For Release Sunday, July 24, 2011
© 2011 Washington Post Writers Group
But what about justice?
Will our cities and metro areas, asks Ford Foundation president Luis Ubiñas, “live up to the aspirations of all residents, or just the privileged few?” Can we achieve “just cities, shaped by fairness, opportunity, a commitment to shared prosperity?”
It’s an appropriate point for the foundation whose dollars, starting in the 1960s, were critical in launching the community development movement with its boost for hundreds of grassroots housing groups in and for hard-pressed neighborhoods.
Again, the foundation seems to be moving ahead of the game, to important new ground. In the midst of uncertainty about the country’s future, our prevailing politics focus only tangentially on income disparities between our wealthiest income earners and the rest of America, and how those gaps have hit historic highs. And there’s a surfeit of anti-government rhetoric, even as poor and working-class Americans face exceedingly tough economic odds.
Can we then have a “Just City”? The Ford Foundation made this theme the center of a celebration this month marking the 75th anniversary of its founding. And its guests took up the challenge with gusto.
We need “to get comfortable,” said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, “talking of poor and working class people together.” And why? “Nationally the discourse is just about the middle class and up — but we know the poor are getting killed.”
Mayors, Reed said, can’t afford to ignore fixing potholes or tough management issues such as trimming and reforming pensions. But the equity issue, he insisted, is vital. His message to people indifferent to the plight of the working classes: “You’re killing the model for the United States of America. The question is whether the U.S. will be the world leader for social justice. We need to argue and fight about this.”
Van Jones of the Center for American Progress followed Reed’s lead by lamenting “how many people are laid off — never to work again, sitting on a couch and getting angrier.” Why not, he said, “tax Wall Street and put some of the money to rebuild the country and reengage some of the laid off people?”
But the Ford conferees heard repeatedly that cities themselves — through their schools, tax and property rules — can make a major difference.
And some corporations can be active partners in change. Robin Willner, vice president of global community initiatives for IBM, reported how the company’s team in Austin, Texas, had worked on ways to to address deep and lingering disparities between less affluent East and more prosperous West Austin. The process involved transparency and citizen participation, including fairer ways for the city to allocate its infrastructure investments.
Ground urban strategies in inclusion and equity — that’s the secret, the Ford conferees heard. Manuel Pastor of the University of Southern California cited research showing that metro areas doing better at deconcentrating poverty, working at racial desegregation, are growing more rapidly and sustainably over time.
Clearly, multiracial will be the theme of cities from now on. The United States, noted civil rights scholar John Powell, will lose its white majority status by 2045; by 2100, there will be virtually no major major city in the entire world with a white majority.
Focus first on the human side of cities, Mayor Jean Quan of Oakland, Calif., counseled the Ford conference: “Put resources into poorest neighborhoods and their children.” Quan is trying to turn three schools into full community centers, with strong grassroots participation. “If I can give kids a decent education, then everything else will follow — businesses moving in, everyone a lot happier.”
But the center city working with all a metro area’s communities is key, said former Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, now Colorado’s governor. A culture of local cooperation made voter passage of Denver’s widely admired Fastracks regional metro light rail system possible, he noted. Regionwide “collaboration is like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it gets.” Among regions today, he noted, “collaboration is the new competition.”
The social justice case does require constant push. “We saw lots of broken people, destitution, environmental damage” in the San Pedro and Wilmington communities around the Port of Los Angeles, Madeline Janus, executive director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, told the Ford conference.
But a local coalition organized, brought pressure, and last fall won a $50 million port authority agreement to clean up pollution, reduce asthma rates, and create job training pipelines for local residents.
“We’ve been called communists. But Mayor (of Los Angeles) Antonio Villaraigosa stood behind us. This is patriotic — the government, the system, as ours,” said Janus.
Neal Peirce’s e-mail is email@example.com.
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