Spring 2014
PERSPECTIVE

The Equity Imperative: Building Sustainable Communities of Opportunity and All-in Nation

By Angela Glover Blackwell, Founder and CEO, PolicyLink, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, started PolicyLink in 1999 and continues to drive its mission of advancing economic and social equity. Under Blackwell’s leadership, PolicyLink has become a leading voice in the movement to use public policy to improve access and opportunity for all low-income people and communities of color, particularly in the areas of health, housing, transportation, education, and infrastructure.
The Equity Imperative: Building Sustainable Communities of Opportunity and All-in Nation
Eddie Jones, an African-American mason and resident of Buffalo’s West Side, helps to build affordable energy-efficient homes in his community and teach his trade to formerly-incarcerated trainees. He is part of the Green Development Zone, an innovative initiative to modernize the infrastructure of one of the most disinvested neighborhoods in the city while creating jobs and career pathways for the people who live there.

The zone is just one example of how cities and regions across the country are growing good jobs and building human capabilities in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color—all to create stronger, more equitable economies and environmentally sustainable places to live, work, learn, and play.

Years of research show that where a person lives determines his or her well-being and prospects for success. Low-income communities of color have the highest pollution levels and the most limited access to healthy foods, public transportation, park space, and other green resources. They also have the most limited access to good schools, training opportunities, and good jobs with opportunities to advance.

As people of color have become more of the nation’s majority, equity—just and fair inclusion—is more than a moral issue. It is an economic imperative. This country cannot afford to leave its fastest-growing populations behind. America’s future competitiveness and prosperity require a new growth model, one that taps the skills and talents of all people.

The equity imperative coupled with environmental concerns has inspired enterprising strategies on the ground and bold policies at all levels of government to build all-in cities and regions. These are places that invest in education and workforce training; places working to eliminate racial barriers and create good jobs; and places committed to transforming distressed, environmentally-degraded neighborhoods into vibrant, sustainable communities of opportunity.

These are places like Buffalo’s Green Development Zone, which concentrates investments in a 25-block area—and maximizes the economic and environmental benefits for residents like Eddie Jones.

The zone is the centerpiece of efforts by the nonprofit PUSH, People United for Sustainable Housing, to reshape sustainability as a community economic development strategy. PUSH has successfully campaigned for green investments, particularly from state government, and the organization has leveraged these investments to train and hire residents to build neighborhood assets such as affordable rental units and community gardens. “PUSH uses the skills that are within the community,” Jones said. “The work and the money stay right here.”

The objective is to create jobs that improve the physical environment and quality of life of the neighborhood while developing workforce skills that residents can rely on long after these projects are completed. The work has created 52 jobs over the past four years.

PUSH has also expanded its efforts county-wide. Under a contract with New York State energy authorities that began in 2012, PUSH dispatches teams to encourage homeowners to make their homes more energy efficient. The outreach resulted in 250 retrofits in the first 18 months. PUSH then connects under-represented contractors and workers to the jobs. By building both a market and labor pool for residential retrofits, PUSH saves homeowners money, secures economic opportunity for people who need it, and reduces fuel consumption. That is a triple win for the neighborhood.

Another triple win is evident in Cleveland, Ohio, thanks to the Green City Growers Cooperative. The nation’s largest food-production greenhouse in a core urban area, the cooperative is growing jobs, creating wealth-building opportunities, and improving access to healthy food in the city’s low-income neighborhoods. Opened in February 2013, the 3.25-acre greenhouse is an inspiring illustration of how a new business model can connect disenfranchised communities with economic opportunity and literally make a neighborhood bloom.

The cooperative will hire more than 40 community residents, who will have the opportunity to become employee-owners and share in the profits while earning living wages. The plan calls for selling vegetables and herbs to grocery chains, universities, and other large buyers in the region, boosting the local economy by bringing food production and purchasing close to home.

To finance the initial project, Green City Growers leveraged federal financing, including HUD Section 108 loans and Brownfields Economic Development Initiative grants, and federal Healthy Food Financing Initiative dollars. It gained additional support through the City of Cleveland, the Economic Development Institute, and other investors and funders.

Green City Growers is a venture of Evergreen Cooperatives, a group working to start 10 businesses to employ and provide ownership opportunities to residents of six Cleveland neighborhoods. By stabilizing communities and strengthening the area economy, the group is on its way to creating 5,000 jobs over the next 10 to 15 years in a struggling city where 65% of residents are people of color.

Can projects that deliver economic and environmental equity dividends be brought to an even greater scale? A massive project underway to redevelop the shuttered Army base in Oakland, California, suggests the answer is yes. This project will create hundreds of good jobs and training opportunities for residents under a landmark agreement crafted by the city, unions, community representatives, and the developers. It also will trigger environmental gains for the largely Black community living in the area.

The $800 million public-private venture is Oakland’s biggest development project in decades. It will transform land the size of 200 football fields into an international trade and logistics center serving the Port of Oakland and supporting a stronger globally connected regional economy.

The first phase of the project will create more than 1,500 construction-related jobs and 1,500 permanent jobs in operations—half of which will go to local residents, under the agreement. The agreement also sets far-reaching standards for living wages and opens up job and training opportunities for veterans, ex-offenders, the long-term unemployed, and others who face extraordinary job barriers.

And there are environmental benefits for the adjacent community of West Oakland, which for decades has suffered from some of the region’s highest pollution levels. Plans call for freight and rail service to reduce truck traffic and emissions, and the relocation of two recycling plants from the neighborhood to the development. A community oversight board will monitor compliance.

The agreement demonstrates what is possible when a city comes together to make sure large-scale development strengthens the local and regional economies, creates 21st century opportunities for the people who need them most, and improves neighborhood environments. Leaders do not have to choose between equitable economic growth and environmental sustainability. They can—and must— invest in both.

Although these three initiatives vary in scale and approach, they all demonstrate that environmental and economic gains can go hand in hand and benefit all people by intentionally connecting residents to the economic opportunities that investments create. These are successful models that neighborhoods, cities, regions, and states can replicate, with federal government backing, to secure a sustainable, all-in nation.
Angela Glover Blackwell

Founder and CEO, PolicyLink, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, started PolicyLink in 1999 and continues to drive its mission of advancing economic and social equity. Under Blackwell’s leadership, PolicyLink has become a leading voice in the movement to use public policy to improve access and opportunity for all low-income people and communities of color, particularly in the areas of health, housing, transportation, education, and infrastructure.

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