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Poverty and Racism Series, Part 3: Beloved Community
December 17, 2017
It has been a pleasure and an honor to converse with so many of you (more than 200 since early November) on these difficult social issues of poverty and racism.
In case you are new to the discussion, here are my previous newsletters in the series, which include dozens of constituents' observations and opinions:
- November 5 - Introduction
- November 19 - Part 1: The Poverty Trap
- December 3 - Part 2: A Brief History of Race
Today, I plan to move forward from the problems of poverty and racism in our society to real solutions - particularly, strategies and policies we can implement or (at least) influence together, as voters and policy-makers in the City of Columbia - and I have titled this idea, "Beloved Community."
But first, I want to present, without comment, a selection of your responses to the December 3 discussion of race and racism:
- The concept of “race” is not real … one good definition of racism is the belief in the idea of race
- I really don't think that the idea of race was originally started consciously by a group that wanted to exploit others. As I read history and autobiographies of people of different cultures, what I see is a more organic beginning, born of fear and ignorance.
- I do think one of the causes of racism is related to poverty, but it seems you may have left out a main indicator of poverty - single-parent head of households.
- In the world of racism, the blacks have contributed to their problem and you didn’t mention this at all.
- The Blacks moved north and the whites (mostly liberals, read Star Parker) changed their circumstances when they could and in large part tore the black families apart with their welfare regulations.
- People should not be ashamed of having assumed that race is genetic or natural or whatever, based on their interpretation of the reality around them, which has been influenced by racist structures (such as the racially restricted housing covenants and other mid-20th century legal structures) and racist cultural tropes – but they should be ashamed if they continue believing that, in the face of the scientific and social-scientific evidence.
- My uncle was … mayor of Ferguson, a union man, and a die hard democrat. And, I think it's fair to say, he was probably also a racist. No, he did not overtly put non-whites down, but his actions did nothing to quell the problems that his city so obviously faced. He probably denied there was a problem.
- I recently ran across this excellent and fascinating old video of a classroom experiment where children were discriminated against by having to wear a collar that designated them as blue-eyed or brown-eyed.
In 1956, Dr. Martin Luther King described a powerful and compelling global vision, in which all people would share in the wealth of the earth.
Naming it "Beloved Community," King developed this vision over numerous speeches throughout the remainder of his life. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness would not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice would be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes would be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust would triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice would prevail over war.
Personally, I cannot imagine a better vision for the world, the United States of America, or Columbia, Missouri, and I suspect many of you will agree with me - although some will disagree and I respect those opinions (consistent with the Beloved Community framework). Therefore, as I reflect on our discussions over the last two months, and try to focus on specific actions to take to address poverty and racism in Columbia, Beloved Community is the vision I am striving for. I encourage each of you to develop your personal vision and let me know what that is.
Whether your vision is Beloved Community, something similar, or something quite different, I want your ideas for moving forward - thank you so much to those of you who have already provided your specific suggestions, summarized here:
- I think our best chance is with children. Babies are not born with personal bias or prejudice...they learn it.
- Curriculum that addresses these issues, starting at the very beginning...daycare, preschool, kindergarten, and continuing throughout a child’s public or private education.
- I have often thought that students should be required to stay in school until eighteen, and that just might help a bit in halting cultural poverty and racism.
- One effort I would like to see on the part of the city is a further collaboration with the Columbia Public School System to increase the kind and quality of education obtained by African American and Latino students.
- For those young people from disadvantaged family, the city should create job trainings, or encourage job providers to give one.
- I'm hopeful that the boost in the economy will help drive money into sectors of the population that have been left behind over the last 20 years.
- Instead of the city council approving plans for greater high risers for students and hotels, approval of plans for affordable housing and small loans for minorities to rehab houses and start businesses would be a start.
- One of my daughters ... was working with High school drop outs. Through ongoing conversations she learned several things that I feel are important. First, that most of the young black girls didn’t think they could do anything to change their lives. Second, that they didn’t know how to use the systems that could help them change. ... They needed a ”bridge” to help them get a library card, to register to vote, and other things that are available as part of our community.
- When I started to get to know various homeless people, and to read the stories of homeless people around the country, my eyes were opened in a new way. I had had a lot of assumptions about the homeless, and when those were shattered, I found I had much more compassion for those who have lost their homes. I think in the same way our community could be helped by getting to know the life stories of many of the people in our community, to see real people instead of just the outer color, to hear what they deal with instead of assuming we know.
- I think you are doing what exactly the city councilmen should do - open dialogue and discussion.
I agree with all of these suggestions, and I'm pleased to report that some of them are already happening, although most of them need more political support to really gain traction. In the remainder of this newsletter I will summarize a few institutional initiatives which have been launched in Columbia during the last 2-3 years and then describe some of the more specific public policy changes I believe should become priorities.
City of Columbia Strategic Plan
The City's "social equity" focused 2016-19 Strategic Plan has been discussed elsewhere in this series.
I like the Strategic Plan for several reasons:
- In identifying a limited number of target neighborhoods (now, four), the plan recognizes that the problem is too large and too complex to be tackled with one program;
- By adjusting budget priorities to improve City investment in these neighborhoods of poverty, the plan acknowledges that the existing "status quo" was fundamentally inequitable;
- Through intentional and sustained community engagement activities, the plan helps the City to understand neighborhood needs and empower neighborhood leaders;
- In giving police officers a leading role in community engagement, the plan demonstrates the benefits of community-oriented policing;
- By measuring key indicators, the plan enables us to evaluate what's working and what's not.
The 2017 Strategic Plan Annual Report was released recently and it is clear that we are making real progress on our stated goal to strengthen our community so all individuals thrive.
As one example, the City has created a "Minority and Women-Owned Businesses Directory" and held several training workshops and "Contractors Expos" to expand the diversity of firms hired by the City and other institutions and businesses for contract work.
Boone Impact Group and Boone Indicators Dashboard
The Boone Impact Group (BIG) is a collaboration among Boone County, the City of Columbia, and Heart of Missouri United Way. BIG coordinates the work of local social service funders and stakeholders, using a "collective impact model" to identify resource gaps, help providers maximize their effectiveness, prevent duplication of services, and align the strengths and abilities of institutions and organizations to tackle challenging social issues together.
To assist in their efforts to reduce economic and social disparities in Boone County, BIG works to convene the community around the issues. For example, the group partnered with community stakeholders and national experts last year to organize the Homelessness Summit, which helped build a shared understanding of the real issues behind homelessness and led to community goals and strategies. As a result of this event, along with the earlier Affordable Housing Symposium, the community has adopted a "Housing First" model and created the Columbia Community Land Trust.
Other examples of these "collective impact" programs include the Cradle to Career Alliance (Education), the Live Well Boone County Community Health Improvement Plan (Health), and "convergence projects" in which independent agencies focused on mental health, criminal justice, and homelessness recognize that their different social issues often relate to a single root cause, and so they all come together to actually solve the problem instead of staying in their siloes and just responding to the symptoms.
In order to inform and align planning efforts, resource investment, performance management and progress monitoring, BIG is working with the University of Missouri Office of Social and Economic Data Analysis (OCEDA) and other data experts to develop the Boone Indicators Dashboard (BID). In designing this "data warehouse," OCEDA has incorporated the most reliable data available for Boone County populations and issues into an easily accessible and visual display system that informs stakeholders and the general public about health, education, housing, and socio-economic "community indicators."
Columbia Public Schools Home-Grown Teachers Program
One of my favorite new initiatives addressing social and racial disparities in Columbia is the "Home-Grown Teachers Program" or "EdX Internship Program" as it is now known (I prefer the original name).
The result of a collaboration involving Columbia Public Schools (CPS), the Worley Street Round Table, the University of Missouri, Columbia College, and Stephens College, goals of the program are to "grow" the school teachers of tomorrow and help CPS develop a professional staff that reflects the racial diversity of the community. To do this, high-school students with an interest in a teaching career can apply for paid EdX internships, which will give them the opportunity to observe and work with professional educators during summer school. Interns will develop:
- Effective teaching strategies
- Classroom management strategies
- Interpersonal relationship skills
- Student assessment techniques
Following successful completion of the program, interns are eligible for full-ride scholarships to study education and receive teacher training at MU, Columbia, or Stephens. The elegant "loop" is closed when/if the students return to Columbia Public Schools as teaching professionals, so they can model their success for the next group of students.
Not only does this program address the shortage of minority school teachers, it is a beautiful example of Columbia's resources being re-investing in the community. Along the same lines and for the same reasons, I have proposed the idea of a "Home-Grown Police Officers' Program."
University of Missouri Inclusive Excellence Framework
Another exciting initiative is the "Inclusive Excellence Framework," being promoted by MU Vice Chancellor for Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity, Kevin McDonald.
The framework has been developed and practiced in institutions of higher education for many years. In this context, "Inclusive Excellence" rejects the concept of a racial hierarchy and embraces the fact (well established in research) that diverse groups are more creative, better problem-solvers, and achieve higher levels of excellence than non-diverse groups. From this foundation, the Association of American College and Universities advanced an operational definition of Inclusive Excellence which consists of four primary elements:
- A focus on student intellectual and social development;
- A purposeful development and utilization of organizational resources to enhance student learning;
- Attention to the cultural differences learners bring to the educational experience and that enhance the enterprise;
- A welcoming community that engages all of its diversity.
In addition to implementing this framework at MU, Kevin and his team are working with Diversity Awareness Partnership to adapt these ideas for the business community and beyond. He recently gave a presentation to the Columbia City Council and I am interested in the City adopting Inclusive Excellence as the framework for our next Strategic Plan.
Specific Personal Initiatives
In the following sections, I will discuss some specific policy issues I am currently working on, which address poverty and racism. Please let me know whether you support these ideas.
Over the last 2 years, I have written extensively about my vision for Columbia to adopt a community-oriented policing philosophy and implement a city-wide community-oriented policing program.
I was disappointed in July when the proposal (put forward by Mike Trapp and myself) for a "Community Engagement Process about Policing," failed to gain community support. However, since then, the NAACP has hosted several well-attended public forums at which a diverse group of community residents have engaged with the Mayor, Council members, City Manager, and Police Chief in open and honest discussions about community policing and racial profiling, leading to several specific recommendations.
As a result, I am now confident that Columbia will embrace community-oriented policing in the near future, and I am working with Council colleagues towards that goal.
Equity and the Cost of Growth
I have also written extensively about the massive public subsidies given to new development in this community, which disproportionately harm Columbia's poorest residents.
In 2014, I conducted an analysis of ten years of data (2004-2014), which showed that more than $50 million of tax-payers' and rate-payers' money had been used to build infrastructure for new housing and commercial buildings in Columbia. My analysis just looked at the capacity expansion projects in the water, sewer, storm-water, electric, and road systems - had fire, police, parks, and schools also been included, the total would have been in excess of $100 million.
Columbia has been growing at about 2% per year for decades, meaning we are adding 500 to 1,000 new homes every year, along with a proportional number of commercial and industrial buildings. Obviously, if we have a sewer treatment plant that has been designed for 10,000 homes and we're adding 1,000 new homes every year, the plant will have to be expanded pretty soon and it is perfectly fair, reasonable, and logical for that incremental cost to be recovered from the new development that is driving the expansion. When I conducted my study in 2014, the City was only recovering about 25% of that cost in our "sewer system equity connection fee" (a one-time fee that is charged to new development at the time a building permit is issued). I'm happy to report that we have increased that connection fee since then, and it now recovers about 75% of the cost.
However, we do not have an electric system equity connection fee. New development hooks up to our electrical grid - forcing the City to expand the capacity of our electric transmission and distribution networks, build brand new substations, and install new transformers - at no charge. And yet, according to Utilities Department data, the City spends about $6.5 million annually - more than $500,000 per month - on electric utility projects that are built for the sole purpose of expanding the system for new customers. Since we do not currently have a system equity connection fee for the electric utility, this entire cost is being paid by our 40,000 existing customers - on average, every household in Columbia is paying more than $12 per month to subsidize new development. For the 30,000 Columbia residents living below the federal poverty level ($24,600 annual income for a family of 4), that $12 per month is an enormous and unfair burden that traps people in poverty.
And yet, the Columbia Board of Realtors (CBOR) opposes the adoption of an electric system equity connection fee - please take a few minutes to read CBOR's recent letter to City Council and my response to CBOR.
Inclusionary Housing Policy
Columbia's extreme shortage of affordable homes is an enormous barrier to families getting out of poverty.
More than 12,000 rental households in Columbia (about 57% of all renters) and about 3,500 owner-occupied households (23%) are "cost-burdened" by 30% or more. Because at least 30% of their income goes to housing and utilities, these families and individuals are in a fragile economic situation and at high risk of becoming homeless. Unfortunately, the housing market is unable to provide affordable housing and so it is left to government to address this problem.
Last year, we established the Columbia Community Land Trust (CCLT), which uses federal grants and other sources to purchase land, partners with non-profit developers (such as Jobpoint, Habitat for Humanity, and CMCA), and then sells the homes to qualified low-income purchasers while retaining ownership of the land. While this approach creates permanently affordable homes, the CCLT is very limited in the number of homes it can construct each year.
A more productive strategy for creating affordable housing would be to adopt an "Inclusionary Housing Policy." Cities that have implemented this type of policy have seen significant increases in their stock of affordable housing because the affordable homes are built by private-sector developers as a result of incentives or code requirement. For example, at least 10% of the homes in a project of 20 homes or more must be sold or rented at affordable rates, according to federal area median income formulas.
Another tremendous benefit of inclusionary housing is that it results in mixed-income and mixed-wealth neighborhoods, which has been shown to reduce socio-economic inequities.
Columbia's public transportation program is desperately under-funded. Compared with other college towns, we invest between 20-30% per capita in our transit operating budget. As a result, our level of service (frequency, hours of service, coverage of routes, etc.) is so poor that the only people using the bus system are those with no other choice!
However, if we could increase the budget such that most people lived within a 5-minute walk of a bus stop, such that buses were coming every 15-20 minutes and operated 7 days a week and late into the evening, then we would see a significant increase in ridership as taking the bus would become much more attractive for many people.
Improving public transportation in Columbia would enable low-income families to access work, education, health care, and other services more easily and more affordably. Since the average cost of owning and operating a car in the US is more than $8,000 per year according to an analysis by AAA, it would also enable some families to save a lot of money by reducing the number of cars they own.
I do not believe we can realistically increase taxes for public transportation at this time, so we need to look at re-allocating existing revenue. With Columbia currently spending tens of millions of dollars on unnecessary highway expansion projects, such as the proposed widening of Forum Boulevard, I feel we have the opportunity to invest in a more economical and efficient transportation system.
What do you think?
In Montgomery, AL, the Equal Justice Initiative is building a National Memorial to the Victims of Lynching. As part of this project, counties that have experienced racial lynchings will be able to claim their monuments and install them in the courthouse square as an educational exhibit and an acknowledgement of a dark past.
I believe Boone County should claim our monument in memory of James T. Scott and other possible victims. This action would have an immensely positive, healing effect in our community.
Over the last two months, we have discussed the causes of poverty, the history of racism, and some possible strategies for creating a Beloved Community.
Poverty and racism are consequences of power imbalances. Therefore, we need a strong, highly-engaged democracy that reflects the values of most people and imposes reasonable limitations on what people can do. We need to resist extreme wealth disparity and build an economic environment that emphasizes cooperation rather than competition. In America today, we have a system that lavishly rewards people for "climbing the ladder" (and kicking other folks down at the same time) and cruelly punishes those who cannot make progress up the ladder or fall off. This motivates human beings to behave in a self-interested and often unethical way, believing that they’re doing what they are supposed to do, within the system - and, in the not-too-distant past, unethical behavior in pursuit of wealth and power extended to the enslavement of entire peoples.
So what should we do, moving forward? In the area of racism, we need to understand the terrible harm that African Americans, Native Americans, and others have suffered, acknowledge the continuing economic impacts of that racist past, and find ways to "level the playing field" so that everyone can thrive. In the area of poverty, we want a society in which everyone is able to achieve financial independence and security - while it’s clear we cannot leave that to the “free market,” I do not believe cash handouts to people in poverty are the answer because that fosters dependency. Overall, I prefer the intermediate strategy of creating a supportive external environment (Medicare for all, a universal basic income, children's trust fund, good public education, good public transportation, etc.) which will empower people to build their own capacity.
Of course, the federal tax bill that's about to be passed by the United States Congress does the exact opposite of this, so we have work to do!