Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Improving People’s Lives in the Context of Where They Live 

12-09-2015 17:35

As I look through your conference program I realize that as preservationists, you are kindred souls. You understand how important context is to the work you do. You realize that you must be concerned about more than place, that you must also take into account the buildings, the context, and the people. Like you, I am concerned about context, and the work that I do is completely focused on people and the needs they have in the context of where they live.

I grew up in a segregated St. Louis neighborhood in the 1950s and early ’60s. The racism at the time was harsh, but I personally didn’t experience it because I was shielded by a community of caring adults who must have devoted 24 hours a day to making sure the children who were in their charge were protected from the sting and burn of racism.

Part of their job was made easy because things were completely segregated the neighborhoods, the schools, the places where we played and volunteered, the places where we prayed. The adults could have just accepted segregation, but that would not have been enough; they wanted to make sure that not only were we physically protected, but that we could experience the best that St. Louis had to offer. In those days, St. Louis was a wonderful city with many amenities.

I remember going to the outdoor opera every summer, and I never knew that we probably weren’t that welcome because a ring of adults would sit around us and all the children would sit inside, and those adults would protect us from whatever others might have been feeling (all the time shooting stares down at us to make sure we didn’t embarrass them in any way).

These experiences represent what happens when you have a strong community. Although I’ll admit that as a teenager growing up in St. Louis I felt more constrained than anything else, not free to do what I wanted to do, but looking back, I recognize several things: that for African Americans growing up during that time and before that time, community was the scaffolding that allowed us to make progress and achieve our full potential.

We were locked out, but we were not locked in. We were able, through the scaffolding that the community provided, to move up and achieve all kinds of things.

There were clearly dark sides to segregation, and I realize that even the good things I remember had a flip side. Looking back, I realize that the extraordinary public schools that I attended during the segregated period were so good because the African American teachers that I had at every grade and at every level were some of the best--prepared teachers in the country. These were people who during other times would have been United States senators, journalists, scholars, engineers. But those pathways were not open to them and they found themselves having to channel all their yearnings and ambitions into the only occupation that was available to them.

But what I realize even more is that while I was fortunate to have a strong support system growing up, most of the African American children in St. Louis were not so lucky. The African American middle class in St. Louis represented just a drop in the bucket. Many children were poor and did not have the support of adults to protect them from that sting and burn of racism. I tell you this story to illustrate the point that community matters. Community is the context in which change happens.

As I look at where we are today in terms of opportunity and inclusion, it’s clear that, more than ever, where you live has become a proxy for opportunity.

Where you live determines whether your children get to go to high quality schools; whether you are in a position to access good jobs; whether the transportation system is going to help you or whether you will be the victim of pollutants because of highways running through your neighborhood.

Where you live determines whether you will have a house that produces equity and enables you to build wealth so that you can achieve other things in life, such as starting a new business or sending a child on to school. Where you live even determines how healthy you are going to be. Much has been learned recently about what it means to live in a place where you don’t have access to physical activity or access to fresh fruits and vegetables. This notion of where you live becoming a proxy for opportunity has become extremely important to those of us who struggle to achieve full inclusion and participation in this country.

Connecting Personal Experience to Public Policy

PolicyLink seeks to make the connection between the wisdom that people gain on the ground from working in partnership in their local community and their ability to make change in the world of policy. “Islands of excellence” exist all over: a public school in a community where public schools are failing that produces extraordinary results for the children who go there; wonderful housing developments where beautiful affordable housing is available to the people in the community; a center where young people are finding their best selves, realizing their potential, avoiding the dangers of early sex and violence. But these islands of excellence last only as long as the extraordinary leader who put it together happens to be there, only as long as the foundation or government leader who thought this was important continues to pour money into it.

Without a policy approach, these things are fleeting. At PolicyLink we try to connect what people are doing to create greater inclusion in their community to the larger goal of sustainability. In essence, we connect people’s experiences to local, regional, and national policy.

Not focusing on policy makes progress sporadic and the process of making change forever adversarial. At some point we need to stand on a platform and begin to spiral upward. Without a policy orientation we will never be able to spiral upward because practice will always be inconsistent with what we believe needs to be in place.

For a policy approach to work, it must be presented as part of a framework. PolicyLink has been working hard to develop the framework that takes community and the quest for regional equity into consideration. This framework serves as a litmus test to tell us whether or not what we are seeking to do is actually achieving the goals that we want.

Paths to Equitable Development

The kind of framework that we need is one that supports strategies that enable everyone in a community to contribute to and benefit from local and regional development. We certainly want to make sure that people can benefit from economic success and that economic prosperity is broadly shared. Equitable development is the concept that we think best defines the kind of policy framework that is needed.

Equitable development means that we consciously integrate the people strategies with the place strategies. Those two camps rarely get together. We have some people who work on the place, making sure we have an elegant transportation system, that the housing is beautiful, and maybe even focusing on affordability and maybe even seeing that the environment is being protected. And then we have a whole group of people on the other side who work on job training programs, childcare programs, and education and health and civil rights.

When we work separately from each other, we don’t reap the maximum benefit of what would happen if we worked together. If we work on preparing people to take advantage of opportunity at the same time that we are improving the housing stock, we create housing that serves the people, not housing that creates a new community full of what people had hoped for, for so long, but that they can’t enjoy because they can no longer afford to stay in the neighborhood.

Equitable development consciously says that we will develop in ways that reduce local and regional disparities. There is no reason why where you live should reduce your opportunities in the negative ways that I talked about. If good schools are important, then every community should have them. We need to develop in ways that harness and create market forces that lead to a double bottom line: economic return for investors but economic and social returns for people who live in those communities. Most importantly, we need to develop in ways that reflect the aspirations, the potential, and the dreams of people who live in communities.

We must always keep in mind a vision of a thriving democracy. We often think that the democratic process has to do with elections and voting, but democracy is really about voice. Equitable development is the policy framework that will enable us to promote voice and participation and take us to the next level.

And what will the next level look like? The next level will be one where all communities are livable. If a livable community is what we aspire to in one place, it is what we should aspire to in every place. It should not be just new suburban communities that are livable or gentrifying urban communities that are livable. Every community needs to have the basics: good schools, amenities like grocery stores and farmers markets, and safe sidewalks.

If we achieve regional equity, all communities will be livable communities.

But sometimes livable communities aren’t going to come fast enough, so we also need to think about how to connect people to regional opportunity. Connecting people to regional opportunity means connecting people to transit, making sure that people can get to work even if it happens to be in the suburbs.

Another thing we need to make sure of is that we don’t continue to concentrate people in communities that don’t serve their needs. For so long, we have built affordable housing where the poor people are. We assumed that low--income housing credits must be used in the low--income communities. And while revitalizing low income communities is a wonderful thing to do, it takes more than housing to do that. The people in these communities also need to have access to good schools, to employment opportunities, to parks. Ultimately, we need to think about spreading affordable housing throughout the region so that people can connect to opportunity wherever it might be.

And we must ensure that in the quest for regional equity people are able to stay and benefit from improvements in their neighborhood. It makes no sense at all to finally bring the things that people want to their community and not make it possible for people to stay and enjoy those things. We need to make sure that the investments we are making all over the region benefit everyone.

In this country, we have been unappreciative of what we ought to expect when we spend our public dollars. Very little happens in development without some public sector money. And yet, we haven’t demanded that everybody be able to benefit from that.

A Time of Transition

The notion of regional equity is important to this county as it tries to think about democracy. I suspect that this country is in another “groan zone.” You know, when you want to change, you have to go through a groan zone that feels just horrible, but then you make it through to the other side and realize that you are standing on one of those platforms I talked about, ready to start spiraling upward.

In a book I’m reading about Alexander Hamilton one thing that stands out is how sharply people disagreed during those times, how passionate they were about their disagreements. They came to blows and duels because of what they thought the choice ought to be. It is understandable because the country was new and fragile and so vulnerable. People were very serious about building something strong that would last.

I think we are at another delicate, vulnerable stage now. We have become a country that is being shaped by its diversity. Diversity will be the story of America for the next 50 years as it continues to grow. This is no longer going to be one of those places where one group of people has the majority and the power.

To create change, we are going to have to find a new way of listening to each other, finding the things we have in common and finding those bridges that will take us together to the places that we need to be. During times like this, it doesn’t surprise me that we are fighting with each other.

Of course I’d rather see more calm and more agreement, but I think back to times when we had more agreement in the country, and people who looked like me weren’t doing very well. There was too much agreement that kept people out and down who were different, too much agreement that that situation was okay.

For instance, there is too much nostalgia for public education. People used to say that the schools worked for everybody. The kids paid attention. It is myth. We spend too much time being nostalgic for a time that never was, while avoiding a future that is inevitable.

There is no question as we go forward that we have got to come to grips with race. We have to think about our struggles and think about our differences. In my book, Searching for the Uncommon Common Ground, which I wrote with two colleagues, we thought hard about how to write a single essay about race. As a Latino, Asian, and African American, we could have just written three different essays. But we sought to come to agreement on some basic issues.

One of the questions we asked was: Is the black--white paradigm now irrelevant and are we now into a multiculturalism? We concluded that the black/white paradigm is defining, embedded, persistent and inadequate. It is defining. Negative images of African Americans have shaped public policy for years with the result that urban communities today continue to be neglected and are not serving the people who live there, no matter their race or ethnicity schools are failing children, the housing stock is not what it should be, there is a tense relationship with the police, and there is probably no grocery store.

In 1996 when we reformed welfare there were many different opinions about what we should do. But everyone carried an image in their minds of a black woman with a lot of children. That image was imbedded in the policies that we now have.

But for all of that, the black--white paradigm is inadequate. Achieving full inclusion in this country will depend on taking everybody’s singular journey into account.

To go forward, we have to move well beyond the black--white paradigm. It is not an either/or; there are no right answers. But I would suggest a couple things. We have to create a long pathway into the conversation about race so that people understand why it is important. We have to understand that in order to achieve full inclusion, everybody’s voice has to be heard. In addition, we will need a framework that sets out a clear picture of what success will look like. These steps must be placed in the context of history and, in order to have a community that matters, we must get people to understand that context. Once the historical context is understood, we will be able to move forward and create a new context for the future.

Publication Date: Winter 2005


Author(s):Angela Glover Blackwell

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