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