that you all will have to think about as this project takes on more life and begins to expand its impact?

Rahsaan Bernard: That’s an emphatic "yes." In fact, we’ve been thinking about that for years. When that very thing that we’re providing is a tool for connecting communities and not displacing communities is then used as a displacing mechanism, we had to sit back and think, “OK, how can we multiply the investments in equitable development?” It’s not a silver bullet, so it would be myopic for me to even think that the work that we’re doing in that one-mile walkshed is a silver bullet for all of Anacostia and all of Ward 8.

But we had to double down on our strategies as we thought through, “OK, if this is happening, what can we do to ensure people are going to stay and thrive in place?” Today I’m happy to announce we’ve invested $87 million already, tantamount to what it will cost to build the park. Through our partnerships with JPMorgan Chase, LISC [Local Initiatives Support Corporation], and others, we’ve invested $87 million in that one-mile walkshed that is Anacostia. We’re excited about what that will portend when the bridge gets here.

Darius Bates: That sounds awesome, really awesome. So maybe let’s pivot and talk a bit about overall impact across a number of the different efforts that you’re driving. I’m curious to know the types of metrics or feedback you’re using to know that you’re moving the needle in the way that you intend to. Can you speak on that a bit?

Rahsaan Bernard: Absolutely, I’ll break them down by projects. When you think about THEARC campus as a whole, we have health, education, arts, recreation, and workforce development. This community, which by definition was a medical desert, didn’t have primary-care services in the proximity that it has today. We have seen this community go from 2,000 to now 30,000 patients a year receiving primary care. So just think about that number—a significant [number of] of families are now utilizing primary-care services. That’s one.

Number two, when you think about workforce, over the last eight years, our Skyline Workforce Center has worked very diligently to provide workforce training, specifically for Ward 8 residents. Last year, we crossed the thousandth Ward 8 placement in the eight-year history of our work. So, we’ve placed in jobs—in not just regular jobs but in career-developing jobs—a thousand Ward 8 residents who were unemployed. Now, these residents are stratified in various ways. Some of them are returning citizens, so they were in the criminal justice system and have now returned. Some are returning because they’ve been out for a while and are now looking for the requisite skills to get employed again. But that number 1,000 was a milestone for us.

As it relates to cultural programming, our theater stage has had, in the last five years, more Black administrators, artists, and residents use the stage for the first time ever. A beautiful stage, a proscenium theater that’s as large as one at the Kennedy Center, 365 seats—they’re able to use that asset for their production and for their plays. We’ve seen the use multiply; we had to add a black box theater because it was so oversubscribed. So we’ve seen a boon in the arts and culture sector of our work. And we found out that many of those folks have taken their work to other places. We’re really creating a platform for first-time folks to get engaged.

And lastly, I will say we have a farm that’s here, and our farm is one of seven farms that’s networked around the east-of-the-river communities. And over the last five years, we have seen families sign up for community-supported agriculture. So we now have 500-plus Ward 8 families that are no longer, I would say, suffering per se from a lack of access to healthy food. They have now subscribed to our CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] program, and they pick up their food right here, at THEARC, on our doorstep every Saturday. We’ve seen the growth of that from ten families to now 500 families. We want to measure the consumption of healthy foods—fruits and vegetables—with that number, so we’re working with a couple of independent, third-party validators to work on that.

Darius Bates: I love that. You guys are looking at things across a number of different dimensions, and I think that makes a ton of sense. We’d recently put out some thinking around how to take a robust look at a number of the metrics for a community to understand places of opportunity. And we’ll share that with you as you all continue to build out, because as you grow your impact, I know there’s going to be more data that you’re going to want to have on whether this is working. And not just so you can point and say, “Look what we did,” but more so because when you think about where new investments will go, you want to keep channeling them toward things that are actually working. And if things actually aren’t working, you want to know sooner rather than later so that you can make different decisions. I think it will continue to be powerful in the space.

Well, maybe as a final question we can talk about some of the learnings you’ve had. You’ve been on a journey to impact inequity, and I know you must have seen a lot. If you thought about maybe one or two lessons that you think would be helpful for folks in other geographies that are on a similar journey, what might you point to?

Rahsaan Bernard: Great question. I would say that, very early on, [you should] get out of the way. I think many of us enter this work with a certain disposition that, at times, can be debilitating to the actual work. And what I mean by that is really what I said before: the answers are in the community. If we can get out of our way and provide a platform for our residents and those who we are walking alongside to give us their expertise and to share with us the answers that they desire, we’ll get there quicker.

If we can get out of our way and provide a platform for our residents and those who we are walking alongside to give us their expertise and to share with us the answers that they desire, we’ll get there quicker.

The other piece that I’ve learned is that you’ve got to start early and communicate often. And that means before you think you need to be there, you should be there. Before you think you need to get people to the table, you should get them there. And I believe that the answer also lies in broadening that table. I believe stakeholders, or what I call “unlikely coalitions,” should be sought after. Many times you see the same players around the table. And yes, that’s great to have them because they have convictions about the work. But I think sometimes when you think about some of the unlikely coalitions, it can help you think differently, bring a different perspective, and move the needle differently.

We’ve seen that at our table and have had some unlikely coalitions that have really helped us. The other thing is how often we communicate the same message. I would say that regardless of how long it takes, the message must remain homogenous. People are at the center of our work; we’re here for the community. That’s been the refrain where we are: we are doing everything that we can to work alongside our community. And so that homogenous language with the community has really, again, built trust. They know what we’re saying is no different from yesterday than today.

Another thing that is really important is thinking about resource allocation. For example, we have looked at partnering with the government, corporations, foundations, philanthropy, and individuals. We all really need to be on the same page as it relates to resource allocation. I think if we can get there earlier and more quickly, those who have the resources around the table, if we have one common oneness in how we want those resources deployed, we just get there quicker. So that’s another thing that we’ve seen over the last several years.

And the last thing I’ll say is, I go back to it over and over and over again: progress moves at the speed of trust.

Darius Bates: There’s a lot of goodness in there, and thank you for sharing those thoughts. You all are doing a lot of really inspiring work, and I love the way that you talk about your approach with such thoughtfulness. It’s very clear that you spend a lot of time reflecting on not just how you want to do the work but also how you actually want to explain it and bring it to life for folks who maybe aren’t as close. I think it’s really come through in our conversation today, and I just want to thank you again for joining us. I think this was a really excellent conversation and I enjoyed it.

Rahsaan Bernard: The pleasure’s all mine, Darius. Thank you for having me and thank you for allowing us to have this platform to really share what we do and how we do it. It’s through these kinds of collaborations that, I think, over the years have really led to our success. So thank you for allowing me to share some of the wonderful things that are happening at Building Bridges Across the River.

Darius Bates: For our broader audience community, we’re going to continue with these conversations as part of the McKinsey Action 9 Fireside Chat series, and we’re looking forward to having you back again. Again, I’m Darius Bates out of McKinsey’s Atlanta office, and we look forward to speaking with you all again soon. Take care.

Explore a career with us