Updated: Jan 30, 2021
By Ryann Brooks
With a passion for business that puts people first, Desmonde Shalom Monroe is helping to build inclusive communities by rethinking and blending community development and disaster recovery.
As a cis, gay, man of color, Monroe understands the importance of inclusivity. He credits his mother, the late Anna Ford, for instilling the drive for social justice, equality and fairness from birth.
“When I first came out at 14, there were so many obstacles deliberately put in my way,” he said. “But as my late mother would say, ‘Desmonde has [a] very strong personal constitution.’ I refused to back down in the face of antagonism.’”
Monroe found that change could happen through hard work and “fiery perseverance.” When he entered the construction and development industry, he faced more challenges and opposition — some obvious and others less so.
When we are young, “we have impressionable minds and along the way we let other people’s opinions — whether ill or well-intentioned — get in the way of our self-development, which can cause us to miss our calling,” he said. “Changing the mental paradigm is tough when you have people telling you that you don’t belong or that you don’t deserve a seat at the table.”
Monroe didn’t listen to those people. Instead, he built his own table.
Monroe is the founder, president, and CEO of The Monroe Group, a New York City-based firm known for designing and implementing people-focused programs for communities in varying states of need. We sat down with this young visionary and alumnus of our BEQ Pride 40 Leaders Under 40 list to ask him about building inclusive, resilient communities that promote economic opportunity.
Photo by: Wil Sparks
BEQ Pride: What do you think is your specialty, talent or gift?
Desmonde Monroe: I am a people person by nature. Ever since I was a child, I have been told that I have an “old soul”. And like most old souls, I have been gifted with a strong sense of empathy and compassion. It has served me well in both my personal and professional life. In business, it has guided me towards genuine people and helped me to create substantive partnerships and work on dynamic projects. It also plays a major role in me how I design people-centered solutions to complex problems.
BEQ: You’ve been engaged in and around community development, community resilience, and disaster recovery for a significant period of time, in several different capacities. What is it about these areas that keep you personally engaged?
DM: I want to build a fair and impartial world. It may sound far fetched to some, but I believe it can be done. More than handouts, people need access to opportunities, self-belief, and the freedom to dream big. This is incredibly important in the wake of COVID19 and in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. It has always been our mission to lend voices to disadvantaged communities, to empower them, and to engage these communities with opportunities for economic and community development.
With the help of my partners and community stakeholders, we are building diverse and vibrant neighborhoods and communities with affordable housing, workforce development, and M/WBE-focused job opportunities.
Communities are the heartbeat of this nation and because of this vital role community development is more important than ever before in major cities like New York and my native Philadelphia. I have spent the bulk of my career at the nexus of public-private partnerships. I have seen first-hand the many positive outcomes realized through a well-planned, people-centered community revitalization project. The impact on a neighborhood and its residents can be profound and intergenerational.
BEQ: Our publisher, Robin Dillard, has been a fan of all things Desmonde ever since your meeting in Brooklyn during the summer of 2018. She points to your community connections, she also mentioned how you “take no tea for the fever” when confronting bigotry, entitlement and the lack of inclusion in marketing campaigns targeting the cis, white gay community. And, she talks about your desire to make sure people are getting what they need (even if they don’t know what they need) when dealing with a disaster or crisis. Where does that level of empathy and understanding come from?
DM: My empathy comes from my ability to understand the feeling of hopelessness. Even though I had a supportive mother and a network of loving people around me, while growing up there were times in my life when I felt alone, sad, unloved and lost. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without my guiding spiritual beliefs, help from mentors and the people who truly invested their time, wisdom, energy and love into me. So, that’s why it is an honor to be a resource and a voice for the underserved communities facing recovery from a disaster. I will continue to do so for as long as I am on this planet.
BEQ: Let’s talk business and how you’re establishing equality through your work. What does The Monroe Group, LLC do in the world?
DM: The Monroe Group is known for designing and implementing human-centric programs for communities recovering from disasters or in need of revitalization. We are a certified Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) located in New York City. Our firm specializes in Community Development, Disaster Recovery, Program Management and Construction Management. We recognize the powerful forces driving change in our community which is experiencing a dramatic surge in demand for disaster recovery and community development with an emphasis on a more modern inclusive approach that allows the impacted people to benefit from this change.
BEQ: How many employees/contractors do you have?
DM: As of now, we have 13 in house staff and we are expanding project staff with consultants. We are in the process of building out Section 3 and apprenticeship programs to offer our communities a pipeline to greater opportunities.
BEQ: What diversity certification(s) does TMG have from which agencies/organizations?
DM: We are a New Your City and New York state-certified minority business enterprise (MBE) certified HUD section employer, SDBE and 8(a) firm.
BEQ: Do you have strategic partnerships or aligned stakeholders that you engage with to win business?
DM: In 2019, The Monroe Group entered into a strategic partnership with noted developer Walker Ridge, LLC to deliver inclusive construction management services. Our focus on inclusive community development, combined with Walker Ridge’s commitment to conscious construction, extends the reach of our services to offer inclusive practices in broader phases of community development, construction management (CM), program management, affordable housing and disaster recovery.
BEQ: What is TMG’s ‘WHY’?
DM: We believe a community is its people, its shared aspirations, its institutions, and businesses—not just its built environment. Long-term vulnerability is unacceptable and unsustainable.
Disaster recovery and community development are closely intertwined. Good disaster recovery is resilient community development. Resilient, actively inclusive communities create and activate new opportunities.
BEQ: Tell us about Community Development and Community Resilience from a TMG perspective. What needs to change about how we approach these concepts?
DM: Perpetual turbulence is certainly an accurate term to describe today’s disruption(s). While disruptions can be seen as opportunities for renewal, creativity, and innovation, which The Monroe Group is strategically positioned to address, other disruptors cause dangers to communities, especially to the most vulnerable. Building stronger foundations and roots are the key to sustainable communities.
Disaster risks are real and growing. Over the past 30 years, the total damage cost caused by climate-related natural disasters is $2.1 trillion. And just in the 10-year period between 2006 and 2016, there was a whopping $1.4 trillion in damages from disasters.
The recurrence and intensity of extreme weather events is increasing, as is the exposure of poor and vulnerable communities. According to the World Economic Forum, extreme weather events rank #1 in terms of both likelihood and impact. And that’s just for climate-related natural disasters. We see disasters in forms beyond climate-related ones in COVID19 as well.
Inequality and institutional biases persist in both community development and disaster recovery, reinforcing deep vulnerabilities. According to the World Bank, the bias toward the promotion of new housing can end up benefiting a segment of the population that needs the least help.
Persistent racial and income inequalities can further aggravate the risk of “The rich getting richer, while the poor get poorer.” Addressing the complexities of disaster recovery and community development requires systematic collaboration and response.
BEQ: With diversity, creativity and experience at TMG’s core, is there a particular service or solution TMG provides for its ideal customer? What are the challenges that the TMG team is uniquely suited to address?
DM: The worlds of disaster recovery and community development are increasingly intertwined. The Monroe Group manifests its purpose by fusing the disciplines of community development and disaster recovery with modern, human-centric approaches that strengthen the foundations of communities as below:
Inclusion baked into policies, methods, and tools
Organizations — agencies, developers, businesses, investors — attuned to ‘what matters’ and ‘what it takes’
The roots come from fusing two distinct life cycles — community development and disaster recovery. It is important to recognize that the ideas from either field can inform the other to create both resilience and a sense of community. We have leveraged these leading concepts and practices and adapted them into our “fusion” approach. We work with private developers and government agencies to help build communities while supporting sustainable development and fostering inclusive economic growth around the world.
Disasters offer a profound opportunity to reimagine and develop sustainable communities, but what is more important is bringing DR and CD leaders practitioners and stakeholders together, even when there are no disasters, so when there are, the communities they serve can emerge unharmed with its sense of community intact and its people and institutions stronger. As an MBE firm, we are passionate about bringing fellow M/WBE firms into this space. We believe community partnerships representative of those who lives there are vital to cohesive and inclusive program management.
BEQ: What are some unique challenges faced by communities in 2020 and beyond?
DM: When it comes to developing new housing in urban markets, the main issues on my radar are gentrification and racial impact studies.
We’ll create pathways to build more inclusive communities that will support economic growth for low- and moderate-income (LMI) individuals, M/WBE firms, small businesses and build affordable housing. As more disasters are predicted to occur across the country, our focus will be on the issues, risks, needs, and goals of city improvement programs. As well as Insular area programs focused on US territories, Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR), Disaster Recovery Assistance, Neighborhood Stabilization programs, and the Private Real Estate Development sector.
BEQ: Accessing capital and providing guidance/management for disaster recovery is a specialty of The Monroe Group. Why is it vital that someone with your background and focuses on developing and growing urban, diverse neighborhoods be involved in disaster recovery?
DM: Proven capabilities are integrated into The Monroe Groups’ services, systems, tools and platforms. These capabilities are also underpinned by competencies essential to our fusion approach and to the communities we serve, such as program life cycle, engagement, human-centric designs, solutions, discovery and innovation. When done right, it is a social and economic inclusion tool for communities and assures that they have a voice, ownership and, over time, mastery of their own progress.
BEQ: Desmonde means world, and of course, Shalom means peace. So your parents named you WORLD PEACE?
DM: It’s funny how that turned out, isn’t it? My mother really believed that I was put on this planet for a bigger purpose and that I was destined to have an impact on the world in some shape or form. I guess she was right.