Lessons our staff learned during the Equity Summit

During our three day Equity Summit two weeks ago, we all were challenged in different ways to make improving racial disparities more central to our work. Our staff was no exception, taking away some notable lessons. Here are some short reflections by SGA staff about what we learned or will remember.

Did you participate in the Summit? We want to hear what you learned or were challenged by as well. Use the form below to share your own personal reflection, and we’ll share some of them in a future post. (If you’re looking for recordings, we have all three days here)

Beth Osborne, Director, Transportation For America

I have been thinking about something that Dr. Destiny Thomas said in response to one of my questions about unintentional consequences—that there is no such thing. It was stark but true in more ways than one. Too often we claim results are unintentional as a shield. And while we may not intend to harm people, we often are willing to tolerate that harm, which is even worse. In my question I was thinking about transportation decisions so focused on the driver that they don’t incorporate the pedestrian at all. But Dr. Thomas is right to point out that choosing to ignore the impact of our decisions and programs over decades is so egregious as to be intention. We can’t let decision-makers off the hook for the results of their decisions, especially results that we have seen consistently for decades.

Chris Zimmerman, Vice President for Economic Development 

“EQUITY IS STIMULUS – if you want to grow the economy, if you want to improve conditions, build equity.”  This statement from Dr. Andre Perry’s keynote address provides an important insight into a dimension of the social justice issue that is often overlooked. There is a tendency to view the fight for social justice and racial equity as a conflict between a moral imperative and hard economic reality.  The moral case is so strong and compelling that even advocates may tend to yield to the notion that economic sacrifice is a necessary cost of correcting systemic social injustices.  Dr. Perry’s trenchant statement points to the truth that the maintenance of inequality, the continued legacy of generations of racial discrimination, has a negative impact on the economy, on both a micro and macro level.  Inequality and racism are not just wrong; they come with a price tag that is paid by everyone. This message should serve as a touchstone for the smart growth approach to economic development.  We must center equitable outcomes in our work helping communities build shared prosperity.  Both to promote social justice and to strengthen our economies, local and national.

Steve Davis, director of communications 

My pastor says that if you’re stealing, the first most important action is to stop. But that can’t be the final step. You also have to find a way to give back what was stolen—you have to repair the damage. The third day of the Summit, focused on removing divisive infrastructure, helped convince me that this concept might be one of the best ways for someone skeptical about the broader idea of financial reparations to see it in a practical way that’s easier to understand and empathize with. Because once you’ve truly grappled with the history and the loss and theft, it can lead you to the logical imperative that you must also repair the damage. It can become a doorway into other ways to advance racial equity. Having toured the Rondo neighborhood and I-94 with Melvin Giles a few years ago and listened to his powerful stories about what was lost when the neighborhood was carved in half, this session helped me better understand what was taken, how the damage was deliberately inflicted because of the skin color of the people who called it home, and why repair is urgently needed even decades later. The insights of Dr. Destiny Thomas, Rep. Rena Moran, and Melvin Giles helped me better understand our history, practical ways to repair the sins of the past, and why all of it is so essential and necessary. 

Helen Hope, communications associate

When it comes to centering racial equity, you have to recognize the issue, name it, talk about it, then do something about it. For longer than I’ve been alive, people have been talking about equality, then equity. As Dr. Destiny Thomas told us on day three: “We’ve become really good at naming what the harm will be, but less interested in preventing it from happening,” Institutional racism and actions that harm people of color have been around, been recognized, and been talked about. Dr. Thomas called out both practitioners and thought leaders with this statement—pushing us towards doing over watching. Her call-to-action to look at urban planning holistically with other disciplines and with communities at the table will stick with me.

Jenna Fortunati, policy and communications associate, Transportation for America

One comment that really stood out to me was what Representative Rena Moran said about a proposed light rail extension in Minneapolis. As a white woman who grew up in a predominantly white suburb with few transit options, I generally come from the perspective that any transit extension project (aside from a few pointless streetcars where a bus-only lane would have been more successful) is a good idea. Until Rep. Moran said on Day three of the Equity Summit, “I am not going to let the Green Line come through our community, passing us by without picking us up. That’s why we have to be engaged in the decision-making process.” This really stood out to me because I think many transit advocates assume that any transit investment will benefit a majority Black neighborhood like Minneapolis’ Rondo, when that isn’t always the case. Which is why every transportation project needs to ensure that all stakeholders are involved in decision-making, most notably the communities affected by a project.  

Victoria Fanibi, LOCUS program associate

“We must mandate justice in our laws and policies” — Sekita Grant, Vice President of The Solutions Project.  During the opening panel for the Smart Growth America Equity Summit, Sekita Grant spoke about the need to embed equity into every level of our work as practitioners. When racial equity and inclusion are the drivers of policies, we are able to accomplish incredible things as a nation.  

Mae Hanzlik, program manager,  Transportation for America

I was able to tune in as a participant on the first day of the Equity Summit and watched Dr. Andre Perry’s powerful keynote on the role of our country’s racist policies in systematically de-valuing Black people, their assets, and their communities. During his remarks, one of his calls to action was encouraging everyone (including the new administration) to be proactive in ensuring equitable policy and outcomes. He reminded us that we have the evidence; we know how our policies have exacerbated inequities. Our role now is to critically analyze each and every policy’s impacts to ensure they are serving our most under-resourced communities best. I haven’t yet read Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities, but after hearing Dr. Perry speak, I’m motivated to move it to the top of my reading list.

Chris McCahill, deputy director, State Smart Transportation Initiative

Many transportation professionals would agree that we need to “stop thinking about transportation just as an opportunity to move people quickly and at low cost,” as Dr. Destiny Thomas put it. But we don’t often ask her other questions: Why isn’t the bus shelter providing high-speed internet for the community? Why aren’t train stations places we can get fresh produce or seek mental health interventions? A big part of the problem, according to Minnesota State Representative Rena Moran, is that we spend so much time focusing on the solutions when we don’t fully understand the problems. These speakers and others forced participants of the Smart Growth Equity Summit to imagine what our communities could look like once we get past the silos and power structures that typically stand in the way. As Melvin Giles explained: “We’re trying to not just complain about redlining; we are transforming it to green-lining.” 

Emily Schweninger, deputy director, Thriving Communities

I was really struck with the clarity of the message regarding the need to invest in people, not just places, as a strategy to prevent displacement. So the investment is not just in the place, or the property, but in the community and the residents, building them up and helping them succeed and prosper. That is how you can prevent displacement. Building up the people and finding ways to invest in them—and not just the buildings and the streets and the infrastructure—is also the key to being able to improve conditions in historically disinvested neighborhoods and beginning to address inequities in the built environment. 

Gov. Parris Glendening, President of Smart Growth America’s Leadership Institute 

The three day Equity Summit was excellent. I was fortunate to be able to attend all three panels. There were certainly a number of interesting and important studies about the relationship between equity and housing, economic development, interstate highways, etc, but three important observations explain the impact and real heart of the full Summit for me: 

  1. The human element is very important. My friend the late Senator Ted Kennedy told me on several occasions, “To really get people’s attention tell a story. Make it real and personal and people will remember it.” That is exactly what panelist after panelist did starting with keynote speaker Dr. Andre Perry’s discussion about how structural racism in our land use policies “systematically de-values Black people,” all the way through the stories about the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul from the third panel’s Melvin Giles. These stories make the growing inequity in America real and personable and I will remember them for a long time.
  2. The connection between smart growth and inequity in America was covered well by many participants. It is best summed up, however, in Calvin Gladney’s conclusion: Smart growth is about equity. It is not smart growth if it does not improve equity in our communities, in America.
  3. When discussing equity and smart growth it is clear that everything is related. Equity is related to smart growth, land use, healthy communities, transit, shared fair economic development, climate change, and on and on. It is almost impossible to talk about any of these issues without noting the interrelationship of all of them.

My conclusion, as the person who started the first statewide Smart Growth program in 1996, is that smart growth started in Maryland largely as a limited effort to protect the Chesapeake Bay. Today it is the heart and soul of reducing and eliminating inequity in America.

Reminder: If you listened to part or all of the Summit, we want to hear from you too! Use the form below to share your own personal reflection, and we’ll share some of them in a future post. Stories that are published may be lightly edited for clarity, length, and typos. We’ll try to notify you in advance via email if we publish yours.