Three steps to Economic Development Equity
Economic Developers have a responsibility to help their fellow human being.
Growing up in white middle class America one would assume it would be difficult for me to understand or comprehend the issues that growing up a person of color would have experienced during the same time period. The answer to that is yes. Yes, it is difficult for me to place myself in that position as hard as I might try. However it does not release me from my responsibility as a human being to work towards not only understanding and providing an empathetic response, but it requires me to work towards equity.
This is not some class defining guilt exercise of a white person looking at people of color and deciding that I am going to be a better person and I will feel better if I simply write a blog piece about the issue. It’s not about me. It’s about society and the responsibility I and my profession has to our fellow humans. This is not about race. We are all of the same race, the human race. It’s about humanity.
As an economic developer we are tasked with growing our communities economic prowess and overall gross domestic product. We have always measured it in the number of jobs and capital improvement. At least that is the most common way we have measured progress. I would however challenge my peers and ask, should we not put as much effort into the creation of those jobs and capital investment that raises the prosperity of all peolpe? Lifting up those with less is, after all the neighborly thing to do.
According to Policy Link and their National Equity Atlas, “equitable economic development unlocks the full potential of the local economy by dismantling barriers and expanding opportunities for low income people and communities of color. Through accountable public action and investment, it grows quality jobs and increases entrepreneurship, ownership, and wealth. The result is a stronger, more competitive city.”
In the midwest in the 1980s’ and 90s’ I saw the depletion of jobs and the middle class as those jobs left for cheaper parts of the world. Production costs and the commoditization of mass produced products told planners and corporate decision makers that one could do it cheaper in China, Mexico and other parts of the world where people were paid a fraction of living wages here in the United States. It hollowed out the middle class. There was nothing left. No longer can someone walk into a factory and have a job with benefits and pension for thirty years.
The challenge today is to recognize the inequities that have occurred over the past number of decades and how the system, world economic dynamics and other factors have impacted our former middle class. As an economic development professional what are you willing to do about it? As a profession, what are we going to do other than have a webinar about it every six months?
Here are three ways you can impact your community and bring equity to the table and begin to address the issues:
- Recognize and admit there is a problem and plan to take action — Much like an addict or those dealing with other mental challenges you must decide that there is a problem and deal with it. Collectively as a community, region, or town you must measure and dig deep into the issues in your community. Understand who is being impacted and why. Yes, be empathetic, but more importantly, through your strategic planning, work plan development and mission creation, recognize the problem and commit to doing something about it.
- Understand the drivers of Inequity in your community — Look at what, on the very local level might be driving this inequity and plan to address it. Measure and report these drivers. As management guru Peter Drucker said, “You can’t improve what you can’t measure” (or something close to that). Use these measurements to drive your planning and involve affected populations.
- Devote resources to addressing some of these inequities — Starting small and at the local level design programming, training and other programs to address your local issues. In a region where I worked we collaborated with a local group to create “coding” camps and classes. Coding is the new blue collar job. Many people can have decent living wage jobs by learning to code and program the millions of apps and programs that we all use increasingly every day.
You and I can’t fix the issues and dynamics driven by the global economy such as corporate outsourcing, stock buybacks, in lieu of worker training, lack of education, and other dynamics, but we can make small changes and adjustments.
I have often thought that the key to prosperous communities isn’t attracting the next big factory to town. Yes, that has obvious immediate impact for some communities, but it has the chance of being less sustainable than helping the small business with a single idea. It has less impact than the small Ma and Pa bodega trying to launch around the corner. Helping a minority kid with opportunities they might not have if left to the “system” might not be as sexy as the big corporate relocation, but you are likely investing in a human for the long run versus hoping the XYZ corporation doesn’t move in five years.
There is much more to discuss here. Let’s keep trying. Remember the only race is the human race.