Remembering Jeremy Nowak, a force for urban change | Commentary
We asked those who knew and worked with Jeremy Nowak to talk about concrete ways that we can make the city better based on what he gave us.
In a city of smart people, Jeremy Nowak was one of the smartest. Nowak, who at the time of his death last week was a visiting fellow at Drexel University's Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation and a consultant, spent decades as a force for change in the city. He was a passionate civic advocate, investor, and commentator who founded the Reinvestment Fund and chaired boards of organizations including the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, Mastery Charter Schools, and Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation. To honor his memory, the Inquirer and the Philadelphia Citizen, whose board Nowak also chaired, followed his spirit of collaboration and reached out to a handful of people to reflect on his legacy. We asked those who knew and worked with him to talk about concrete ways that we can make the city better based on what he gave us.
Former Philadelphia Eagle
I got to know Jeremy a few years ago when I was writing for the Citizen during the 2016 season. I knew after talking to him for 10 minutes that he was one of the smartest people I had ever met and over the next few years we would get coffee every couple of months. He became a type of "civic coach" for me. Jeremy taught me about Philadelphia and he tried to explain to me all of the economic empowerment work he was up to, which fascinated me. Most of all, he shared my idealism — but was full of practical advice on how my foundation could grow and have a bigger impact. I will always remember Jeremy for his honesty and his passion. He was an Eagles fan, and a true Philadelphian; most of all, he was a person who tried to make the world and the people around him better.
President, Policy Solutions, the Reinvestment Fund
What I learned from Jeremy that I endeavor to bring to my city-building work at the Reinvestment Fund is that success depends on four things: great ideas, good data (perfect data is an infrequent luxury), and organized people, and capital. Most people in our field grasp one of these; Jeremy was great at all four. And while you may have good ideas about how something should work, you need to have the fortitude to defend your ideas and be open to the notion that your ideas need adjustment based on objective and rigorously tested facts. I also learned that it's not enough to just know things; if you want to make the city a better place, you must do things. In doing those things, you must carry with you a sense of optimism and energy that the problems you're trying to solve can be solved. People, capital, and success will follow.
Cofounder, Drexel Metro Finance Lab
Jeremy and I were working with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti – and mayors in Louisville, Oklahoma City, and South Bend — to create a new kind of market tool, an Investment Prospectus. Our goal was to help cities realize the full potential of the recently enacted federal tax incentive that aims to spur private investment in low-income areas designated as Opportunity Zones. We strongly believed that cities could enhance the social impact of private capital by developing initiatives that upgraded the skills of children and young adults who live in or near these zones. In short, we had grand ambitions. What was so enjoyable, though, was having a partner. We could have big conversations about dynamics and solutions, invent market tools, have months working on this thing together, and it was also fun to have a partner to do this. This will be a signature partnership of my life. He was a singular person.
President, Drexel University
Jeremy was never satisfied with easy answers or snap judgments, and he insisted on action, accountability, and inclusion. We often spoke about the imperative of balancing Philadelphia's dynamic growth with policies and programs that would support residents who were being left behind. His knowledge of recent studies on gentrification was comprehensive, yet he understood both the merits and the limitations of the data. At the same time, he had deep compassion for residents anxious about their future, and challenged me to embrace that complexity. Data for Jeremy were a means to an end, and he never let me forget that. His mantra – study problems in a data-centric, dispassionate way, and push for solutions to help vulnerable households in Philadelphia – continues to guide my thinking.
Jeremy was in the business of getting things done. I think there are many people who have good ideas, but then there is the "get-it-done" part. As an investor in early-stage opportunities for many years, I can tell you that the execution is as important as the idea. We need a lot more of that in this region: Figure out the problem, don't study it and talk about it forever – just go solve it! That said – and this is an important caveat – Jeremy was an extraordinary pragmatist. He understood people and influence, the forces they had to deal with and what motivated them. He, in turn, was so successful and so creative in dealing with them because he had a pristine agenda with no self-interest. Can we do better than we are? Jeremy thought so and led by example. As Master Yoda said: "Do. Or do not. There is no try."
CEO, Mastery Charter Network of Public Schools
Jeremy's passionate commitment to serving the most vulnerable, his brutal honesty about what works and what doesn't, and his ferocious courage to do whatever it takes – especially when it's difficult and unpopular – are values I try to emulate and foster at Mastery Charter Schools. He was a disruptor and believed in radical systemic change. But he was also a practitioner and recognized that no change happens without the organizations that take risks, make mistakes, and keep pushing ahead. I try to think about our work at Mastery in this way – pushing toward the day when every Philadelphia and Camden family can choose a high-quality public school – and recognizing that our path to that vision is the day-by-day work of supporting every teacher to be exceptional and ensuring every student is loved, inspired, and pushed to accomplish more than they thought possible. If Mastery can continue to step forward boldly, to act without fear of disruption and conflict — we will have honored Jeremy Nowak.
Principal, Sage Communications
For more than a decade, I worked with Jeremy on many projects, independently or through our firm when he needed communications advice. Sometimes when I told him, "You need to be careful how you say that," he'd ignore me and say it exactly how he thought it should be said. I'm not sure why he asked, because he always knew precisely what he wanted to say or write. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it backfired – big. But his words – spoken and written — were spot on nine times out of 10. Powerful. Persuasive. He often made people angry with his opinions; but more often, he was praised — both for his views and exceptional writing. We all learned how to make Philadelphia a better place by reading his blogs, Citizen columns, and most recently his new book, or by listening to him speak or moderate. I personally learned that you can make the city better by not being politically correct, or just by complaining, but by speaking up and then doing something to fix it.
President and CEO, Center City District
Very smart bull in a china shop. Impatient with platitudes, Jeremy delighted in challenging the status quo. He could be blunt and undiplomatic. But he was never an iconoclast bent only on destruction. To every challenge, he brought passion, intelligence, creativity, and pragmatic solutions. He crossed boundaries. He built bridges between businesses, bankers, politicians, and community organizers. To the world of community development, wedded to subsidies as the only solution, he brought marketplace thinking, original analysis, and investment capital to create homes, schools, and supermarkets in low-income communities. In a city too often wedded to a style of "drowning without making waves," he leaves us with the clarion call to speak out. In a nation divided into hostile camps, he calls us to the practical middle, the only place where things really get done.
President, the Philadelphia Foundation
I first met Jeremy when he was teaching a class at Penn. He told me he liked and respected my activist older brother, Juan. I hadn't met anyone at Penn with any connection to my North Philadelphia roots. I encountered Jeremy again in connection with Reinvestment Fund and the city's neighborhood transformation initiative. When I agreed to be part of a group of four new members of the School Reform Commission recruited to help pull the school district out of a financial death spiral, Jeremy appreciated the magnitude, difficulty, and unpopularity of the challenge, but he stepped up anyway as a funder, fund-raiser, supporter, rigorous thinker, and critical friend. His recent writings on the power of local cities to secure the future well-being of our nation are required reading for any lifelong student of cities. Being around Jeremy helped me grow even more optimistic about Philadelphia and more willing to be impatient about the pace and scale of positive change.
President, Spring Point Partners
Known fondly to our Spring Point Partners team as "the chief," Jeremy was our guide as we entered the impact-investing world. He was a pragmatic teacher, endlessly reminding us that "perfect is the enemy of the good," and pushing us to roll up our sleeves, learn as much as we could, and take the first informed steps to solving a problem. These are lessons we — and hopefully others inspired by Jeremy — will take into our future endeavors around social and environmental justice, in Philadelphia and elsewhere. We cannot sit on the sidelines waiting for the right time to jump in. As the chief would say: What are you waiting for? Get moving.
President and CEO, Funders' Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities.
Jeremy was a community organizer at his heart; he organized communities to create and sustain change. I've known Jeremy going back to the '80s. We partnered and collaborated setting up the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative.
Jeremy often used the phrase guiding principles, and some of his included: Invest in people and places. You have to balance growth with equity. Whatever the strategy, one size does not fit all. You have to ground decision-making in data and facts. Also take a pragmatic approach. Don't load up the Christmas tree with too many ornaments. Take calculated risks. Act, reflect, act.
These principles underpin my approach, to this day. They're also good life principles.
Senior consultant , J. Nowak Strategy
Jeremy always made sure my voice was heard, recognized, and respected in the professional rooms we were in, which were often mostly male and white. He was beyond generous with his time and teachings, but that simple act of making sure I was seen in these rooms was the greatest gift he gave me. I will never accept anything less going forward. And I will make sure I do the same for others.
He was brilliant, kind, and really quite funny. We traveled together a fair amount for work. His favorite thing to do when traveling was to see if we could get kicked off the plane. I refused to participate in that game. But in the process he usually had the whole plane in stitches. He was just that kind of guy. He poured everything he had into every moment of his life, and into every person around him. And he had something to say about everything. I miss him dearly.