Double Speak

The Meeting of the Minds & Living Cities group blogging event  asks “How could cities better connect all their residents to economic opportunity?” From where I sit, we do this by recognizing the intersections between two movements — the environment and social justice. We then activate these movements, together, to ensure that everyone, without regard to race or income, has access to clean air, clean water and public transit to a living wage job.

The possibilities for these collaborations are enormous and getting bigger. Cities from Miami, Fla, to Seattle, WA, will be investing billions of dollars on sea-walls, dikes and protection of electrical and drinking water systems to fend off the environmental effects of climate change. At the same time, they are spending billions more in transit systems to maintain a healthy and mobile workforce. These investments, properly considered, can work wonders in connecting people to opportunity.


The first challenge is to calibrate our perspectives. We have to adjust how we approach our environmental work and ask: what does this look like through the eyes of people traditionally outside the movement? How does it translate into the ways they live their lives every day?

And this is not about chasing long-shot supporters. Many people of color, for example, while not traditionally part of the environmental movement, hold very strong environmental values.

Any changes we propose need to make people’s lives better day-to-day. The goals of reducing carbon emissions and increasing access to shelter converge when affordable housing with green technology reduces the cost of living in the home. The environmental movement’s concern with Vehicle Miles Traveled meets the social justice movement’s concern about displacement in the everyday hum of a bus that efficiently and affordably takes someone from home to work.

We have to constantly ask, how do we improve the environment AND connect people to opportunity?


140505 California Fund Smartgrowth Infographicjpg_Page1

Source: Calif Fund (Full PDF)

The California Fund put these concepts together here with a terrific infographic on the broad concept of smart growth. The opportunity is $40 billion in transit investment slated for the region. The challenge? More than 80 percent of low-income jobs are not served by transit.  And 53 percent of residents’ income is spent on housing and transportation.

Some Seattle-based not-for-profits have done this work well with their examination of the region’s bus system. Voters in Seattle’s King County were scheduled to vote on a new car tax that would fund buses and stave off 17 percent service cuts.

Environmental groups were alarmed. It was a step backward in trying to shift the region’s transportation – the area’s single biggest cause of greenhouse gas emissions — from single-occupancy vehicles to transit.

Social justice groups were equally alarmed but for different reasons. They believed that low-income populations would be hit the hardest, virtually marooned from life necessities like education and health care.  With the Transit for All project, funded by a local funder collaborative that includes Loom, The Seattle Foundation, Bullitt Foundation, the Kirkpatrick Foundation, Boeing and Social Venture Partners Seattle, social justice groups joined with an environmental organization to produce maps that illustrate the cost of the cuts.

The three not-for-profits – OneAmerica, Puget Sound Sage and the Transportation Choices Coalition – could have relied on the separate narratives of environment and equity. One could have campaigned for no bus cuts. And the other organizations could have campaigned on the message of not cutting transit for those most dependent on it. Once they decided to join forces, they could have created maps showing the race and income distribution across the region and overlay the missing bus routes. That’s in improvement, but they went one better.


They framed the question at the very place where the environment and access to opportunity and services intersect. And they put the question in terms of everyday life.

Source: Transit for All (Enlarge)

Source: Transit for All (FULL PDF)

How does bus service translate into getting your sick kid to health care? The graphic illustrates how the more affluent North Seattle residents have plenty of quick options to get to public health clinics. (A 30-minute trip to the hospital is a solid-yellow line.)  Move further South, where immigrant and low-income people are concentrated and more dependent on transit, illustrated with solid green blocks. Few yellow lines appear. Parents have scant options for getting kids to a clinics quickly. The organizations’ mapping shows vast swathes of isolated low-income King County residents.

Source: Transit for All (Enlarge)

Source: Transit for All (Full PDF)

What about schooling, a well-established pipeline to a better living? Here you see how long it takes someone to travel from the Rainier Beach section of Seattle (the most racially diverse and among the lowest-income area in the region) to South Seattle Community College.   The average time by transit, a trip that requires two or more buses: 1 hour, 15 minutes.  Time by car: 18 minutes. Longer travel times mean less time to study, work to pay school bills or spend time with family. Research uncovered a young man, Oliver Williams, who had to drop out of school because, with the time away from work, he couldn’t afford the bus fare.

Source: Transit for All

Source: Transit for All (Full PDF)


Indeed, great bus service in King County promises to not only reduce vehicle miles traveled, decrease greenhouse gas emissions and send us on a more carbon-friendly path. Reliable bus service costs a fraction of what it costs to own a car — $1,080 a year versus approximately $9,000 a year – and increases families’ money for other important expenses.

Creating transit that concentrates on taking us to opportunities and services and is affordable doesn’t just help the environment. It also improves the lives of everyone. We need to continue to express our environmental needs and individuals’ need for opportunity with the same breath.

And, we need to learn how to approach these issues and talk about them so that our approach speaks not just to the wonkiest among us, but to people’s everyday lived experience.

Then we can create opportunity for everyone even as we try to save the planet.

Taking on Inequality

I’m on the Board at Social Venture Partners, Seattle, and we’re having a conversation about what “equity” means. It’s a terrific discussion with lots of engaged people asking how this affects how we work to improve education and the environment in our grantmaking.

I don’t speak on behalf of SVP, but the discussion at SVP mirrors conversations about equity and inequality seemingly everywhere.

Politicians are talking about it here. Public intellectuals are talking about it in places like this and this. And businesses now see inequality as such a fact of life, that they are planning their product lines accordingly.

For those of us who want to take on big issues and make a difference, how do we take on inequality? Increasing the minimum wage to $10 an hour nationally (and $15 an hour in Seattle) is a start, but no one believes it will fix the problem. Minimum wage, however important, leaves untouched grantmakers’ big question: how should we distribute scarce time and scarce money?

War on Poverty programs and their successors mostly took a targeted approach. They crafted solutions aimed at only helping the poor. CETA programs made job training available to only those who earned less than a certain income. Head Start screens out all those but the very poor for pre-kindergarten preparation.

Those served by the program are cast as “special interests” – a small group of people who have captured public policy to pick our collective pocket. (The American Enterprise Institute uses this argument to take on welfare and environmental programs here.) Programs with a focus that most of us would agree on – how to help low income children receive the education that makes them ready for kindergarten – are suddenly seen as a benefit for only some of us.

Never mind that we all are helped by an educated population that succeeds in school and is ready for work. This was part of the original motivation for universal schooling in England in the 1870s and 50 years later in the United States. In the public eye, when times are tough, enthusiasm wanes for programs offered to only part of the population. We end up with poor programs for poor people.

At the same time, “universal approaches” – approaches that spread out help evenly through the population – have their own problems.

First, “universal approaches” are wide-open to discrimination. Take seemingly straightforward programs like education, minimum wage and social security. In response to compulsory schooling laws, many states created two entirely different school systems – one for blacks and one for whites – and one state, Texas, had three systems (the third for Hispanics).

Minimum wage and social security laws, as we’ve discussed here and here, were originally written to exclude domestic workers and agricultural workers. At that time, the exclusions locked out nearly two-thirds of the African American population.  As legal scholar and historian William E. Forbath and others demonstrate, the Social Security Act denied benefits to more than half of the nation’s African Americans. Why? Southern Democrats refused to support FDRs bill if it gave benefits to blacks. And even programs that seem to have no connection to equity, like the Federal Highways Program, have very different impacts on different parts of the population. (More on this in a later post.)

Second, as john powell at UC Berkeley points out, universal approaches assume that there is a universal standard. That is, they assume everyone is situated in the same place. Big assumption. This graphic has been making the rounds lately that illustrates the challenge. Here’s the version that recently appeared on Free Child:


Equal v equitable


Supplying every kid with the same box (aka the same resources) might be equality, but it is not equity. The same sized box doesn’t let every kid see the game.  powell uses the word “situatedness” to talk about this distinction.  To achieve equitable outcomes, we have to understand how each person is “situated” and then craft a policy that addresses those concerns.

So if targeted programs have their limitations, and universal programs fail in other ways, what to do?  That’s our next subject. Stay tuned.


Gentrification and Fixing Cities

A web post making the rounds here and here at the SustainableCitiesCollective and on twitter the last few weeks makes me sad on two counts.

First, it illustrates how environmentalists can have a tin ear.

Second, when environmentalists do try to understand race and inequality, we often forget that cities spring from forces much deeper than what we see on the surface. William Faulkner told us, “The past isn’t over. It isn’t even past.” Forget that and we’re doomed to fail.

The author of this post, Jim Russell, does make a good argument: that people – the human element – is more important than a place or piece of concrete. And therefore, we should invest in people first. (You can see another post about his thinking here.)

But I think he goes badly wrong when, in his enthusiasm to drive home his argument that “people develop, not places,” he separates people from places and their history in those places. He decides, finally, that “Gentrification is not about race or class. It is about xenophobia.” “Xenophobia” as Russell is using the word, means that people dislike anyone not like themselves moving into their neighborhoods.

That may be true. But using xenophobia to describe this complicated problem says everything and nothing at the same time. Any hope of understanding American cities and inequality turns to mush.

We know that people, at first, struggle to find common ground with someone they believe is not like them. We also know that a society defines some people as different in order to exercise power or control. (Before people can decide a person is different, they have to decide how they will define that difference. Is it based on hair color? The pitch of their voice?, Their height? Their skin color?, etc.) In this way, defining difference is a way of defining who gets perks.

The United States traditionally has used race as a way of defining who gets those perks. My last post was about Affirmative Action for Whites and described how a GI Bill financed college education and home loans were just two important government subsidies that depended heavily on whether someone was considered “white.”

Sometimes defining difference is about saying who doesn’t get a perk, as Ira Katznelson has shown. In that same post, I describe how legislators wrote African Americans out of coverage from minimum wage laws and Social Security. Northern liberals compromised with Southern – on the backs of African Americans – to get their social safety net.

Russell does turn to history and, perversely, seems to think that his example of Southern blacks moving North clinches his argument. But pointing out to that African Americans who left the South in the Great Migration ended up with higher levels of education and income doesn’t show, as he says, that “migration trumps race and class.” Rather, it illustrates just how severe were the Southern laws that limited education and job opportunities for African Americans.

The challenge for us is to provide opportunity in place – where people live – and do what we can to keep from disrupting the existing social supports. These can be informal connections – the friend or relative who is willing to watch your child while you run a necessary errand or the neighbor who is willing to share a cup of sugar or news about who locally is hiring.

We can’t fully cultivate that opportunity unless we identify the economic and social rules that limit people. Those rules are about race and class.

As environmentalists trying to ensure that we have cities that work and lower our impact on the earth, we need to remember that. We need to invest in people and their place.


Other good things to read (and watch) this week:

“The White Man Whose ‘March on Washington’ Speech You Should Remember Too,” Michael Kazin, The New Republic.

“One Easy Thing All White People Could Do That Would Make The World A Better Place,” Upworthy video, (4 min).

What the March on Washington Called for, and What We Got, Gene Demby, NPR Code Switch

“Dream Deferred: Minimum Wage higher in ’63 Than Today,” LA Progressive



Affirmative Action for Whites & the Generational Handoff

I spent the first 35 years of my life interested in social sciences and economics. I wanted to know how things worked, really worked, and I believed that economic forces drove us. But after writing hundreds of business and economics stories and investing on my own, I began to believe that mapping economic and rational forces, while important, leave gaps. Big gaps. That’s especially true when we’re trying to understand how something that is not “real,” like race, has “real” effects on our world.

So I dug into history, or cultural history, to try to grasp the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves and to understand how those stories are translated into laws and economic relationships and public policies.

My journey eventually took me way back – to the founding of the country. But we don’t have to travel so far to begin to see what I’m talking about. “But wait,” you might say, “just because others fall into the trap of treating race as real, why should we? We don’t have to fall into the same trap!” This is the point that my friend was making when he suggested that we look at class and power. I’m with my friend who doesn’t want to make “race” stronger by treating it as if it is real.

If we don’t acknowledge the power that race has in society, we can fall into another trap – failing to see how rules we’ve already created in society penalize people of some races and give a leg up to people of other races (mainly whites). Here are some examples of race, class and power from recent American history – laws that provided the foundation for our parents’ generation. If we used only class and power to think about these, I believe that we would be missing a large part of the lesson. These programs provided the bedrock of our parent’s and our lives.

  • Minimum Wage Laws. When FDR was trying to enact the minimum wage laws, FDR couldn’t get the votes he needed without the Democrats in the South. The Deep South Democrats demanded that the law exclude the two occupations that most blacks worked in at the time – agriculture labor and domestic service. (Of course, this also hurt whites working in those professions. However, these two occupations weren’t the overwhelming occupations of whites NOR did those occupations define their standard of living and opportunity as it did for blacks.)

[Read more…]

Does Race Matter?

If it’s not real, how can race matter?

We looked at a friend’s question last time. He asked: why focus on race at the expense of analyzing class and power – especially if race is not biologically “real.”

Today, we confront the fact that although race is not “real,” it has real impacts on our lives. (In future posts, I’ll talk about the history of how society constructed definitions of race to give certain groups power.)

Powerful personal stories, like the one told here by the Oregon professor Rick Settersten, who is raising two black kids in 2013, illustrate the power of race. (Thanks for the tip, Amy Solomon!) But they don’t uncover the system by which race is created and enforced.

Horror stories about racist actions and vitriol make my skin crawl. I get mad, but I try not to stop there. I try to push myself to go further.  I look at those stories squarely and then begin to collect still more stories.  Patterns emerge. And those patterns illustrate the broad and systemic forms of racism.

Data, or statistics, represent a multitude of stories — those of Settersten and many others. And if we want to change the way race operates in America, we have to keep the personal stories in mind — the humanness — and then dig for data. We might ask: what do the social scientists say about race and class?  Let’s look what they found when they separated the effects of race from the effects of class in different parts of society.

The overall conclusion won’t surprise you: although “race” isn’t something that is real, social scientists in different specialties all found that it has an impact on our lives today.

Yet the reach of “race” may indeed surprise you. “Race” — even though it is made up — affects the job you get, the house you buy and even how your kid is treated in school. Take a look at these examples:

• Discipline in Education. Students of color are more likely to be more harshly disciplined than whites for similar offenses. Why? The statistics tell us that schools punish black students for more subjective infractions. Racial disparities drop for more objective infractions, such as drug or weapon possession. In his personal recounting, Settersten sees this dramatically as he raises his son.

• Housing Discrimination. The Race Matters Institute tells us that “African American homebuyers encountered discrimination in 17 percent of their efforts to purchase homes and Hispanic homebuyers experienced discrimination at the rate of 20 percent.”

Again,  Settersten sees this — in 2013!

• Hiring. In real-life “audit studies,” white applicants are more likely than black applicants to be hired even if skills and other qualifications are equal. (Harry J. Holzer, Chief Economist at the Department of Labor has a nice review of the literature around low-wage labor, hiring and access to jobs).

• Access to jobs. Geographic concentration of the poor in general is on the rise. This is especially true in the black community. Recent research shows that low income blacks and other minorities are increasingly isolated from places of employment growth.

• Bouncing back from job loss. Whites are more likely to receive unemployment benefits than are blacks or Hispanics even though these two groups lost jobs at a higher rate than whites during the Great Recession. (The reason: they are more likely to work in jobs that pay unemployment benefits.)

• Racial Wealth Gap. Income disparity in America is stark, but it is especially dramatic along racial lines. White household median wealth is 20 times more than median wealth in a black household and 18 times more than the median wealth of an Hispanic household. The result: Middle-income whites, blacks and Hispanics are not all at the same place in our class structure. To be middle class in each group is something vastly different.

This chart from a recent Pew Research report on wealth gaps:

Pew Median Net Worth Households 2011

White net worth more than 10 times greater than Hispanic or Black

These kinds of economic differences then make Blacks and Hispanics much more vulnerable to economic calamities like the housing crisis. (More on this in the future.)

• Social Safety Net. Limited access to federal programs like Food Stamps and the Earned Income Credit. A lack of outreach and publicity mean that immigrant populations are less likely to receive these benefits even if they are legally entitled to them.

So, there are lots of examples that we are using race to make some lousy distinctions between people. And I’m not arguing that we look at race alone. I think that a class-based strategy can take us a long way. However, I think that we ought to be clear that race still counts. And that a class-based strategy alone won’t get us to the full understanding — or the public policy — we need.

A good place to find for more information on some of these findings and on others is the Race Matters Institute, which has published a series of  fact sheets. (The Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Association of Black Foundation Executives are partners in the organization.)

Are there other studies that illustrate race alone — without class — showing itself that particularly speak to you? If race has its own impact, beyond class, does that affect the way you look at public policy or philanthropy?


Race, How Real Is It?

A friend recently asked a great question: is our diversity work focusing too much on “race” instead of “class” and “power?”

For those of us in the foundation world trying to figure out how to finance projects that will close some of the wide gaps in education and income that we see in America, we need to know how to focus our efforts.

We live in an era in which some like to point to our black President, believe that they carry no conscious bias and even sometimes say that our society is “post-racial.”

I don’t believe that we live in a “post-racial” society – more on that in future posts.

At the same time, the “post-racial” folks are on to something – race isn’t anything real. We share 99.9% of our genetic makeup – and so there is more genetic variation among people within what we call a “race” than between races. Superficial physical features that we often associate with race, like skin color or hair, do have a genetic basis. But it turns out that these features have little to do with other biological differences. (Harvard Professor Richard Lewontin offers a very accessible explanation here.)

And the story of how we created a “scientific” description of different races — and “scientific” attempts to make claims about innate qualities of people of different races, is told in the classic The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould.  Gould, a now-deceased Harvard professor who was an evolutionary biologist, investigated the “science” behind claims of racial superiority.  He recreates some of the most cited “experiments” that supposedly established white superiority and demonstrates how,  even in a “data-driven” process, the unconscious bias of the research skews the results.

For example, Samuel George Morton, a scientist highly respected in nineteenth-century America, argued that whites were more intelligent because they had larger cranial capacity. (Morton was so sure of his conclusions that he published the raw data.)  Gould found that a series of edits and other “data corrections” — that he believed weren’t overt on Morton’s part — skewed the results.

I include the Morton example not to castigate science as a whole. Rather, Morton shows us how, even with “data” at our fingertips, our unconscious biases can lead us astray.

The book is filled with examples of how we, as a society, have tricked ourselves into believing something that isn’t true.

We’ve spent years building up these fictions.  And we haven’t done the work, like Stephen Jay Gould has, in dismantling all of those we have come across.

Nevertheless, we do know that we can’t believe the neat racial categories we have created for ourselves during the last 300 years.

But if race is not real, what the heck is it?

That’s the same question that a traveling exhibit, soon to hit Seattle, is asking.  The Ford Foundation and National Science Foundation worked with the American Anthropological Association on, “Race, Are We So Different? It will be in Seattle in September, and you can check out the web site and its terrific resources here and see the exhibit page for the Seattle-host Pacific Science Center here.

Now the second part of my friend’s question comes in. Many folks today would say that race is an expression of class and power.

And I’ll plunge into that question in my next post. Stay tuned.

Cracking Open the Race Conversation

I’m not supposed to have much useful to say about the subject explored on this page. I’m a middle-aged white guy.

I haven’t escaped all of life’s traumas, but I am privileged in just about any way you want to cut it. I head a foundation. I’ve had the opportunity to devote 15 years of my life to earn a Ph.D. studying something morally important but not directed at making money, and I’ve had the enormous luxury of being able to align my work and my values.

Even on my privileged white path – what on the surface would look like a path free of any racial restrictions we see around us – the subject of race has had an enormous impact on my life. When I was growing up, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, and the subject divided my parents. The debates, given my dad’s temperament, were loud. And to my young ears, they seemed threatening to a stable home, and they seemed constant.

That family tension so affected me, I’ve devoted the last 15 years of my life trying to understand that impact on myself and how it stands in the way of our making the world a better place.

Now, I have the good fortune to be working on several efforts at understanding how race, class and power affect our environment, the way we build our cities and our philanthropy.

These experiences lead me to many places where we see these issues played out in everyday life. Sometimes these places are struggling neighborhoods in American cities. Sometimes we play these issues out in “places” that are not physical spots. They are in the minds of the very good people that I get to work with or are explored around a dinner table with friends.

It’s a topic that many whites – even those of us eager to see injustice righted – usually aren’t very comfortable talking about.

I don’t pretend to have completely escaped my Ohio upbringing or the racial beliefs so baked into our culture. But in that limitation rests an opportunity.

These blog posts from time to time will tease out some of the issues that arise publicly and in our intimate conversations surrounding race in America.

Right now, I’m sad after a very public discussion that never got to the real core: last week’s verdict in the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case.

That case is filled with the kind of questions that will arise here in future posts and conversation. What are some of the ways that we use race to devalue some of our citizens? And since few of us consciously believe we “devalue” some citizens, how does that happen? How do some laws, like Stand Your Ground, create racial biases even if the lawmakers who wrote the law did not intend to focus on race? (For six-minutes of video that upends the law’s “race neutrality,” see this John Oliver clip from The Daily Show and make sure you watch to the end. If you crave data now on this topic, read this post.)

This isn’t navel-gazing. Trayvon Martin’s death shows us that these questions are about flesh-and-blood. In that young boy’s death, we lost a precious life.

And I will work with you, dear reader, as we, in conversation, lurch toward a fuller understanding. I welcome your thoughts.

Welcome to LOOM

Welcome to the Loom Foundation web site.

Loom funds Seattle area projects that both protect the environment and address society’s inequality.

On this web site, we will post from time to time about innovative work we see in King County and around the country.  We will talk about the “environment” as both a pristine landscape and as a man-made urban space. We will talk about equity as both the resources that people have in their bank accounts and as access to public resources such as mass transit and schools.

Fully understanding people and place is a journey for us, and the posts here will reflect steps on the way. Our monthly newsletter will try to go deeper still.

We’d love to have a conversation with you about these important and very difficult issues.

Feel free to post in the comments below, join us on Google Plus or our Twitter feed and sign up for regular dispatches.