Mayors Must Create a Bold Vision for Equity

16 Aug 2017 | Angela Glover Blackwell
Mayors Must Create a Bold Vision for Equity
Above: Flick/Creative Commons -- Photo Credit: Terekhova

Last week, I had the pleasure of joining the U.S. Conference of Mayors summer meeting in New Orleans to discuss the importance of equity — just and fair inclusion — to their cities’ future. This was also the first meeting of the conference since their president, Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans, ordered the city’s Confederate statues removed. In an earlier speech about this decision, Mayor Landrieu explained, “Centuries old wounds are still raw because they never healed right in the first place.” The conference took a moment to applaud his bold actions, which are all the more courageous given the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, surrounding that city’s plan to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general. Given today’s political climate, cities — with their economic power, diversity, and innovation — must continue to take bold actions, address old wounds, and lead our nation toward inclusive prosperity. This requires transforming policies and systems that have long perpetuated racial inequities.

While millennials, as well as companies and investment capital, are flocking to cities, many vulnerable communities who stuck with cities through their long decline are disconnected from these emerging opportunities and are at risk of being further left behind or displaced altogether. As I explained at the conference, local leaders must think intentionally about racial equity and ensure that low-income people and people of color are able to participate in, and benefit from, decisions that impact their communities.

We call this pathway for achieving healthy, vibrant, prosperous communities “equitable development.” Specifically, I shared four principles to guide equitable development:

  1. Integrate strategies that focus on the needs of people and on the places where they live and work.
  2. Reduce economic and social disparities throughout the region.
  3. Promote triple-bottom-line investments (financial returns, community benefits, and environmental sustainability) that are equitable, catalytic, and coordinated.
  4. Include meaningful community participation and leadership in change efforts. 

For example, the City and County of San Francisco entered into a historic community benefits agreement with Lennar (the second-largest national housing developer) around a major development in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood. As a result, Lennar will ensure that 32 percent of housing units are affordable; provide housing preference to existing residents; and provide over $8.5 million in job training funds. Such commitments would not be possible without thinking about enduring inequalities and putting people at the center of development plans.

Reducing inequality and creating opportunities for all to participate in building a stronger economy is not just the right thing to do — it is urgent and fundamental to the economic future of cities, regions, and the nation. Already, more than half of new births in the U.S. are children of color. By the end of this decade, the majority of children under 18 will be of color. By 2030, the majority of young workers under 25 will be of color. It is evident that what happens to people of color will determine the fate of the nation.

As I shared this message with the mayors present, I also understood that they have a responsibility to all their residents. But equity is not a zero-sum game. Intentional investments in the most vulnerable communities have benefits that cascade out, improving the lives of all struggling people as well as regional economies and the nation as a whole. I call this the “curb-cut effect”, after the ramp-like dips on sidewalk corners. Championed by disability rights activists in the 1970s, these investments not only enabled people in wheelchairs to cross the street, but have helped everyone from parents wheeling strollers to workers pushing carts to travelers rolling suitcases. In fact, studies show that curb cuts have improved public safety as they have encouraged pedestrians to cross safely at intersections. 

The strategies may be unique in each city, but the struggle for equity is the same across the United States. Fortunately, mayors understand that the work they do is more important than ever, particularly when it comes to addressing racial inequality. Reflecting on the meeting, I am reminded of another quote from Mayor Landrieu’s speech: “If we take these statues down and don’t change to become a more open and inclusive society this would have all been in vain.” Mayors must grapple with inequities in their communities, embrace the changing faces of their cities and towns, and maximize equitable development to foster communities of opportunity for all.

Together, we can build a nation in which no one, no group, and no geographic region is left behind.