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.

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.