Ben Hecht is an urban policy expert, and the former president and CEO of Living Cities. He first attended a Bellagio convening “Blueprint for National Prosperity” in 2007, then completed a residency at The Bellagio Center in 2016 and recently established his own LLC—Reclaiming The Dream—to advance his ideas for improving educational opportunities, strengthening civic engagement, and providing a ladder to economic security across the U.S.

My first time at Bellagio was in 2007, as part of a group of urban leaders from around the US. I had just started running Living Cities, which brings together financial institutions and foundations to close urban racial and income gaps—so I was like a kid in a candy store with all those smart people, and I still rely on the professional relationships I made during that week.

One was with Nancy Zimpher, who then was president of the University of Cincinnati. She told me a remarkable story: in 2001, a young African-American boy was killed by the police in Cincinnati. The community leaders—public and private, business and philanthropic—came together to hold themselves accountable for systemic failures in local education, “from cradle to career.” It was such a powerful idea that I gave them a grant for pilots in five other cities. Today, Strive Together is in more than 80 major regions of the US. It achieves collective impact by recognizing that no single entity can ever solve vast social problems alone, sets concrete goals to get there, and supports the volunteers who glue it all together. That all came from drinking wine with Nancy on the terrace at Bellagio.

A decade later, I was back for a writing residency. Often urban leaders will try to apply successful policies from other cities to their own, but what I’d learned was that if you see something once, then that’s once—but if you see it a dozen times or more? That’s real. I wanted to gather these ideas together.

  • Strive Together is in more than 80 major regions of the U.S. It achieves collective impact by recognizing that no single entity can ever solve vast social problems alone... That all came from drinking wine with Nancy on the terrace at Bellagio.
    Ben Hecht
    Founder and Principal of Reclaiming the Dream LLC

The most important thing that people at Bellagio have in common is that they’re so different. Every night before dinner we’d talk about our projects, and each person would give their feedback. It was honest, simple, and extremely provocative. My creative process is to surround myself with disparate and conflicting ideas, so to have a National Medal of the Arts-winning performance artist like Ann Hamilton, or Antonio Patriota, then Brazil’s Ambassador to the UN, give me critiques grounded in their experiences made me think in a different way. I was able to spend time reflecting on concepts like “American hegemony”, which, while difficult to hear, helped me to not only see that it exists but also how incredibly toxic it can be, at home and abroad.  I called my book Reclaiming the American Dream, but of course “the American Dream” mostly has been a white supremacist dream, and that reality had to be reflected. All of these conversations became ingredients in my soup.

I wrote 60,000 words there, and that was the book. Within a month I was giving a TEDx talk, and had more than a dozen other speaking engagements. I’m still promoting my ideas using my book. It’s all only been possible because of the residency. We’re all part of a larger network that can and should be intentionally mobilized for change, and we should appreciate that it’s the energy that comes from seemingly disparate fields is what makes new, intellectually challenging ideas possible. If there’s one thing I’d like people reading this to do, it’s to look out for those relationships, and support them.

Any individual who decides that they’re going to use their personal agency for good can be incredibly powerful. You go to a place like Bellagio, and you’re humbled by how extraordinary these people are. It gives you hope for humanity, and that’s not a well I get the chance to go to often these days.


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We’d like to thank Ben for his continuing contribution to the network. Here are some other ways you can connect with the people and ideas of the Bellagio Network:

Have you read Ben’s book, Reclaiming the American Dream, yet?

Ben’s TEDx talk can be watched here.

You may want to follow Ben on Twitter, or connected with him via LinkedIn.

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