Equity Is Not Optional

Focusing on the most vulnerable communities and people and addressing racial and economic disparities is not only the right thing to do -- it's the only way we can succeed in building strong regions and a strong national economy.

Murals of community activists adorn San Diego’s community-owned Market Creek Plaza. Photo by Mike Souza

The election of the country’s first African-American president ushered in an era of hope and contradiction. While the victory suggested extraordinary racial progress, Americans of color continued to face gaping disparities in nearly every arena — education, health, housing, and employment. These disparities have only worsened since then, and they cannot be ignored.

Today, 40 percent of children and youth in America are people of color. By 2025, they will represent the majority of youth. People of color will determine the nation’s future. Will today’s children have the skills, knowledge, and opportunities to form tomorrow’s middle class, poised to guide the United States to prosperity? Economic and social inclusion — equity — is inseparable from economic growth and competitiveness.

The economic disaster beginning in 2008 hit communities of color first and worst, even as it also hurt many poor, working-class, and middle-class whites. In 2009, the poverty rate was 25.8 percent for blacks, 25.3 percent for Hispanics, 12.5 percent for Asians, and 9.4 percent for whites. More than one-fifth of the country’s children are poor, the worst track record in the developed world.

How America produces such disparities is no mystery. Poverty is tied directly to educational attainment, and disparities are etched into the school system at every level. By the fourth grade, only 17 percent of poor children score at or above proficient levels in reading, and only 22 percent are proficient or better in math, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Only 62 percent of black students and 64 percent of Latino and Native American students graduate high school, compared to 91 percent of Asian Pacific Islander and 81 percent of white students.

And what happens to young people who do not graduate? Seventy-two percent of black male high school dropouts in their 20s are jobless. By their mid-30s, 6 in 10 have spent time in prison, a mark that limits or destroys a man’s economic prospects long after his release. The United States has the highest recorded incarceration rate in the world, with 7.2 million people in prison or on parole in 2009, and people of color are disproportionately locked up. African Americans represent 12.4 percent of the U.S. population but 38.2 percent of those behind bars. Hispanics, the fastest growing group in the nation, represent 15.8 percent of the population but 20.7 percent of inmates.

These obstacles are compounded by the reality that society’s most vulnerable groups generally live in society’s most vulnerable places — neighborhoods stripped of decently paid manufacturing jobs and of investment in the infrastructure that fosters opportunity.

America, in its long struggle for inclusion, has removed many legal barriers to equal opportunity. But legal gains can take the nation only part way. Persistent social barriers and entrenched institutional obstacles still limit opportunity for many people of color. Take jobs, for example. Discrimination against people of color in employment is illegal. Yet to land that job, you must have the right degrees, you must be able to get to the job, and you must have the social networks and references that make you a competitive candidate. These requisites are too often elusive in communities of color.

This inequity imposes high costs on virtually every actor in the regional economy, and in turn, state and national economies. Sharp regional disparities stifle growth, slow momentum, and erode the sense of community that binds neighbors, and communities, together.

An Equity Agenda

Equity means just and fair inclusion. An equitable society is one in which all can participate and prosper. It is full of communities of opportunity — places that provide everything people need to thrive, including high-quality employment, good schools, safe streets, community services, parks, and healthy food retailers.

An equity agenda seeks to transform high-poverty, low-opportunity communities into communities where everyone has opportunities to participate and prosper. It promotes access to higher education, to transit that connects to job centers, and to jobs, job training, and small business support.

Research shows that communities, cities, and regions that pay attention to equity grow stronger. As researchers Manuel Pastor and Chris Benner write in their chapter of the American Assembly book Retooling for Growth: “Paying attention to equity is entirely consistent with promoting growth, and may in fact be even more important in areas that have experienced economic decline.”

If America is to have a bright future, the equity agenda must become the nation’s agenda — and it must come back to the top of the agenda for the community development movement.

The community development movement grew out of the Civil Rights Movement. Over the decades, it has grown up into an increasingly technical and sophisticated network of property developers and managers, legal and policy advocates, and social services providers. But the important and formidable work community developers have done in providing affordable homes has proven insufficient to the task of addressing growing inequality and increasing poverty in America at the necessary scale.

We need robust alliances across the human and economic development and community organizing worlds that can return to a civil rights/equity approach in the fight to create communities of opportunity everywhere and include those left behind. While there has been much talk about Wall Street and Main Street, the nation will make more progress if we focus on the Martin Luther King Boulevards and Cesar Chavez Avenues.

The Obama administration recognizes this. The “place-based” initiatives of the White House Office of Urban Affairs have reoriented agencies to work in cross-sector partnerships and have invested in the people and places that have been left behind. These efforts, while still in their early stages, have the potential to produce desperately-needed improvements in communities across the country. That said, it will take years of work and sustained investment, and already, the 112th Congress is targeting these programs for cuts. PolicyLink suggests five principles as guidance to meet these challenges and advance communities of opportunity in tangible ways:

Focus on Those Left Behind

Use data and community engagement to understand the structures and symptoms of exclusion. Then develop strategies, prioritize outcomes, and measure progress based on how effectively a program or initiative reaches the people who have been left behind.

Harlem Children’s Zone has done exactly that. It began by documenting the shameful education failures that harmed the life chances of children in its community. To reach those children, the agency started a pilot project that brought comprehensive support services to a single block. The idea was to address all the problems facing poor families, from crumbling apartments to dysfunctional schools, from violent crime to chronic health problems. The central measurement of success: whether youth from those families made it successfully to — and then through — higher education.

The Zone Project grew to 24 blocks in 1997 and to almost 100 blocks a decade later. Today Harlem Children’s Zone serves more than 8,800 children and 6,600 adults with an array of programs aimed at breaking the cycle of generational poverty. More than 600 college students stand as testimony to that vision.

The Obama administration’s Promise Neighborhoods initiative takes its inspiration from this model. Many communities apparently do, too. In 2010, more than 300 communities applied for 21 PN grants to plan similar programs. A broad national advocacy effort is pushing Congress to fully fund the administration’s request of $210 million for 2011 to implement these plans.

Prioritize Infrastructure Investment

Assess the infrastructure in disinvested communities and figure out what is missing. Are there supermarkets and other outlets that sell affordable, nutritious food? Are there banks or credit unions? Is there public transportation that efficiently and reliably links to job centers? Are the parks, playgrounds, and streets safe for walking? Is there decent, accessible housing?

What do residents desire most in their community? Once a community sets priorities, it can organize to fund and build the projects it needs, and by keeping the focus on those left behind at every step, communities can multiply the benefits of those investments.

For example, the residents of the Diamond Neighborhoods of San Diego, in partnership with the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, identified a full-service grocery store as their highest priority — with the cleanup of a pernicious brownfield and job creation for local residents as equally important outcomes. In 2005, Market Creek Plaza opened, anchored by a Food 4 Less supermarket, ethnic restaurants, a fitness center, an open-air amphitheater, and a community center. This resident-led effort awarded 69 percent of the construction contracts, totaling $7.1 million, to local minority-owned enterprises. Ninety-one percent of the initial employees at Food 4 Less were hired from the community. All these jobs are unionized and include living wages, health care, and pension plans.

More than 2,000 adults and 1,000 youth have participated in land use planning, leasing, marketing, research, advocacy, and ownership design. Residents have designed a locally controlled foundation to channel some profits from the development back into the neighborhood. And in early 2006, the California Department of Corporations approved a historic “community development initial public offering” that allowed community members to become not only stakeholders but also shareholders in the development. Four hundred and fifteen people have investments totaling $500,000. The community is now working to develop 800 units of affordable transit-oriented housing.

Focus on Jobs in Growth Sectors

To reintegrate underemployed workers into stable futures, focus on growing sustainable economic sectors with jobs accessible to people of all skill levels in communities that have suffered long-term disinvestment. Then connect those left behind with those jobs.

Funders, nonprofit leaders, sector leadership, and government in Baltimore are leading “More in the Middle,” an effort to increase good jobs and ensure that African Americans in the majority-black city can obtain those jobs and move up the economic ladder. They began with access. For jobs inside Baltimore, the group established targeted hiring policies for projects using public funds and made job quality a selection criterion of the city contracting process. Now it is focused on creating employment pipelines linked to major public infrastructure projects that will be producing new jobs.

For longer-term change, the organization is working to foster job growth in the thriving healthcare and education sectors and developing ladder-step interventions to move current workers up and potential workers into new jobs. After creating an inventory of the skills needed for each job category and the skills possessed by current workers, the group organized employer consortiums and workforce development pipelines to move people from training to employment. The group is now focused on transit connectivity from city neighborhoods to robust regional employment centers where the majority of job growth is occurring.

Federal officials hope to encourage this type of equity-focused planning in regions across America through the Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grants, a joint initiative of HUD, DOT, and the EPA. This initiative will need significant advocacy to ensure that the equity-focused plans those grants generate are followed by the infrastructure investments needed to implement them and realize communities of opportunity.

Foster Institutional Champions

Engage key institutions to champion an equity agenda. Public and private institutions alike — from municipal governments to large universities to medical centers — need collaborative partners to reorient them and show them how to implement an equity framework.

Oakland, California, took an equity-based approach in its efforts to strengthen the “green economy” sector. Spurred by the federal stimulus, the city developed a coordinated strategy to make sure that disadvantaged residents would benefit from the unprecedented federal investments. Oakland brought together public agencies, community organizations, education and training providers, and business and labor representatives to build consensus for Green Retrofits for All, the city’s strategy to spend stimulus funds on energy efficiency retrofits (with priority to buildings in low-income communities of color), public housing rehabilitation, and pathways out of poverty.

But the city did not stop there. With the support of Emerald Cities Collaborative (the Oakland affiliate of the national community-labor green construction partnership), the Green Stimulus Coalition (a statewide network of social equity advocates who shaped stimulus implementation in California), and an alliance of Bay Area mayors, Oakland is aligning its workforce development resources to create construction career “pipelines” that ensure that disadvantaged youth and adults get training at successive skill levels to work in and move up in the green sector. The city also is working with these groups to make sure that the jobs conform to fair labor standards, and that women- and minority-owned businesses benefit from the new opportunities.

To root these practices more broadly, HUD, DOT and EPA have appointed “sustainability officers” in every region to forge interagency partnerships, cross-leverage federal investments, and develop public-private partnerships that strengthen these initiatives in communities of color.

Demand Equity Now

Precious public investments must be strategically focused to strengthen people and turn all places into thriving communities of opportunity. Advocacy coalitions cannot simply call for equity. They must build an understanding of and demand for equity in communities. They must also actively work with institutional stakeholders to set measurable goals, win agreed-upon outcomes, establish monitoring systems, and regularly report on progress. By highlighting successes in the most disinvested communities, they set the stage for further steps toward equity.

To compete in the 21st-century economy, we have to create a nation where all people are enlisted and empowered to push our economy forward. The good news is that Americans yearn to put our economy back on a solid foundation. By beginning these efforts with those hit first and worst — black and Latino communities — Americans can succeed in building the inclusive economy of tomorrow.

Kalima Rose, director of the PolicyLink Center for Infrastructure Equity, contributed to this article.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.