social justice – Ray Bakke

“The real challenge facing the world is not geographic distance but cultural distance.”


Title: Executive Director
Company: International Urban Associates
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Age: 60


Most of us look at the inner city and see misery and despair. Ray Bakke sees promise and opportunity. Most of us look at efforts to eliminate poverty and see a legacy of failure. Ray Bakke sees slow-but-steady progress — creative programs and dedicated people who are making a difference.

Most of us rarely come face-to-face with the realities of life in inner cities. We move from comfortable suburbs to office buildings to airport lounges to hotels — and see ourselves as lucky. Ray Bakke sees missed opportunities to witness the fullness of human experience, to learn from what inner cities have to teach.

“Our cities are famous for violence and strife,” he says. “But I see them as R&D units, where different kinds of people are learning to get along. Whites, Blacks, Muslims, Jews, Arabs, Christians — people with different languages and cultures are crafting new ways to live and communicate, to work and raise their children. It is possible to construct a life of denial and avoidance. But once you’ve hidden your kids away in a gated community, how will you educate them to have perspective? Cities expose us to perspectives that are important for the times in which we live.”

Raymond J. Bakke has developed his perspective on the inner city during decades of hard work and from firsthand experience. Since 1959, he has served people in cities from Calcutta to Caracas to Chicago, his home base. A professor and an American Baptist pastor by training, Bakke has arguably become the world’s foremost “urban evangelist.” Think of him as a consultant — not for individual companies but for entire cities. Think of him as a mentor — not for up-and-coming executives but for church leaders and theology students who want to make an impact on their communities. And think of him as a change agent — a dedicated activist who is determined to make a difference in places that much of society has written off.

Bakke is executive director of Chicago-based International Urban Associates, which he founded in 1989. (He’s also professor of global urban ministry at the Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, in suburban Philadelphia.) Well-versed in both religion and business, his campaign to transform cities borrows freely from practices designed to change companies. Here too he has firsthand knowledge. Ray Bakke is the older brother of Dennis Bakke, 53, cofounder and CEO of AES Corp., a fast company in one of the world’s slowest industries. AES, which builds and operates power plants, has built a radical business model around rank-and-file leadership, grassroots innovation, and a commitment to social change. (See “Power to the People,” February:March 1998 ). The company now employs more than 40,000 people in 30 countries.


Ray Bakke’s approach to making a difference is not to build a major company but to help rebuild the world’s 400 major cities. His primary technique involves leading a “consultation” — a network-building exercise in which Bakke and his colleagues visit a city, search for ideas on improving the quality of life there, document what’s working, and convene a high-profile event to spotlight these grassroots innovations. Bakke organized his first consultation in Bangkok in 1980, at the invitation of Billy Graham’s Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism. He has organized more than 200 consultations since then.

“Basically, we try to turn cities into laboratories,” he says. “We get a committee working in a city for about a year. I ask people to go to every bishop and every church leader and say, ‘If you had to prove that God were alive in this city, what would you point to in order to prove it?’ I want this committee to find the best practices, whether they involve working with kids, prisoners, or battered women. Then we create a learning event. My visit becomes a reason for people in the city to get together and share their ideas.”

For example, a conference in Addis Ababa — the capital of Ethiopia and one of the poorest cities in the world — cast a spotlight on the efforts of Jember Teffera, the 55-year-old wife of the city’s former mayor. When she and her husband were imprisoned for political reasons, from 1977 to 1982, Teffera offered health and nursing classes to her fellow prisoners — a program that she continued after her release. Today Teffera also works to build houses and repair streets in Addis Ababa; thus far, she has raised $7 million and built more than 1,100 houses. She also spends part of her time in Philadelphia, where she is studying with Bakke to get her doctorate in ministry from the Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Ray Bakke is an unlikely urban evangelist. He grew up in an area of Washington state that was so rural that he missed as much as a month of school every year because snow or floods blocked the roads. Asked to describe life with his three siblings and his Norwegian-immigrant parents, Bakke quotes comedian Dick Gregory: “We was broke but not po’.” In 1956, at age 18, Bakke moved to Chicago to attend the Moody Bible Institute. After graduating in 1959, he returned to the Pacific Northwest for six years, serving as an assistant pastor at Baptist churches in Seattle. He moved back to Chicago in 1965 — for good. “I realized that something was going on in cities, not only here but around the world,” he says. “I began to study what I call the world-class city: a city that has more than 1 million people and that is internationally significant. Back in 1965, there were 140 such cities. There are now about 400.”

To Bakke, those numbers help define a global agenda. “The real challenge facing the world is not geographic distance but cultural distance,” he argues. “I think of Jackson, Mississippi as a father to Chicago, because a million and a half black people from Mississippi came here. Poland is our mother, because 840,000 Poles came to Chicago — 100,000 more Poles than San Francisco has people. We have all kinds of cultures in our cities. How are we going to live together and work together?”


Bakke argues that what applies to cities applies to companies as well. “Today the most common language spoken in my brother’s company is Russian,” he says. “Only 8% of the people in his company speak English.”

This shifting landscape is exciting to Bakke, as is the progress that he’s made over the past two decades. But making change is hard work, whether you’re struggling to transform a company or to improve life in a city. How does Bakke maintain his commitment to change while avoiding burnout — a hazard for all change agents?

First, he surrounds himself with colleagues who share his ideals. The Chicago Network — a support group of local church leaders that has been meeting for 26 years — is a major force behind Bakke’s drive. “These are people who would die for me, just as I would for them,” he says. “We’ve held each other up, and we’ve been accountable to each other. We’ve taught together, traveled together, read books together. This is the secret for me: I don’t have to do anything to feel loved or to feel accepted in this city. Knowing that takes the pressure off.”

Bakke also draws energy from history. “Back in the seventh and eighth centuries,” he says, “there were monks who took their monasteries into the toughest sections of Europe. They didn’t have outside funding, and they worked within the ambiguities of their situation. They inspire me.”

Another way that Bakke prevents burnout is by accepting his own limitations. He has spent a great deal of his life on the road — traveling up to 200 days a year. But he recently paused to assess the rigors of his schedule, and decided to cut back on traveling and to focus on mentoring. For Bakke, cutting back still means traveling to the four continents — Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia — where his ministry students live, so he can teach them on their own turf. He also calls his far-flung students to New York City for whirlwind seminars: Rather than holing up in a classroom, Bakke and his students immerse themselves in the life of the city’s five boroughs, visiting them one after the other. “We look at models all day long, from morning until night,” he says. For example, they’ve observed the Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement, a coalition of 60 churches that has used its $114 million budget to build more than 1,400 housing units. “After examining the models, I lead students in reflection,” Bakke says. “What’s the program? Who is the audience? How do they fund it? Are the principles transferable? It is absolutely exhausting — and very exciting.”


What’s Fast

Ray Bakke is a professor, a pastor, and an activist dedicated to improving life in cities worldwide. His insights into making change are as relevant to companies as they are to cities.

Look for solutions, not for problems. “Stop looking at the city as if it were just a problem — with poor, locked-out people. That’s seeing only the victim. See the city as an R&D unit. I’ve done consultations in more than 200 cities. When people in those cities ask for help, I say, ‘Most of what you need to know is already in your city.’ I bring together the best models of urban ministry, and we all teach each other what we’re learning.”

People don’t make change — networks do. “I used to go to conferences where we’d hear famous experts tell us how to do things. That model brought people together, but the audience was passive. What we do is to get people together, connect needs with resources, and build the bridges that make change happen. We link people to each other and turn them into associates. We walk alongside them, encourage and mentor them, and, if possible, secure grants for them.”

To stay committed, stay optimistic. “Cities today are famous for their violence. But what amazes me is that the city wakes up in the morning, goes to bed at night, and is as quiet as it is. I’m amazed that the subways still run, that so many people still say ‘Hi’ on the street — and that, at least in Chicago, living in the city can shape our children for the better. We get to introduce them to the cultures of the world. Living in the city is a great experience that offers tremendous advantages. We need to reflect on these advantages more often than we do.”

Curtis Sittenfeld ( is a staff writer at Fast Company. You can contact Ray Bakke by email (