Mark Linton has built an impressive career as a leader in advocating for social change. During nine years on the staff of Senator and then President Barack Obama, he has served in various leadership roles, including as Acting Chief of Staff for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and as Executive Director of the White House Council on Strong Cities, Strong Communities.
This spring, Linton will add Visiting Fellow at the Boston College School of Social Work to his resume. Throughout the semester he will visit with faculty, students, and a wide range of community partners from the private and non-profit sectors, as well as peer institutions such as Clark University. Linton will also lecture on national trends impacting federal and local policymaking as they pertain to cities and inclusive economic development, and share insights related to bridging the divide between effective policy and practice in the field of integrated community development.
In this conversation with BC Social Work, Linton discusses his drive to create change in a career rooted in public service, the tremendous opportunity of working for President Obama, and his hopes for this coming semester at Boston College.
BCSSW: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us today Mark. We’re very excited to have a leader in public service of your caliber here at BC Social Work this semester. Your list of accomplishments is long: Could you begin by giving us a sense of what has motivated you throughout your career?
Mark Linton: Absolutely, and thank you for your time. My career has been rooted in public service, and in particular, in looking for opportunities to find new solutions to tenacious, long-standing problems that especially impact individuals living at the margins of society. I started doing this kind of work in an international context at Catholic Relief Services, and as my interests developed, I became intent on addressing issues of inequality and poverty by creating more economic opportunity, for more people, here at home in the U.S.
Over my career, I’ve also become deeply interested in the intersection of public policy and private investment in communities, and how important private-public partnerships are in promoting inclusive economic growth. During my two years at the Harvard Kennedy School, I helped to lead the student arm of the university’s Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative, and it was there where I became convinced of the need to seek out novel partnerships and solutions to move the needle on intractable problems.
I had the opportunity to put these ideas into practice in several different roles in the Obama Administration, especially in helping cities that were finding innovative ways to spark economic turnarounds.
BCSSW: You have worked for President Barack Obama dating back to his U.S. Senate office. Tell us more about what it has meant to work with him.
ML: Years ago, I listened to a compelling, thoughtful senator from Illinois giving an interview, and like so many others, I became convinced that the way to have the kind of positive impact I hoped to achieve, was to work for him.
I took a position with the president when he was still in the Senate office, and this was such a tremendous opportunity for a lot of reasons. Most importantly, I had the chance to learn from him, and to work with some incredibly talented colleagues and help craft and shape policies at the federal level that would ultimately become law. Being able to play even a small role in supporting Barack Obama, who has such a progressive vision for promoting economic opportunity for everyone, has been an incredible privilege.
I also worked on the Obama campaign in 2008, and have since had some fantastic professional opportunities, taking on a number of different leadership positions within his administration. There are many places in the federal government where you can have an impact on a city, state, or regional level, and one great place to do that is at HUD, which oversees a lot of the resources designated to communities to help promote community and economic development. HUD has one of the best missions of any organization – to help ensure everyone has a place they can call home, and that communities can help create inclusive opportunities for all of their residents.
BCSSW: After holding several other positions at HUD, you were tapped to head the White House Strong Cities, Strong Communities Initiative (SC2). Tell us more about this role.
ML: It was a fantastic job. Strong Cities, Strong Communities was informed by the president’s own experience as a community organizer in Chicago, recognizing that top-down federal policies would not solve a community’s problems. Instead, we needed to position the federal government as a competent, responsive partner, especially in communities working to chart an economic recovery. Our charge was to work closely with cities that were trying to reboot their economies in a way that benefited everyone. These were places that had encountered severe economic shocks often even before the Great Recession: places like Memphis, New Orleans, Fresno, and Detroit.
Leading this initiative was especially exciting for me because it was an opportunity to bust silos and cut red tape to make sure that federal programs were supporting local priorities, and leveraging private investment wherever possible. We were successful because of a real commitment to partnership, to working with mayors (both Republican and Democratic), nonprofits, businesses, philanthropy. When we approached problems with creativity, tenacity and a degree of humility, some special things began to take root. Our teams of experts helped places like Fresno redevelop their downtown, Detroit demolish dangerous, abandoned housing, and New Orleans break ground on critical infrastructure projects. I see real opportunities to do even more in these and many other places where we worked (learn more about Linton’s tenure at SC2).
BCSSW: This semester, you’re embarking on a new opportunity, certainly from the perspective of BC Social Work, as you take on a role as Visiting Fellow at the school. What are some of your expectations for your fellowship at BC?
ML: I’m really looking forward to joining the Boston College community and engaging with its exceptional faculty, students, and civic partners. The school’s commitment to solving social ills stemming from inequity and inequality provides an ideal platform for me to learn, and to hone my future work. In addition, the Center for Social Innovation and the School of Social Work are in the vanguard of addressing some of our nation’s most pressing and persistent problems, so I’m proud to have the opportunity to contribute to this stimulating learning environment.
I’m very excited to see what kind of work is underway at BC, and to learn more about what is capturing the imagination and attention of faculty and students, especially with regards to social innovation. In turn, I’ll do my best to share my own experiences and insights, and hopefully explore further collaborations down the road.