To realize a rising tide does not lift all boats. It floods the boats that have holes in it. I am a huge fan of all of the reinvestment into the urban core. Those dollars, however, do not impact the surrounding communities positively. In fact, it most often makes those communities in need more ripe for gentrification. We have to purposely reinvest in those communities- not because it makes economic sense but because it is morally imperative.

In many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. This in turn is creating a host of health and social problems. What exactly is a food desert? What causes a food desert? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert? How can this problem be solved? Who are the leaders helping to address this crisis?

In this interview series, called “Food Deserts: How We Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options” we are talking to business leaders and non-profit leaders who can share the initiatives they are leading to address and solve the problem of food deserts.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Jonathan Dodson.

Jonathan Dodson is a former banker turned Oklahoma City developer with a focus toward urban infill development and adaptive re-use.

Dodson moved to Oklahoma City upon graduating from Oklahoma State University with a bachelor’s degree in Finance and was one of the initial members of the Urban Land Institute of Oklahoma in 2007. His interest in urban neighborhoods and re-development helped create a commercial loan portfolio with complex financial stacks including government incentives, mezzanine financing, equity investment and institutional debt.

In fall of 2014, Dodson co-founded Pivot Project in partnership with developers Ben Sellers and David Wanzer. Jonathan spends his time establishing financing for the team, raising equity, consulting for other incremental developers, and hanging out at coffee shops.

When he is not developing, Jonathan can usually be found with his wife and four kids, riding bikes through the neighborhood.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Two events seem to stick out as significant. The first occurred when as a banker, my boss sexually harassed my assistant in front of me. He said “If you want to keep your job you need to have sex with me and get it one the calendar” Upon reporting the event, I quit my job after they treated the bank president with more dignity, grace, and opportunity than my assistant. Luckily, I had a wife who supported the decision, and friends who were willing to find ways to keep me afloat. Six months later I landed the first redevelopment job of my career. It was an old movie theatre that had been converted most recently into a porn theatre. The second moment was after a college studio in the area was caught on video singing an old fraternity song about lynching a black man. A reconciliation event was held and an African American pastor stood up and said, “If you want to know what it is like to walk in my shoes, when was the last time you had someone like me over for dinner?” That struck a personal chord in me as at that time I was not in any kind of relationship with the black community. Over the next two years, that moment created a sense of intentionality and purpose. It also led to discovery of joy that was largely absent from my life.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career? Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

What is success? Is it money? Is it personal praise? Communal acknowledgment? Don’t get me wrong, I want to provide for my family. I genuinely care what my friends and development community think. But neither praise nor money can be validation for what we are trying to do at Pivot Project. We are chasing something that is way better than success. We are chasing joy. And joy is often a kin or sibling to risk, sacrifice, and being around others who push you to see the world in its vastness as far more beautiful than previously imagined. The moment things become easy is the moment we need to recalibrate to push differently.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I owe so much to so many. Outside of first my wife, then my family, and my business partners, I can think of three people. I will mention them briefly. The first two are Sandino Thompson and Jabee Williams. Sandino was the first person I called when thinking about EastPoint. He is someone who I consider a friend and an authoritative voice in my life. He is not afraid to tell me I am wrong and he has been planting seeds for something like EastPoint most of his life. Jabee can be found on Spotify or iTunes. He is our State’s most prolific rapper, our Black “Mayor”, and my friend. He was willing to trust me and walk with me in so many ways. He recently said the first moment he began to trust me was when I told him that I was beginning to understand white privilege because I was going to teach my kids how to get out of a ticket when they turn 16 and he was going to teach his kids how not to get shot. His reputation and care for the community has been instrumental in bring tenants to the development. The final person is Blair Humphreys. He is the CEO of a family fund in OKC. He was the first person I met who challenged me to think about real estate outside of economic pragmatism. Not only is he brilliant he spent time pushing and challenging me to think differently. The seed he planted along with his friendship changed the course of my life. To those three men, I will forever be indebted.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I drove around a potential investor who was way out of our league- I mean the kind where you don’t sleep for several days before he arrives because you know his bad ideas are better than your best ones. It is probably also important to note he did not invest because we were not asking for enough money. At the end of our time together, he asked if I knew what he would will tell people about Pivot if they asked him? He said that he would tell them Pivot Project does not quit. That we will never walk away from a project. That weirdly is probably one of our best traits. We are not the smartest. Not the biggest bang for your buck, but we do not walk away. From EastPoint to forming a music operating company to take over for a defaulted tenant, and then surviving Covid, we have chosen to dig in and fight for our investors and our belief that things will get better. The next trait is being willing to value relationships even if it does not impact the bottom line. I will never forget Jabee asking me to come meet a friend. At this stage, EastPoint was in its initial phases. I pulled up to Eastpoint and we went on a walk. We ended up at non-descript barbershop. We walked in. Two dudes were playing NBA 2K, one guy was getting his hair cut, and Mailman was cutting hair. After giving Jabee a hug he started firing off questions related to the project. At the end he said we were good and he was excited about it. As Jabee and I walked out, I asked him, totally confused, “what was that about?” He said something like, “Mailman is an OG and he needed to bless the project.” After a quick tutorial on what I meant to be an OG, Made, and other things, I was shocked. My friend had just risked his reputation to allow our project to be protected. This only happened because he knew I loved him and he was not just some “black face” for the project.

The final trait is pursuing joy above winning. I am an incredibly competitive person but what I have learned is that winning matters for maybe a moment. I want my heart to enlarge as I get older not shrink. Wealth offers protections from pain but those same walls often prevent us from experiencing joy. If we as a company can persist, pursue relationships, and chase joy we will continue to positively disrupt those things that need disruption.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My dad once told me that who you hang out with is sometimes more important than what you believe. I have also watched, specifically as a banker, professionals reach success in their 50’s and then experience a profound sense of loneliness. The only people that they have in their lives know only the successful part. I have tried to fight for friendships that pre-date college. I need those around me to know me as I am and was, not just who I can be portrayed as.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about Food Deserts. I know this is intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to expressly articulate this for our readers. Can you please tell us what exactly a food desert is? Does it mean there are places in the US where you can’t buy food?

There are places where finding fresh food is impossible. Think if your only option was dollar general and McDonalds.

Can you help explain a few of the social consequences that arise from food deserts? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert? Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?

At one point we had a thriving black community in OKC. Then, in the 50’s the integration of schools occurred and led to white flight. What followed was a wealth flight by many in the black community. This pulled the economic viability out of the community and that strain was simultaneously exacerbated by government redlining (African Americans and Blacks could not get mortgage financing for their home because of the color of their skin), Urban Renewal’s use of eminent domain to tear down any home in a minority community it wanted to, the relocation of highways in most cities to run through minority neighborhoods, and finally community disinvestment.

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?

We first wanted to reframe the conversation with white developers going into black communities. Just because we have access to wealth or power does not mean we are a blessing. Those values we prize the most, community, joy, and perseverance exist in abundance on the east side of town. Therefore, we were and are happy to prostitute our access to wealth and power so that we could enter into the community. The next piece was reversing authority. We asked Sandino to become a partner in the project had have authority over Pivot when he needed to use it. We also knew we had to create real estate comparables (“comps”) in the black community. Pivot went to over 25 banks to try to find financing and all but one would not even discuss terms. The overwhelming response was “we do not lend money to that side of town”. In order for a black developer to find access to capital we had to create comps that would force banks the address the implications of historic redlining. The final piece was fighting or at least addressing the issues of gentrification. We gave additional buildout assistance, reduced rent, and most importantly set aside an equity stake in the real estate. The moment the tenants signed a lease, they became a 15% pro-rata owner in the project. We wanted to allow those who created the value to be able to be correspondingly compensated. goal was to create representative retail (10 of our 11 retails spaces are Black and African American owned business. We wanted to create access to healthcare which we did in relocating a 100 year old clinic to the east side. Finally, our hope was to bring a grocery store which was fulfilled by the Market at EastPoint.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

Two things. One, to see and be a part of the community gathering together at Kindred Bar, working out at Intentional Fitness, or walking to the grocery store- this is development, in my opinion at its best. The second, is to see the team that has grown out of this development. Pivot is no longer the leader- we are now a part of an incredibly talented group of people, all from the east side who are going to change the trajectory of our City.

In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share your “5 Things That Need To Be Done To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

Last month at a conference, Jabee shared a quote from a local community activist. He quoted, “what you do for us, without us, you do TO us.

  1. “ The first item is for us to realize that the white community or community in power is anemic. The main source of “iron” is to be in and around communities of need. I am always surprised by how easy it is to believe that because one has power and money the person believes she or he is whole.
  2. The second is to realize a rising tide does not lift all boats. It floods the boats that have holes in it. I am a huge fan of all of the reinvestment into the urban core. Those dollars, however, do not impact the surrounding communities positively. In fact, it most often makes those communities in need more ripe for gentrification. We have to purposely reinvest in those communities- not because it makes economic sense but because it is morally imperative.
  3. The third is to realize that the current “free market” is bastardized. I often hear folks say that the reason why we don’t see redevelopment in at risk communities is due to lack of interest or care in the respective communities. They assume since now the market is free the same kind of opportunity exists. I believe this to be fundamentally not true. If I had to fight Floyd Mayweather in a fight but he was not allowed to eat for 40 days, the “fair fight” might look different. Both active and incidental historic economic directives (such as redlining, consolidation of community banks, white flight, etc.) have negatively impacted several communities in the OKC area.

Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food deserts? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.

Caylee Dodson with Restore OKC. Marc Jones, CEO Homeland. Restore is incredibly involved in the east side community. They have a hydroponic, green house, a restore homes wing, a job program, partnerships with OKC public schools, a college track program for agriculture with two different State universities. When they saw the need related to good access, they actually built their own market and then focused on a partnership with Marc Jones, the CEO of Homeland Groceries to build something bigger. What resulted was a new 7k sq/ft market in EastPoint. Homeland handles the backend, the food purchasing, and the employment of the store manager and assistant manager. Restore formed a new nonprofit to sign the lease, they employ the rest of the store through their Restore Jobs program, and Caylee was able to raise 1mm dollars to build out the space.

If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws that you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

Criminal justice reform, voting reform, empowering both minority communities and rural communities to thrive again. Directing funds to spur minority funding but not have the funds controlled or allocated by banks.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I don’t know if I am the guy to start a movement. What I do hope is that the white community as a whole starts to realize the beauty, wonder, and culture in the black and African/American community. It is not about appropriating or paternalism, but rather about entering into a world that can teach us so many things including joy. This includes all at risk communities. So much joy is not being accessed because our comfort has deluded us.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

President Obama, Chris Paul, Killer Mike, and Tim Keller.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.