Transforming the Way We Do Development

The PCRG Community Development Summit was held on May 8-9, 2019. It was titled Capital and Capacity: Replanting Roots in an Ever-Shifting Reinvestment Landscape. The title was an undersell to say the least. I would characterize this year’s summit as Transforming the way we do development.

The summit’s first session on May 8, Under our Own Power: Games to Inform, Organize, Build Capacity, and Compel Action was not your ordinary “we can make community engagement engaging” kind of session. The session was facilitated by the Andrea Elcock of the Port Authority of Allegheny County, David Totten of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission and a team from evolveEA that included Christine Mondor, Elijah Hughes, Ashley Cox and Daniel Klein. Christine set the tone early by framing levels of engagement from low (transactional) to high (transformational).

These levels of engagement can and should build off of each other. Just because an engagement is transactional, that doesn’t mean it is bad. Sometimes you just need to inform people. However, if you need to get things done, it will require a more significant engagement effort. This goes far beyond the typical community engagement process of Inform, Collect Feedback, Ignore Feedback.

On May 9, Andrea Batista Schlesinger of HR&A Advisors fired up the breakfast club with a call for Equitable Development. Ms. Schlesinger did not pull punches, for example she led off by saying that “Economic development is not neutral, it is political and the tools of economic development and planning are often used to enforce racial segregation.” She called for equity to be a central focus and not an “extracurricular activity.” She advocated for an approach to Equitable Economic Development that I have boiled down to four critical questions for every development program or initiative:

  1. Who wins?
  2. Who loses?
  3. Who made the plan? Or who runs the program?
  4. How do you protect people from your good intentions?

At the lunch keynote, Nathaniel Smith of the Partnership for Southern Equity made clear that the problems of inequity today are rooted in our history. Early in his address he quoted James Baldwin: “History is not even the past; It is the present.” Mr. Smith made clear what he meant when he said “Extreme Extraction = Extreme Inequality” that he matched with maps and photos of America’s slave trade and the Trail of Tears that displaced native peoples from their historic homelands.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Wealth, Asset Ownership, & Debt of Households Detailed Tables: 2014.

Today the net worth of black households is only seven percent of the net worth of white households. While we might like to confine the sins of slavery and racism to the past, they are in the words of James Baldwin, very much a part of the present. New research by Dionissi Aliprantis and Daniel Carroll at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland explore the causes of the wealth gap. For an easily digestible summary of their research, see the article by Brentin Mock of CityLab, “Why Can’t We Close the Racial Wealth Gap?

If we are going to transform the way we do development, so that it is something that benefits people, then we need to reframe the development debate.

Under the hypothetical scenario used in their model, wherein no income gap exists since 1962—meaning all things equal in payscale between blacks and whites—they claim that the wealth gap likely would have mostly been closed by 2007. That’s because their model predicts that by 1977 the labor income gap has become a stronger contributor to the wealth gap than the initial conditions, and then accounts for more than 80 percent of the wealth gap by 1990, as visualized in the chart below.

If we are going to transform the way we do development, so that it is something that benefits people, then we need to reframe the development debate. Nathaniel Smith challenged us to consider the following: What would Pittsburgh look like if every policy were evaluated based on the impact on the most vulnerable?

So wherever you live, ask yourselves that question before you sink the next bucket of tax dollars into a development deal.