Jill Ker Conway wrote this of an exceptional couple who had shaped the opportunity for her to become the history-making first woman president of Smith College. Jill, our founding Board Chair, died on June 1 at age 83, and she was that catalytic person for Community Solutions.
I had known of Jill as Smith president and through her wonderful memoirs and was very pleasantly surprised by a call in the early 2000s that brought Jill into “our experience.” The call was from our tax credit investor, who told me that the Lend Lease Corporation had acquired their business and thus Lend Lease was our new partner in owning several permanent supportive housing residences that our not for profit organization, Common Ground, had developed for the homeless. The other part of the message was that the Chair of Lend Lease’s Board was Jill Ker Conway and that she wanted to meet with me to know how the company could help us do more to end homelessness.
I arrived for that meeting in Boston prepared to discuss the capital requirements of additional housing, but found that Jill wanted to discuss homelessness itself. “There is no more important issue,” she told me and asked why I thought more progress wasn’t being made on the issue. She asked if I was familiar with a book, Songs from the Alley, about two women experiencing homelessness in Boston, written by a journalist who followed the women in their attempts to find a stable place to live. I hadn’t read it, promised to, and only after our meeting did it dawn on me that housing investments— Lend Lease’s business— had not come up in our conversation. Jill had been completely focused on people enduring homelessness and why the institutions working on the problem were failing them.
The book Jill recommended had a challenging message: that the organizations serving people experiencing homelessness had become part of the problem by not examining their effectiveness; treating homelessness as business as usual, not as an urgent crisis; and prioritizing institutional concerns for survival over the mission of ending homelessness.
Our encounter and Jill’s questions reinforced questions some of my colleagues and I had begun to ask ourselves about whether we were getting it right and how we could consider our work to be successful if homelessness was increasing in our own community. We had begun taking our first steps in a new direction and had recently set up an “innovations” team to explore new approaches. We had also resolved to take responsibility for those on the streets of our Times Square neighborhood and to figure out how to help them find a home— including by changing the rules of entry into our own buildings.
I began meeting with Jill each year to report on what we were learning and get a new set of insights and questions from her as our innovations team pressed forward and succeeded in reducing street homelessness in Times Square by 87 percent within three years. We did this by focusing on who specifically was experiencing homelessness, what degree of help each person needed to be connected to a home, and navigating through and around the maze of bureaucratic hurdles involved.
Jill recognized much earlier than I did that disrupting conventional approaches to homelessness would require starting a new organization. When that necessity became clear to me, she forgave my tentativeness and naivete and immediately agreed to chair the Board and help build it.
As Co-Creator of Community Solutions, it was fascinating to see what Jill was not concerned with: endowments, long-term contracts, buildings, or the typical pre-occupations of institutions. Rather, she was concerned with testing approaches focused on people experiencing homelessness themselves— approaches that would help more of them escape homelessness more quickly. She pressed the need to account for the effectiveness of our work by measuring in terms of homelessness prevented or resolved, not by the quantity of services delivered, and to track whether the ideas we were advancing about the urgency and possibility of ending mass homelessness were taking hold and spreading. At Smith and as board member of many corporations and not-for-profits, she was a remarkable steward of institutions, but as a scholar of women social reformers, she also understood that institutions had limitations. She knew that a movement to change a social ill required a different type of organization and was prepared to build the plane while flying it.
Jill also recognized that new ideas require new language. Her persistent question and charge to us was to develop a vocabulary for problems like homelessness and the mindsets and approaches needed to solve complex human problems. She observed that ideas about the organization of charitable and civic efforts had mirrored larger cultural mindsets during various eras in American history: a military model following the Civil War, a mechanistic model in the 20th century. Jill gathered groups of us to challenge our thinking about how “systems,” “networks,” or perhaps some other frame might guide the development of more effective thinking and responses to human need in the 21st century.
Jill described herself in her memoirs as a born risk taker. We saw that in action when a supportive housing residence for formerly homeless veterans in Washington, D.C., to which we were consulting, was deemed too risky by the large not-for-profits we were assisting. In the face of the project’s collapse, Jill rallied the Board to take over the project. “It’s for veterans. It must happen,” was her instruction.
When we finally opened the building in January of 2017, Jill bowed to our pressure and allowed us to name it the John and Jill Ker Conway Residence. She seemed to know the importance of communicating to the building’s future residents her understanding of the effects of war on individuals and families. At the building’s groundbreaking, Jill shared a haunting description
of her father’s military service in World War I and her husband’s in World II, and her contact with men who had been shattered by their wartime experiences. We added Jill to the story in the plaque that hangs in the completed building’s lobby.
Even as health issues began to limit her activity, Jill remained the moral core and compass of our work. She delighted in the success of our 100,000 Homes Campaign and challenged us to figure out what needed to happen next. She loved the Built for Zero initiative and its success in demonstrating with extraordinary community partners that ending chronic and veteran homelessness is possible, and our neighborhood projects as the places we could work out the ways to prevent homelessness altogether.
One could say so many things about what made Jill such a force for good in the world, but one quality stands out— she saw things truthfully. This was evident her entire life: as a child in the Australian Outback, she recognized that the men who would turn up looking for work weren’t “drifters,” but lost souls broken by their experiences in World War I; she saw women and girls as not limited to conventional roles, but as citizens whose talents were needed everywhere; she looked with us at the poverty in the North End of Hartford, CT, and saw not blight, but a community ripe for investment to prevent homelessness; and she saw people experiencing homelessness as evidence not of individual failure but of inadequate institutions and failed community resolve. Jill’s clarity of sight about the value and potential of each person set her apart.
We celebrate our great good fortune to have been animated by Jill Ker Conway: Co-Creator of Community Solutions, friend, mentor, tough-minded and unrelenting advocate for people experiencing homelessness, and gracious aura of magic potential.
We are honoring Jill's fierce commitment to veterans through the establishment of The Jill Ker Conway Fund, to create supportive housing for veterans experiencing homelessness in Built for Zero communities throughout the country. Click here to make a donation.