Alexis Stephens

Senior Communications Associate

Biography

Alexis Stephens, Senior Communications Associate, develops and disseminates communications strategies for PolicyLink. Delivering messages about economic and social equity, Alexis contributed to the America's Tomorrow newsletter and provides general media advocacy support to multiple teams across the organization. Previously, she was Next City's 2014-2015 equitable cities fellow. She has a BA in urban studies from Barnard College and an MS in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania. She is an avid follower of global music subcultures and has written about them in Rolling Stone, SPIN, and MTV Iggy.

Crafting an Economic Agenda for Black Lives

Today, racial inequities are once again at the center of the national political conversation — along with bold, visionary proposals for policies to resolve them. Grassroots responses to police violence have given rise to a movement of leaders, coalitions, and organizations seeking not only social justice for Black communities, but economic justice as well.

The Movement for Black Lives, a collective of 50 organizations around the country, is creating a common vision and agenda for Black communities. Last August, the group released a nine-point economic policy platform that calls for progressive restructuring of the tax code to ensure an equitable and sustainable redistribution of wealth, federal and state job programs targeting the most economically marginalized Black people, protection for workers’ rights to organize, tax incentives for cooperative economy networks, and more (read the full platform here). By centering economic equity for Black people and creating and amplifying a shared agenda, the Movement for Black Lives hopes to “move towards a world in which the full humanity and dignity of all people is recognized.”

So far, the collective has been most visible in its event-based organizing. For the past two years, Reclaim MLK Day has been connecting the national holiday to the radical actions of contemporary movements. Launched to coincide with Mother’s Day 2017, “Mama’s Bail Out Day” kicked off a summer of bailing out more than 200 incarcerated people as a step toward ending pre-trial incarceration for those who cannot afford bail. On June 19 (Juneteenth), the collective held a day of action in 40 cities to reclaim abandoned buildings, vacant lots, and other local spaces.

America’s Tomorrow spoke with DeAngelo Bester, contributor to the Movement for Black Lives economic justice platform and co-executive director and senior strategist at the Workers Center for Racial Justice, to discuss the platform’s labor organizing recommendations and talk about what it will take to move the agenda’s policy points forward.

Organizing workers outside of traditional employment models is a priority for the Workers Center for Racial Justice. What are some of the strategies Black workers have begun using to organize in response to the growth of the “on demand” economy?

The Workers Center for Racial Justice and some more progressive unions and worker centers have been trying to organize workers in industries where they are either considered contract or temporary workers. The idea is to organize them as we would in a union, and to change the laws and policies in their localities to give them collective bargaining rights. The National Labor Relations Board ruled last year that you can organize temp workers and people working in temp agencies into collective bargaining units.

Short of guaranteeing collective bargaining agreements, we won’t be able to get on-demand workers the same type of rights as far as fair wages. But there have been some victories in Chicago and other places around increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and getting domestic workers paid sick leave and fair scheduling.

With the politics being the way they are in DC, a national right-to-work policy could be coming down at the federal level. The Supreme Court will also probably be ruling in favor of getting rid of public sector unions. Therefore, we are trying to do our work at the local level in terms of making policy changes to ensure worker protections.

In your local level efforts, where have you seen fair development work in action, in the sense of people creating affordable housing, fighting displacement, and creating good jobs in a single effort?

There hasn’t been a ton of what you are calling fair development. When I did housing work a few years ago, getting the right number of affordable housing units included in development projects was a big issue. As far as jobs going to workers from marginalized communities in community benefits agreements or private labor agreements, it has been really hit-or-miss. It hasn’t been what it needs to be to get Black workers real jobs.

In the construction industry, a lot of cities have minority set-asides. The way it usually works is that two rules are in place: employers have to use union labor, and a certain percentage of the jobs are supposed to go to people from local communities. But there are always ways for folks to get around the stipulation to provide jobs. Sometimes developers only have to pay a $25,000 fine, so they might still choose not to hire people from the community. Or they could say that no new jobs are being created. In the construction industry, a lot of contractors have their own staff in place already and so developers say that they didn’t hire any new people because they just used existing employees. In private labor agreements, that’s been a drawback — and there hasn’t been real enforcement. What we [at the Workers Center for Racial Justice] have been trying to do when we work on private agreements is to say that a certain percentage of jobs and hours worked must go to people from the community; that way we can get around the language of “new jobs created.”

The Movement for Black Lives economic justice platform — like the rest of its policy agenda —  has brought together a diverse range of voices and organizations in a bold and ambitious vision for racial economic justice. What has your experience been working with this group?

The process has been great. The executive team did a great job of bringing people together, keeping people engaged, and answering phones and questions. It’s been as good of an experience as I’ve had as far as getting together and meeting with people and continuing to build relationships.

The only drawback or critique that I have is that there hasn’t been a discussion of building the power needed to get some of the platform implemented. With politics being the way they are in DC right now, none of us really have the power to do that right now. We need to have a discussion about what it would take to build that power, and after we have that power, what we would do to get some of these things implemented.

Speaking of the changing political climate, as the current presidential administration has evolved, which of the Movement for Black Lives platform points do you see as having the most promise in getting implemented?

There could be some potential around tax reform. There was language in the platform around tax breaks for marginalized workers, and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit. Republicans have been talking about tax reform, too – cutting taxes for the rich. There could be a chance, if we build up enough support, to move some of the tax reform ideas forward. Other than that, the platform’s points around justice reform and police reform – I don’t think we have a real chance of getting that stuff moving with the person we have in the White House and the person we have heading up the Department of Justice. Even the points around housing and environmental justice and land rights are going to be tough in the current political environment. That’s why it is necessary to build enough power to implement the platform.

PolicyLink Launches All-In Cities Policy Toolkit


Today marks the launch of the All-In Cities Policy Toolkit, a new online resource designed to help leaders inside and outside city government identify, understand, and choose targeted policy solutions to advance racial economic inclusion and equitable growth.

The toolkit includes an initial selection of 21 tools, including, but not limited to: Equitable contracting and procurement, Financial empowerment centers, incentivized savings accounts, living wage, local and targeted hiring, minimum wage, worker-owned cooperatives, and more. New content and additional policies will be added throughout 2017 and beyond. The toolkit provides examples of specific policies that local leaders can adapt to their own economic and political contexts, key considerations for design and implementation, and outlines where these policies are working to advance racial and economic equity.

This toolkit is just one resource from All-In Cities. Through this initiative, PolicyLink continues its work to change the dialogue about how and why equity matters to city and regional futures, while working hand-in-hand with city leaders to advance equitable growth strategies.

New Data Profile Supports City of New Orleans Equity Strategy

April 20 marked an historic moment for New Orleans. After a year of community engagement and analysis, the City officially launched its Equity Strategy, laying out how local government will do its part to build a stronger, more inclusive city by advancing equity through its operations and decision-making. With this strategy launch, New Orleans joins the growing movement of city and county governments that are tackling structural racism and advancing equity through citywide initiatives. New Orleans is the first southern city to embrace such an approach.

“In the new New Orleans, having an equitable government is a top priority,” Landrieu said in launching the strategy. “We understand the power of equity and view it as a growth strategy that will lead us to creating a stronger and more prosperous city for all our residents.”

The Equity Strategy commits the city government to establish an equity office responsible for promoting equity in all its operations; make equity a central consideration in budgeting; create plans, with accountability measures, for all departments; conduct racial equity training for all employees and members of boards and commissions; and advance equity in hiring and workforce development.

At the event, PolicyLink and the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at the University of Southern California (PERE) released an equity profile of New Orleans, the first of a series of 10 new equity profiles produced with the support of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. According to this analysis, the New Orleans regional economy could be $18 billion stronger if racial gaps in income were closed. These profiles are developed to support local community groups, elected officials, planners, business leaders, funders, and others working to build stronger and more equitable cities, regions, and states.

PolicyLink has been working with the Office of Mayor Landrieu to provide assistance with developing its equity strategy for the past year through its All-In Cities initiative, and Senior Director Sarah Treuhaft participated on the panel at the launch event and then held a session to share the findings of the equity profile.

The New Path of Shared Prosperity in Fresno

Advancing Health Equity and Inclusive Growth in Fresno County, released on Monday, highlights persistent inequities in income, wealth, health, and opportunity. The profile and accompanying policy brief were developed by PolicyLink and the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE) at USC, in partnership with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, and with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
 
“These findings confirm what community residents and advocates have long known—racial and place-based inequities continue to dramatically impact residents’ access to economic opportunity, housing, health, and well-being in the Fresno County region,” says Ashley Werner, senior attorney at the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability. “We must continue to work together and strengthen our efforts to demand that our elected officials do not remain complicit but actively and strategically work to create opportunity for all.”
 
Key findings in the report include:

  • Fresno has the 12th highest renter housing burden among the largest 150 metro areas in the country. The county’s Black and Latino renters are more likely to be burdened: 68 percent of Black renter households and 60 percent of Latino renter households are cost-burdened.
     
  • Very low-income Black and Latino residents are extremely reliant on the regional transportation system and limited numbers have access to automobiles. 12 percent of Black workers who earn an annual income of less than $15,000 use public transit compared with 1 percent of White workers.
     
  • The average Fresno resident is exposed to more air pollution than 70 percent of neighborhoods nationwide, but Black and Asian or Pacific Islander residents have the highest rates of exposure.
     
  • Latinos are nearly three times as likely as whites to be working full time with a family income less than 200 percent of the poverty level.
     
  • At nearly all levels of education, Latino workers earn $4 dollars less an hour than Whites.

Since 2011, PolicyLink and PERE have engaged in a formal partnership to amplify the message that equity—just and fair inclusion—is both a moral imperative and the key to our nation’s economic prosperity. Advancing Health Equity and Inclusive Growth in Fresno County incorporates indicators that undergird policy solutions to advance health equity, inclusive growth, and a culture of health. 
 
The profile provides unique data and actionable solutions for residents, advocates, funders, business leaders, and policymakers seeking to reduce racial inequities and build a stronger Fresno. This engagement with Fresno advocates is also a part of the All-In Cities initiative at PolicyLink. Through this initiative, PolicyLink equips city leaders with policy ideas, data, and strategies to advance racial economic inclusion and equitable growth.

Meet the Entrepreneurs Creating an Arts and Culture-Based Economy in Post-Coal Appalachia

Last November, voters in Kentucky expressed confidence that President Trump could deliver on his promise to revive the coal industry, and he carried the state with 62 percent of votes. But in the heart of Appalachia, there's a strong network of businesses and nonprofits that are looking beyond coal, and embracing equity-focused regional economic development for marginalized communities — creating employment opportunities in technology and innovation, and arts and culture, as even more promising growth industries for the region. 

In rural Letcher County, Kentucky — population 23,000 — just 12 percent of adults age 25 or older have a bachelor's degree, and 33 percent of residents live below the federal poverty level. But Letcher County is also home to creative entrepreneurs and artists working to cultivate a more equitable economy. "We're thinking about ways to move forward in a post-coal economy," said Jeremy McQueen, CEO and co-founder of Mountain Tech Media, which provides technology and digital design services out of its base in Whitesburg. "Companies like ours are really offering solutions for workers and communities that used to rely on coal to be able to participate in an economy that's thriving." 

The 12-person company provides a wide variety of branding, marketing, and strategizing services to both small and large businesses in the region, including video and audio productions, web design, app development, graphic design and illustration, and social media management. "I think we are helping folks in our region find the branding and the reach that they're looking for without trying to hire some ad agency in a larger city," which, as McQueen explained, "is usually out of their price range and out of their comfort zone as well." 

An upstart "doing cool things"

McQueen doesn't see Mountain Tech Media as the vehicle for Appalachia to skip-step its way to become the next Silicon Valley. He said that businesses in the region have basic, behind-the-times tech needs to be addressed. The company could work on just websites and promotional videos for the next five to 10 years and still not meet demand. But the goal of Mountain Tech Media is to empower local businesses to think beyond their existing horizons and to provide professional development opportunities for their workers. 

Mountain Tech Media has a worker cooperative model, giving team members equity in the company and involving them in the governance of the business. "I really was interested in the worker co-op model from the very beginning, but I had never heard of it done in a tech or a digital design company," said McQueen. "I think everyone involved now does not have a doubt that it was the right move. We've seen such a sense of pride and self-worth in all of our team members owning a piece of the company and making decisions about what we do next." 

So far, Mountain Tech Media has contracted with 34 organizations and contributed an estimated $200,000 to the regional economy through their work. Founded in 2015, it surpassed its first-year projections in just the first six months of 2016 and surpassed its three-year projections in the span of a single year. The group is well on its way to exceeding its projections for 2017. 

After being profiled in the New York Times, the organization was contacted by the City University of New York to work on a few projects. According to McQueen, "They wanted to get something out quick and decided to reach out to an upstart company like ours that was doing cool things in Appalachia." Nonprofit clients are quick to mention their relationships with Mountain Tech Media in grant applications, a sign that they see investments in their organizations as investments in Mountain Tech Media, and vice versa. 

The culture hub at the heart of Appalachia

Mountain Tech Media took shape and has grown with the help of Appalshop, a grassroots arts and culture organization based in Letcher County since 1969. In 2014, Appalshop's leadership partnered with Lafayette College's Economic Empowerment and Global Learning Project (EEGLP) and researchers from Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life (IA) to launch the pilot program for a national initiative for community revitalization and economic development based in creative placemaking and placekeeping. Through this partnership, Appalshop has formalized its role as the anchor of the Letcher County Culture Hub. In addition to Mountain Tech Media, several other projects radiate from Appalshop's core efforts: a radio station, a youth media institute, a theater company, a regional archive, a downtown retail association, and much more. In order to create a college-to-career pipeline of workers to fill the needs of startups like Mountain Tech Media, Appalshop has also started a tech and media certificate program in conjunction with Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College.

For years, Appalshop has been training youth in media production and other community development initiatives, and now that pipeline can also connect young people in the region to employment opportunities with businesses like Mountain Tech Media. This summer, the company will employ four media interns to help produce "Upload Appalachia," a youth-driven film series about social entrepreneurship in the region.

"Appalshop is one of the largest cultural anchors in Appalachia and has produced a wealth of creative content over the last 50 years," said McQueen. "They incubated us as a company and gave us access to a lot of networks and resources and equipment. We were able to save a lot of overhead costs right away. We've had so many meetings and conversations with new partners who really dig what we are doing because we are affiliated with Appalshop." 

Cultivating an arts and culture-based economy

Peg & Awl Public House (formerly known as Village Trough) is a worker-owned local and organic food vendor and event production business based in Berea, Kentucky. "We have a mission to reconnect people with local food and local producers and hosting and encouraging community events," said co-founder and owner Ali Blair. Along with Berea Tourism, Peg & Awl Pub began sponsoring First Friday Berea in 2014, a monthly block party bringing together local artisans, food vendors, and musical acts to activate and revitalize the Old Town neighborhood. Peg & Awl's long-term goals include lifting up and connecting artists and small arts-and-culture-based businesses in the region and helping artists turn side incomes into sole incomes. 

Peg & Awl Pub was introduced to Mountain Tech Media as a fellow worker cooperative early on and contracted with them to produce merchandise — first for the food business, then for First Friday Berea. "The work that they're producing is really top-notch and kind of makes us feel like we have a leg up with them doing the design work for our tee shirts, posters, and marketing materials, which are really pieces of art," said Blair. "We want people to collect those things." 

This year, the Berea Arts Council won $25,000 from the Mortimer and Mimi Levitt Foundation to allow them to expand their programming to produce a 10-week music series, Levitt AMP Berea. Mountain Tech Media not only designed marketing pieces for the series and supported social media outreach, but also became a sponsor as a way to support local creative placemaking efforts. 

While there is plenty for supporters of an arts and culture-based Appalachian economy to celebrate right now, there are also looming threats on the horizon. "With a lot of federal arts funding facing budget cuts, I think there are a lot of people asking what we are going to do," said Blair. "What we see on a national level is definitely being reflected in our backyards." 

But Blair also maintained that no matter what locals might think is the best way to focus economic development efforts — reviving coal jobs versus teaching out-of-work miners computer skills or encouraging people to start their own small businesses — the solutions have to be homegrown. "We don't want to be reliant on other people coming in to fix our problems," she said. "There's a lot of pride in us trying to do that ourselves." 

"There are very differing opinions about what counts as positive economic growth," she continued. "A lot of people don't value art and think artists should get a 'real' job. We really feel that arts are absolutely needed to create thriving places for us to live and raise our families." 

To learn more about Appalshop's youth-focused job training, as well as other equity-focused arts and culture policies, check out "Creating Change through Arts, Culture, and Equitable Development: A Policy and Practice Primer," a new PolicyLink report highlighting how arts and culture strategies are being embraced to help create equitable communities of opportunity.

Can Other U.S. Cities Follow in NYC’s Footsteps to Help Renters?

Cross-posted from Next City

After the announcement by Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito that New York City would be extending a universal right to legal services for low-income tenants facing eviction, many of the city’s housing advocates rejoiced. “It feels good to me because I know that if any of my sons or grandkids are below the poverty line and have a problem with a landlord, they are going to be represented by an attorney,” says Randy Dillard, council leader for Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA) and former client of one of the city’s public interest lawyers.

“We believe that this law is going to lead the way for other cities,” he continued. Other cities, including Philadelphia and Boston, are taking cues from New York’s playbook.

In 2012, only 1 percent of New York City tenants facing eviction were represented by lawyers. Meanwhile, more than 90 percent of landlords are typically represented by counsel in eviction proceedings. Advocates made the case that the policy change could not only dramatically improve outcomes for low-income residents, but save the city millions of dollars each year.

Read the full story in Next City>>>

It Takes a City: How Detroit Is Making a Homegrown Comeback

Conjuring a mental image of Detroit is easy if you've been paying attention to some of the comeback stories that have been streaming out of the city: it is the Rust Belt's chrome mecca coming back from the brink, with daring restauranteurs and visionary start-ups injecting new life into ghostly factories and disinvested working-class neighborhoods. But these predominant narratives only tell part of the story: economic growth is concentrated in pockets close to the central core, and has benefited outsiders more than locals. In 2007, 36 percent of jobs in the central business district were held by Detroiters, but by 2013, that number dropped to 23.7 percent.

"The condition that Detroit is in has created a can-do, collaborative, maker culture," said Kevin Ramon, business coach at Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation. "But there are a lot of people in Detroit's underserved communities that don't have the financial capacity or skill sets to get their businesses off the ground as fast as others outside of those communities." But a network of organizations in the city is working to change that.

Ramon provides marketing and general business coaching support for Central Detroit residents through the business development work of Central Detroit Christian, which is part of a cottage industry including foundations, nonprofits, incubators, and co-working spaces that provide Detroit's low-income residents and people of color with resources and opportunities to launch successful small businesses.

Detroit is proving what can happen when a robust business ecosystem — one that is committed to inclusion — sprouts up to combat the economic inequality that too often accompanies a city's comeback. Below are three examples of companies owned by Detroiters that are tapping into the new business resources available to grow and ensure that Detroit's renaissance is built on a foundation of success for local residents of color.

From Returning Citizen to In-Demand Business Owner

When Craig Grissom returned to Central Detroit after 14 years of incarceration, he turned to landscaping work to make money.  "I couldn't get hired anywhere, so I had to create my job," he said.

In 2009, Grissom started to build his own small clientele. Two years later, Lisa Johanon, who oversees Central Detroit Christian's portfolio of 10 businesses, offered Grissom the job of managing one of them, Higher Ground Landscaping. "I had been making a couple of dollars on my own, but it wasn't steady," he said. "With that opportunity, I had a steady income."

In return, Grissom has tried to hire other returning citizens from the neighborhood. "Somebody gave me a chance," he added. "Lisa helped me out and if I could help someone else out, sure enough, I would. I hired someone this past summer who was just a new release and I gave him the opportunity."

Through Central Detroit Christian, Grissom completed an entrepreneur training class at ProsperUS in 2014. He was able to purchase Higher Ground Landscaping in 2015 and obtained working capital through loans from ProsperUS and Southwest Solutions (both of which have since been paid off). Grissom's contracts now include Henry Ford Health Center and the Woodward Avenue Streetcar project.

Both Central Detroit Christian and ProsperUS receive funding from the New Economy Initiative (NEI), a collaboration of 13 national and local foundations founded in 2007 that has grown into one of the largest philanthropy-led regional economic development initiatives in the United States. A recent report from NEI outlines the impact of its grantmaking, and the results are impressive: through $96.2 million in grants, NEI has helped to launch 1,700 new companies, creating more than 17,000 jobs.

The success of Grissom and other entrepreneurs like him speaks to the power of Detroit organizations working together and collaborating to build a network of entrepreneurs of color — especially those with a passion for training and employing locally. According to Matthew Lewis of NEI, the initiative wants to focus its grantmaking efforts to ramp up local hiring to ensure that Detroit residents reap the benefits of their city's comeback.  The results so far are promising: the 2016 NEIdeas winners were 75 percent people of color and 60 percent women-owned businesses, and NEI has received applications from every Detroit zip code.

From Selling out of a Trunk to the Shelves of Whole Foods

Nailah Ellis-Brown, another local entrepreneur, feels frustrated about the way that Detroit has been portrayed in the media. "A lot of people think you can just buy a building in Detroit and grow a $1 million business," said Ellis-Brown. "Detroit has been portrayed as this wide-open market, but people are just coming in and not providing jobs or training. They are bringing in the workers they want to use. It doesn't make sense to come in and fix downtown, midtown, and a couple of blocks along Woodward. That's not the entire city."

Ellis-Brown began selling her grandfather's hibiscus iced tea recipe out of the trunk of her car in 2008. Today, Ellis Infinity Beverage Company drinks are being sold in over 300 retailers throughout the Midwest, including at Whole Foods, and she was named one of Forbes magazine's "30 Under 30" in the manufacturing industry. Along the way, Ellis-Brown found resources throughout the region, including from Michigan State University Product Center, "which has been amazing as far as labeling and the random stuff like barcodes and nutritional information," and Michigan Minority Supplier Development Council, which helped Ellis-Brown with contracting. But she is proud of how much she's been able to do on her own.

"Being a Detroit native, I've never been the type to wait on handouts," she said. "If there's something you want, you've got to go get it yourself. That's how I was raised and how things tend to be for people within the Black community." She's committed to hiring local residents, and nine of her 15 staff members on the production line have special needs. She works through a program called Services to Enhance Potential and also hires walk-ins, online applicants, and over social media. "No one really takes the time to work with individuals with special needs. With the passions they have and the joy I see when they come to work, it makes all of the difference in the world to me," said Ellis-Brown. "One of my passions and aspirations is for my company to provide job support and job opportunities for Detroit natives."

A Master Plumber with a Vision

One of NEI's grantmaking programs, NEIdeas, challenges entrepreneurs to come up with ideas to help grow their businesses. Businesses that gross under $750,000 annually compete for one of 30 $10,000 awards; businesses that gross between $750,000 and $5 million compete for one of two $100,000 awards.

Benkari Mechanical, a plumbing enterprise, won a $10,000 award in 2015. Founded by Adrienne Bennett, said to be America's first Black female licensed master plumber and Michigan's first and only female licensed master plumber and plumbing contractor, the company was looking for a way to grow to its next level.

"We are small, we are minority, and we are just trying to fit in," said Bennett. "Until now we have been self-funded. Now we are at the point that for us to grow, we have to pursue larger projects. Banks literally want your life for the money they want to loan you." With the NEIdeas grant, the company purchased software and training to help automate its contract bidding process. The first time Benkari used the software, it won its biggest contract to date — for the new Detroit Red Wings arena currently under construction.

"It would have taken a much longer time to estimate without the software," said A.K. Bennett, Adrienne's son and project manager for the company. "We see this project as being a stepping stone to larger projects'"

One of Benkari's biggest growth challenges is finding qualified local union workers. The union provides a five-year apprenticeship program, but with the growth of the central business district and an executive order that projects are required to have 51 percent of local trade labor to qualify for city financing, Benkari Mechanical's labor pool is often dry. "After the 2008 crash, there was no push to open the apprenticeships and a big loss of people to retirement," said Bennett, the business owner. "Now since the boom has come back and it has come back so fast, there aren't that many people with talent or experience to do the work. Now there are people who have never had a hammer in their hands on a construction site."

Even so, the business is poised to meet Bennett's vision for growth. "We have set goals as far as where we would like to be financially — owning our own office space with a pre-fabrication facility and developing a fleet of company vehicles. As far as the things we see as happening in the city, we think this is all attainable."

A Seat at the Table: Through Community Participation, New Orleans Leads the Fair Housing Movement

Isabel Barrios, a program officer at the Greater New Orleans Foundation, recently facilitated a conversation with young people in New Orleans in which they were asked what health and public safety mean to them. They responded by saying things like: "It means not hearing gunshots when I'm playing on the basketball court," and "I would be able to ride my bike somewhere and not have to worry about it being stolen," and "Health means having water fountains in our neighborhood, because it can get very hot out and I want to be able to drink water when I'm playing outside."

"There were all of these great things that all of these kids brought up that barely fall within into what people call public safety in city planning processes," said Barrios. "There is an incredible opportunity if you have meaningful engagement and really hear people out." She mentioned that when residents asked to return to their public housing developments after Hurricane Katrina, their calls were translated by politicians into requests for more "affordable housing" in the form of vouchers — signifying that filtering may still affect their trust.

Last week, the City of New Orleans and the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) made a concerted effort to respond to city residents' specific appeals for improved housing and greater connection to opportunity in the joint Assessment of Fair Housing (AFH) plan they submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). By submitting this plan, New Orleans became one of the first of 20 jurisdictions in 2016 to adhere to the update to the Fair Housing Act released in 2015 requiring federal housing funding grantees to "Affirmatively Further Fair Housing" (also known as the AFFH rule). Over 100 more will follow in 2017, and all remaining HUD jurisdictions in the following years. The revamped AFFH rule lays the foundation to ensure that HUD resources are being effectively used to foster communities of opportunity. The framework helps cities, counties, regions, states, and housing authorities examine historic patterns of segregation, expand housing choices, and foster inclusive communities free of discrimination.

Community outreach that builds on past efforts

Over the course of the summer and early fall, HANO and the city met with residents, housing, transportation, and health advocates, and community organizations to get their input on the housing opportunity plan. They also coordinated with the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC) to hold sessions to train community-based groups on the more technical aspects of the AFH plan, and to engage communities not usually at planning tables. Seven partner groups (including PolicyLink) served as a coordinating committee that synthesized community input, guided research, addressed gaps in the data that were being gathered, and drafted the Assessment of Fair Housing that set goals for healthy communities of opportunity and prioritized actions to be pursued over the next five years.  The plan's development was guided by equity, as defined by PolicyLink: "just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential."

The plan includes a summary of residents' concerns gathered during the community participation process channels, such as escalating housing costs within proximity of new hospitals (making both health care and job access more difficult), criminal background checks limiting employment opportunities, and transportation services prioritizing tourists over transit-dependent residents. It also reports on demographic trends in the city and where racially/ethnically concentrated areas of poverty exist. The numbers were revealing, with 66 percent of the more than 75,000 renter households classified as low-income, and 77 percent of those households reporting housing problems.

The factors contributing to disparities in access to opportunity informed the development of the AFH plan's key goals, which include expanding affordable housing in high-opportunity areas, reducing housing segregation, and prioritizing public investments in transit, quality schools, housing, parks, and other amenities in underserved communities. (Read more about the plan's goals here.)

The AFH plan is building on recent community-based planning efforts, including: HousingNOLA, a 10-year strategy and implementation plan launched in August 2015 as a partnership of community leaders and public, private, and nonprofit organizations working to solve New Orleans's affordable housing crisis; Housing for a Resilient New Orleans, a five-year strategy for the city to build or preserve 7,500 affordable housing units by 2021; and a rental housing assessment released in March 2016 — conducted by the Center for Community Progress and commissioned by the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority — which found that nearly four out of five low-income, cost-burdened renter households in New Orleans are Black.

"Redlining is not a thing of the past"

The community engagement groundwork laid through these other strategic processes had a direct impact on the AFH plan, and will enable concrete federal resources to be invested in results. Andreanecia Morris, executive director of HousingNOLA, related how the HousingNOLA community review team recommended that the AFH plan look to leverage more private investment in low-opportunity neighborhoods through encouraging banks to spend their Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) money in those places — fulfilling the banks' obligation to meet the credit needs of low- and moderate-income neighborhoods.

"Redlining is not a thing of the past," said Morris. "We called for an assessment of where lenders are working in New Orleans. The community took advantage of the opportunity to participate in the Louisiana Reinvestment Summit and submitted and integrated those comments into the AFH plan and HousingNOLA's 2017 Action Plan."

"Racial discrimination undergirds a lot of the discrimination that we see"

In addition to leading the community engagement work of the AFH plan, the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center provided data to the city and HANO about both public sector barriers and private acts of discrimination to fair housing choice.

"Racial discrimination undergirds a lot of the discrimination that we see," said Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Center. "When we conducted an investigation of landlords discriminating against housing choice voucher program participants, we found that 80 percent would not accept voucher holders, which is still not illegal in New Orleans or in the state of Louisiana. We found that racial discrimination was at the root of some of the refusals to accept vouchers."

The Center receives daily calls from people being discriminated against: families being told that landlords will not accept children, people with disabilities finding limited choices for accessible apartments, renters living in substandard living conditions and struggling to get their landlords to treat mold or repair sewage lines.

"The good news is that we've got some leaders at the local level who are really interested in making living conditions better for renters in the city and in enacting policies to address the affordability crisis that's going on," said Hill. "We're working with a coalition that includes public health advocates to continue to raise these issues. What we need is a mechanism or framework that is going to require housing providers in the city to live up to their end of the deal to provide healthy and safe housing for the tenants." Adopting health and safety standards for occupied rental housing in the form of a citywide rental registry ordinance is listed as one of the short-term goals of the AFH plan.

Staying close to "the gumbo you like"

Barrios from the Greater New Orleans Foundation added that the release of New Orleans's AFH plan will have implications not only for HUD's decisions but also for the foundation's own grantmaking. As she said, if the Foundation wants to support a transit advocacy organization like Ride New Orleans, "the AFH plan will help us get a good sense of how Ride New Orleans is working along with housing advocates and workforce development folks to keep them abreast and informed. In that sense, the AFH plan is a great way to create a space for Ride New Orleans to be more connected with housing folks who may not have been making those connections before," she added.

"The people of New Orleans are pretty clear on their own sense of well-being," Barrios concluded, emphasizing once more the importance of meaningful community engagement in making far-reaching decisions about making places more opportunity-rich. "It's not only just connecting places to health care. Our sense of well-being can also be closely related to proximity to our families and friends — the things we've always known and cherished," said Barrios. "It can even be where you can get the gumbo you like — it's all part of what makes people feel good."

Earlier this year, PolicyLink and the Kresge Foundation released Healthy Communities of Opportunity: An Equity Blueprint to Address America's Housing Challenges. It explains how health, housing, and economic security policies must be aligned to achieve equitable housing outcomes and discusses how the AFFH rule presents a key avenue to advancing opportunity. PolicyLink played a supportive role in developing the Assessment of Fair Housing (AFH) plan in New Orleans.

The Second Annual p4 Conference Envisions a Just Pittsburgh

The City of Pittsburgh and The Heinz Endowments are spearheading a major effort to forge a new model of urban growth and development that is innovative, inclusive and sustainable.

This model is based around a central, unifying framework — p4: People, Planet, Place, and Performance — and was launched at an international summit in 2015.

p4’s second annual conference will take place on Oct. 18-19, 2016, at Pittsburgh's David L. Lawrence Convention Center. The event will feature a range of national and international experts as well as discussions on all aspects of the p4 framework, and a highlight will be a focus on economic and social equity — the framework’s People strategies — during the second day of the summit.

PolicyLink CEO Angela Glover Blackwell will be a featured speaker on Day One of the summit, speaking on the topic “People – Advancing the Just and Sustainable City.” On Day Two, PolicyLink Senior Director Sarah Treuhaft will be discussing the recommendations of the recently released Equitable Development: The Path to an All-In Pittsburgh.

In advance of the conference, Pittsburgh and The Heinz Endowments have released this powerful new video framing the summit and the issues facing the future of the city:

p4 Pittsburgh 2016

Visit www.p4pittsburgh.org to learn more.

Fairfax County Reaffirms Equity with a Resolution for “One Fairfax”

For many years, officials, advocates, and agency staff in Fairfax County, Virginia, have been concerned with the inequities affecting low-income residents and people of color in the county — and in its 2015 Strategic Plan to Facilitate Economic Success the County Board of Supervisors acknowledged the central importance of equity as a driver of regional economic growth and vitality. But they needed deeper, cross-sectoral data to help underscore their day-to-day experiences and to point the way toward actionable policy solutions.

With just over a million residents, Fairfax County has seen a surge of growth, primarily driven by people of color.  Between 2000 and 2010, the population of the county grew 11 percent, while there was a 42 percent increase of people of color in the county.

"Fairfax is generally a suburban community known typically to be affluent so these issues are sometimes masked in our general data," said Karla Bruce, deputy director of the Fairfax County Department of Neighborhood and Community Services.

In 2015, county officials and local community leaders partnered with PolicyLink and the University of Southern California's Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE) to release an Equitable Growth Profile for Fairfax County, Virginia. The disaggregated data reported in the profile brought Fairfax County's racial inequities into clear focus, and catalyzed a local coalition into action. By supporting the development of the profile, Fairfax leadership demonstrated its commitment to equity and a vision of "One Fairfax" — a community in which all can participate and prosper.

As the profile pointed out, Fairfax County ranks second nationally in terms of household income, with a median of $110,292. At the same time, the middle class is shrinking: workers in the bottom 20 percent saw their wages stagnate between 1979 and 2012, while workers in the highest 20 percent have seen above-national-average wage increases. More than 10 percent of Latinos and Blacks lived in poverty in 2012 compared to less than 3 percent of Whites.

"I think the Equitable Growth Profile affirmed some things that many folks had been talking about anecdotally in terms of demographic shifts, population needs, and concerns that a number of people were having," said Patricia Mathews, president and CEO of the Northern Virginia Health Foundation. "I think it wasn't so much a new statement, but rather it allowed people to say, 'Now we have data. Now we can think about this a lot more strategically.'" Community leaders like Mathews were engaged in the process of producing the profile and in discussions about its findings. The county has been guided by a collective impact framework to advance equity, characterized by its "respect for and integration of the wisdom, voice, experience, and leadership of community residents."

"We need to understand and improve our work"

This summer, Fairfax County rededicated itself to equity by passing the One Fairfax Resolution, a formal declaration of commitment to racial and social equity passed by both the County Board of Supervisors and the Fairfax County School Board. The resolution will direct the development of a One Fairfax policy, which the boards hope to adopt as early as next summer.

The resolution formalizes the county's definition of racial and social equity and acknowledges the importance of equity to fostering greater opportunities and inclusive growth: "to truly create opportunity, we need to understand and improve our work through a racial and social equity lens from the very core of the organization outward, focusing intentionally and deliberately towards sustainable structural changes."

Over the last several years, Fairfax County has undertaken several initiatives to address racial and social disparities in a variety of areas, including juvenile justice, education, employment, health, and child welfare. Prior to the publication of the Equitable Growth profile, a 2012 study from the Center for the Study of Social Policy encouraged government leaders to scrutinize the pathways and institutions — including the police and school systems — that caused Black and Latino youth to be disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system. They created an interagency team to go through the analysis and drill into what could be done to address disparities. They also joined the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE).

Karen Shaban, strategic project manager of Fairfax County government, said that all of these efforts helped officials to realize that sustainable change goes beyond human services and moved them to look at other parts of their system, such as zoning policies, transportation, and land use. "All of these efforts set the stage for us to formally say there needs to be more intentionality to make sure that Fairfax County's institutions and systems are not contributing to the disparities that exist."

Currently, the County is using the equity concepts of the new One Fairfax resolution to guide planning related to a number of strategic initiatives in the areas of early childhood education, community development, and recreation.  "These are ripe opportunities to bring an equity lens to the work," said Shaban. The lens can help guide future redevelopment projects like the planning for a 10-acre campus of a former high school. 

Experimenting with "equity-in-practice" — particularly expanding community engagement beyond common public meetings — will give county staff an opportunity to try out some tools and processes to see what works best as they continue to develop the equity policy mandated by the One Fairfax resolution.

"I think we have a really progressive government in Fairfax County," said Karen Cleveland, president and CEO of Leadership Fairfax, a community leadership development organization. "But when you work for the government, you can very easily get drawn into policy development and policy implementation. What this One Fairfax resolution does is lift the work above that. It says, 'This is going to be our umbrella.'"

Leadership Fairfax, the Northern Virginia Health Foundation, and other organizations are working as thought partners with county staff to make sure that community needs are consistently prioritized — and not just from a government services perspective.

 

"It's helped us to not only have a common agenda but also to really commit to outcomes," added Bruce, "so that we can shift the possibility for progress and share in the responsibility for change. We haven't reached our destination, but there is definitely power in the networks that we are creating. I am hopeful that we will be able to realize this vision of One Fairfax."

Check out the rest of the September 27, 2016 America's Tomorrow: Equity is the Superior Growth Model issue.