Next City isn’t just a news website, we are a nonprofit organization with a mission to inspire social, economic and environmental change in cities. Part of how we do that is by connecting our readers to urban changemakers and holding an annual Vanguard conference bringing together 40 top young urban leaders.
Name: Mark Anthony Thomas
Current Occupation: Fuse Corps Executive Fellow in Los Angeles, serving as the Senior Adviser, Livability for City Administrative Office
Desired Outcomes: The permanent elimination of blight and uncleanliness across all Los Angeles communities and fostering greater collaboration with the public to improve livability across the city.
Current City: Los Angeles
Twitter Tag: @workandprogress
I drink: Coffee
I am an: Extrovert
I get to work by: Walking
The area I grew up in is: City
What was your first job? In high school, I served as a restaurant busboy — washing tables, floors, wrapping silverware, icing the salad bar and cleaning the restaurant. I remember being a tad hesitant about the work, but the experience contributed to a discipline and humility that I continue to pull from.
What do you like most about your current job? The complexity and the urgency of it. The Fuse Corps executive fellows have just 12 months to deliver high-level outcomes. It can be intimidating, but it really takes a certain level of curiosity and action-oriented competency to be attracted to this type of challenge. In regards to my specific project — improving livability in Los Angeles — there was a strong commitment from the city’s leadership and an overwhelming interest from the general public. I’ve learned Los Angeles better than any place I’ve lived by being a pedestrian and an inquisitive stranger. I also listened to anyone and everyone who had a shared vision to strengthen the city and an optimistic outlook. Coming off of a rigorous academic experience, I was fired up and ready to work across the city to identify, vet and build a broad case of support for new ideas.
I really believed this work would aid the current transformation of the city and allow the city’s many great neighborhoods to be more accessible and the city’s urban assets to be more evident. My year coincides with a tremendous interest in the future of Los Angeles, which is much more promising then the city’s car-driven, siloed neighborhood past.
Launching the Clean Streets Initiative (Credit: City of Los Angeles)
What is the biggest challenge facing cities today? Good governance. I grew up in the 1980s during a unique American era where people practically gave up on cities. I didn’t learn, until later in life, that blight, drugs, crime, burned-out buildings and poverty were not the norm for the urban environment. Collectively, we’ve learned that cities are too important to fail and how we manage them is important to the future of our nation’s economy and social progress.
People can now get access to information and research, organize, and easily challenge failed systems and policies. The intense push for accountability and attention to detail, that has traditionally targeted the federal level, is moving toward cities and local jurisdictions. At the same time, it has never been easier for local policymakers to share and study best practices, collaborate, and crowdsource the ideas to successfully manage the issues that are important to their citizens.
City Limits event (Photo by Adi Talwar)
What’s the best professional advice you have received? That most successful people accumulate their life’s wealth after age 40, so don’t prioritize that in your decision-making just yet. Focus more so on gaining a wide ranging, unchallengeable set of management skills.
What do you look for when hiring someone? A person that has a history of adapting their talent to changing dynamics. My time working in New York City during the Great Recession and in the news business — during a time of widespread creative destruction — helped me get a real sense of what characteristics are important to a successful operation. I’ve traditionally sought people with strong skills that complement the team effort. It’s also important for me to have a team of people I really enjoy interacting and brainstorming with.
What career advice would you give an emerging urban leader? Get to know the full ecosystem of an urban environment. There’s a role that everyone serves: government, philanthropy, activism, businesses and associations, nonprofit entities, etc. Each has benefits and limitations and a specific lens of how they tackle problems and contribute to solutions. Having real-life exposure and a network that’s encompassing will strengthen how you approach your work and how to assess where there’s an opportunity.