Actions to Address Inequality Are All Around Us

by Mariia Zimmerman


Watching and reading the news, the debate around social inequality is all around us --- whether in the sparring between presidential candidates over whether and for whom do we need to “Make America Great Again” or in the latest reporting on research which finds that health disparities are largely the result of where you live and how much money you earn.

Addressing social inequalities is a thread throughout the consulting that MZ Strategies engages in with public agencies, non-profits and philanthropic organizations. Over the past four years, we have looked at its impacts and strategies to address gentrification or improve community benefits to low-income households through a variety of lenses. In 2013, MZ Strategies authored a white paper for Enterprise Community Partners on financing equitable-transit oriented development and last fall the McKnight Foundation released our white paper on mixed-income housing finance. We have worked with the Metropolitan Council and Minnesota Housing Finance Agency as well as the City of Portland and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments to analyze the impacts of public policies and investments on low-income residents and communities of color resulting in a number of specific policy changes. And, we've supported cross-sector coalitions working to advocate for change. These have been incredibly rewarding efforts and made me feel that despite the many challenges, we are making progress.

Yet recent experiences in two different communities reminded me how very far we have to come in restoring equitable outcomes, especially in the face of multi-generational poverty and structural racism. Last week I was in Phoenix, Arizona for the annual American Planning Association national conference. While there I participated in a tour of South Phoenix – a five-square mile area located a few blocks from the bustling downtown. Over two-thirds of Phoenix’s public housing is located here and the average income for a family of four is $19,000.[1] The diversity and concentration of environmental justice issues facing this low-income, predominately minority community are staggering. The level of disinvestment is visible from almost every street corner.[2] The community’s one hospital closed and landfills border the Salt River as it passes through South Phoenix neighborhoods. We drove past what felt like an endless string of toxic land uses and illegal dumping sites adjacent to humble houses, and toured vacant brownfield sites where only a few years ago major polluters operated.  Our tour guides shared countless stories of failure by government to advocate on behalf of citizens, or enforce local zoning or building codes. Thousands have been exposed to serious health threats causing chronic diseases and even death.

This brownfield site was contaminated by a South Phoenix hazmat fire several years ago. The neighborhood continues to be plagued by hazmat fires adjacent to housing causing significant public health concerns and development challenges. (Photo: M. Zimmerman, April 2016)

This brownfield site was contaminated by a South Phoenix hazmat fire several years ago. The neighborhood continues to be plagued by hazmat fires adjacent to housing causing significant public health concerns and development challenges. (Photo: M. Zimmerman, April 2016)

While other areas of the Phoenix metro have benefitted from new light rail transit, this transit-dependent community has not. Mayor Greg Stanton and former Congressman Ed Pastor are working to change that with plans for a new transit line along Central Avenue which will re-connect the community to regional destinations including Arizona’s two largest universities. The USDOT designated South Phoenix one of seven communities participating in Secretary Foxx’s Ladders of Opportunity Transportation Empowerment Pilot. Local advocates are working to ensure that this investment will be a beneficial catalyst. The Phoenix Revitalization Corporation cut its teeth working to address the community's many environmental issues, and runs a grassroots leadership academy to educate residents to be their own, best advocates for social equity. This includes building the leadership pipeline so they have a seat at the decision-making table, which for too long passed them by and was unresponsive to their needs.

Upon my return home, I found Richmond’s high school students preparing to walk out of school in protest to the deplorable condition of city schools. They did exactly that yesterday in response to Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ decision not to include adequate school funding in the City’s budget. School administrators have said this will force them to close five schools in a city already plagued with poor performance, overcrowded schools and little choice for quality education.

“Invest in our schools the same way you all invested in the funding of the UCI bicycle championships,” said Kimberly Bailey, a fifth-grade teacher at Fairfield Court Elementary School, drawing applause. “Invest in our schools the same way you do in the Redskins training camp every summer. Invest in our schools so that we educators aren’t feeling like our teaching is in vain.”
— Richmond Times Dispatch, April 12, 2016

Many question the Mayor’s priorities and education will be a major issue during the City’s upcoming mayoral race. But today’s crisis is not the result of one mayor’s actions. Nor is Richmond unique in having poor quality urban schools that serve predominantly minority students from low-income homes. It is also not just a city problem but rather a key factor in perpetuating regional disparities and cycles of poverty.

I confess that when we moved here last year, our family wanted to live in the City but with two school- age boys, education was a major factor in choosing a home. We were faced with sending them to some of the state’s poorest performing schools, sending them to costly private schools or living in one of the surrounding counties with decent public school choices. We chose the latter, and could afford to do so. Not everyone in Richmond has these choices available to them, and the failure of the City’s schools reflects decades of disinvestment and the visible manifestation of resistance to desegregation. Quality education is found in the private and public county schools which benefitted from white reaction against Brown vs. Board of Education. The legacy of racial inequality is profound.  Students at Henrico’s Byrd Middle School are fighting to rename the school. This is one more important step being led by students to create a more racially-just future.

Leadership by the next generation -- whether students in Richmond or grassroots leaders in Phoenix -- gives me hope for continued progress in addressing social inequality. Perhaps naively, these recent reminders underscore the hard reality that the causes and persistence of racial and economic inequality go back many decades. Yet there are tangible steps leaders, citizens, and planning professional can take every day to change these destructive legacies.

[1] Data provided by Phoenix Revitalization Corporation (April 2016).

[2] The US Environmental Protection Agency has launched a mapping tool -- “EJScreen” -- to help communities analyze a set of environmental justice factors across a variety of scales from neighborhood to the region.