Four months into 2017, leaders across the country are demonstrating the power of collaboration — aligning priorities, coordinating action, and sharing information and new ideas — to push back against attacks on equity and inclusion. We are honored to have partnered with so many inspiring advocates and leaders on many efforts so far, and are ready for the work ahead. Today’s update highlights our first convening; shares the discussion from our recent webinars on employment equity and fines & fees; and an upcoming webinar focused on housing opportunity.
#CitiesResist Webinar: Three Communities Implementing HUD’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Commitment
Join us on Thursday, April 20 from 10:00 a.m. - 11:30 p.m. PT/1:00 - 2:30 p.m. ET for the next webinar in our #CitiesResist series, produced in partnership with the Government Alliance on Racial Equity (GARE). HUD’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule, released in 2015, is a critical equitable growth policy that provides spatial data and a planning process to ensure federal investments go towards ensuring all people can live in communities of opportunity — regardless of race/ethnicity, physical ability, or family status. Learn about the status of the policy from national expert Harriet Tregoning, who oversaw the implementation of the AFFH rule while at HUD, and hear from practitioners and advocates in Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Wilmington who have already implemented the AFFH rule. Register here to learn how you can use the AFFH rule to build a stronger, more inclusive city.
Washington, DC: All-In for Equity & Health
On March 7 and 8, All-In Cities leaders participated in a convening with fellows from our Ambassadors for Health Equity program, including Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Jeff Chang, and Denise G. Fairchild. Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the fellowship supports nationally recognized leaders as they work to promote a Culture of Health in their work. The convening began with a tour of the National Museum of African American History & Culture, and gave participants an opportunity to draw connections between equitable development and health; network with other leaders; and discuss the connections between health equity and their own work. The session also included a training on collective leadership and identifying strategies for broad scale change.
Webinar: Targeted Strategies to Reduce Employment Inequality
Despite low unemployment rates overall, workers of color continue to face high-levels of joblessness in many cities. In response, leaders in Minneapolis and New Orleans have developed targeted strategies to connect Black workers to good jobs in growing industries. On March 23, we discussed the findings of our recent analysis of employment inequality in metros (in partnership with the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity), and shared focused jobs strategies being implemented by the Northside Funders Group in Minneapolis and the Network for Economic Opportunity in New Orleans. Check out the archive of the webinar here.
Webinar: Ending the Debt Trap: Strategies to Stop the Overuse of Court-Imposed Fines, Fees, and Bail
On March 29, PolicyLink hosted a webinar discussion on the latest research and strategies state and local leaders can use to ensure that judicial fines and fees do not contribute to burdensome debt, housing and employment barriers, and increased imprisonment and recidivism for low-income communities and people of color. For several years, researchers have looked at the role of the justice system nationwide in placing low-income people and people of color into serious financial disrepair. While “debtors’ prisons” are technically outlawed, courts throughout the nation have used loopholes in the law to place people in jail for the nonpayment of fines and fees. Check out the archive of the webinar here.
Learn more about our All-In Cities initiative and sign up for updates at www.allincities.org.
When Rick Harris, owner of Ideal Commercial Interiors (ICI), moved to the Twin Cities seven years ago, he struggled to get the private sector contracts that had been his bread-and-butter during his three decades of business in California.
"Coming here was totally different. I kept trying to get my foot in the door and instead would have it shut in my face," Harris said. ICI is certified by the North Central Minority Supplier Development Council and the Central Certification Program as a small, minority-owned business, but Harris noted that the greatest obstacle he faced was not discrimination, but inertia.
"Businesses were not open to building relationships with new vendors. They preferred to maintain the same decades-long ties with people they knew and were familiar with — but that impedes access to the market," he said. "It’s bad for the economy when you have these small businesses that can’t grow because they’re consistently locked out of the market."
For a city that struggles with staunch racial inequities in employment and poverty, these barriers to entry pose persistent challenges to the local economy.
"The state says it wants to create more jobs for people of color, but to do that, you have to understand that minority-owned companies hire more employees of color, and so you have to focus on helping these companies grow," Harris said.
That is precisely what the City of St. Paul is working to do. With the help of the city’s comprehensive efforts to foster racial equity in its municipal contracting, Harris has been able to fill the void of private sector work with city, county, and state contracts — which now make up 90 percent of his business.
According to David Gorski, a human rights specialist for the City of St. Paul, "The broader goal is to make the local economy more inclusive, to create a launching pad for small businesses," especially those owned by people of color and women.
Supporting entrepreneurs of color boosts local economies
St. Paul is a rapidly diversifying city; nearly half the city’s residents are people of color, and communities of color — especially Black communities — are leading population growth. But these communities continue to face persistent racial inequities in opportunity. Unemployment for people of color is 12.6 percent in the city, compared to 5.3 percent for Whites. For African Americans, unemployment skyrocketed from 9.6 percent in 2000 to 18.8 percent in 2014. Almost two in three people of color in the city are economically insecure — with family incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level — and one in five are working poor, struggling to make ends meet despite working full-time.
In an attempt to combat these longstanding disparities, St. Paul launched its Racial Equity Initiative in 2014. This initiative includes numerous policy and practice reforms to make racial equity an explicit goal for the city — not only to foster inclusion and community justice, but as a necessary precondition for a prosperous, thriving local economy.
Connecting businesses owned by entrepreneurs of color to city contracts is a crucial lever in this work, because these firms represent key areas of growth in the local economy. Businesses owned by people of color in Minnesota are growing significantly faster than average, with 118 percent growth from 2002 to 2012, compared to 10.3 percent growth for all firms in the state. The number of small businesses owned by African Americans in the state grew by about 60 percent between 2007 and 2012, while small businesses owned by Whites declined 3.4 percent. Yet, many of these businesses are small and undercapitalized, with few employees.
Though the state government of Minnesota has recently received criticism for its inequitable procurement practices, St. Paul has been meeting and exceeding many of its racial equity goals. For example, the city aims to award at least 25 percent of public contracts to small businesses. Within that small business goal, the city sets further targets to reach 5 percent of firms owned by people of color, and 10 percent of women-owned firms. In 2016, more than 30 percent of the city’s total business went to small businesses, with 5 percent awarded to businesses owned by entrepreneurs of color and more than 12 percent awarded to businesses owned by women.
St. Paul’s progress in upping contracting equity can be traced to concerted efforts to reform and innovate practices within the city’s Purchasing and Contract Compliance Divisions. This work began with the assistance of Bloomberg Philanthropies What Works Cities initiative, through which the Government Performance Lab at the Harvard Kennedy School helped the city better understand why it wasn’t adequately reaching small businesses and businesses of color. What they found mirrored the hurdles Harris noted in the private sector.
"Vendors felt that we were closed off," said Jessica Brokaw, deputy director of procurement, contract compliance & business development for the city. "They felt we had preferred vendors and that was that."
This led to a series of structural changes to the procurement process. The city rolled out a new online bidding platform that made the process more transparent and accessible, and ensured that any vendor could download bids free of charge. They also revised the language of bids — from PhD reading level to eighth grade reading level— so that most any vendor could understand them without an attorney.
Wherever possible, officials also streamlined certification processes. For example, a vendor can become registered as a minority-owned business enterprise (MBE), a woman-owned business enterprise (WBE), or a small business enterprise (SBE) through one-day Central Certification Program (CERT) community workshops that are hosted monthly. These certifications are recognized by Hennepin County, Ramsey County, Minneapolis, and St. Paul, making it easier for businesses to pursue public procurement and contracting work regionally. The increased community engagement is reflected in attendance at the annual procurement fair, hosted by the city’s Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity. In 2017, 350 vendors showed up within the first three hours alone.
Perhaps most impressively, the city has made significant changes to open up public contracts to new businesses. Starting in 2014, the city has changed five-year agreements to yearly agreements whenever possible, and broken down larger projects into small subcontracts to increase opportunities for new and small businesses to bid.
"We decided to not renew hundreds of master contracts — some of which we had held for 20 years," Brokaw said. "We got lots of pushback, because there were vendors who didn’t really have to compete for years upon years, and there were city departments who didn’t want to have to orient new vendors to how we operate."
When the city opened up contracts to a more competitive market, however, "the city and the local economy benefited," Brokaw noted. "The bids are lower, so the city is saving several million dollars, and our relationship to the community is so much stronger because vendors can see that we are open to them."
Bridging the public-private contract divide through mentorship
In addition to the structural and procedural changes noted above, one of the key facets of St. Paul’s efforts to promote small business growth among minority entrepreneurs is the Construction Partnering Program (CPP).
Founded by the city and administered through the Metropolitan Economic Development Association (MEDA) and the Association of Women Contractors, CPP supports emerging small businesses owned by women and people of color by fostering long-term partnerships between these firms and larger industry experts in the region.
In general, the odds can be stacked against small businesses trying to expand: They don’t always have access to the same product lines or discounts because they don’t buy in large enough quantities. They often lack access to the kind of financing necessary to purchase the kind of bonds that are required to insure projects or to cover their costs for the months it can take for contracts to pay out.
"It creates a catch-22 because the financials limit the size of contracts a business can take," said Salah Tarraf, participant in the CERT and CPP programs and owner of Tarraf Construction, a general contractor operating in the Twin Cities for 17 years. "We have so many fantastic contractors of color who want to grow, but are held back because they can’t take larger projects."
The city has stepped in to remove some of the financial barriers: city projects up to $100,000 no longer require bonds, so they are now more accessible to small contractors. Through CPP mentorship, however, the city also hopes to start bridging the gap between public and private work.
Tarraf Construction has been partnered with McGough, a large general contractor headquartered in St. Paul, for the past 13 years. This relationship has allowed Tarraf to benefit from the insight and experience of the larger firm, and McGough has helped them break into the private market by inviting them to bid on subcontracts for their work and including them in negotiations as an "equal partner."
Though it remains an "uphill battle" to get the private sector to work with small companies, Tarraf said he gives "a lot of credit to St. Paul. The city has been really supportive of the minority community, and I think it’s been a success."
More than $50 billion in debt is currently being held by approximately 10 million people because of their involvement in the criminal justice system. Much of this debt is because low-income people simply do not have the money to pay fines and fees.
While “debtors’ prisons” are technically outlawed, courts and police departments have used loopholes within the law to place people in jail for the nonpayment of fines and fees. The practice, which targets the most vulnerable communities, plays an integral role in wealth and income inequality, and contributes to the growing racial wealth gap in our country.
But researchers around the country have shown that fees can be limited and debt collection practices can be managed in a way that does not prey on low-income communities. Policymakers can limit the use of fines and fees that directly contribute to burdensome debt, create barriers to housing and employment, and result in imprisonment and recidivism.
Ending the Debt Trap: Strategies to Stop the Abuse of Court-Imposed Fines and Fees, a new brief from PolicyLink, lifts up promising strategies that are being implemented across the country to ensure that judicial fines and fees do not contribute to burdensome debt for low-income communities and people of color. The brief looks at ways in which the use of fines and fees has expanded over time, the impact of these practices, and the inefficiency of these policies as a budget tool for local governments.
Financial institutions have a long history of failing to meet the needs of low-income communities and communities of color — whether through discriminatory practices that strip wealth from neighborhoods of color or systematic disinvestment that has left too many struggling communities without access to affordable banking.
Over the past few years, however, community advocates have been putting an established advocacy tool to new use to bring the voices and needs of underserved communities to the negotiating table with local banks.
Community benefits agreements (CBAs) — contracts that have traditionally been used to ensure that local real estate development projects create opportunities for local workers and communities — are increasingly being applied to banks to increase access to financial services for disadvantaged communities.
"Banks have an important role to play in our communities, and these community benefits agreements help ensure they fulfill that role for everyone, including low- and moderate-income communities and communities of color," said John Taylor, president and CEO of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC), the driving force behind the recent proliferation of bank CBAs. In this incarnation of CBAs, banks team up with local community organizations to negotiate key services and resources targeted to communities traditionally underserved by banks.
In 2016, NCRC worked with hundreds of local community organizations to negotiate three large merger-related CBAs with Huntington Bank, KeyBank, and Fifth Third Bank. Collectively, these three agreements will bring $62.6 billion in lending and investments targeted to low- and moderate-income communities and communities of color across 23 states.
Reversing systematic disinvestment in low-income communities and communities of color
Bank CBAs capitalize on the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) — a longstanding federal policy designed to encourage banks to meet the needs of moderate- and low-income neighborhoods. The CRA was passed in 1977 in an attempt to combat redlining — a destructive and discriminatory lending practice that denied or severely restricted access to mortgages, credit, and other financial resources necessary to promote economic growth within communities of color.
"The CRA has certain pressure points where communities have an opportunity to advocate for their needs," said Thomas Keily, consumer data and research coordinator at the Western New York Law Center, one of the grassroots NCRC members involved in the KeyBank CBA. Mergers, acquisitions, and CRA exams are intervention points where banks enter regulatory review and may be amenable to negotiations with community advocates.
Because bank mergers often result in branch closings that cut jobs and can reduce access to banking in certain locations, the CRA encourages banks to commit resources to counteract negative community ramifications. Traditionally, however, banks have sought to meet their CRA requirements without ongoing engagement with community leaders. The recent spate of bank-merger CBAs represents an important departure from business as usual.
Through a combination of in-person meetings, site visits, and conference calls, banks and representatives from several dozen community organizations negotiate the details of these agreements over the course of months. The resulting contracts include a wide range of commitments targeted to low-to-moderate income areas.
For example, the hundred-plus community partners representing six cities that came to the table to negotiate the Huntington Bank CBA identified four key focus areas for investment: affordable housing, workforce development, small business development, and supportive services, including community needs not typically associated with financial products, such as social services.
"The goal was to create a plan that was holistic and considered all the assets needed for a community to thrive and for individuals to reach their potential within that community," said Catherine Crosby, executive director of the City of Dayton's Human Relations Council, one of the organizations representing Dayton, Ohio, in the Huntington Bank negotiations. She is also a member of the NCRC board.
The resulting community development plan committed $5.7 billion in funding for single-family mortgages in low- and moderate-income areas and to low- and moderate-income borrowers, $3.7 billion in community development lending and investment for affordable housing, $25 million in grants for housing and small business credit services, and 10 new branch locations in underserved areas, among other investments. As this plan is implemented at the local level, community advocates have the opportunity to specify particular service needs within their local areas, such as down-payment assistance, loan counseling, or diversity requirements in bank hiring.
The CBA investments for KeyBank, announced in March 2016, contained similar measures, committing $16.5 billion in investments and lending over five years. The most recent CBA with Fifth Third Bancorp, announced in November 2016, represents the largest investment by a single bank in recent history — $30 billion invested across 10 states through 2020.
"The impact of billions of dollars in community reinvestment that comes from bank agreements cannot be overstated — the resources have a real, tangible impact, creating jobs and expanding access to mortgages, small business lending, education opportunities, and access to other financial resources," Taylor said.
The changes these CBAs are intended to implement come at a crucial time for Fifth Third. Earlier this month, the Federal Reserve released an assessment of the bank's 2011-2013 operations that found evidence of discriminatory practices during that time. As a result, Fifth Third's CRA compliance rating was lowered to "needs to improve."
Leveraging CBAs for equitable growth
Access to basic financial products and services — including bank accounts, mortgages, and retirement accounts — is a crucial component of building long-term financial security. Without these services, many families and individuals living paycheck to paycheck must turn to payday lenders and check-cashing centers that impose exorbitant interest rates and fees on those who can least afford it. According to a study conducted in California, payday lenders are nearly eight times as concentrated in primarily African American and Latino neighborhoods compared to White neighborhoods, draining nearly $247 million in fees from these communities each year.
"In Buffalo, New York, we've seen a systematic flight of financial resources within low-income communities and communities of color, especially in the city's east side," said Keily. "East of Main Street there are seven bank branches, but to the west there are over 25, and we see huge racial disparities in who gets mortgages."
On a community level, access to capital to purchase homes, start new businesses, or take on community development projects is a necessary ingredient for spurring economic growth, yet the majority of disinvested communities are still systematically underserved by the banks that could be providing these services. This persistent legacy of disinvestment perpetuates poverty and stymies the kind of growth that could revive local economies.
Through the CBA negotiation process, however, communities have increased leverage to hold financial institutions accountable for providing them with the services and resources that will enable them to thrive.
"This process gives community members back their voice and keeps their needs at the forefront of the process," said Keily. As part of negotiations with KeyBank, Western New York Law Center enlisted 100 residents to write about their experiences with financial institutions — testimonials that helped bring lived experience to the data and research presented during CBA meetings. The organization is also working to establish CBA agreements with smaller local banks and recently announced a $101.2 million agreement between the Northwest Savings Bank and Buffalo Niagara Community Reinvestment Coalition (BNCRC), a NCRC community-based coalition member.
As these agreements become increasingly popular, more and more banks are recognizing the value of working in concert with community to increase services and facilities in underserved markets.
"Some leaders of banks are stepping up and doing the work we also need to see from our political leadership — building collaborations between bank leaders, community group leaders like our members, and other stakeholders to ensure that communities have economic opportunity," Taylor said.
Delivering community benefits through broad coalitions
Negotiating the competing priorities of hundreds of community partners while attempting to influence large financial institutions that hold all the purse strings is no simple matter.
"NCRC did yeoman's work to bring everyone together," said Crosby. "A negotiation with this many parties is a push-and-pull process, so you need to have people who are thinking of the highest and greatest good for the community — not just themselves or their particular organizations."
But she felt the outcomes were well worth the laborious process.
"Formerly, the Human Relations Council would meet with the CRA officers for the bank to negotiate community investments, but this process is far more comprehensive and more impactful," Crosby said. There is also a key level of accountability, because communities can report to CRA regulatory bodies if a bank fails to make good on the promises encoded in the CBA.
Though it's too early in the implementation process to quantify the impact of these commitments, Crosby noted that the relationships formed and strengthened between the community partners that came together these past months have already been a huge win. Keily emphasized the power of the process for raising community awareness and empowerment.
"This shows us — and the community — what's possible when their voices are heard," he said. "It will be an ongoing process to implement this locally, but we're committed to keeping community members at the forefront of this process."
The preliminary budget released from the White House yesterday is a NIGHTMARE for the entire nation --- poor and low-income people, middle-income people, people of color, children, seniors, people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, working people, those living in rural areas, those living in urban areas. EVERYONE.
The proposed budget bolsters attacks on immigrants, threatens the well-being of communities, and decimates the values that undergird this country, while prioritizing military spending and tax cuts for the wealthy. If the full budget proposal to be released in May has ANY resemblance to this draconian preliminary budget, it must be considered DEAD ON ARRIVAL.The people of this nation CANNOT allow Congress to pass anything close to what is proposed. Additionally, a mild step back from the proposed budget will not be tolerated. The budget ultimately passed MUST be fundamentally different from what is being proposed by this Administration and must uphold the longstanding values of the country, advance fairness and inclusion, expand opportunity, and protect the nation’s most vulnerable.
Believers in justice, fairness, and decency cannot be silent during these attempts to wipe away years of work toward a more inclusive and equitable society. NOW is the time to unite and organize!! All people, faiths, associations, and organizations who care about people and the nation, must come together to resist this assault on the American people and the fundamentals of responsible governance. We encourage EVERYONE to get involved. Stay alert and watch what is happening with the Trump Administration and Congress, call your congressional members and hold them accountable for your concerns, join efforts in your community to advance important policies, and push back against harmful ones. Click here to find out what is happening in your community and GET INVOLVED today. And, to learn more details about the preliminary budget document released yesterday, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities website has a number of resources.
This is a critical time in our nation’s history. We CANNOT allow the current Administration to destroy progress and inflict suffering on millions of people. Like you, PolicyLink will continue to resist and defend. Just earlier this week, we joined with our partners Public Advocates, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, and Poverty & Race Research Action Council to launch CarsonWatch, a watchdog effort that will be fighting back against attempts to gut invaluable housing and community development programs and roll back the clock on civil rights protections, including important rules under the Fair Housing Act. We hope you’ll visit the website and join the effort by signing up for alerts.
In the days to come, PolicyLink will announce a framework for our broader resistance efforts that will provide additional ways to take action and be heard. Stay tuned. Be encouraged. We SHALL NOT be defeated.
Annually, the federal government returns upwards of $640 billion directly back to households to help increase financial security through the tax code. Of that, nearly 80 percent goes back to households who are already wealthy. Current tax reform proposals aim to increase the amount going to wealthy families, leaving low-income people and people of color further behind.
Now, more than ever, we must work together to build a more equitable tax code that benefits all Americans. The Tax Alliance for Economic Mobility, led by PolicyLink and CFED, along with nearly 40 national advocacy organizations, racial justice groups, and tax experts, has just launched a new website that identifies priorities to expand savings and investment opportunities for lower-income households through reform of the U.S. tax code.
Today, the Alliance is pleased to announce four briefs on tax credits for low-income workers, higher education and college savings, housing and homeownership, and retirement savings. The briefs feature recommendations to build a more equitable tax code focused on the near- and longer-term security of families, communities, and the national economy.
- Tax Credits for Low-Income Workers: Unlike many other poorly designed tax exemptions and deductions that deliver the bulk of their benefits to the highest-income filers, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC) both work well to help low-income working families. But there are opportunities to strengthen the credits and build on their success, including filling the gap for workers not raising children and making the CTC fully refundable. Congress should also reject proposals that purport to reduce improper payments when in actuality they make the credit more difficult to claim or cut benefits.
- Housing and Homeownership: The Tax Alliance has adopted a set of principles for reforming the Mortgage Interest Deduction (MID), a homeownership subsidy provided through the tax code. Recommendations include expanding access for lower-income Americans, increasing benefits for renters, helping communities of color build wealth, and reducing subsidies for high-income households.
- Higher Education and College Savings: Higher education is a pathway to economic mobility, but existing higher education tax expenditures disproportionately benefit above-median income households, who own nearly 99 percent of all savings in tax-subsidized college savings accounts. The Alliance has adopted a set of principles for reforming these tax expenditures, with the goal of increasing tax-based aid and college savings support for lower-income students, providing aid before expenses are incurred, increasing take-up, incorporating automatic enrollment features, and eliminating programmatic features that disadvantage lower-income students.
- Retirement Savings: For low-income communities and communities of color, financial insecurity in retirement is exacerbated by lower earnings over the course of their work history, and reduced access to employer-sponsored retirement benefits. The Tax Alliance has adopted a set of principles for reforming existing retirement savings tax expenditures to expand access to subsidized accounts for lower-income Americans, subsidize the savings for these Americans, and make reforms to limit expenditures for high-income households.
To learn more about these principles and to access resources for creating a more equitable tax code, visit The Alliance’s website: www.taxallianceforeconomicmobility.org and sign up for the Tax Alliance newsletter.
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.
Nearly 40 years ago, when San Francisco’s struggling Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood was losing yet another business to hard times — in this case, a grocery store — one attorney had seen enough.
Angela Glover Blackwell, an early believer in the need for fresh foods in the inner city, petitioned the governor’s office to intervene and make sure the community maintained a full-service grocery. The alternative was letting residents shop at liquor stores and gas stations.
The petition didn’t go as planned — a new store didn’t open. But the case marked the dawning of Blackwell’s long and distinguished career in social justice, which most recently had her working with the Obama administration to bring grocery stores to underserved cities nationwide.
“I think the last 10 years have been my best,” said Blackwell, now 71, as she sat in her window office on a recent weekday at PolicyLink, the Oakland research and advocacy group she founded 18 years ago. “We need to keep working to make sure we’re creating opportunities.”
From her desk, which sits beneath pictures and posters that sound rallying cries such as “Equity” and “Protect Oakland renters,” Blackwell oversees a staff of 70 public policy experts and attorneys in California, Washington, D.C., and New York. Her organization partners with communities all over the country to help disadvantaged people, often minorities.
The effort, which not only involves healthy food but issues ranging from housing to transportation to education, earned Blackwell a nomination for the 2017 Visionary of the Year award sponsored by The Chronicle and the School of Economics and Business Administration at St. Mary’s College.
“With shifting demographics, the big story is that the majority is becoming people of color,” she said. “The fate of our nation will depend on what happens to people of color.”
Among her organization’s recent work is helping implement the federal government’s Sustainable Communities Initiative. The program assists with planning in depressed neighborhoods; for example, making sure residents have basics like public transit and Internet.
PolicyLink is also helping with business development in poorer parts of Detroit, Baltimore and Pittsburgh. It’s also aiding in the creation of community art projects from Alaska to Mississippi.
“We cross all the issue areas and all the work domains,” said Blackwell, as she clutched a copy of “The Equity Manifesto,” PolicyLink’s call to action that takes its employees to wherever they might find inequality.
While Blackwell frequently travels in the pursuit of social justice, as well for speaking engagements and fundraising, sometimes the need is right in her backyard.
PolicyLink recently helped create Oakland’s affordable housing strategy, a work in progress designed to protect 17,000 city households from being pushed out of town by rising real estate prices and to create 17,000 new homes over eight years.
“They’ve been a critical partner to me as mayor,” said Oakland’s Libby Schaaf, noting that Blackwell was a source of inspiration for her long before the two got to know each other and exchange cell phone numbers.
“As a young college student, I saw her speak at a League of Women Voters event, and it’s really the first time I felt inspired to get involved with local politics,” Schaaf said. “I remember almost feeling drawn, like you’d be drawn to a minister.”
Blackwell lives near Oakland’s Lake Merritt in a house she’s been in for four decades. She is married with two grown children, and three grandchildren, all of whom live locally. Trying to make time for work and family — her husband is an orthopedic surgeon — is tough, she said, but she manages, eating out a lot and waking up early to go to the gym.
Blackwell grew up in St. Louis, where her neighborhood was anything but the neglected communities she advocates for today. It was an economically diverse area with good schools, parks and a healthy mix of businesses, she said, though as she got older she saw it slide.
“Rather than walking to a grocery store, or driving, we were driving farther and farther into the suburbs,” she said.
Blackwell got her bachelor’s degree at Washington, D.C.’s Howard University before going to law school at UC Berkeley.
Before PolicyLink, she worked as a senior vice president at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York, overseeing the organization’s cultural activities. Before that, her career had a number of chapters, including 11 years practicing law at the nonprofit firm Public Advocates in San Francisco.
It was during her time there, in 1979, that she fought unsuccessfully for a grocery store in the Bayview, though her effort prompted Gov. Jerry Brown, during his first time around in the office, to form a commission to explore the problem of “food deserts.” The state Department of Agriculture followed up with money to support farmers’ markets in communities that lacked fresh food.
As chief executive officer at PolicyLink, Blackwell’s push for fresh foods continued when she helped the Obama administration launch the federal Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which today provides funding for groceries and markets in low-income areas.
While she worries that government assistance programs may take a hit under President Trump, she tries to remain optimistic.
“It’s too early to say there’s going to be no opportunities,” she said.
This winter, Blackwell authored an essay called the “The Curb-Cut Effect” in a Stanford University journal about how assisting one group, say the disabled, benefits everyone. She hopes Trump’s moves to help red state voters who supported him out of economic concerns will also help those suffering in poor, urban areas.
“The good news,” she said, “is that the economic inclusive agenda that will reach people who are white, rural and working class is the same economic inclusive agenda that will reach people of color.”
Visionary of the Year award
This is one of six profiles of nominees for The Chronicle’s third annual Visionary of the Year award, which is presented in collaboration with St. Mary’s College’s School of Economics and Business Administration. The honor salutes leaders who strive to make the world a better place and drive social and economic change by employing new, innovative business models and practices. The six finalists were nominated by a distinguished committee that included Chase Adam, co-founder of the nonprofit Watsi and winner of the 2016 award; Greg Becker, president and CEO of Silicon Valley Bank; Emmett Carson, founding CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation; Ron Conway, angel investor and philanthropist; Zhan Li, dean of the School of Economics and Business Administration at St. Mary's College; Libby Schaaf, mayor of Oakland; Jennifer Siebel Newsom, a documentary filmmaker; and Michael Walker, executive vice president and regional executive of City National Bank.
Chronicle Publisher Jeff Johnson, Editor in Chief Audrey Cooper and Editorial Page Editor John Diaz will select the winner, which will be announced during a March 30 event.
To read more: www.sfchronicle.com/visionsf
In Pittsburgh, a wave of baby boomer retirements is expected to leave the region with 80,000 more job openings than workers to fill them over the next decade. At the same time, 32,000 of the region’s workers are long-term unemployed, and unemployment is highest among black, mixed race, and Latino workers.
How to connect unemployed and under-employed workers of color to jobs in growing industries and industries with retiring baby boomers is a key question for Pittsburgh, but the region is far from alone. The Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce estimates that that by 2020 there will be 5 million more job openings in America than there are workers with the requisite skills to fill them. Yet, workers of color, particularly black workers, continue to face high levels of unemployment and inadequate access to relevant education and skills training.
Addressing continued unemployment for black workers and other workers of color is critical to families, employers, and the U.S. economy as a whole. The question is: how do we most effectively do that?
Angela Glover Blackwell, Founder and CEO, PolicyLink
Mark Kramer, Founder and Managing Director, FSG
Now, more than ever, the future of America depends on equity-- just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential. The private sector is the next frontier for the equity movement, and racial equity is the next frontier for corporate America. That is why PolicyLink and FSG are teaming up to develop the Corporate Racial Equity Advantage, the first comprehensive tool to guide companies in assessing and actively promoting equity in every aspect of their business operations and strategy.
The goal is to show the private sector that a company’s bottom line can be advanced by adhering to equity policies and practices that benefit underrepresented and marginalized populations who have been excluded from the economic mainstream.
We are entering a moment of historic challenge. The incoming president was elected, in part, on the wish that the growing racial and ethnic diversity in America should be ignored. But wishing doesn’t make it so. Vast segments of our economy, such as our hospitality industry, food systems, delivery services, and caregiving for the elderly, depend on the millions of people of color—many of them undocumented immigrants—whose labor drives the nation’s prosperity. By mid-century the majority of Americans will be people of color. If this country is to continue to prosper in the coming decades, under any political leadership, we cannot afford to leave behind most of our workforce, consumers, and voters.
Community-based organizations and coalitions have made significant progress in articulating a bold and nuanced vision of equity, building a broad, determined movement to achieve it, and advancing policies to get there. At the same time, there is a growing economic consensus that the social and economic inequality, wage stagnation, and stalled economic mobility that disproportionately affect communities of color, are a drag on U.S. competitiveness. Racial economic exclusion is a market failure.
Many business leaders recognize that equity and inclusion are essential for U.S. growth and prosperity. They understand that they will have a skilled workforce only if all people have the full opportunity for education and career success. They know that their products and services must meet the needs of a changing population if their businesses are to thrive. And they know that diversity is important to America’s global competitive advantage.
What companies often do not realize, however, is just how big a role they can play in creating an equitable society and how big a role equity can play in delivering greater profitability. The equity movement has not been accustomed to speaking in business terms, but in the absence of strong government support, companies may become our strongest allies.
In short, it is time for businesses to tap their remarkable capacity for leadership and innovation to create an economy that works for all Americans. The Corporate Racial Equity Advantage will propel and support that effort. This tool will be the first to address a company’s overall impact on low-income and marginaized populations.
A number of indices already rate corporations on diversity, ethical business practices, sustainability, or social responsibility, yet these rankings can mask a company’s true impact on equity. In one example, a large international bank that ranked high in a well-established diversity index opened millions of unauthorized accounts that incurred fees and sabotaged credit ratings by specifically targeting low-income and elderly clients.
We aim to help companies understand the full measure of their equity footprint beyond the conventional metrics of workforce diversity, corporate governance, and philanthropy. We will consider the impact of a company’s training, compensation, and promotion practices, its products and services, marketing and sales, procurement practices, community engagement and lobbying efforts.
The Corporate Racial Equity Advantage will be developed with input from both the corporate and equity communities. Our goals are to identify companies that benefit from creatively furthering equity, share promising examples and lessons learned, and establish pathways that enable more companies to achieve both equity and prosperity. In the coming months, we will recruit corporations, NGOs, and community groups to join us in designing, refining, and testing this tool.
PolicyLink and FSG have chosen to undertake this project as a partnership because it allows each of us to take our work where we’ve long known it needs to go. PolicyLink has been at the forefront of the movement to advance equity through policy and systems change. Yet while resetting society’s rules and reprioritizing government investments are critical to reducing racial and economic inequity, PolicyLink has always recognized that the private sector must also change, and do so from within.
So too, FSG has long understood that the success of a business depends on the health of the society in which it operates. For the past 16 years, FSG has worked with major corporations around the world to create shared value by identifying the business opportunities embedded in society’s most urgent needs. FSG’s Shared Value Initiative has further engaged hundreds of leading corporations to learn from each other about the convergence of corporate and societal success.
Together we have both deep roots in communities and strong relationships with corporate leaders. We understand that these two spheres, so often viewed as worlds apart, are wholly interdependent. We hope to leverage the power of the private sector to advance an authentic equity agenda, building on the wisdom, voice, and experience of communities, and lessons learned from decades of advocacy and activism to ensure opportunity for all. At the same time, we hope to show corporations how a full embrace of equity can expand their markets, increase their profits, and create a competitive advantage.
As we design the prototype of the Racial Equity Advantage over the next 15 months, we will keep you regularly updated on our progress. We welcome your thoughts and suggestions.
By Alexis Stephens
As grassroots groups and community advocates across the country brace for increasingly anti-democratic and authoritarian opposition, organizers in the South bring a wealth of wisdom and experience dealing with such challenges.
America's Tomorrow spoke to Kali Akuno, co-director of Cooperation Jackson, founded in 2013 to promote economic democracy and worker-owned cooperatives in Jackson, Mississippi. Akuno talked about the organization's work and how it has dealt with a series of setbacks and trials, including the passing of Jackson's mayor — longtime activist and organizer Chokwe Lumumba — in 2014, ongoing state threats to local control of land and infrastructure, and the uncertainty of the new presidential administration. He also shared his analysis of the local context in Jackson and offered some advice to grassroots organizations around the country about how to both survive short-term threats and lay the foundation of long-term sustainability.
In the wake of Mayor Chokwe Lumumba's passing and his legacy of Black organizing, what has the landscape looked like for Cooperation Jackson?
The first six months of the [Yarber] administration were somewhat difficult for us. Cooperation Jackson had been tied to and identified with the legacy of Mayor Lumumba and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, and I think Mayor Yarber was initially very wary about any engagement with us. But over time we found some ways to collaborate on things that we all saw as mutually beneficial for us and the city.
There have been a number of issues this year where there has been a high level of agreement between our organization and the mayoral administration — primarily the threats that have been coming down from the Republican supermajority at the state level and some very targeted threats against the City of Jackson. One example is the state legislation that is allowing a governor-appointed regional board to take over operational control of the airports in Jackson. A broad, united front came together [to fight that], which included the Coalition of Economic Justice, city council, and our county legislative delegation. I would say the overall legacy of the plans that brought Lumumba into office is very much alive.
In which programs and initiatives are you seeing the most success?
We're seeing success in the development of our three co-ops: Freedom Farms Urban Farming Cooperative, Nubia's Place Café and Catering Cooperative, and Mississippi Waste Alternative, a recycling and composting cooperative. The core membership of each is under the age of 25. There's a youthful willingness to try something new and a healthy optimistic attitude when they encounter people or dynamics that tell them that they can't do something. Our own analysis of why these co-ops are moving faster than others has revealed that youth leadership is a factor. To outside observers, the most concrete measure of success is the actual operation of a co-op — if the farm is able to increase its productive yield, for example. And that's grown each quarter. But young people are also acquiring skills and certifications, and putting in hours. Those are all things we're looking at objectively as measures of our success: how many people we're able to train, recruit, and bring into the process.
Cooperation Jackson is still very much a baby as an organization. In a short period of time, we've been able to build several functioning and emerging cooperatives and to acquire a community center and 20 parcels of land in West Jackson. We have three houses that are the core basis of our housing co-op and emerging eco-village. When Chokwe passed away so suddenly, many of us were in doubt in the first couple of months about where we were going and what might be possible. From that dark place to where we are now, I would argue that we've done fairly well.
What advice would you give to other grassroots economic development organizations that might be facing preemption at the state level over the next two to five years?
Your basic organizing principles don't fundamentally change. In fact, they become even more important than ever before. The first thing is you have to build your own base; and, if you are trying to build a transformative business like the co-ops that we're trying to build, you have to work to communicate your own values to your network very clearly. Outside of building your own base, you have to make connections and links and build allies with other folks who share similar interests. I don't think everything has to be in complete alignment, but I think there's a critical synergy where you have to agree on some things. But don't compromise your mission or settle for short-term, expedient gains. That's a critical piece.
Sometimes we become too fixated on immediate victories and results, and this doesn't really lead us to building strategic allies and strategic relationships in the way that is most helpful. There are not really any shortcuts. A lot of people are counting on — or have built a lot of their strategies and programming around — new technology, particularly social media as a way of reaching people. That's good for mobilizing people, but it's not a tool for organizing people. We have to make that distinction. In order to organize people, you have to build relationships. You have to make sure that you're creating the context and bringing people into situations where they can see each other face to face, to engage in dialogue and exchange about their issues, about their concerns, about their aspirations.
We have to be very intent on rebuilding social solidarity. I think a lot of the angst that is there now — particularly in light of Trump's victory — is based upon a deepening sense of social isolation. Folks feeling that they're more alone, and more exposed, now and more siloed than ever before. But our counter is not to retreat further into small and local. I think our counter is to go deeper, build more connections, reach out more. I think we're over-emphasizing and stressing too much about what's going to happen this first year. That could lead us into a number of traps, as opposed to us digging deep and building the relationships that are necessary, coming up through that process of organizing people, and then developing a program and a vision that will enable us to build, to push back, and to create a whole different set of policies to complement our vision down the road.
Could you say more about your vision for deepening relationships?
At present, our state politics break down fairly consistently along racial lines. But we know that we can make some inroads, particularly with younger, college-educated White folks — and there are about 250,000 to 500,000 of them in the state. We feel that we can and must do a good job recruiting, organizing, and reorienting them in a more left and progressive direction. And if we can just move the bottom end of that number, we change the politics of this state profoundly and we can end the Republican domination of the state. This is something that's practically doable, but you have to be willing to stand back a little bit, look at the long-term view, assess what's really needed, and then develop the strategy to go out and reach those communities and build a relationship with them. And not see everything as lost or totally out of our reach, when it's really not.
On January 10, Governor Jerry Brown revealed his proposed budget for the 2017-2018 fiscal year, which projects a state budget deficit ($1.6 billion) for the first time since 2012. The $179.5 billion proposal maintains the state’s commitment to implementing the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), preserving the California Earned Income Tax Credit, and expanding healthcare access to vulnerable groups. Unfortunately, the budget proposal also recaptures nearly $1 billion in one-time expenditures provided in the Budget Act of 2016 (Budget Act) and delays spending increases for various programs and services, some of which, like LCFF, are designed to improve outcomes for low-income communities and communities of color.
We applaud the Administration’s continued commitment to important issues like healthcare access, LCFF implementation, and transportation, but believe more should be done through the budget to build an equitable California, one where all of the state’s residents can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential. We urge the Governor to work with communities, advocates, and the Legislature in the coming months to develop a budget that allows California to address its intensifying housing crisis, maintain health insurance for the newly insured, guarantee immigrants targeted for deportation have effective legal representation, and protect and invest in the state’s most vulnerable populations.
Below we highlight areas of the budget that are likely to be of interest to equity advocates, including health and human services, education, housing, transportation, public safety, and climate change.
Health and Human Services
The budget maintains current spending levels for programs that ensure California residents have access to quality, affordable health care and services. For example, the proposal provides funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, as well as the expansion of Medi-Cal coverage to undocumented children and individuals earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. It also maintains funding for substance abuse programs and the transition of new immigrants from Medi-Cal to Covered California. In addition to continuing financial support for these services, the budget provides new funding to reflect the repeal of the Maximum Family Grant rule.
While we are encouraged by these aspects of the budget, we urge the state to continue investing in care coordination and integration programs for vulnerable residents, including the Coordinated Care Initiative, health care workforce initiatives, community infrastructure grants, and children’s mental health services grants.
The education budget provides a small increase of $2.1 billion in Prop. 98 funding for K-14 education and proposes cost-of-living adjustments for LCFF funding targets, as well as for various programs funded outside of LCFF. Unfortunately, due to the projected revenue shortfall, the Governor’s proposal, while providing an additional $744 million for LCFF implementation, “maintains the implementation formula at the current-year level of 96 percent.” Though we understand the new economic reality the state faces, we urge the Governor to fully implement LCFF as quickly as possible.
The budget also boosts investment in California’s Community College system. Notable areas of increased spending include efforts to address student disparities; the Guided Pathways program, an institution-wide approach to improving student completion rates; and school facilities energy efficiency projects financed through the Prop. 39 Clean Energy Job Creation Fund, which, in addition to improving energy efficiency on school campuses, targets training and jobs to individuals with barriers to employment.
Despite these positive investments in the community college system, the budget disappointingly proposes to phase out the Middle Class Scholarship Program, which provides has helped thousands of student to afford enrollment at CSU and UC campuses.
Even though the state faces a growing housing affordability crisis, the budget provides virtually no new funding for affordable housing. The proposal recaptures $400 million for affordable housing development included in the Budget Act, and conditions continued financial support for the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Initiative (AHSC), a major source of state funding for affordable housing in recent years, on the extension of the cap-and-trade program by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.
In the coming months, we urge the Administration to partner with the Legislature to allocate resources for AHSC without condition, provide meaningful new investments in affordable housing, and establish a permanent source of funding for the construction, preservation, and rehabilitation of affordable units.
Although much of the transportation budget continues to focus funding on maintaining highways and roads in California, we are pleased to see an annual increase of $100 million for the state’s Active Transportation Program, which aims to improve the mobility, health, and safety of vulnerable residents by targeting walking and bicycling infrastructure in low-income communities.
To ensure our increased transportation spending achieves state equity and climate goals, funding should be targeted to grow investment in transit operations and complete streets, prioritize transportation projects that provide meaningful benefits to low-income people of color, and connect disadvantaged community residents to transportation sector training and jobs.
Public Safety and Justice
While the budget’s public safety proposal highlights many of the anticipated positive effects of Proposition 57, we hope the revised budget will deepen California’s commitment to investing in our people and communities, divesting from systems that separate families and perpetuate trauma, and eliminating policies that serve as barriers to the success of low-income people and people of color. These values are reflected in the budget’s proposal to end the use of driver’s license suspensions as a debt collection tool, a counterproductive practice that has caused financial insecurity throughout California’s low-income communities of color.
We hope the May Revision will build on the proposed repeal, by reducing funding for harmful institutions, including immigration detention centers, prisons, and law enforcement, and investing in reintegration services, quality legal representation for immigrants, and support for other vulnerable groups.
Climate Change and Natural Resources
The budget proposes a $2.2 billion dollar Cap-and-Trade Expenditure Plan using revenues generated through the State’s carbon trading program. This plan includes needed investments in transportation, housing, pollution reduction, and other programs that provide benefits to low-income, pollution-burdened communities. Unfortunately, the budget makes allocation of these proposed investments contingent upon the Legislature approving an extension of the state’s cap-and-trade program. Accomplishing this will require support of two-thirds of the Legislature and poses a significant hurdle to securing these important investments.
The Governor’s environmental and natural resources proposal also acknowledges the severe drinking water challenges faced by disadvantaged communities across California and commits to working with the Legislature and stakeholders to address these challenges. This commitment is very encouraging. However, with over one million Californians being served drinking water from systems that do not meet safe drinking water standards, we urge the Administration to take this commitment further and prioritize developing a sustainable funding source to ensure that all Californians have safe and affordable drinking water.
As we learn more about the incoming presidential administration’s policy goals, the Governor’s budget proposals are likely to change. In the coming months, advocates should engage their legislators and the Governor to ensure that hard fought gains for California’s low-income communities and communities of color are protected and expanded.
 Governor’s Budget Summary – 2017-18, “K-12 Education,” 20, http://www.ebudget.ca.gov/2017-18/pdf/BudgetSummary/K-12Education.pdf.
 Proposition 57 allows non-violent offenders who have completed the prison term for their primary offense to be considered for parole and authorizes the Department of Correction and Rehabilitation to establish a “credit” system under which individuals can earn an early release from prison. The law also provides that only judges may determine whether juveniles 14 and older can be prosecuted or sentenced as an adult.
Many of us thought it would be the swearing in of the first woman president that would galvanize women to mobilize, organize, and take action to advance women’s rights. Ironically, it is the specter of the impending presidency of Donald Trump that is catalyzing women to come together and speak out.
On January 21st, women from across the country will converge on the nation’s capitol and in cities across the country. This mass mobilization is partially defensive, sparked by looming threats to women’s reproductive, political, and economic rights. But it would be a mistake to view this groundswell as defensive alone.
This Saturday’s women’s marches are laying the groundwork for a new women’s movement with multiple focal points and priorities, both defensive and aspirational. While some observers have criticized the absence of a unified agenda, others understand the importance of engaging in multi-faceted conversations about the issues and barriers to women’s personal, political, and economic security. These conversations mirror the complexity of women’s lives and the intersecting elements of their identities. They’re about race, ethnicity, legal status, sexual identity, discrimination and privilege. They’re often uncomfortable, messy, and complicated—as they should be.
In today’s political climate, immigrant families, Muslim residents, and other communities of color face increased surveillance and growing threats to their safety and well-being.
Join PolicyLink and our partners on January 30, 2017 at 11:30 a.m. PT (2:30 p.m. ET) for a discussion on how state and local leaders across the country can create safer environments for vulnerable members of their communities.
This webinar will provide an overview of what sanctuary cities and sanctuary spaces are; how such spaces can make all people safer; and how leaders can create – or safeguard – sanctuary spaces in their own communities.
This is the first installment of several webinars the All-In Cities Initiative will be hosting throughout the year on local policies to build equitable cities.
- Angela Glover Blackwell, PolicyLink (moderator)
- Linda Sarsour, MPower Change
- Angie Junck, Immigrant Legal Resource Center
- Jorge Gutierrez, Familia Trans Queer Liberation Movement
*Additional Speakers to be confirmed*
In the aftermath of November 8, it is clearer than ever that cities and the counties and metropolitan regions in which they are situated are the crucibles where an inclusive American economy and democracy can and must be forged. From Atlanta to Indianapolis, cities across the country passed ballot measures designed to expand opportunity and dismantle barriers to inclusion. In our hometown of Oakland, the anti-displacement and equitable infrastructure measures we supported won handily. As the All-In Cities team plans for the year ahead, we are look forward to continuing to help local leaders ensure that the cities they love are places where all can thrive and participate in building the next economy.
Building Community Power in the Age of Trump
Following the election, associate director Tracey Ross wrote a piece for Rooflines, the Shelterforce blog, critiquing post-election narratives. She explains, “As the media and national figures continue to tell a story that overlooks how the concerns of people of color may have impacted the election, local leaders must be working to ensure workers of color are empowered to tell their own story.” Check out the full piece here.
Buffalo: Health Equity and Inclusive Growth Profile Launched
With support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, PolicyLink has partnered with Open Buffalo, a community coalition focused on justice and equity in the city of Buffalo, to produce a comprehensive equity profile that can inform policy solutions for health equity, inclusive growth, and a culture of health in the “Queen City.” We kicked off the engagement with a site visit on December 1 that included tours of West Buffalo and the historic Fruit Belt neighborhoods, interviews with community and city leaders, and a review of the initial data. We will be releasing the report and policy agenda in March 2017.
Pittsburgh: Next City Highlights Equitable Development Momentum
Next City covered the progress that has been made since the release of Equitable Development: The Path to an All-In Pittsburgh in September. Senior director Sarah Treuhaft discusses the growing momentum among community leaders. “When we started working there, there was definitely not that sense that change was possible,” she explained. “By next year we want to see more of that, and create a sense that change is happening — that it’s not just possible but it’s actually happening and progress is being gained.” You can read the whole article here.
New Equitable Growth Data for Cities
The National Equity Atlas, produced in partnership with the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE), continues to expand to meet the data needs of those working to advance equitable growth in cities and metros. In October we added new neighborhood-level maps for four indicators, including unemployment and disconnected youth. And in November we updated 17 of our 32 indicators to 2014 five-year pooled data (it was previously the 2012 five-year pooled data).
Learn more about our All-In Cities initiative and sign up for updates at www.allincities.org.
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."
If Democrats want to make the case that Dr. Ben Carson is unqualified to be secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, they can use the words of Carson himself: “Dr. Carson feels he has no government experience; he’s never run a federal agency,” his friend Armstrong Williams told reporters, when rumors of Donald Trump’s plan to put Carson at HUD first emerged. Carson told Trump, “I preferred to work outside of government as an adviser.” But on Monday, Trump tapped Carson to head the $47 billion agency that oversees home-mortgage lending, public-housing administration, desegregation efforts, and fighting housing discrimination.
Thanks to nearly a decade of advocacy and research, and to the inspiring leadership of California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León — the kind of leader the nation needs — California has taken another step forward by making portable, auto-enrolled, individual retirement accounts available to millions of Californians who lack such benefits. Workers participating in the newly passed Secure Choice Retirement Savings Program will have at least 3 percent of their earnings deducted from their paycheck and deposited in an individual retirement account, managed by the Secure Choice Retirement Savings Investment Board. They will be able to opt out at any time.
Given that many participants will have no experience with saving for retirement and many may currently rely on public benefits programs, PolicyLink worked with partners and De León's office to advocate for equity measures within the bill to ensure that the program best serves the needs of low-income workers. Thanks to this advocacy, the Board is required to establish a comprehensive outreach and education program to inform eligible workers of the risks and benefits of the program, and there is now increased attention on ensuring that retirement savings do not count toward assets, which could potentially disqualify low-income workers from receiving vital public benefits.
Touted as the broadest enhancement of retirement benefits since Social Security, Secure Choice provides a crucial opportunity to prove the merits of state-backed retirement pans.
Senator de León spoke with Christopher Brown, director for financial security at PolicyLink, to share his insight into this innovative new policy and discuss how other states might follow in California's footsteps.
Why is it so important that the state step in to provide opportunities for workers to save for retirement?
We have close to seven million workers in California in the private sector with no access to any retirement security plan — neither a defined benefit nor a defined contribution plan. This means that 50 percent of middle-income workers are at risk of retiring into poverty. The numbers are worse for women retirees, who make up two-thirds of retirees today who live in poverty. When I think of women like my mother or my aunt, women who raised us, clothed us, fed us — it's immoral that these women should retire into poverty. After a lifetime career of hard work, helping to make California the sixth largest economy in the world, they deserve to live with a modicum of dignity and respect. This is a not a partisan issue. Retirement insecurity impacts all Americans, regardless of the hue of your skin or your geographic location. Secure Choice is a complete game changer. It gives millions of workers the option to save automatically, through their employer's payroll. No matter what job you hold in California, you can plan for your future.
What were some of the challenges you faced in creating this legislation, and how were they overcome?
It's been a long, arduous journey to get this approved. The first iteration of this measure failed in 2008, and again in 2009. But in 2012 Governor Jerry Brown signed a measure that allowed us to appoint a Secure Choice Board and raise money to conduct the necessary feasibility studies and market analysis to show that this would be financially viable and self-sustaining. It took years of going back and forth to Washington, DC to meet with the Department of Labor, the Treasury Department, and other key players on Capitol Hill. We rolled up our sleeves and went to work, going over the arcane technical aspects and trying to find a solution to this vexing problem of retirement insecurity.
All along the way we had very strong opposition on Wall Street and in Washington, DC, because our program was seen as competing with financial markets for retirement. However, we were able to make the case that this wasn't about competition or cannibalizing an existing financial market sector, because we are trying to reach a highly fragmented, diverse community made up largely of lower-income workers who need retirement security the most and aren't being reached by private financial providers. We also stressed that this is a policy issue, not a commercial one — that too many people are hurting because they don't have access to retirement savings as part of their employment, and too many people would be forced to rely on government assistance in retirement because they had not had the opportunity to save throughout their careers.
What will be the next steps in implementing Secure Choice?
The law will go into effect on January 1, 2017, and will authorize the Secure Choice Board, chaired by Treasurer John Chiang, to begin the development of the program. Over the course of three years we will phase in employers by company size; ultimately, all employers with five or more employees will be required to participate. We still have a lot of work to do to educate consumers about what's going to happen and why it's important. We have seven million people in California who will be eligible for this, so we need to take them all on a journey to educate them about the importance of retirement savings, and the power of saving early so that you compound your principal investment.
We've scaled the mountain and withstood the powerful, well-moneyed opposition, but now we need to roll up our sleeves and take this to the people to make sure the outcomes are positive.
The Department of Labor recently issued a proposed rule that would pave the way for local governments to follow California's lead in providing retirement plans. What advice would you give to other states wishing to provide their own retirement savings plans?
I'd say the critical thing that is going to help expand these policies is leadership — both nationally and within states. This leadership needs to be bipartisan, as it was in California, and they need to step up and make their fellow politicians understand that their citizens are hurting in retirement. They have a choice: they can represent the people and try to increase access to retirement benefits, or they can represent the interests of Wall Street and do nothing. The good news is that the concept of state-backed retirement savings has caught on like wildfire. We know of at least 15 other states that are following our lead with plans to adopt similar programs in the future, and we couldn't be more excited.
(Cross-posted from Next City)
Just two years ago, the corner of 16th and North Avenue in Milwaukee looked like the vast majority of the commercial strip within the city's historic Lindsay Heights neighborhood: the buildings were boarded up, vacant, and in disrepair. As in so many American cities, racial redlining, decades of economic disinvestment, and the recent housing crisis devastated this once-bustling working-class hub.
Visitors today will find this intersection transformed: Teenagers gather for book clubs while they sip fruit and veggie concoctions from the Juice Kitchen. Neighbors chat over organic bulk grains at the Outpost Natural Foods co-op. And local residents facing barriers to employment get job training at the Milwaukee Center for Independence Hospitality Academy.
This vibrant hub of commerce, healthy food, and community gathering is the Innovations and Wellness Commons, and it is the brainchild of an entire community.
Led by residents Larry and Sharon Adams and their community nonprofit, Walnut Way Conservation Corp., and supported by ongoing funding and technical assistance from the Zilber Family Foundation, The Commons proves what is possible when community, local business, and philanthropy unite around a shared vision for a healthier, more prosperous neighborhood.
"This isn't about one lot or one store. We're building a vibrant community supported by a quadruple bottom line: investments that are financially viable, green, socially equitable, and honor the culture and history of Lindsay Heights," said Sharon Adams.
Read more in Next City.
As America’s cities face the challenges of inequality, structural racism, and displacement, local governments must take bold steps to put in place a new model of equitable growth. One imperative is to transform underinvested neighborhoods into “communities of opportunity” that provide their residents with the ingredients needed to thrive. That is why I am excited about Oakland’s Measure KK, a $600 million infrastructure bond that promises to boost opportunity and mobility for residents in long-underserved Flatland neighborhoods, and Measure JJ, a measure to extend and reform renter protections for Oakland’s residents vulnerable to displacement.
Infrastructure — streets, sidewalks, parks, water lines, and more — might not sound like the solution to Oakland’s challenges of uneven growth. But it is crucial. As Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx likes to say, infrastructure is a “ladder to opportunity” for struggling families. Streets and transit routes make it possible to access family-supporting jobs. Parks and recreation centers provide spaces to exercise, play, and socialize. Libraries connect people to learning opportunities. And so forth. Infrastructure is the skeletal support that connects people to resources, opportunities, and each other.
Despite its critical role in bridging to opportunity, years of discriminatory land use planning and inequitable investment have saddled low-income communities of color with some of the worst infrastructure deficiencies. Oakland overall needs an estimated $2.5 billion in infrastructure investment — including a $443 million paving backlog. The neighborhoods where cash-strapped families can afford to live are more likely to have potholes, crooked sidewalk squares, and tattered playground equipment. These inequities aren’t just inconveniences: they drain already-tight family budgets. Oakland residents spend hundreds of dollars every year on flat tires and car repairs due to potholes and bad roads — and this “hidden tax” hurts low-income residents far more than wealthier drivers.
Measure KK has the potential to dramatically improve health, quality of life, and economic security for thousands of Oaklanders. With Measure KK funds, Oakland’s new Department of Transportation is prepared to deliver ten times the current levels of street repairs for 10 years. Imagine, instead of just a quarter of our streets being in good shape, in ten years 72 percent of our roads could be smooth and safe.
Moreover, the funds would go where they are most needed. While typical infrastructure bonds do not target resources, Measure KK includes historic social equity requirements that will ensure that investments are distributed fairly across Oakland, and especially in underinvested, low-income communities of color. Projects will be selected through a transparent, multilingual public process, and an oversight committee will conduct independent audits of the spending. My organization, PolicyLink, is looking forward to working with the city, under our All-In Cities initiative, to develop the best possible equity criteria and make this infrastructure bond a model for the nation in terms of equitable infrastructure funding.
In addition, Measure KK has an intentional focus on “investment without displacement.” $100 million of the proceeds will fund anti-displacement and affordable housing preservation. This is essential in a city facing a ballooning housing crisis, where rents have increased 34 percent since 2011. Measure KK will provide critical funds to protect Oaklanders all across the city from being forced to move out of affordable housing so we can keep long-term residents in our community. Measure JJ will in turn add protections to residents in their existing rental homes as their neighborhoods improve.
Building the infrastructure needed to transform neighborhoods is the right thing to do for our neighbors who are struggling to stay and succeed in a rapidly-changing city. It is also a smart economic strategy. With the right hiring, job quality, and workforce development strategies in place, this investment can provide career pathways to hundreds of Oaklanders of color who are currently locked out of good jobs. Improving infrastructure in distressed neighborhoods will also have indirect economic benefits because living in a neighborhood with quality parks, safe streets, sidewalks, and other quality infrastructure improves one’s economic chances. There is also evidence that lower-wealth residents who stay in gentrifying neighborhoods improve their financial conditions (thus also adding to the local economy), while those who move out end up living in neighborhoods with higher unemployment, lower-performing schools, and lower quality of life.
On Tuesday, Oaklanders have a chance to truly expand opportunity and take a serious step toward making Oakland an “all-in” city where everyone — especially those who’ve been waiting the longest for this moment of resurgence — has a chance to fully thrive. I encourage all Oaklanders to vote YES on Measures KK and JJ this election day.
Angela Glover Blackwell is the Chief Executive Officer of PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing economic and social equity by Lifting Up What Works.