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Q&A with John Simpkins, MDC President

John Simpkins became MDC’s third president in 53 years in July 2020, succeeding David Dodson. Before coming to MDC, he held various leadership roles in efforts to promote equity, access, and inclusion at the state, national, and international level. Most recently he was vice president of the Aspen Global Leadership Network at the Aspen Institute.

A constitutional scholar and practicing attorney, John served in the Obama Administration as deputy general counsel for the White House Office of Management and Budget and general counsel for the U.S. Agency for International Development. After leaving government service, he joined Prisma Health as an executive and led collaborative, evidence-based efforts to promote health innovation, access, and equity in South Carolina’s largest private-sector employer.  Read his full bio on MDC’s Staff page. 

MDC talked with John about his experiences and his vision for MDC’s work going forward.

First, how are you doing in these difficult times?

I’m doing as well as one can under the circumstances. Starting a new job virtually is a challenge in and of itself. I’ve had one-on-ones with everyone on the team and the board, and I’m also getting a chance to meet our partners. What’s at the center of all those conversations is where we find ourselves right now—battling a pandemic, reckoning with our country’s racial history, enduring increasingly catastrophic effects of climate change, and addressing the economic effects of all three. I couldn’t think of a better moment for coming into the work that MDC does.

How do you see the time we’re in, and how do you see MDC taking advantage of it for the sake of equity in the South?

We’re in a generational moment. This is not like any of the other instances of social uprisings and economic uncertainty we’ve seen in my lifetime, at least. I think it is critical that those of us who are concerned about racial equity, those of us who are concerned about equal treatment, and those of us who are concerned about economic advancement in the South, leverage this opportunity to bring about meaningful change and something that goes beyond where we found ourselves before this moment.

How did the pandemic change your perspective on the job?

Coming into this role, I had a very clear sense of how the pandemic was beginning to affect communities that had experienced systemic and historic disinvestment and underinvestment, and of understanding the part that MDC has played throughout its existence in promoting racial equity through developing economic opportunities and promoting economic mobility. This seemed like the perfect place to shape what is happening in society now and beyond. And there are other aspects of MDC’s work that have the potential to bring about long-lasting impact beyond simply addressing the needs of the moment.

Can you give an example of how MDC is leveraging the moment for meaningful change?

The most obvious example is engaging with members of the philanthropic community through our Passing Gear Philanthropy initiative and helping funders think differently about which organizations to support and what readiness means. One of the things that we’ve done at MDC, and are continuing to do, is reshape the conversation around who can and should be eligible for philanthropic dollars, and that it’s more than a question of building capacity. It is really shifting the dynamic and thinking about how funding decisions are made and who participates in making those decisions.

One example is challenge awards that foundations might make. Those awards often require communities and organizations to invest a great deal of time, effort, and energy to determine whether that time, effort, and energy pays off in the form of a grant of some kind. Instead of this approach, funders could engage with communities before the proposal process to help them understand the requirements for a successful application before they apply so that they’re stronger applicants—so their communities can get what they truly need as opposed to what the funder wants to give. That’s part of the Passing Gear Philanthropy Institute, and it will become a part of other leadership efforts that will grow out of PGPI.

You’re from South Carolina. Was coming back to the South part of why you joined MDC?

I am always looking to be of use in the South. The opportunity to work with a talented team at MDC and partners across the 13 states that we serve to bring about meaningful progress was a huge attraction. MDC digs in on the long-term, systemic change that is going to have broad impact.

How will your experience in the law, government, health care, higher education, and forging opportunities for civic engagement at the Aspen Institute help you form your vision?

My work in law, government, and the private sector has been focused on systems and how those systems can benefit broader segments of society. Those experiences also will inform and refine both MDC’s theory of the case and our theory of change as we examine analogous opportunities that we can take from other areas, such as international development, and apply those in a domestic context. I think about, rely upon, and call upon my past experiences on a daily basis in both management and setting our vision for MDC’s continued evolution.

Can you offer an example that comes out of your experience in international development?

One of America’s greatest international development successes has been improving survival rates among mothers and children across the globe. Unfortunately, the United States continues to struggle in this area, especially among communities of color and particularly among African-American women. Approaches have been adopted on a piecemeal basis within the United States including one in Greenville, S.C., that have shown some promise in addressing that disparity through improving maternal outcomes.

How has this moment changed the way we address systemic inequities?

Scale and opportunity—those are the two things that I think are most likely to change right now. There is heightened activity and interest in addressing systemic racism and systemic inequality, and we now have the attention of organizations and individuals who might not have seen that as a priority in the past. So, this is a moment to focus on what we’ve been doing and build on those efforts across the 13 states we serve.

How will this change MDC’s approach?

That’s related to what I see as the vision for MDC going forward. There are three primary categories of work activity that MDC is involved in. One is a demographic and economic analysis of the region that finds its expression in State of the South. That’s important because it sets the predicate for the work that follows. But it will also become a mechanism by which we convene important, solutions-oriented conversations about big problems facing the region.

State of the South is going to become a marketplace of ideas where not only big thinkers but big doers at the community level come together and grapple with difficult questions and propose solutions for how we realize deep and abiding change in communities that have suffered from decades, if not centuries, of underinvestment. Those conversations will originate in State of the South, not just in the report itself but in a series of offerings, where people can come together to generate solutions that aren’t just top down and aren’t just bottom up, but reflect a broad scope of stakeholders. That’s the first large category of work.

The second is what I would describe as “systems design for systems change.” What that means is that we’re looking within communities, whether we’re talking about early childhood activities or economic mobility plans for cities in the South, at how we are setting up people for success, how we are setting up communities for success, and working alongside communities to both design and implement those plans.

This idea of systems design for systems change is going to force us to think differently. It’s going to be an opportunity for funders to think differently, but it’s also going to be an opportunity for communities to think differently about how they organize their relationships. Coming out of this pandemic, moving into a different phase of understanding, this country’s relationship with race will mean that we’re not only going to have to think differently, but we’re going to have to act differently and design systems that are different. We’re working to create larger and more significant learning networks and learning communities that will identify solutions to their own problems beyond their engagement with MDC.

The third area is the Passing Gear Philanthropy Institute’s work around leadership development. It has applications beyond philanthropy, and those applications find their expression in what I would describe as equity-centered leadership.

Equity-centered leadership is rooted in the person. It is rooted in human dignity. As we’re thinking about what it means to be a leader, we should upend the notion of who is a leader, who is capable of leading, and what it means to exercise leadership. Leaders at their core are learners, and good leaders must be lifelong learners. So the question for me becomes, “How do we cultivate in leaders a comfort with learning in public and sharing power and information?” That approach to leadership is transferrable from the world of philanthropy to health care, youth leadership, and any number of geographies and demographics. There are always opportunities to learn, just as there are always opportunities to lead. We just need to make both available to a broader segment of our communities.