The Black Brilliance Research Project beginning to end, part 4

This is the final part of a four-part series looking at the Black Brilliance Project from beginning to end and attempting to shine a light on what was going on behind the scenes, where things went wrong, and how the money was ultimately spent.

Part 1: the money and the contract

Part 2: the research and the break-up

Part 3: following the money

Part 4: accountability and other parting thoughts

Also, here is a page with a compilation of the key documents and records from the Black Brilliance Project.

Part IV: Accountability and Other Parting Thoughts

Operations experts know that most systems are resilient to a single thing going wrong, whereas a major mishap usually results from multiple failures “snowballing.” In the case of the Black Brilliance Research Project, there was a long cascade of failures that kept compounding the problems:

  • The contract was handled by the legislative branch, who had neither the knowledge nor the experience to manage such a large, expensive and complex project.
  • King County Equity Now was a new, fledgling organization, still building itself up, at the point it took on the Black Brilliance research program.
  • To ensure that the contract was given to King County Equity Now, it was structured as a “no-bid” contract that leveraged two workarounds to city rules – requiring extra levels of complexity and diffusing both accountability and decision-making.
  • King County Equity Now signed subcontracts far too early, well before its contract with the city was signed, and soon found itself in arrears with regard to paying its subcontractors.
  • The originally-proposed fiscal sponsor dragged out contract negotiations, wasting precious time and exacerbating the cash flow issues.
  • The replacement fiscal sponsor had a conflict of interest, and no experience managing a contract of this size — approximately ten times the size of the organization’s entire annual budget.
  • Payment timing issues led to missed paychecks for some researchers.
  • Mismanaged expectations on payments to researchers caused them to blame King County Equity Now for missed and/or late paychecks.
  • A poorly-written contract led to later revisions to the reporting requirements, adding unexpected burdens during a “crunch time” and when paychecks were delayed.
  • A fallout between King County Equity Now and the researchers led to a split and its ousting from the project, throwing the final weeks of the project into disarray.

It’s clear that all parties involved in this effort made mistakes that contributed to the cascade failure, through some combination of inexperience, incompetence, impatience, and simply trying to make uncomfortable problems go away. There is scant evidence of malevolence on anyone’s part.

Freedom Project had a conflict of interest as the “fiscal sponsor” and should never have signed onto that role. It gave away a ton of money in February through contract renewals that were unnecessary to meet the project’s goals – and there was no requirement that Freedom Project spend the whole $3 million, especially since it wasn’t spending it according to the budget originally proposed to the Council. To their credit, they didn’t renew contracts for their own researchers, and after ousting King County Equity Now they did cover $250,000 of its administrative expenses to make it financially whole. But in the final days of the contract, free from its contract with KCEN, it cashed in for an extra $150,000 by doubling its fiscal sponsor fee.

King County Equity Now was perhaps its own worst enemy. It got ahead of itself by taking on the contract before firmly establishing itself as an operable nonprofit, then doubled down by signing subcontracts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars before it had secured its own contract with the city. When timing issues meant it couldn’t make payroll, it took the blame for failures beyond its control. With its own credibility undermined, it was too easily pushed out when it stood in the way of the researchers who wanted their contracts renewed. But it brought all this upon itself, having demanded $3 million for the effort from the Council with a proposal that included itself as coordinator.

The four City Councilmembers who sponsored the effort (Gonzalez, Herbold, Morales and Mosqueda) had varied roles, and with that varied levels of culpability.  Councilmember Herbold perhaps comes out looking the best: while she was part of the joint decision to let King County Equity Now run the show (through a fiscal sponsor), she weighed in at key times when the wheels were coming off the wagon to try to add some rigor to the Council’s oversight. Herbold raised early questions as to whether Freedom Project was up to the task of fiscal sponsor on a $3 million contract, and agreed to the arrangement only after being told that FP had served as fiscal sponsor on other contracts and currently held a contract with the city’s Human Services Department. In an interview with SCC Insight, Herbold claimed that she was not aware at the time that Freedom Project had already signed a research subcontract with KCEN, let alone that they had already accrued over $300,000 in payroll expenses against the project by the end of October. She said that if she had known, she still might not have objected to FP taking on the fiscal sponsor role, but would have insisted on “additional boundaries” in the contract to avoid the conflicts. Herbold also claimed that while she was part of the “legislative decision” to appropriate $3 million for King County Equity Now to run the Black Brilliance project, her expectation from the start was that the Marguerite Casey Foundation would play the “lead contractor” role on the effort (in essence, the fiscal sponsor role).

Councilmember Mosqueda’s involvement was the least of the four. She was also part of the joint decision to appropriate the $3 million for King County Equity Now, but after that most of her interventions were related to the more performative and PR aspects of the effort. At one point, she encouraged Council staff to increase publicity on the project, pushing for the Black Brilliance videos to be rebroadcast on the Seattle Channel. Mostly she passed off questions to other Councilmembers, though she expressed concern about “the contract that I signed” when the December SCC Insight article shone a critical light on the contract. In one of her more performative acts, in January she asked her staff to write questions for her about the preliminary report that she could ask on the record during the presentation to the Council “to make sure the community knows we are closely watching the finances here and are being responsible with the 3m”. In her favor, when the Black Brilliance researchers repeatedly rebuffed meeting requests from the Mayor’s Equitable Communities Initiative task force (an effort the researchers had disparaged) and tried to shunt them off to open community office hours instead, Mosqueda defended the task force for insisting on a private meeting, saying, “I don’t really understand why they just don’t meet for a get to know you – I wouldn’t want to attend an open meeting if I was already feeling attacked.”

Morales, who was the lead sponsor on the $3 million appropriation for King County Equity Now and whose office led on negotiating and managing the contract on behalf of the City Council, mostly seemed out of her league. Records show that she didn’t even meet Freedom Project until after the $3 million contract was signed; she requested an “introductions” meeting in early December. And according to her own emails, Morales also apparently didn’t realize that she would need a formal contract management plan until mid-December.  She never tried to bridge the gap between the Mayor’s ECI task force and the Black Brilliance project, other than to insist on a proviso on the $30 million for the ECI, holding the funds until the Council approved of the spending plan and insisting that the spending plan align with the Black Brilliance recommendations. In the waning days of the project (after KCEN was ousted) her staff attempted to distance her from public accountability for the project, saying, “I think the more distance we can create for Morales the better”. In support of the Council’s PR talking point that their relationship was solely with Freedom Project, her staff also lied to hide their frequent interactions with King County Equity Now, saying “As has been practiced, communications between CM Morales Office and the Black Brilliance Project has been mainly through the contract holder, the Freedom Project” when in fact Morales had a weekly meeting with King County Equity Now from December through early February, her staff met often with KCEN, and King County Equity Now led on submitting much of the additional reporting that was added in December.

But the harshest criticism should be reserved for Council President Gonzalez. Gonzalez was part of the joint decision last summer to appropriate $3 million for King County Equity Now – and lied about it in an interview with SCC Insight in March; records show her involvement (as well as her staff’s) and her co-sponsorship of the budget amendment, and multiple sources have confirmed to SCC Insight her joint role in the decision last summer. To her credit, she did insist on increased reporting for the project in December, but only after signing the original contract without such requirements and after increased public scrutiny of the sloppiness of the contract in early December. And her actions – mostly non-actions – in February when she refused to respond to a request from KCEN’s board chair, Dawn Mason, until she had run out the clock on the contract so that she could simply shrug it off, is the worst form of cynical political games. Faced with a credible allegation from KCEN that taxpayer money was likely to be misspent, Gonzalez not only failed to act but allowed Council staff to work with Freedom Project and the researchers who stood to benefit financially to help push KCEN out – and personally approved the new arrangement. For someone who likes to talk about accountability and transparency for elected officials, she’s pretty good at dodging them.

It’s easy to reach the conclusion from this saga that “the city shouldn’t do things like this.”  Too easy; it misses both the essence and the nuance of what transpired. It’s fairer to say that the city needs to do this sort of thing better.

There is an oft-repeated saying within advocacy groups in the Black community: “Nothing about us without us.” It is a rejection of a long, inglorious history of governments imposing from the outside policies and programs onto Black communities, intended to cure their ills, that lack a clear understanding of the root causes of the problems they seek to solve. And those programs nearly always fail, which in retrospect should be of no great surprise. The status quo of governments’ approach to investing in Black communities represents a patriarchal, paternal mindset that has done great damage, and continues to do so.

The Black Brilliance Research Project had its own riff on this motto: “Those close to the problems are close to the solutions.” The project participants generally interpreted this to mean that we need to rely on people on the ground to think up and create the solutions needed to lift up Black communities and address the issues that prevent Black people from thriving. The saying empowers smart, creative Black people to engage and lead. Perhaps, though, it goes one step too far by elevating “brilliance” over knowledge and experience: problem-solving requires both, marrying a deep understanding of the problem with knowledge of the universe of possible solutions – including what has been tried in the past both here and elsewhere.

Last summer, King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle asked the City Council for $3 million to conduct research on the sources of true community safety in Seattle’s BIPOC communities. And they wanted to manage it themselves – “nothing about us without us.” But their reach exceeded their grasp, and King County Equity Now was at the time a fledgling organization not up to the task of managing the program. And the City Council, in a knee-jerk reaction we would become all too accustomed to witnessing from them, jumped to approve the full funding without the necessary critical thinking to understand what they were really signing up for and whether it was likely to succeed.

But “nothing about us without us” is still right. The best path toward government policies and programs that will truly lift up Seattle’s Black and BIPOC communities is to have those communities leading on the research that informs the policies and programs. They are the ones with the cultural competence to get the research right.

The Black Brilliance Research Project was a decent idea, executed poorly. It identified a real need, but the history of the project shows that it wasn’t set up for success.  In hindsight, the “blueprint” presented last July probably misclassified it as its own standalone effort, when perhaps it would have fit in much better as a capacity-building community investment. Research like this isn’t “one and done”; it needs to be performed iteratively to track progress (or lack of it) and to spot new issues as they arise. If City Hall is serious about understanding and addressing inequities in Black and BIPOC communities in Seattle it needs to invest in research capacity in a thoughtful, deliberate, and repetitive manner, lifting up together both the community members who have been doing this kind of work for years and new generations who bring fresh ideas, perspectives and methods.

The Black Brilliance Research Project had some serious challenges in its first instance, and (despite posturing to the contrary) both the process and results fell short of expectations. But now after many painful lessons on what it takes to make this kind of effort successful – and where some of the pitfalls lie – there’s an opportunity to learn from the mistakes and do better the next time. Because we will try this again – we have to.

I hope you found this article valuable. If you did, please take a moment to make a contribution to support my ongoing work. Thanks!


  1. Kevin, thank you for this nuanced analysis that both shines light on the promise of these investments (financial or otherwise) while at the same time holding folks accountable who way over-promised themselves and therefore the city’s capacity to bring it to a more fruitful beginning.

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