Chris Caines is a former Executive Director at the FIU Miami Urban Future Initiative (MUFI), who also served as an Interim Program Director at the Knight Foundation. He’s just started his year-long trip “traveling the world in search of new lessons, purpose, and ways of thinking and being” and is sharing his impressions and thoughts on the website dedicated to the trip SeeCaines.com #MIAMIGIRL sat down with Caines a few days before he departed from Miami to talk about his unique professional and personal goals, social impact and Miami’s state of mind.
You moved to Miami three years ago without ever having been to the city. What expectations did you have?
My goal was to better understand social impact ecosystems from a funding organization’s perspective. I also wanted to be in a large city but outside of that I didn’t have a ton of criteria. I was open to following to wherever the opportunity was going to be. It happened to be in Miami. I don’t think I had specific expectations because , I knew almost nothing about the city. My family is originally from Cuba, but their Cuban experience went through New York and then I grew up in Los Angeles. I expected to have some kind of cultural connection but nothing beyond that. What’s put out there is the beach resort image, but I came down here to do work, not to hang out on the beach all day. I came here with a goal to be successful as a professional. This informed my orientation towards Miami. I thought to myself: “Of course, it’s a serious city, the eighth largest metropolitan area in the country.”
If you assume that a city founded by a woman is a city for women, then you’ll be very disappointed when you get to Miami.
The beach resort image you mention informed my orientation towards the city when I first came here. It shaped my attitude towards the place, my behavior, expectations and even my sense of fashion. The feminist in me wonders if my first interaction with the city would have been any different should I had known Miami was the only major American city founded by a woman.
We are the only major American city founded by a woman, but our power structures are dominated by men. The City Commission of Miami is all-male, gender pay gaps persist, and all male panels and speakers at local conferences occur far too often. We have a long way to go and the flip side of what you have just said about pushing a feminist utopia narrative is that we would be putting out a message we don’t always live up to. If you assume that a city founded by a woman is a city for women, then you’ll be very disappointed when you get to Miami. We must do better because we can and we owe it to the women in our city to do so.
That aside, as a city it will be difficult to advance if we think of ourselves as a vacation destination first as opposed to being a well rounded community with many challenges, but also great opportunities. We should be making a conscious effort to elevate other parts of the city’s identity. From messaging at the airport going beyond “The beach is this way” to celebrating the doers, builders, and sustainers of what is a major American city. People coming to Miami for the beach will find it without any problems.
You had an interesting professional journey in Miami serving as the Interim Program Director at the Knight Foundation and later becoming the Executive Director at the FIU Miami Urban Future Initiative (MUFI). What was your work about?
It was a huge privilege to work for both organizations here in Miami. Both were community oriented: one looking at how we can best design a strategy to fund great social impact around Miami, the other more academic and looking at how we can get important data into the hands of people who are making decisions in the public and private sectors and are shaping the future of Miami. Both of these experiences gave me a unique vantage points of the city.
At the Knight Foundation my job was to literally go around the city and find cool things to eventually allocate money towards. Knight is a key national institution dedicated to free expression and community. Working there gave me access to different parts of Miami’s diverse tapestry of people and places. I was able to get perspective on things from different angles, be it from people in the community, or people looking for grants, or people genuinely interested in sharing their ideas. At MUFI we were looking at the economic data and at the future of Miami’s economy, researching talent trends, affordability trends, business growth and competitiveness. I was excited to tell the story where Miami was doing well (and not as well) based on data and research. It also involved going around and trying to get other people excited about our data, which was a very different experience for me personally. Instead of being able to offer a path to financial resources, I was now offering data.
We need more voices at the table. At the moment, our leadership in many areas is an old boys’ club.
In connection to your work at MUFI: What does Miami do right?
The quality of life here is off the charts in many respects. And tremendous connectivity to the Caribbean, Latin America and beyond makes Miami a global city in every sense of the word, which is reflected in an unmatched confluence of cultures and ways of existing. Miami knows how to celebrate itself and its people and enjoy life in many respects. It has an incredible quality and quantity of educational opportunities, and an entrepreneurial spirit that drives innovation in the region.
Who are the changemakers in Miami and how much positive change are they bringing to the city?
I would say it is a lot easier to be a changemaker in Miami than anywhere else because change happens in such sudden yet consistent bursts. The people here are tremendous and those who want to impact the city in a positive way can do so in Miami in ways virtually unheard of in most cities of its size. Leaders like Valencia Gunder, Rebecca Fishman-Lipsey, Annie Lord and Ruth Shack are the people I think of when I think of change makers in Miami. People with incredible personal narratives that translate experience and know-how into action and community-changing programs. On the flip side, we have a dynamic city that is constantly changing with leadership that often lets nostalgia for the past preserve current failures. We need more voices at the table. At the moment, our leadership in many areas is an old boys’ club.
You consistently acknowledged your personal privilege in many conversations and brought people’s attention to the lack of such privilege in many parts of Miami. The awareness you projected is rarely found at the professional heights you were occupying. Do you see yourself as a change-maker in Miami and what would you like to think of as your legacy here?
That’s very generous of you to say, thank you. I’m very proud of my time in Miami. I don’t know if I’d use the word legacy, but it would be great if my nettling “why can’t Miami do ___ better” continues to ring in people’s ears as they make decisions. Miami has this tendency to self-impose ceilings sometimes. For a city carved out of a largely inhospitable swamp and that has thrived through hurricanes and extreme social discord, we don’t always give ourselves permission to dream.
Transportation is a good example. Livability of a city improves with more pedestrian friendly and bike friendly communities. Yet the majority of local leadership remains fixated on old rules and the old mentality of being a car city. Miami of 1992 might have been a car city, but the population of our urban core has exploded and people are hungry for ways of moving in our city that don’t involve driving. We are clearly not the same city, why are we taking the same assumptions? When our county Mayor pushes faulty arguments for more highways and congestion instead of comprehensive mass transit planning, Miami looks out of touch with reality. I’m not saying everyone needs to get rid of their cars tomorrow and walk everywhere, but we need to start (re)thinking how we can help all the people, who don’t have access to a car or don’t want to drive.
I rolled my eyes when you first posted about your upcoming year-long trip around the world. It sounded like an ultimate Millennial fantasy enacted in cheesy house music videos. On the website dedicated to the trip you give an interesting explanation to the skeptics and followers. Could you expand and talk more about your trip goals.
All my life I’ve lived in urban coastal settings and the cities I most frequently travel to – New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Washington, Boston- all have a lot of similarities. I’ve realized that I am constantly surrounding myself with people who are more similar to me than dissimilar. I want to travel to form a more informed understanding of the important issues of the world we live in.
I also want to show people that such experience is doable. When people tell me they cannot do it, it usually comes back to money or career considerations. To be clear, a staggering amount of Americans live paycheck to paycheck and a trip like this is an expression of my massive privilege on a plethora of levels (gender, education, age, career prospects, economic dependents, etc.). But among my peers who are similarly privileged I see a lot of self imposed barriers. I want them to look beyond things they get so caught up in daily and think of the long-term outcomes most important to them. The outcome I’ve been working towards is a better understanding of people, communities, and the world in which we live. Keeping that big picture in mind encouraged me to save enough money to have the flexibility for something like this instead of getting stuck on traditional markers of success like fancy apartments and cars. Again I’m astonishingly privileged to be able to even consider something like this, but at the end of the day I believe I’ll be able to work towards the outcome most important to me with a trip like this as opposed to the comparably expensive Toyota Camry. I also want to show I want to show that a trip like this could be a career step, not a break from it. I hope that after I come back from the trip, I’ll be able to offer more as a professional working in the social impact field.
The outcome I’ve been working towards is a better understanding of people, communities, and the world in which we live.
What can people who share your passion for a stronger Miami do?
Real positive change requires all hands on the deck: government and private enterprises, private and public sectors, our anchor institutions like universities, hospitals and all the largest employers. Things like local hire requirements, pipeline training programs, procurement programs, making sure the money stays inside of the community. There is so much work to be done, and so many people who have and continue to step up to the plate to do it. Join them! Go to Commission meetings, neighborhood association gatherings, and places like Venture Cafe. Call your local representatives–there are thirty-something municipalities in Miami-Dade and especially for the smaller ones you’ll be surprised at how responsive elected officials can be. And never stop asking “But, why (not)?” When people say something cannot or won’t be done in Miami.
What will you miss about Miami?
I will miss constantly being intrigued. Miami is the city of the future on so many levels. We are a dynamic city of constant reinvention with tons of challenges and endless opportunities. We are also the most American city in the country: a place of first arrival, last resort, and a can-do, must-do ethos oriented towards hard work and entrepreneurial spirit. We need to harness this narrative, it is important for the rest of the country to see. Miami is a place where American dream still happens every day, where someone without much of a track record like me, could come, work really hard and achieve great things. We have a long way to go to make sure this opportunity is equally distributed, but I’ll miss the access to conversations and having a voice in discussions of this magical city’s future.
Three favorite places in Miami:
Bar at Gaythering Hotel in South Beach is a very important community space in Miami Beach for the LGBTQ community.
Opa-locka Community Development Corporation is a place that represents a lot of promise to me for a community that has suffered from a lack of public and private investment for quite a while.. They are a non-profit housing development corporation that also provides a lot of wrap-around services to local residents in the heart of Opa-locka.
Little Haiti Cultural Center is a distinctly Miami place with programing and gatherings of all kinds bringing together people of all backgrounds to appreciate and celebrate the Haitian Culture that helps make Miami so special.