Community Perspectives: Brent Christopher


George Marquez: Welcome to Community Perspectives.

My name is George Marquez, District Director for Human and Organization Development. Today it is my honor to be talking with Mr. Brent Christopher, the Chief Executive Officer for the Communities Foundation of Texas.


What are the greatest challenges you see facing Dallas County today?

Brent Christopher: Here at Communities Foundation of Texas, we've taken a deeper look into Dallas County over the last few years to try and get a more current sort of snapshot into the place where we all live and work.

And, you know, Dallas County is a very strong, healthy, vibrant community.

But that doesn't mean we don't have some challenges and some issues that have to be addressed.

One of those that we have discovered is an issue related to what's called asset poverty.

Meaning that a family doesn't have a financial safety net underneath them, to be able to maintain their standard of living, if they lose their primary source of income for three months or more.

All those folks are just one job loss, one major health crisis away from real financial catastrophe for themselves and their families.

While you might suspect that that's an issue that some percentage of folks in Dallas County are having to address, we discovered that it's actually a pretty sizable percentage of Dallas County.

Somewhere between 35 and up to 40% of the people who live in Dallas County can be defined as asset poor and that's a real issue for this region.

Just in terms of the quality of life and what it means for those individuals and the family.

But also for the economic competitiveness and vitality of North Texas.

And that issue of asset poverty touches a whole lot of other related issues, one of those being education.

We found that for those 35 to 40% of the people in Dallas County who are asset poor, 50% of those people only have an education through high school, which shows you the significant educational gap that still exists across Dallas County right now that needs to be closed with more affordable, accessible opportunities for people to complete.

Opportunities to extend their learning beyond just a high-school degree, whether that's completing an associate degree, or going on and completing a traditional four year bachelor's degree, or other kind of, of higher education.

So, addressing all those root causes that feed into the issue of asset poverty in Dallas country is a really big challenge that we face.

Another challenge that we face in this region, I think, is just the sort of, inter-regional competitiveness that we have in North Texas that certainly affects us here in Dallas County.

A lot of other parts of the state are able to speak with a stronger voice because those major cities really have one principal county that encompasses the geography of that city.

That's not true here in north Texas.

We do just have Dallas County around the city of Dallas proper mostly.

But this is a large region, that encompasses a 16 county area in total.

And we, we hardly ever are able to speak as a region.

Whether it's dealing with issues that we're trying to address locally here, or having conversations with state leadership in Austin, for example.

Working with members of the legislature.

Dealing with issues related to transportation, water, education.

You name it.

North Texas has a harder time speaking with one voice.

And we need to overcome some of that competitiveness that we feel in this region, to be able to work together more collaboratively and speak with a stronger voice and advocating for the changes and the resources that we need, in Dallas County and beyond, across North Texas for the benefit of this region.

GM: What do you see as Dallas County's greatest strengths?

BC: You know, Dallas County has the benefit of a population of people who are highly entrepreneurial.

And people who have a really optimistic sort of can-do attitude in the way that they approach challenges.

And the way they approach issues in their own personal lives with their families and in their professional lives with their businesses.

In terms of the raw material that you can use to achieve great things.

That's a terrific starting place.

And we're really fortunate in Dallas County.

You know, Dallas is a place that by all rights really shouldn't be here.

You know, there's no compelling natural resource or geographical reason why Dallas would be located where it is, it's a place that has built itself, through the will of its people, making something of this place into a community, that now is a thriving place to, to live and to work.

And that fiber is still just a part of who we are in Dallas County and that's terrific.

In addition, Dallas County really has a comparatively strong economy.

Certainly strong as you look around the rest of the country.

But even within the state of Texas, the economy in Dallas County is really strong, and we have a strong corporate community behind that.

That creates again a whole wealth of assets that can be leveraged for the quality of life and vitality of a region like North Texas.

In terms of leadership in North Texas, I think we also have a distinct advantage, right now, just in terms of the elected officials and the public civic leadership that's in place right now to make really important things happen.

If you look just at the area of education, for example, we now have a Mayor in Dallas who is an ardent champion for improving public education for the sake of all students in the system across the city of Dallas from his perspective, but really, all of Dallas County.

We've got a regional approach to improving education now through the Commit Partnership.

The Commit Partnership is doing wonderful work to align that entire educational pipeline, that whole spectrum from early childhood through post-secondary, to ensure that we're doing what we need to do in Dallas County to provide high quality educational opportunities for all students.

That kind of a regional, collective impact partnership and the kind of city leadership that we have right now and the Mayor, certainly with the Chamber, lots of other organizations too.

Those are unique and special assets for us here in Dallas County, that other counties just don't have.

I'll also say from our perspective here at Communities Foundation of Texas - and not just because these remarks are for the Dallas County Community College District - but we've got an A-list, outstanding public community college system.

Dallas Community College District has an extraordinary amount of credibility built up into the reputation for educational opportunities that it provides and what it delivers to the students that are enrolled within that system. And we're very proud of that too.

GM: What opportunities do you see on the horizon?

BC: You know, right now in Dallas County, there's a growing emphasis on and interest in doing the things that will improve access to higher education.

And building in place the support system and infrastructure, but within institution and within the community, to also improve not just access to higher education but completion of a degree.

That kind of community-wide conversation and momentum is something that I think we can really capitalize on and tap into for all the leverage that it brings to improving and increasing the pool of people who move through the higher education system and are prepared for life and work at the level that they need to be right now, in this region, in this state, and, and in the economy that we have.

It has not always been the case that there's been this much awareness of and interest in what it means to have access into higher education and all the variables that feed into that.

Plus the support structure that has to be there, not just to get into school, but to actually complete school and get that degree.

And that is something that, that we should definitely be able to capitalize on.

You know the, the Mayor's Grow South initiative right now is also something that I think creates an extraordinary opportunity for us to capitalize on here in Dallas County.

A lot of mayors over the years have talked about things that would strengthen the economic vitality across the southern sector of Dallas and in Dallas County.

Grow South really reaches beyond that.

It does reinforce the significance of the business opportunities that exist there.

But also what it means just to have a more interconnected and vibrant community across all the different sectors of, of the city and the county right now.

And because of the focus the Mayor has placed on that through his Grow South initiative and all the resources that he's brought to bear, that, likewise, creates a really extraordinary opportunity that we can, can seize upon and, and capitalize on.

Finally, I, I'd also have to highlight some of the things that are happening right now through UNT and specifically with regard to the UNT Dallas campus and the new UNT Dallas Law School that's being launched this fall downtown.

I think that's going to create some extraordinary collaboration opportunities.

I know that Dallas County Community College district is already doing some things in conjunction with UNT and the UNT Dallas campus.

Having that kind of a public institution, located within Dallas County, and being the only public institution within the city of Dallas, especially with a law school like that, that can provide greater access to educational opportunities for a broader range of students with flexible range of, of resources and scheduling options and a different kind of affordability.

All those different variables that play in to whether or not a student is interested and able to pursue their education and then able to complete that.

Partnering with UNT Dallas right now around this creation of a public university like they have done in the city of Dallas and the law school will continue to further strengthen and enhance the community that we have in Dallas and the educational opportunities that are available for students.

GM: If you could build Dallas from day one, what would it be?

BC: Well, that's a great question.

You know, sometimes it's easier to order in a restaurant when you have a short menu, versus the really long menu.

Because there's, there's to much to try and pick from.

This question is sort of like that.

Rebuilding Dallas County from scratch obviously would afford a huge range of opportunities across the board.

But, there are way too many variables there to really think about and go into in great detail.

I would say, in terms of what would be a, a tremendous asset county wide, if you could start over from scratch and rethink the way that Dallas County is created, it would be to rethink what regional public transportation looks like in Dallas.

Regional public transportation has certainly been a top agenda item for us in Dallas County for a number of years.

And the DART System is expanding and growing and it's an important resource.

Is it ideal?


Is it really embedded into Dallas County in the way that you would want it to be if you were starting from scratch?

No, and you know, in an ideal world if I could just snap my fingers and go back in time to create Dallas County from scratch, I would rethink and embed an extensive, affordable, accessible public transportation system in to Dallas County that would make us less dependent on vehicles.

And improve the accessibility around Dallas County for all the range of assets and resources that are available, available to us here, so that all people in Dallas County would have access to it.

Much easier than they do today.

GM: Any closing thoughts that you have that you'd like to share with us?

BC: Overall, we are so lucky to live in a place like Dallas County.

And every place where you could live in this state or this country is going to have its own unique set of challenges.

But on the whole, Dallas County is an extraordinary place to call home and to work.

And one of the greatest assets that we have here is the Dallas County Community College District.

All of us at Communities Foundation of Texas are proud for every opportunity that we have to work hand in hand with the staff, the faculty, all the professionals at Dallas County Community College District and the work that you're doing across this region.

And no one is more effective in reaching the number of students that you reach, in the ways you do and providing high quality education that is accessible and affordable to those students to better prepare them for life and work.

That's an important philanthropic priority that we have here at Communities Foundation of Texas for the things that we look to invest in and the programs that we want to be involved with.

And Dallas County Community College District is always a great partner, and we are exceptionally proud to stand alongside you.

GM: Mr Christopher, thank you for allowing us to show your day, and for your insights on Dallas County.