This is the first of two op-eds from The Shared Prosperity Partnership. This collaboration of The Kresge Foundation, the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, the Urban Institute and Living Cities launched in 2018; it brings together local leaders in eight U.S. cities to address challenges to inclusive growth and provide data, research, and access to national experts, networks and financial resources. We asked leaders in each of these eight cities to describe briefly the considerations, strategies and tactics required to advance more racially inclusive recoveries in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In part one of this op-ed we hear from experts in Kansas City, Memphis, Arlington and Fresno.
Kansas City: Disenfranchised Communities Must Be The Architects and Beneficiaries of Change
By Sheri Gonzales
COVID-19 has highlighted the inequities that prevail in communities throughout the nation. In Kansas City, the Black-white wealth gap has not improved in 20 years, despite the (often inadequate) attempts to bolster Black Americans’ participation in the American dream. In fact, the gap has widened.
We lead by following. Why? Because equity requires those with power and privilege to share that power and privilege. Disenfranchised communities must be both the architects and beneficiaries of change.
We are using our resources, particularly our financial resources, to support minority-lead efforts to design and build minority-focused solutions. Relying on the input and expertise of our Black residents and community leaders, we are focused on closing the digital divide and improving access to capital in Black communities.
The work of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City and Alt-Cap are examples of COVID-19 recovery efforts led by minority-run organizations that must be elevated and advanced to achieve equity.
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the impact of the digital divide. The Urban League of Greater Kansas City has redoubled its efforts to connect individuals and families with access to the devices, broadband, and technical support to position them for economic recovery, and to change policy to ensure that 100% of households are connected. Broadband access is a necessity just like water, gas, and electricity. Without digital equity, Black Americans will never achieve economic self-sufficiency.
Achieving a more racially equitable recovery must start with creating more equitable flows of capital. Alt-Cap recognizes the need to direct public resources and private capital to address inequities that created and perpetuate racial disparities in wealth and income. By partnering with community development financial institutions, cities can deliver capital at scale and in a more targeted way to people of color.
We all have a part to play and know that the work will not be complete unless all of our residents have equitable opportunities to lead prosperous lives.
Memphis: To Address Equity, Change Policies and Reallocate Resources
By Eric Robertson
In the wake of the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 across racial lines and the senseless murder of George Floyd, Memphis nonprofit leaders agree that real change must occur, moving beyond just statements of solidarity. This moment calls upon us to do more.
Nonprofit leaders often occupy a unique space between marginalized communities and the institutions that have power, set policies, and control resources. In June, 150 Memphis-based Black, Latinx, and White nonprofit leaders signed and shared an open letter to elected officials and community leaders. The letter demands systemic change that has been constructed to perpetuate a cycle of poverty among Black and Brown residents.
In Memphis, Black and Brown residents face some of the highest inequality and poverty in the country. Forty-three percent of all employed Memphians made less than $15 an hour pre-COVID-19. For many Memphians, their only employment opportunities are through a temporary service agency with no benefits or health insurance, a common practice adopted by local companies.
Beyond labor insecurities, communities of color have been shut out of access to investment capital. For two years, financial institution regulators hosted the Investment Connections program with the hopes of linking local banks to investable initiatives in Black and Latinx neighborhoods. The result: not one project was ever funded.
Leadership in all sectors - government, nonprofits, and corporations – has been called to adopt an agenda that addresses issues from over-policing to education to wages. It will require doing business differently and centering the lives, dreams, and concerns of all our residents.
This moment is our opportunity to change policies and reallocate resources to address root causes. Along with hope, we must find strength to bear the weight of these massive undertakings, faith that justice will prevail someday, and courage to do the work necessary to bring forth change and opportunity for all Memphians.
Arlington: Leaving Behind Immigrants in Our Recovery Will Hurt Us All
By Jennifer Owens
If necessity is the mother of invention, we need her to get to work. Necessity is pulling at us from all directions as we move through the waves of this crisis. Our leaders feel urgency but inventing and investing in new solutions that have scale and promise proves difficult, especially when it comes to supporting our immigrant neighbors.
Immigrants are both important to our diversity and vital to our economy. In 2017, foreign-born people contributed $5.9B to Arlington County’s GDP. Many are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and worry that their quest for citizenship may be compromised if they accept support and become a ‘public charge’.
Many immigrants are also underserved by traditional government relief programs. The federal government’s primary response - to provide stimulus payments and expanded unemployment benefits - don’t reach our neighbors who participate informally in the economy or are undocumented, even if they pay taxes.
To fill this gap, the Arlington Community Foundation has partnered with local nonprofits trusted among our immigrant communities, including the Dream Project, to get cash relief into the hands of those who need it most.
Many of our country’s systems were built on the belief that determination and hard work are the key ingredients to financial success and, ultimately, a better life. This promise drives and emboldens people who face adversity and a lack of opportunity in their birthplaces to risk their lives and emigrate to this country.
Supporting our immigrant neighbors is both a moral and economic imperative. Leaving them behind in our relief and recovery plans will hurt us all.
Fresno: Inclusive Recovery Needs to Be Redefined and Not Fall Into the Trap of the Familiar
By Ashley Swearengin
Nationwide, people are talking about equitable recovery. But if we’re being completely honest, we don’t have a great track record of economic inclusivity in many communities across the U.S.
That reality has played out in Fresno, Calif. Fresno is the least racially inclusive city in California according to a 2018 report by the Urban Institute (59th out of 59 large cities in the state and 263rd of 274 nationwide).
For generations, persistent, systemic racial inequality has devastated every facet of our community from economic inclusion and health outcomes, to neighborhood well-being and educational attainment. Exacerbated by COVID-19, racial inequality is the very thing standing in the way of a truly equitable economic recovery.
We cannot fully rebuild and recover without dismantling the status quo. In Fresno, we’re doing this by reexamining our history, renewing our aspiration for a more just and equitable future, and holding ourselves accountable to every member of our community.
At the Central Valley Community Foundation, we are leading the DRIVE Initiative (Developing the Region’s Inclusive & Vibrant Economy) to develop and activate a 10-year multi-sector economic development plan that leverages the collective influence, assets, and ambition of residents, institutions, and civic leaders to close economic gaps and build a community where all members can and do thrive.
A central component, and one of the earliest DRIVE projects to launch, is “Civic Infrastructure in Low Opportunity Neighborhoods.” By valuing and supporting resident leadership of positive changes in their own neighborhoods, this DRIVE project will engage residents in neighborhood improvement projects and train residents in community-building. It also serves as the conduit for resident involvement in developing and advancing other DRIVE projects to benefit residents, particularly those who live in any of Fresno’s 32 extreme poverty neighborhoods.
While we navigate this often imperfect process, we are investing in our community’s collective capacity for shared decision-making and engagement. We are committed to prioritizing data-informed and resident-led investments that close racial gaps, particularly for under-invested communities.
Through a long-term, facilitated process, the DRIVE initiative is developing shared understanding of race history and current realities, a robust community engagement strategy, a resident leadership council to co-lead its implementation, and ongoing race equity monitoring, evaluation and learning.
By putting race equity at the center of this work, we are developing a shared and actionable understanding of the race realities of Fresno that have shaped the economy and determined access to opportunities for too long.
Every city can and should evaluate its complicity in maintaining harmful systems and must move quickly to establish intentional action that puts residents first and creates equitable outcomes for all.
Sheri Gonzales is the Vice President and Director of the KC Civic Council / KC Rising.
Eric Robertson is the President and CEO of Community LIFT, River City Capital, in Memphis, Tennessee.
Jennifer Owens is the President and CEO of the Arlington Community Foundation, in Arlington, Virginia.
Ashley Swearengin is the President and CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation, in Fresno, California.