The election of Barack Obama represents a turning point in the role of race in United States politics. It proves conclusively that the United States electorate has moved past simple prejudice based on the color of a person’s skin. And it demonstrates that there is a majority coalition in favor of progressive change. This is a milestone, and it offers an outstanding opportunity to advance a new national agenda.
Unfortunately, the election in itself does very little to challenge the economic and social system that inflicts racism on vast segments of the people in this country. To make change, our movements will need to maintain consistent grassroots pressure on the new leadership. But we also need to deepen our understanding of how racial inequality is maintained. Furthermore, we need a solid theory of how and where we can redistribute opportunity so that communities of color and low-income people can gain their fair share of benefits and remedy past wrongs.
There is an environmental and health crisis brewing in the inner city and working class barrios of the San Francisco Bay Area. Their residents—primarily working class communities of color and immigrants—are dealing with the health impacts of heavy local and regional traffic that has been disproportionately channeled through their neighborhoods. Thanks to the transportation planning decisions made over the last generation, families looking for housing are often faced with the “choice” of an affordable but unhealthy community vs. a healthy but unaffordable neighborhood.
A Community Overwhelmed by Traffic
Southeastern San Francisco’s Excelsior District is a vibrant, working class community, home to many families of color and immigrants. It is also a community cradled by Highway 280 and the large, busy thoroughfares of Alemany Boulevard, Mission Street, and San Jose Avenue. So, there is a constant flow of traffic—particularly fast-moving trucks and buses on residential streets.
Concerned about the health impacts of the inordinately heavy traffic with its concomitant air pollution, noise, and safety hazards on the largely immigrant and working class communities of the area, PODER (People Organizing to Demand Environmental & Economic Rights), along with researchers from the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) and the University of California Berkeley School of Public Health (UCB), developed a community-based Health Impact Assessment (HIA).
PODER, community residents, and allies conducted door-to-door surveys in Spanish, English, and Chinese; counted traffic on street corners; took pictures of the neighborhood; and interviewed local residents to gather first-hand experiences and document the voices and ideas of the community within the HIA. The participatory approach brought together people of all ages and immigrant backgrounds to share their knowledge and experiences.
How do we measure success? As regional equity takes root in the next generation of practice, techniques and tools for measuring progress are critical to building momentum and gaining traction. Basic numerical analyses—whether counting a decreasing number of vacant properties in a neighborhood over a decade or comparing the number of jobs obtained through various CBAs in a year—bring precision and provide “hard data” to bolster arguments for regional equity policies. More subtle qualitative measures are also being developed. For example, we can now look at housing as not merely “affordable” but as existing within matrices of opportunities that include transportation to quality jobs, access to green public space, and proximity to healthful food.
A pioneer in the application of regional equity metrics for measuring and analyzing human activity and settlement patterns, urban expert and former Albuquerque Mayor David Rusk advocates using metrics to offer community leaders not only statistical indicators but also a means to interpret data. Rusk is not alone in this view. Redefining Progress (based in Oakland, California), Manuel Pastor (at the University of California at Santa Cruz) and john powell (with the Kirwan Institute)—among many others—are also part of this growing movement to establish community-defined indicators that “expose obstacles to a healthy quality of life, and illuminate economic, environmental and social trends.”
Metrics also offer a way to keep multiple stakeholders committed to a plan of action without requiring congruence of motivation. Comparisons between regions that enable state or nationwide assessments are also possible with metrics. For example, Myron Orfield’s analysis of the fiscal capacities of jurisdictions illustrates compelling measurable disjunctions between affluent suburban communities and at-risk suburbs.
Bruce Katz: We’re really talking about alignment in our work. Take “Fix It First” [a strategy in the Detroit region to invest in existing transportation infrastructure in the city and inner-ring suburbs before building new roads in the suburbs]. We’re making three arguments in favor of the program: efficiency, fiscal responsibility, and equity. All of those come together in a politician’s mind. We’re not promoting just competitiveness, but inclusive growth also.
john powell: In Cleveland, African-American leadership has pushed back against regionalism, saying it has been driven by the white suburbs. They want a kind of regionalism where the interests of African-Americans are up front, and they are pushing us to better say where regionalism has actually benefited marginalized people, and where it hasn’t.
A new civil rights movement is emerging in communities throughout the United States. It presents a vibrant vision and voice in contrast to the usual story of urban sprawl and concentrated poverty. Through bold regional organizing and advocacy efforts and innovative partnerships and policy reforms, new alliances are creating working models of metropolitan regional equity in inner cities, suburbs, and rural areas across the nation.
I have been a community organizer in the tradition of Saul Alinsky since 1972. I must confess that I regard my first 15 years of organizing as “cleaning the engine room of the Titanic.” Working within the most unglamorous part of the ship—the slums, the ghettos, and the barrios of America—we focused on cleaning the grease, polishing the knobs, and adjusting the nozzles. In other words, we worked on getting rid of drug houses, improving a park, and opening a health clinic, while the ship itself was being steered “right” and towards certain disaster, rendering irrelevant all of our efforts in turning communities around. To illustrate the point, I like to tell a story.