Thursday, March 17, 2011

Advocating for Equity

Founder of national equity agency urges blacks to lead again
By Sylvester Brown, Jr.

Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and CEO of PolicyLink, a national research agency dedicated to social equity, worries that America is about to miss another profound moment.

Building stronger environments, especially in low-income areas, has been Glover Blackwell’s long-time passion. From 1977 when she worked in public interest law to the founding of the Urban Strategies Council in Oakland, California in 1987 to her role as senior vice president for The Rockefeller Foundation up until she founded PolicyLink in 1999, advocacy for equity has been a consistent theme of her three decade career.

Glover Blackwell, a St. Louis native, was in town recently to speak at the event, “Housing: Building a New Foundation for Economic Prosperity,” hosted by Focus St. Louis. Before her speech, we discussed proposed cuts in President Barack Obama’s 2012 budget, other promising White House initiatives, the role of the black press and black voters in the Obama era and her nagging fear that this country is about to miss another historic opportunity to be “truly great.”

“Missing moments is something we keep doing again and again, Glover Blackwell told me. “We missed it with the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education decision. If we had gotten on a different path, we’d be telling a different story about urban and metropolitan areas today.”

The landmark decision that made segregation in public education unconstitutional helped fuel sprawl, she explained. Rather than integrate schools in urban areas, whites fled to the suburbs in droves with middle-class blacks soon to follow. Roads, highways, exclusionary housing patterns all led to still segregated enclaves in suburbia while urban areas suffered benign neglect.

Divisive and spiteful partisan politics also weighs heavily on Glover Blackwell’s mind.

“Cuts to community development block grants, cuts in the area of health – any effort to try and balance this budget on the backs of America’s most vulnerable ought to raise alarms. Yes, we have a fiscal crisis and we have to tighten our belts but we certainly can’t allow those people that I characterize as mean-spirited to use this fiscal crisis to hurt America’s most vulnerable even more.”

Even with deep cuts looming, Glover Blackwell insists there’s hope on the horizon. She noted President Obama’s “Sustainable Communities Initiative,” a joint-agency between HUD, EPA, and the Department of Transportation. The approach, Glover says, is Obama’s attempt to “reshape the broken and counterproductive way we've built our communities.”

“There is $150 million for sustainable communities and additional resources from EPA and other agencies. St. Louis has been lucky enough to get one of the planning grants to really allow communities to think in smart and inclusive ways about how they build community.”

With 25 percent of America’s black and Latino population having no access to cars and disproportionately dependent on public transportation, “smart and inclusive” planning means developments that connect people to jobs, schools, housing, health care, and grocery stores, Glover Blackwell explained.

The Sustainable Communities initiative, coupled with programs such as the Promise Neighborhoods and Healthy Food Financing Initiative won’t lessen the sting of social service cuts but they will create jobs and help foster “regional equity” in urban areas. Glover Blackwell said.

Another opportunity to shift course was lost after the terrorist’s attacks on September 11, 2001:

“[President George W. Bush] used the word ‘united’ -- and I was surprised because I hadn’t heard it in so long, Blackwell Glover recalled. “We missed that moment to unite. We went right back to business as usual –back to being in separate camps, we went back to being small-minded.”

When asked what African Americans must do to capture this moment, Glover Blackwell harkened back to her youth, growing up on Terry Avenue just blocks from the Central West End.

She was raised in an era when segregation defined everything for blacks -- where they lived, went to school, worked and other aspects of everyday life. Yet, Glover Blackwell fondly remembers a sense of “community” and shared aspirations. She recalled how her parents and other adults relied on black newspapers like the St. Louis American, the St. Louis Argus and the Amsterdam news to keep them informed of the unfolding civil rights movement. Caring adults, locked out of mainstream society, she said, where determined to create pathways to success and equity for all.

“The black press, the black media… all people who care about redress and a prosperous future for the nation – we need to educate more. We need to educate the black and Latino communities and we need to start leading the nation.

“I actually think that the best things that have happened for this nation is because black people led. When black people lead for America, they not only put real force behind a movement for themselves, they help America to see its future.”

Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a freelance journalist and founder of When We Dream Together, a local nonprofit focused on urban revitalization.