Reflections on Regionalism

Reflections on Regionalism 

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From Hope to Change: The New Equity Movement

By Angela Glover Blackwell

A movement for equity is blooming in America. We see evidence of this everywhere, along with signs that the public wants change. Record numbers of voters participated in the 2008 election, a campaign that on its face challenged outmoded notions about race in this country. Young people are more involved in politics than at any time since the Sixties. Diverse voices, from Catholic Charities to the United States Conference of Mayors, have endorsed comprehensive policy agendas to end poverty. Millions of people are working hard every day to ensure that all of us live in fair, inclusive, and opportunity-rich communities.

What exactly do such communities look like? What does equity mean, and how can advocates working on disparate issues, such as healthcare, education, housing, community development, prison re-entry, job training, and the environment, make sure that equity and inclusion are at the heart of their efforts and goals? An equitable society is one in which everyone can participate and prosper. In short, equity creates a path from hope to change.

Regional equity is at the core of this broad, hopeful vision for full inclusion and sustainability and provides a roadmap for change. The regional equity concept recognizes that communities are the building blocks of vibrant, competitive regions and ultimately, a healthy, prosperous nation. America faces unprecedented challenges in the 21st century as we become a nation without a single predominant racial group. We cannot thrive if communities of color continue to be neglected, disinvested, and isolated from economic opportunity. As a framework for action, regional equity offers a toolkit of principles, strategies, and tactics for advancing opportunity for everyone.

Regional Equity Comes of Age

In March 2008, nearly 2,000 equity leaders working in communities, government, non-profit organizations, foundations, and universities gathered in New Orleans at Regional Equity ’08: The Third National Summit on Social Justice, Smart Growth, and Equitable Development. The paramount theme of the conference was how to build a more inclusive society and a more inclusive movement for social and economic change.

The regional equity concept emerged in the late 1990s, as social justice advocates recognized the role that metropolitan development played in maintaining and exacerbating racial and economic disparities. Fifty years of sprawl—the movement of jobs, people, infrastructure, and tax base away from cities toward the farthest edges of regions—left cities struggling for investment and consumed exorbitant amounts of land and resources. As opportunity shifted to the suburbs, communities of color were almost completely left behind in isolated, distressed neighborhoods.

The goal of regional equity is to ensure that all people—particularly low-income people of color—have access to the essential ingredients for success in our society: high-quality schools, living-wage jobs, transportation, strong social networks, decent housing, safe and walkable streets and parks, healthy food, an environment free of toxics and pollution, services, and infrastructure. The path to shared regional prosperity is equitable development, which stands on four principles:

1. Integrate people-focused strategies with those focused on improving places;

2. Reduce local and regional disparities;

3. Promote investments that are equitable, catalytic, and coordinated;

4. Ensure meaningful community participation, leadership, and ownership in change. [1]

Equitable development requires thinking intentionally about impacts at the beginning of political processes and demands a particular focus on people of color, who have historically been excluded from political conversation and decision making. Only through authentic wrestling with issues of diversity and difference can we respond to the monumental forces that are reshaping our country and our world.

Equity in a Changing World

Once in a great while, events and trends converge to shift collective consciousness and pave the way for broad social movements. The rejection of second-class citizenship by black soldiers returning from World War II, the entrance of the United States into international Cold War politics, and the successful independence struggles of former European colonies in Africa set the stage for the Civil Rights movement. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the “earthrise” photo from the 1968 Apollo mission awakened awareness about our natural resources and spurred an environmental movement. In both cases, large numbers of people formed the organizations that secured new laws, rights, and protections to achieve lasting social change. We are living in such a watershed moment.

Confidence in the American economy has waned: our education system and public infrastructure are crumbling, the middle class is disintegrating, the social safety net has frayed, and poverty is increasing. With more than two million people in prison—one in 15 black men is behind bars—the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. The need for a new direction in national policy is clear.

At the same time, four major forces of societal change—globalization, rising inequality, shifting demographics, and the environmental crisis—are giving new urgency to the principles of equitable development and demanding new approaches in every sector, from community-based programs and advocacy alliances to foundations, governments, and businesses. More than ever, regions are becoming the critical geographic unit and the locus for developing inclusive, equitable, sustainable solutions.

Globalization. The rapid development of transportation and communication technologies have sped up the diffusion of ideas, information, goods, capital, and people across the globe, creating vast entrepreneurial opportunities. But the benefits of globalization have accrued mostly to the new transnational elite, leaving behind the middle class, the working class, and the poor. The global economy has also changed the nature of competitiveness, with regions now vying for jobs and investment on a tough international playing field. Economic restructuring has devastated some industries in the United States and weakened the economies of entire cities and regions, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest. Low-wage service and retail jobs have replaced unionized blue-collar manufacturing jobs, hollowing out the labor market and limiting opportunities for upward mobility. The growing dominance of multinational conglomerates with dispersed operations makes it harder to hold companies accountable for their labor and environmental practices.

Rising inequality. The gap between rich and poor has widened since 1980, and is larger than in any other advanced industrial country. The United States also has one of the highest rates of poverty in the industrialized world—12 percent, or one in eight Americans. In 2006, 24 percent of African Americans and 22 percent of Latinos lived in poverty, compared with 10 percent of whites. But the geography of poverty and opportunity within regions is also changing. After a half-century of suburban flight the affluent are increasingly locating to cities, pushing working families and low-income blacks and Latinos to aging outlying communities. For the first time, suburban poor outnumber the urban poor.[2] The lack of affordable housing near jobs forces working families to cope with ever-higher costs for transportation, and the financial pressures are growing as fuel prices soar.[3]

Shifting demographics. We are moving toward a future of greater diversity and more complex, nuanced race relationships. One in three residents is a “minority.” Four states and the District of Columbia have no single dominant racial or ethnic group. While the nation’s citizenry is rapidly aging and married couples with children constitute a shrinking portion of total households, the population will continue to grow largely due to immigration and the higher birth rates among fast-growing racial and ethnic groups. Although immigrants remain heavily concentrated in the nation’s largest cities, they are dispersing to smaller cities, towns, and rural areas leaving local governments, school districts, and businesses grappling with culturally diverse and sometimes linguistically isolated constituents, students, and clients. In many places, the influx of people from varied ethnic backgrounds sparks conflict fueled by economic insecurity.

Environmental crisis. The issue of sustainability—ensuring that we protect resources for future generations—is not new, but climate change has increased its salience and urgency. Researchers on seven continents predict that, without intervention, climate disruption will lead to drought, heat waves, food shortages, disease, and ultimately, war, social upheavals, and economic instability. Society’s most vulnerable people will shoulder the greatest burden, even though they contribute the least to the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. African Americans and Latinos in the United States already are more likely to live in polluted communities and suffer from environmentally triggered health complications, such as asthma. As Hurricane Katrina made shockingly clear, low-income families often lack the means to move to safety when disaster strikes, and have fewer savings and assets to help them recover.

An Agenda for Change

The future of our nation depends upon everyone participating in its economic, social, and political life and the sustainability of our economy and natural resource base. The regional equity framework provides guidelines for dealing with the new challenges of crafting a national agenda for full inclusion and sustainability to engage communities that have traditionally been excluded from economic and political decision-making.

Globalization demands that economic and social justice advocates develop strategies that make the new economy work for, rather than against, working families and their neighborhoods. Advocates can build on the alignment between social and economic inclusion, and regional (and therefore national) competitiveness. We must pursue an agenda for shared economic prosperity, which includes:

  • Growing a sustainable high road economy that produces jobs with family-supporting wages and career ladders;
  • Fixing our crumbling roads, bridges, and other public infrastructure to connect low-income neighborhoods to their regional economies;
  • Investing in human development and building a strong, high-skilled workforce;
  • Increasing economic security of working families;
  • Improving the quality of existing jobs;
  • Managing the downside risks of globalization by providing retraining opportunities, and establishing strong standards and protections for labor and the environment.



Regional equity advocates have long focused on alleviating poverty and expanding opportunity. The changing geography of poverty now requires us to craft new policies and approaches, expand support systems and services to communities that need them, and build broader alliances and coalitions.

Shifting demographics have major implications for housing, development strategies, and organizing efforts. An aging population and the shrinking American family, combined with the rising costs of energy suggests a renewed demand for dense mixed-use urban neighborhoods. Advocates and policymakers must anticipate these market forces and mitigate gentrification at the front end by ensuring long-term affordability, economic opportunities for residents, and a community voice in the planning. The deepening diversity in more communities calls for efforts to include newcomers and minority groups in economic, social, and political life and strategies to work through language barriers, cultural differences, and the complexities of race relationships.

The environmental crisis presents an imperative to build on the agenda of environmental justice advocates who, for decades, have fought for a healthier and more sustainable society for all. Climate change has brought unprecedented media attention to our energy use and natural resources. The public and political will to find solutions is growing. In addition, the emerging green economy is projected to boom in the coming years, creating “green collar” jobs that offer living wages, skills development, and career ladders. Advocates need to ensure that these opportunities have few barriers to entry and are linked to the renewal of low-income communities.

Organizing for Action

In cities, suburbs, small towns, rural areas, and tribal nations across the United States, momentum is growing for broad, equitable change. From community leaders pushing for affordable housing, to neighborhood residents advocating for healthier food options close to home, to elected officials bringing positive change to scale, we see sophisticated strategies being developed as they lay the foundation for a national agenda for equity and inclusion.

Equitable development models are rebuilding distressed neighborhoods, connecting residents to jobs, transportation, good schools, parks, and grocery stores. The revitalization of West Garfield Park in Chicago through the activities of Bethel New Life; the Murphy Park school-centered, mixed-income neighborhood development in St. Louis; and Market Creek Plaza in San Diego’s Diamond neighbor

hoods, where residents own stock in the $45 million commercial and cultural center built on the site of an abandoned factory.[4] These are among the most mature models of true community transformation.

Innovative strategies are taking hold everywhere. The community benefits movement, which emerged in Los Angels a decade ago, is spreading and evolving. Dozens of communities have negotiated agreements to ensure that large development projects meet community goals for jobs, housing, services, and infrastructure. Transit Oriented Development (TOD), which promotes dense mixed-use development around a transit stop to create vibrant and walkable neighborhoods, has become a standard development “product” and advocates in the San Francisco Bay Area, Denver, Portland, and Seattle are implementing strategies to ensure that TOD benefits current residents and businesses. Inclusionary zoning has been widely embraced, and more than 300 cities and counties now require or encourage private developers to include affordable units in their market-rate developments.[5] And efforts to improve the built environment to increase the health of vulnerable populations are gaining traction among researchers, policymakers, and advocates.

The organizational infrastructure that supports the regional equity movement has expanded. National organizing networks are building urban/suburban coalitions, and regional equity coalitions are making strides in Boston, Sacramento, and Washington, D.C. Research is shaping the direction of organizing and action. Data analyses have shown that poverty and inequality within regions harms economic competitiveness. Policy analyses describe how creating avenues for low-income residents to build income and assets promotes long-term regional and national prosperity.[6]

Lessons learned from hurricanes Rita and Katrina have pushed advocates to develop strategies to ensure that future disasters do not disproportionately affect poor communities and communities of color. Building government and community capacity, making certain that federal and state funding allocations benefit low-income homeowners and renters, and connecting displaced residents to resources are just a few of the many approaches inspired by the rebuilding efforts in the Gulf Coast.

Needed, a Roadmap of Collective Wisdom

All of us now must join together to move forward on the path from hope to change. We must create a roadmap based on our collective wisdom and knowledge. We must articulate principles and policy proposals that have the power to shape the political debate in the media, in legislatures, in boardrooms, in living rooms, and in the streets.

Our efforts must span all levels of policy action—federal, state, regional, and local—and include institutional change as a primary target. We must work in the key areas of economic development, infrastructure, transportation, workforce development, education, housing and neighborhoods, prison re-entry, health, land use, fiscal and tax policy, and the environment. The movement must cut across bureaucratic silos and encourage holistic thinking.

Experience has taught us that community engagement and empowerment lead to stronger, more meaningful policy reform and social change. Everyone—particularly people of color, who have historically been excluded from participation in decision-making and previous reform waves in America—must have confidence that the movement for equity enhances their political power, social cohesion, sense of place, and prospects for the future. 


1. For background on equitable development, see Promoting Regional Equity: A Framing Paper, Oakland, California. PolicyLink, 2002; Fox, Radhika and Blackwell, Angela Glover. Regional Equity and Smart Growth: Opportunities for Advancing Social and Economic Justice in America, Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities, 2004; Advocating for Equitable Development, Oakland, California, PolicyLink, 2005.

2. Berube, Alan and Kneebone, Barbara, Two Steps Back: City and Suburban Poverty Trends, 1999-2005 (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 2006).

3. Lipman, Barbara J., A Heavy Load: The Combined Housing and Transportation Burdens of Working Families, Washington, D.C.: Center for Housing Policy, 2006. Available at

4. Stuhldreher, Anne, “The People’s IPO: Lower-income patrons of Market Creek Plaza can now invest in the shopping center,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, available at

5. Center for Housing Policy, The Effects of Inclusionary Zoning on Local Housing Markets: Lessons from the San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Suburban Boston Areas, New York City, Furman Center.

6. Vey, Jennifer, Restoring Prosperity: The State Role in Revitalizing America’s Older Industrial Cities, Washington, D.C. The Brookings Institution, 2007.

This article is based on Regional Equity and the Quest for Full Inclusion, by Angela Glover Blackwell and Sarah Treuhaft, presented at Regional Equity ’08: The Third National Summit on Social Justice, Smart Growth, and Equitable Development. See

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Organizing Against Urban Sprawl: A New Model

By Gregory A. Galluzzo

I have been a community organizer in the tradition of Saul Alinsky since 1972. I must confess that I regard my first 15 years of organizing as “cleaning the engine room of the Titanic.” Working within the most unglamorous part of the ship—the slums, the ghettos, and the barrios of America—we focused on cleaning the grease, polishing the knobs, and adjusting the nozzles. In other words, we worked on getting rid of drug houses, improving a park, and opening a health clinic, while the ship itself was being steered “right” and towards certain disaster, rendering irrelevant all of our efforts in turning communities around. To illustrate the point, I like to tell a story.

The Parable of the Inner City

There once lived a people in a mountain valley with a beautiful lake at its center. The lake supported a diversity of wild plant and animal life and was a source of recreation for the valley’s inhabitants. Water from the lake was used to create beautiful fountains and to irrigate farms and gardens, as well as to raise livestock. The well being of the valley and its inhabitants was totally dependent on the lake.

However, some people living in a valley below were very jealous of the lifestyle enjoyed by the inhabitants of the upper valley. So, they secretly dug a tunnel below the lake and proceeded to drain its water for their own purposes.

The people in the upper valley soon began to suffer. Their plant and animal life diminished and died, as did their crops and livestock. The fountains were shut off and the gardens abandoned. The people attempted to adapt to their new reality but without their life-sustaining lake, the deterioration was inexorable and soon the upper valley turned into a desolate place.

This is exactly what has happened to our inner cities. Once, they were like the place by the lake—vibrant and prosperous—until the suburbs came along and drained them of their capital. In a capitalist society, the garden always grows wherever the capital flows. Now those of us who inhabit the urban cores of our society are fighting for some of that diminishing capital.

Urban sprawl and a systematic disinvestment from our cities underlie the seemingly endemic social problems of America. It’s a peculiar phenomenon that has led to economic and racial isolation, disparities in political power, the disappearance of an urban agenda in national policy, the weakening of unions, and a massive destruction of the environment.

St. Louis and Buffalo, once cities of populations over 600,000, now have around 300,000 residents. Likewise Cleveland and Detroit, once with populations of 800,000 and 1.8 million respectively, have halved their populations. The consequent effect on city services, property values, commercial enterprises, job opportunities, schools, and congregations has been catastrophic. Only the poor are left behind.

Playing Robin Hood in Reverse

Thirty-five years ago Gary, Indiana was a city full of promise with its prosperous steel mills and the nation’s first black mayor of a major city. If you were to drive through Gary today you would think that it had been systematically fire bombed. The city has lost tens of thousands of homes and the downtown area is a boarded up ghost town with its abandoned Holiday Inn and convention center. There is not enough money to support good schools and other city services.

However, if you were to take a helicopter ride and survey the region around Gary, you would see that some 40,000 new homes, new churches, and a mall—one of the largest in the country—have sprung up in the suburbs of Gary. It is a prime example of what urban sprawl does to a metropolitan region where there is little actual population growth. For every home built in the suburbs, a home will be abandoned in the city; for every mall created, whole urban commercial districts will be devastated; for every suburban church built, a city church will wither.

The irony of this tragedy is that the city of Gary actually subsidized its own demise when it subsidized the water, sewer, and utility lines for its suburbs. Money that could have been used to fix its streets was used to build expressways and roads in the suburbs.

We have in America a Robin Hood in reverse syndrome—we take from the poor and give to the rich. People in our inner cities need to go to the suburbs to shop. There is not a single Sears store in the city of Detroit and every time a city resident needs a Diehard battery, he or she is subsidizing education and services for wealthier people in the suburbs.

Minnetonka, a suburban development just outside the Twin Cities area in Minnesota, is another example of such a transfer of wealth. Of the $360 million in public monies spent on creating it, only about $30 million came from the people in the new suburb. The people in the cities and older suburbs provided the balance, which would have been better spent on repairing streets and yes, some important bridges.

Real property, which for most Americans provides a hedge against retirement or the capital to start a business or send children to college, has been stagnant or declining in value in many urban areas. John a. powell, founder and president of Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute, says that economic well being should be measured not by income but by equity. He tells the sad story of his father and his friend, both war veterans who obtained Veteran Administration (VA) loans to buy homes.

Owing to a law restricting the use of VA loan monies to integrate communities, John Powell Sr., an African American, could not buy a home in the newly created suburbs, while his white friend could not buy in the Detroit inner city. Both homes cost the same, but 30 years later, the white veteran’s suburban home was worth over $350,000, whereas the black veteran’s home was still worth only $15,000. The situation is tantamount to stealing over $300,000 from an African American family. Multiply this by 10 million and you get some idea of how institutional racism plays itself out in the United States.

The Peculiar Phenomenon of Urban Sprawl

Professor powell makes the startling statement that the net capital worth of the entire black community in America is zero. As much is owed as is owned. But the net worth of the white community is $9.0 trillion. This disparity is largely a result of the creation of urban sprawl.

Currently, congressional districts from the suburbs outnumber urban and rural districts combined. So, the majority of those who make our laws in congress are uninterested in the issues facing city dwellers. And unions tend to lose their power the farther they go from the city.

Perhaps the most tragic victims of this peculiar phenomenon are the children in our cities. The most predictive factor of success for schools is the economic status of the population they serve—the greater the concentration of poverty, the more likely that the children will do poorly. Poor children living in a middle income neighborhood will have a much greater chance of success than children living in areas of concentrated poverty where they have few role models, live in crime infested communities, and have no opportunities for summer and after school jobs. Urban sprawl, because it concentrates poverty, puts tens of thousands of America’s children on the economic conveyor built to the junk heap of history.

Urban sprawl also destroys green space. The building of houses on natural flood basins and the ever growing network of expressways with their polluting traffic pose the number one threat to the environment.

But it does not have to be this way.

Portland’s Solution to Urban Sprawl

In Portland, Oregon they have created an urban growth boundary around the already developed metropolitan region. Thirty years ago, the metropolitan planning council created a policy that no government funds would be expended outside this boundary. As a result, property within the boundary is now worth a million dollars per acre; whereas, outside the boundary an acre fetches about $1,000. People can build outside the boundary but they will not have a road, sewer system, or water main built to their house. And in the event of a house fire, there is no guarantee that a fire truck will be made available, causing home insurance rates to go up.

Julius Caesar is quoted as saying: “The margin of profit for most enterprises is government subsidy.” An observation that is as true today as it was 2,000 years ago. By restricting subsidies outside the metropolitan area Portland created a level playing field for African Americans. Now property values in Portland’s traditional black community have increased by 10 billion dollars.

Organizing for the Sprawl

The type of issues at the heart of the urban problem are: how taxes are raised and spent, the allocation of federal and state transportation dollars, school funding formulas, land use policy, water rights, and opportunity housing. We need to stop subsidizing urban sprawl and the concentration of poverty and create a tax policy that spreads the wealth equitably across a region. We also need to mandate mixed income housing in every suburb. But the traditional model of organizing neighborhoods in urban areas to solve problems is no longer relevant because decisions affecting the urban core are not made by city hall—they are made at a regional level and governed by state law.

Those who make policy realize that the population in the urban core is now a small minority. Milwaukee, Cleveland, Detroit, Gary, Buffalo, Atlanta, St. Louis, and Oakland do not have that much clout in state politics. These cities are a minority even in their metropolitan region. To move political power we must build a much broader base and organize at the metropolitan and state wide levels.

In his book, Who Rules America: Power Politics and Social Change, William Domhoff asserts that the forces of sprawl combine into a cabal that wields enormous power at the state and local levels and real change can occur only when all progressive forces align.

Unions, civil rights organizations, progressive politicians, transportation activists, environmentalists, and urban neighborhoods are all negatively impacted by sprawl. And increasingly, the first and second rings of suburbs are also being affected, giving many suburban politicians an interest in curbing this ever expanding circle of destruction.

It is time for community organizing to recognize that its targeted base should expand beyond the minority and working class white communities in cities to include some middle-income suburbs as well. Combating urban sprawl offers an opportunity to create the type of coalition that Domhoff describes as necessary for change.

The Way Out of the Sprawl

Our next president comes out of the community organizing tradition. A former director of a Gamaliel affiliate on the South Side of Chicago, Barack Obama understands the pernicious problems created by urban sprawl for the people in the cities. He has also constructed a powerful coalition of progressive forces in this country, which crosses race, class, and geographic boundaries. This is an optimum time for the new organizing model to take root by tapping into this emerging coalition with a fresh outlook on solving problems. By examining the racial implications of urban sprawl and committing ourselves to addressing them effectively we can begin to heal many of the seemingly incurable social problems confronting our country.

Gregory A. Galluzzo, a former Jesuit priest, is the national director and co-founder of the Gamaliel Foundation, a community organizing network representing more than a million multi-faith, multi-racial church-going people who work on campaigns for social justice.

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Race, Regionalism, and the Future of Organized Labor

By Greg LeRoy

As America’s labor movement organizes to recover its strength in numbers, race and regionalism are central to its coalition-building needs. The movement has come to realize that suburban sprawl, with its discriminatory patterns of economic opportunity, is anti-union, and progressive smart growth is the public policy menu that goes hand-in-hand with new member organizing.

Forward-looking labor leaders are embracing America’s urban residents of color who are denied economic opportunity when sprawl drives jobs to the fringe. By advocating for progressive regional smart growth policies that intentionally benefit urban families—such as affordable housing, better transit and schools, and the clean up of brownfields—unions can win the loyalty of workers central to their rebuilding strategy. At the level of specific development projects, coalitions can help win good jobs and new bargaining units for urban residents by advocating for community benefits—such as living wages, local hiring, and anti-displacement safeguards. Rising energy prices and a growing awareness of climate change are the newest wildcards in urban development patterns. Will the wealthy return to transit-rich cities and massively displace working families, especially those of color? How can unionized workplaces become more energy-efficient and competitive? And will the new movement for “green jobs” and greener workplaces enable unions to finally defeat the “no smoke, no jobs” ideology that has often divided unions from environmentalists?

The bottom line: if labor expects to rebuild its political strength and influence for working families in the state capitols and in Washington D.C., it must first recover and build upon its urban roots. It can do that by building a more diverse labor movement.

Restoring the Legal Right to Organize

With union density in the United States’ private sector teetering at less than eight percent—by far the lowest of any industrial democracy—the labor movement is advocating the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) to replace the National Labor Relations Act. (The low union membership is attributable to the anti-union climate that has evolved since the Reagan administration. How that hostility came about is a complicated story. Sprawl is one underlying cause.)

The EFCA would provide majority sign-up rights and other safeguards to allow workers to decide, free from corporate coercion, whether they want a union. Endorsing the EFCA has for years been the litmus test for politicians seeking labor’s support, and groups like American Rights at Work have been educating the public on the need for reform. Indeed, the law passed the United States House of Representatives in 2007, but was killed by a filibuster in the Senate. Advocates hope that EFCA will become law, especially if the Democratic majority in the United States Senate grows to a filibuster-proof 60.

Sprawl Creates Less Opportunity, Weaker Unions

Studies by Good Jobs First show that suburban sprawl is a broadly anti-union phenomenon. While each industry has its particulars, across the board, as jobs thin out geographically, away from cities, they also tend to de-unionize. At the same time, urban residents without a car, disproportionately people of color, lose access to jobs as growth occurs on the fringe beyond the transit lines.[1]

Beyond Wal-Mart’s effect on the United Food and Commercial Workers, transit jobs are undermined because commuters have to use cars. Unionized inner-city hospitals are stressed, forced to serve a disproportionate number of families without private insurance as sprawl concentrates poverty in urban cores. Similar patterns are evident in hospitality, construction, manufacturing, building services, and trucking.

In grocery retailing, non-union companies, such as Wal-Mart, Food Lion, and Food Shoppers Warehouse, penetrate metro areas starting in the exurbs. Typically accessible only by auto, they undermine transit accessible stores in cities and older suburbs, while denying access to fresh food and food-price competition to people without cars.

The rapidly growing hospitality industry, while rich in job opportunity, is notorious for low wages except when unionized, which is limited to some urban cores, airport areas, gaming centers, and amusement parks. Similarly, cleaning and maintenance work in office buildings is unionized in many urban cores, but not in most “edge cities.”

Manufacturers migrate outward for the same “push” reasons as other businesses, and for factory-specific reasons, such as production systems that require “large footprint” single-story plants; some also seek to avoid unions. A few foreign-owned auto assembly plants have even been charged with discriminatory practices, such as recruitment territories that exclude urban areas with minority populations.

In construction, “rat” or non-union contractors typically enter a metro area by building sprawl at the fringe and nibbling inward.

In the public sector, sprawl undermines the tax bases of older areas, so public school teachers and other government employees suffer lower pay, tougher working conditions, and the increasing pressure for privatization schemes, such as school vouchers. Indeed, a chronic decline in the tax base creates a systemic web of problems for urban governments and public employees.[2]

CLCs: Advocates for Smart Growth

Central Labor Councils (CLCs) are metro federations of local unions whose leaders have unwittingly become smart growth activists. A 2003 survey reveals that all of them see serious problems in suburban sprawl and have advocated for urban reinvestment policies, collectively known as smart growth.

More than three in four CLC leaders believe:

a. that there is a geographic mismatch between the creation of new jobs and the location of affordable housing and the dispersion of jobs is undermining union density;

b. that the health of someone in their family has been harmed by environmental pollution;

c. that some suburbs use exclusionary zoning against low- or middle-income families and the growing political power of new suburbs is undermining the political clout of working families;

d. that regional infrastructure systems do not treat older areas fairly;

e. that regional transportation authorities should have more flexibility in allocating dollars between highways and transit; and

f. that some cities are pushing privatization because they have lost a lot of their tax base.[3]


As legislative advocates, between two thirds and four fifths of the CLC leaders have lobbied state or local legislatures for funding to repair and rehabilitate existing schools; to stop a factory shutdown in an older area; against a “big box” retail project; to preserve or expand mass transit operating budgets; and to increase funding for the rebuilding of aging infrastructure. Half or more have sponsored or participated in affordable housing construction, joined coalitions on pollution issues, or worked on political campaigns with environmental groups.

A growing number of CLC leaders are sponsoring new alliances to weigh in on economic development issues, often to promote community benefits agreements. These project-specific agreements between coalitions and private developers typically embody smart growth basics, such as density, mixed use, mixed income housing, and transit-oriented development.

Under the leadership of the Partnership for Working Families, CLC leaders in cities as varied as San Jose, Milwaukee, Atlanta, and Boston, have launched new coalitions with sophisticated research capacity to intervene early, leverage the power of job subsidies for accountability, and win living wages, local hiring, affordable housing, fair treatment for locally owned small businesses, and open space and environmental improvements. These benefits can favor unionized employers and may foster new member organizing. They also intentionally build new labor-community coalitions.

Building Trades: Active on Development Issues

Because they are politically active on development projects, the Building Trades are a key labor constituency. In the past, some have opposed smart growth initiatives backed by environmentalists, suspecting that smart growth is no growth in sheep's clothing. However, research by Good Jobs First finds that smart growth policies create more construction jobs—and more union jobs—than does sprawl. Buildings that use less land but are more complex, a “fix it first” highway policy, and growth management policies that encourage labor-intensive rehabilitation, all create more work hours and correlate with higher unionization rates.[4]

The construction industry has been plagued by enduring allegations of racial bias in some metro areas, but forward-looking union leaders in Seattle/ King County have used Project Labor Agreements (PLA)—an umbrella contract that ensures a project will be built with union labor and have no work stoppages—at the Seattle-Tacoma airport expansion to win large shares of work for apprenticeship labor and achieve strong affirmative results. Similarly, the highway construction set-asides won by affiliates of the Gamaliel Foundation in Kansas City and Michigan, and the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency’s Construction Careers program all use the leverage of public dollars to help construction crews more closely resemble local workforces.[5]

Winning Regionalism and Rebuilding Unions

Unions have a unique opportunity now to help rebuild America’s urban centers and regain their numerical strength. To do so, they must intentionally cast their lot with city residents, disproportionately of color, who endured the darkest years before “empty nest” Baby Boomers and “Gen Xers” and “Gen Yers” started to rediscover the appeals of urban life. Union members bring a unique strength to this cause: they live all over the metro areas (although disproportionately in older areas), so they are free of the “turf” definitions that constrain the organizing visions of many community groups.

Beginning in 2009, the debate to reauthorize the Surface Transportation Act will begin. The so-called “highway bill” is also the main source of federal support for mass transit, and a broad coalition of transit and smart growth advocates is coming together as Transportation for America to seek a more progressive outcome. With gasoline tax revenues down (people are driving less), road-building costs way up (soaring material prices), and an urgency about climate change, experts foresee a sharp debate over more support for transit.

It is a debate that every union should weigh in on because unionized employers are disproportionately located in areas that have public transportation, so union jobs would benefit from better transit service. Union members are also more likely to reside in transit-served areas and would benefit from having more choices on how to commute.

The enormous interest in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and other “green economy” opportunities is prompting a new wave of corporate tax breaks and training grants, but there is no guarantee that urban residents will benefit from them. Fortunately, a new coalition, Green for All, is pushing to make the green jobs movement an intentional anti-urban poverty strategy. As well, the two oldest national advocacy networks for green jobs, the Apollo Alliance and the Blue-Green Alliance, are largely rooted in organized labor and many of their strongest coalitions are in urban areas and with urban elected officials.

Advocates should also expand the demand to include “greener workplaces.” That is, job subsidies should be reformed (as four states have begun to do) to explicitly encourage employers to locate jobs along public transit routes. It would mean more job opportunities for carless workers, a greener commuting choice for all workers, and more unionized transit jobs!


1. LeRoy, Greg. Talking to Union Leaders About Smart Growth, Good Jobs First, 2001.

2. On tax-base harm of sprawl, see Orfield, Myron. American Metropolitics: New Suburban Reality, Brookings, 2002.

3. LeRoy, Greg. Labor Leaders as Smart Growth Advocates: How Unions See Suburban Sprawl and Work for Smart Growth Solutions, Good Jobs First, 2003.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

Greg LeRoy directs Good Jobs First ( and is the author of The Great American Jobs Scam (Berrett-Koehler, 2005). A union consultant based in Chicago, he is a 34-year union member and former president of a local Amtrak service workers union.



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Working Families Organize Regionally

Picture this: In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, union leaders link worker organizing rights at the Penguins’ Stadium to neighborhood demands for a grocery store and community investment fund—and score a victory. In Bayonne, New Jersey, a coalition of faith, union, and environmental leaders persuades local officials to link good jobs, affordable housing, and sustainable practices to the redevelopment process at the Military Ocean Terminal. In the Southside section of Atlanta, Georgia, long-time residents and union leaders protest the closure of a fire station in one of the city’s poorest communities and demand to be part of the budget review process to identify responsible alternatives. And the list goes on.

The World Beyond Traditional Organizing

There is a movement afoot that defies boundaries: It appears to span historical divides while engaging new and dynamic leadership; it is regionally based but aspires to bring about national change; most importantly, it seems to rise above issues and organizations towards a shared vision of an economy that works, an environment that heals, and a community that is engaged and informed.

Many of these efforts started independently, seeded by a new generation of leaders who aspired beyond traditional community and workplace organizing. They saw the potential for a new kind of regional power—one that shares the political strength of progressive unions with the passion of social and environmental justice organizations.

These leaders understood the principles of community organizing and the importance of leadership development in giving voice to the people. They respected the power of faith to engage congregations in broader struggles for justice. They organized living wage and community benefits campaigns and low wage worker campaigns as the building blocks for a more powerful movement, which became the Partnership for Working Families—a movement dedicated to building power and reshaping the economy and urban environment for workers and communities.

According to Madeline Janis, director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) and co-founder of the Partnership, “We didn’t know that these same fires were being kindled in other cities. We were so focused on our work to transform Los Angeles. Then came calls for support and advice from around the country and we realized what a critical moment we were in.”

Seeking Signatures Over Handshakes

As a federation of affiliates networked with hundreds of allied organizations regionally and nationally, the Partnership’s work is based on the premise that civic and economic activity cannot be divorced from democratic values—specifically, grassroots participation and worker organizing. It mobilizes working families to push for a role in economic development and land use decision making, and for public policies and private contracts that mandate corporate accountability together with community and environmental benefits.

“There isn’t a businessman in America that would take a handshake deal with the city in lieu of a written contract. As citizens and taxpayers we should have the same expectations,” says Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, executive director of Working Partnerships USA and leader of the South Bay Labor Council.

Organizations within the Partnership employ a variety of strategies and innovations to bring about the following core programs:

  • Community Benefit Agreements, which bring together broad-based local coalitions to improve development outcomes and shape the future of cities.
  • Policy campaigns that expand influence beyond sites to cities and regions.
  • Industry campaigns that raise the economic standing and political power of thousands of workers at a time.
  • Governing coalitions that re-design government for the public purpose.
  • Organizing and leadership development campaigns to grow the pool of leaders and organizers.

Perhaps the most important characteristic of the organizations is their permanence and capacity. These are not seasonally staffed campaigns, election year window dressing, or temporary issue alliances. They are infrastructure organizations that rely on deep relationships and an understanding of the interconnectedness of each other’s issues. They rely on permanent, shared staff dedicated to the research, organizing, communications, and legal aspects of campaigns, and on the coalitions that bring about moral and political pressure to bear for positive community and worker outcomes.

In Atlanta, a Stand-Up Example

The amazing examples of groundbreaking work and transformative organizing across the country, even in conservative, fast growing regions with limited labor and community organizing capacities has lessons for us all.

In Atlanta, Georgia, Stand-Up is working to connect good jobs and regional equity to transit-oriented development projects. Late in 2005, they secured an unprecedented commitment to incorporate community benefits—including affordable housing, prevailing wages, and local hire requirements along with a compelling community engagement component—into a planned $2 billion transit, green space, and public infrastructure investment in Atlanta’s BeltLine development.

Best of all, the policy has served as a tool to organize and educate hundreds of Atlanta residents on the public process for development approval and funding. Stand-Up’s strong community, labor, and faith coalition conducts community level research, monitors city meetings, generates neighborhood input, and is completely engaged in sharing a vision for the future of their city. Recently, Stand-Up secured a legislative commitment from the city to produce a geographic equity plan for the BeltLine prior to the issuance of additional funds. They also won additional resources dedicated to the BeltLine community benefits implementation plan.

“This presents challenges, to be sure,” claims Deb Scott, director of Stand-Up. “City staff and leadership can get defensive when faced with community concerns regarding issues of equity. As the city continues to prepare for an influx of new residents, we are organizing to expand community and union power. We are looking for ways to mitigate displacement of existing residents, and helping to create new ways of redistributing the benefits of development.”

A FRESC Take on Responsible Development

In Denver, FRESC* Good Jobs, Strong Communities has been growing the Campaign for Responsible Development (CRD) to secure community benefits for the nearly 20 acres surrounding Denver’s Union Station. Affordable housing, family-supporting jobs, opportunities for community-based small businesses, and environmentally sustainable construction and operation are the benefits sought. The CRD is composed of community, labor, faith, and housing groups—including the 9to5 National Association of Working Women and several construction and service worker unions. Its goal is to ensure that this flagship development and future hub of the new regional FasTracks system sets a standard for community benefits.

FRESC is also trying to create a permanent union-community alliance with deep neighborhood roots by coupling its coalition work with base building organizing. It is working with impacted community and public housing residents so that they have a voice in planning decisions and possible future redevelopment as a part of FasTracks and corresponding transit-oriented development.

With its new friends on the City Council, existing political allies, and a deep understanding of public decision-making processes, FRESC is aiming to change the political landscape to ensure that maximizing community benefits is a fundamental part of future development decisions.

Speaking to the City Council on behalf of the CRD, FRESC Director Carmen Rhodes stated, “I don’t stand before you today to say that it is easy to protect vulnerable workers from poverty-wage jobs or to build affordable housing. But I am here to say that these things are important, and few important things are easy to do.”

Challenges and Opportunities

Convincing the public sector that the Partnership wants to build a prosperous economy is not always easy. It also faces tremendous opposition from another sector of entrenched leadership—the downtown business partnerships that have served as a shadow government for years. There is even some fear among friends in the environmental and smart growth sectors that complicated deals with the threat of higher costs may drive even eco-friendly developers back out to the greenfields.

This is where the idea of a new economy, and the hope for a green economy come in. Our shrinking tax base will never be boosted until we can eliminate poverty wages and the public costs associated with them, such as healthcare, housing, and other social nets. But simply creating jobs is not the answer. When new jobs, especially in the fast growing service, hospitality, and green sectors pay self-sufficiency wages, we will begin to see progress.

There is tremendous hope in future federal infrastructure, transportation, and development programs. If our national leadership shared the belief that public money should yield a public return and attached self-sufficiency wages, freedom of association, and an economic impact analysis to their spending programs, we would see hundreds of thousands of new jobs propel families into the middle class. Now, with a national Partnership of organizations working to tailor programs to local needs, we may actually, finally realize the intended outcomes.

Many Hands Make a Stronger Union

As a long-standing union leader in Denver, I saw the challenges that our newest members had with affordable housing, off-hours child care, family health care, and transportation. Their contracts were not very strong and their occupations would not quickly get them to middle class wages in the current organizing and economic environment. Additionally, it seemed that all of our members—even those with the best contracts—had children and family members without job security, health care, or continuing education for career advancement. Many had adult kids living at home, and were watching their nest egg dwindle as they approached retirement.

It occurred to us then that if all we did as a labor movement was focus on improved contracts and, to a lesser extent, political and new worker organizing, we would never address the more immediate issues that were critical to our members. It wasn’t until we had moved beyond our core mission that we were able to exponentially improve the lives of our members and to engage them in the union in a deeper, more meaningful way. It greatly increased our workload but it also generated new leadership in our movement to help share the burden and lighten the load.

When leaders from across our diverse movements come together in this common realization—that there is no one issue, no one answer, and no one organization that can confront this complexity alone—then we will begin to see change at the scale we have all been hoping for.

Leslie Moody is executive director and a founding member of the Executive Committee of the Partnership for Working Families. From 1994 to 2007, Leslie was an organizer and union leader in Denver.

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Growing Smarter to Achieve Livable Communities and Regional Equity

It has now been more than 105 years since W. E. B. DuBois’ classic The Souls of Black Folks, in which he predicted that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.1 The color line is no imaginary line. In 1945, St. Claire Drake and Horace R. Cayton wrote Black Metropolis documenting the role racism played in creating racial inequality and the black ghetto.[2] Today, six decades later, all communities are still not created equal. Enforcing existing federal fair-lending laws is one area where more work is needed.[3] Middle-income homeowners in black neighborhoods have fewer services, retail shopping, banking, good schools, and other residential amenities—amenities that most middle-class white neighborhoods take for granted.[4] Although a majority of African Americans live in cities in the nation’s large metropolitan regions, a growing number now also resides in the suburbs.

Suburbs were principally encouraged, financed, and supported by federal government taxation, transportation, and housing policies. But the period between 2000 and 2006 saw a reversal of white flight from many of the nation’s large cities. For the first time in decades a number of majority black cities have lost black population.[5] At the same time, the white population in more than half of the nation’s counties has declined. As of 2007, people of color make up more than half the population in 302 of the nation’s 3,141 counties.[6] It is likely that the number of counties with predominantly people of color will increase as white baby boomers retire from densely populated communities. At present, one in four counties is near the tipping point where black, Hispanic, and Asian children constitute a majority of the under-20 population. Overall, people of color now account for 43 percent of Americans under 20. This demographic shift confirms that people of color—now about a third of the population—are positioned to constitute a majority of all Americans sooner than 2050, as projected by census demographers.

Why Regional Equity is Essential

Many urban problems do not stop at the city limits, and some require regional solutions. The question is, how do we forge equitable and inclusive solutions to address disparities in transportation, housing, economic opportunity, land use and infrastructure, education, environmental justice, and health?[7]

Regional equity is built on three basic premises:

  • Regional health depends on the health of all sectors of the region;
  • Central cities and declining suburbs cannot confront the problems of racialized concentrated poverty independently and without a regional focus;
  • A regional approach will support rather than undermine the political power, social cohesion, and sense of place of all residents of the region, but particularly of those communities that have long been denied an effective voice.[8]

It is commonplace for jurisdictions to compete in a “race to the bottom” by reducing taxes, lowering wage standards, and easing environmental regulations—all in an effort to lure new investments.[9] Angela Blackwell and her colleagues at the Oakland-based think tank, PolicyLink, Inc., see “community-based regionalism” as an important strategy for promoting equitable development and sustainable solutions to regional disparities and injustice.[10] Similarly, john a. powell calls for a racially just “federated regionalism.”[11] In his Racism and Metropolitan Dynamics, powell writes, “[Racially just] federated regionalism is a model in which a regional authority controls access to the opportunities that have regional dimensions, but local authorities control other matters. This way identity, governmental responsiveness, and community are preserved. Regionalism—specifically, a racially just form of regionalism that not only facilitates access to fundamental life opportunities but protects against harm and nourishes political power and community strength—is simply a tool to gain greater traction [on] existing efforts.”[12]

The absence of a national urban policy has left hundreds of financially strapped cities and their aging first-ring suburbs in a “sink-or-swim” position. Generally, central cities and their older suburbs grow increasingly resource poor, while developing and sprawling suburbs grow resource rich. The socio-spatial layout and negative relations between cities, older suburbs, and newer suburbs has resulted from decades of policies and practices to isolate poor people of color.[13]

Over the years, however, central cities and suburbs have become more alike. Many social ills, such as poverty, unemployment, infrastructure decline, environmental degradation, crime, and drugs, once associated primarily with big cities, are now commonplace in many older suburbs. Reducing inequities within regions makes economic, social, environmental, and health sense since the future of cities and suburbs are inextricably linked. The fate of business is linked with the workforce, and of the middle-class with the poor.[14] Poverty and inequality within cities can stifle development in the whole region. Problem-ridden cities and declining suburbs are two sides of the same coin. They are interconnected across the metropolitan landscape because of region-level economic restructuring.[15]

Building Regional Transportation Around Equity

Transportation investments, enhancements, and financial resources have benefited new suburban communities, even as older urban communities have been disadvantaged by transportation decisions. To access many of the new suburban developments one needs an automobile, since public transit is usually inadequate or nonexistent. Transportation sprawl, which creates a car-dependent citizenry, is consuming land faster than the population growth in many areas across the country.

Meanwhile, the infrastructure in most American cities is crumbling, as illustrated by the collapse of the eight-lane bridge in Minneapolis, Minn. in August 2007. About 11 percent of the nation’s outmoded steel bridges, mostly from the 1950s and 1960s, lack the redundant protection to reduce such failures.[16] Taken as a whole, infrastructure decline has a negative impact on the well-being and quality of life for everyone—not just inhabitants of older central cities.

Policies that address transportation sprawl can also combat the adverse impact of climate change. Global warming will increase temperatures on hot summer days, potentially leading to more unhealthy “red alert” air pollution days in the coming years.[17] A 2007 study of 50 cities in the United States found that future ozone concentrations and climate change could detrimentally affect air quality and thereby harm human health.[18] The most vulnerable populations will suffer the earliest and most damaging setbacks, even though they have contributed the least to the problem of global warming.

Americans living in compact urban neighborhoods where cars are not the only transportation option drive a third fewer miles than those in automobile-oriented suburbs. Less auto-dependent development is key to shrinking the nation’s carbon footprint and mitigating climate change. Experts pin carbon dioxide (CO2) reduction on a “three-legged stool, with one leg related to vehicle fuel economy, a second to the carbon content of the fuel itself, and a third to the amount of driving or vehicle miles traveled—VMT.”[19] If sprawl development continues, the projected 48 percent increase in the total miles driven between 2005 and 2030 will nullify expected gains from vehicle efficiency and low-carbon fuels.

Better Health Through Smarter Growth

Smart growth can also save lives by reducing deadly air pollution, which claims 70,000 lives a year; nearly twice the number killed in traffic accidents.[20] More than half of the nation’s population lives in counties with unsafe air (American Lung Association, 2007). Transportation accounts for one third of the nation’s CO2 emissions and motor vehicles account for 75 percent of the carbon monoxide emissions, nearly half of the smog-forming volatile organic compounds (VOCs), more than half of the nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, and about half of the toxic air pollutant emissions in the United States.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African Americans and Latinos are almost three times more likely than whites to die from asthma.[21] One in every four American children—about 27 million under age 13—lives in an area that regularly exceeds the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ozone standards. These areas also account for about half the pediatric asthma population—around two million children.

High ozone levels cause more than 50,000 emergency room visits each year and result in 15,000 hospitalizations for respiratory illnesses. Ozone pollution is responsible for 10 percent to 20 percent—nearly 50 percent on bad days—of all hospital admissions for respiratory conditions. Moreover, ground level ozone sends an estimated 53,000 persons to the hospital and 159,000 to the emergency room, and triggers 6,200,000 asthma attacks each summer in the eastern half of the United States.[22]

Another important point to consider is that spending on transportation is lowest in metropolitan regions with strong public transit systems.[23] Rising gas prices take money out of consumers’ pockets and food off the table. They also hit low-income and working class family budgets the hardest.[24] For working-poor homeowners, nearly 25 percent of their household income is consumed by housing and commuting expenses, compared with just 15.3 percent for other households.

In June 2008, gas prices reached a national average of $4 a gallon for the first time. Nationally, American families are now spending about four percent of their take-home income on gasoline. By contrast, in some rural counties in the mostly black and poor Mississippi Delta, that figure has surpassed 13 percent.[25] Gasoline expenses are rivaling what many families spend on food and housing. At the same time, more Americans are using public transit. Urban transit systems in areas like New York and Boston have seen an increase in ridership of five percent. But many metropolitan areas in the South and West where the driving culture is strongest and bus and rail lines are more limited report surges of 10 to 15 percent in transit use.[26]

Moving Beyond the Color Line

Addressing equity in the nation’s metropolitan regions, cities, suburbs, and rural areas will have positive economic, environmental, and health impacts. Regional equity initiatives will also help build strong institutions and better infrastructure with policies that foster equitable public and private investment. If regional housing, economic development, land use, and transportation policies were more democratically accountable, they could have great potential for community change that is racially and economically just and environmentally sustainable. The movement for regional equity has traveled a long way. Yet, it still has many miles to go before we eliminate inequities within and between regions. Encouraging a balanced regional approach makes economic, social, environmental, and health sense since the future of cities, suburbs, and rural areas are interdependent.


1. DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folks. New York: Penguin Books. 1903, reprint edition, 1996.

2. Drake, St. Claire and Cayton, Horace R. Black Metropolis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, reprint, 1993.

3. Ross, Stephen and Yinger, John. The Color of Money: Mortgage Discrimination, Research Methodology and Fair-Lending Enforcement. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002.

4. Cashin, Sheryll. The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class are Under­mining the American Dream. New York: Public Affairs, 2004.

5. Dougherty, Conor. “The End of White Flight,” The Wall Street Journal, July 19, 2008.

6. Roberts Sam. “Minorities Often a Majority of the Population Under 20,” The New York Times, August 7, 2008.

7. PolicyLink, Inc. Promoting Regional Equity: A Framing Paper. Miami, FL: The Funder’s Network for Smart Growth, November, 2002.

8. Institute on Race and Poverty. The Racial Justice & Regional Equity Project.

9. Pastor, Manuel Jr., Dreier, Peter, Grigsby, Eugene J. III, and Lopez-Garza, Marta, Regions That Work: How Cities and Suburbs Can Grow Together. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000, p. 155.

10. PolicyLink, Inc. Promoting Regional Equity: A Framing Paper. Miami, FL: The Funder’s Network for Smart Growth, November, 2002, p. 7.

11. powell, john a. “Addressing Regional Dilemmas for Minority Communities,” in Bruce Katz, Reflections on Regionalism. Washington, D.C., Brookings Institution Press, 2000, pp. 232-236.

12. powell, john a. Racism and Metropolitan Dynamics: The Civil Rights Challenge of the 21st Century. Minneapolis: Institute on Race & Poverty, University of Minnesota, August 2002, p. 5.

13. Jargowsky, Paul. Poverty and Place: Ghettos, Barrios, and the American City. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1997, p. 193.

14. Pastor, Manuel Jr., et al. Regions That Work, p. 157.

15. Ibid., p. 3.

16. Wald, M.L. and Chang, K. “Minneapolis bridge had passed inspection,” The New York Times, August 3, 2007.

17. Patz, J.A., Kinney, P.L., Bell, M.L., Goldberg, R., Hogrefe, C., Khoury, S., Knowlton, K., Rosenthal, J., Rosenzweig, C., and Ziska, L. Heat Advisory: How Global Warming Causes More Bad Air Days. New York: NRDC, July 2004.

18. Bell, M.L., Goldberg, R., Hogrefe, C., Kinney, P.L., Knowlton, K., Lynn, B. Rosenthal, J., Rosenzweig, C., and Patz, J.A. “Climate change, ambient ozone, and health in 50 U.S. cities,” Climactic Change, 2007 Volume 82 pp. 61-76.

19. Ewing R. , Bartholomew, K., Winkelman, S., Walters, J., and Chen D. Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change. Washington, D.C.: Urban Land Institute, 2008. p. 2.

20. Earth Policy Institute. “Air Pollution Fatalities Now Exceed Traffic Deaths by 3 to 1.” September 17, 2002. Retrieved June 2, 2008, from /Updates/Update17.htm.

21. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Asthma Prevalence, Health Care Use and Mortality 2000-2001.” Retrieved June 1, 2008, from /nchs/products/pubs/pubd/hestats/asthma/asthma.htm.

22. Abt Associates, Inc. “Adverse Health Effects Associated with Ozone in the Eastern United States.” Washington, D.C.: Clean Air Task Force, October 1999.

23. Center for Neighborhood Technology. 2004. Making the Case for Mixed-Income and Mixed-Use Communities, June 1.

24. Roberto E. Commuting to Opportunity: The Working Poor and Commuting in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, February 2008.

25. Krauss, C. “Rural U.S. takes worst hit as gas tops $4 average,” The New York Times, June 9, 2008.

26. Krauss, C. “Gas prices send surge of riders to mass transit,” The New York Times, May 10, 2008.

Robert D. Bullard is the Ware Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. He is the editor of Growing Smarter: Acheiving Livable Communities, Environmental Justice, and Regional Equity, the first book in MIT’s Sustainable Metropolitan Communities series.


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Clean and Safe Ports: Building a Movement, Region by Region

On March 20, 2008, hundreds of people filled the hall at Bannings Landing in the Los Angeles port community of Wilmington to witness the Los Angeles Harbor Commission adopt a Clean Trucks Program to reduce air pollution at the Port of Los Angeles. The program’s goals were straight-forward: replace and retrofit approximately 16,000 trucks in order to meet the 2007 federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) emissions standards by 2012.

Once implemented, the Clean Trucks Program—which faces stiff opposition and pending lawsuits from industry—would require trucking companies which service the Port to hire truck drivers as employees rather than relying on independent truckers. With this model of doing business, the city hopes to reduce truck emissions, create a stable workforce, and set up mechanisms for community and government accountability.

It was a momentous event for members of the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports whose two-year campaign was finally bearing fruit. While there had been earlier (unsuccessful) organizing campaigns to unionize the truckers, this Coalition took a broader approach: it harnessed more than 30 diverse groups to join the truckers and incorporated economic and public health benefits into the campaign to create a precedent-setting model of trucking at the Port of Los Angeles.

A Victory of Many Flavors

The victory also brought significant advances for each of the Coalition partners—many of whom had specific agendas. For labor, made up of several unions and immigrant labor groups and led by the Teamsters, the national Change to Win Coalition offered a significant victory over the exploitative trucking system that came into being with the deregulation of the industry in the 1980s. Under that system, independent truck drivers had to bear the burden of all maintenance and upkeep of the trucks—which cost over $100,000—along with Port fees, licensure, fuel and other costs of doing business at the Port. Truckers who currently own and operate their trucks and must compete individually for hauling jobs net less than $30,000 annually.[1] With the Clean Trucks Program and its employee concession model, labor has successfully put in place a system that shifts the cost of doing business at the Port from individual truckers to the firms that now employ them. Plus, truckers as employees now have the right to organize.

The Program was also an important victory for environmentalists and public health advocates. The South Coast Air Quality Management District has found that the combined ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach generate more than 20 percent of the diesel particulate that’s the largest pollutant in Southern California. For long-time advocates of clean air and public health, the campaign goal to reduce diesel exhaust—responsible for 70 percent of all airborne cancer risk—was a high priority. Cleaning up to 2007 federal standards by replacing and retrofitting old trucks represents a significant advance in air quality policy. For Coalition partners, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Coalition for Clean Air, and the American Lung Association, the plan met important air quality and public health needs of Port communities.

In some ways, the campaign’s focus on labor on the one hand and clean air/quality-of-life issues on the other reflects an historic and place-based framework for environmental justice. Environmental Justice (EJ) organizations saw the issues facing truck drivers—many of whom are Latino immigrants from South Los Angeles, Wilmington, and Commerce—as deeply intertwined with the quality-of-life conditions in their neighborhoods, which are plagued by toxins in the air, water, and soil because of their proximity to industrial land.

Throughout the campaign, EJ coalition partners advocated for—and at times struggled with other coalition partners over—the need to protect their communities from the trucks and the further encroachment of Port industrial facilities into neighborhoods. The EJ definition of environment as “where we live, work, play, pray and go to school,” served as a framework to synthesize labor, environment, public health, and community issues for the campaign. The formation of the coalition and the campaign came as a natural extension of the organizing of community residents, many of whom were truckers. EJ organizers were able to engage with truckers on issues of home, family, and children and to rely on social networks rather than on labor unions and worker solidarity alone. It was a welcome new approach to many truckers soured by the unsuccessful organizing efforts of the past 27 years.

Defining Social Movement Regionalism

—an emerging form of regionalism that focuses on redefining regional development, developing regional scale coalitions, and reworking power to transform the way the economy works.[2] It’s a movement led by coalitions of diverse groups functioning at the regional, state, and national levels.

For EJ groups, shifting scales from neighborhoods to regions made practical political sense: The air quality and health issues facing Wilmington, a community adjacent to the Port of Los Angeles, were shared by communities all along the goods movement corridors of the 710 Freeway, the Alameda Corridor Rail Project, and the rail lines that converge in the City of Commerce before heading East along three rail routes towards Riverside and San Bernardino.

The Ditching Dirty Diesel Collaborative in Oakland takes a similar approach of developing a regionwide strategy to reduce diesel emissions in the San Francisco Bay Area. In the Central Valley of California, groups work through existing organizations and coalitions, such as the Fresno Metro Ministries, to address the impact of increased air pollution along the rail and highway corridors of Fresno and Modesto. In San Diego, the Environmental Health Coalition has begun to focus on the impact of expanded port operations and the proposed new port complexes in Baja California, Mexico. These coalitions and collaboratives are now showing signs of scaling beyond neighborhoods to regions, and on to state and national levels in order to build power, policy, and influence in the ports, trade, and goods movement debates.

Scaling Regional Equity to National Equity

In December 2007, The Impact Project organized a primarily community-based conference that drew more than 550 participants from 16 states and four countries interested in learning more about taking action to reduce the impacts of goods movement in their respective communities. At the request of conference participants, The Impact Project[3] has undertaken the important task of building a national network to facilitate the sharing of information and strategies

Earlier this year, PolicyLink, a national policy advocacy and research institute based in Oakland, California, sponsored its third Regional Equity Summit in New Orleans, Louisiana. More than 2,000 people came together to discuss regional approaches to addressing persistent inequities within America’s cities and regions. A panel entitled, “America’s Gateways: Building a Progressive Ports Agenda,” which looked at the impact of trade on regional economies, community health, and the environment was the first such discussion at a national summit and featured perspectives from Oakland, Los Angeles/Long Beach, and South Carolina. The audience, most with deep roots in environmental justice organizing, expressed growing concern about ports and goods movement in Cancer Alley, Mississippi as well as in New York and New Jersey.

In July 2008, the national Change to Win Coalition hosted a summit focused on identifying strategies and opportunities for advancing clean trucks programs across the nation. Following the lead of the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports in Los Angeles, leaders from labor, environmental, EJ, and community organizations from Seattle/Tacoma, New York/New Jersey, and Oakland committed to sharing resources and lessons learned.

The number and diversity of the attendees and the scale of their participation in the three events suggest that discussions, debates, and community/region-based movements are reaching a national scale. The scaling up of strategies and goals that reflect regional power illustrate the core tenets of social movement regionalism: a redefinition of what Port operations and growth should look like and a recognition that coalition approaches are critical to bringing together divergent interests, and harnessing the power of labor, environmental, public health, EJ, faith, and community groups in the common pursuit of good jobs and clean air.Ports and Goods Movement: An Infrastructure for Social Movement Regionalism. In August 2008, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice won its lawsuit against the City of Bell for violating the Cailfornia Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) when it leased land to BNSF Railway for an intermodal operation without an environmental review. The ruling represents a significant win for communities that have organized for years around the local impacts of rail traffic and provides an important legal tool for other communities seeking to enforce compliance with existing CEQA law. This is the stuff that good EJ and labor organizing is made of—mobilizing and empowering local members to build an organization that is able to use legal and planning tools to lift up and magnify local voices into a social justice movement and a campaign win that is larger than itself. The campaign and policy success of the Clean Trucks Program reflects an emerging movement, a social justice regionalism that builds on earlier movements but pays explicit attention to the region as an important analytical frame and scale for strategies and policy solutions. By redefining the terms of the debate, by engaging in coalitions, and building power (in the face of tremendous odds), Port and goods movement campaigns fuel social movement regionalism and advance the potential for new regional economic development, just community development, and the advancement of progressive national politics.


1. Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports. See also “Sweatshops on Wheels: Union-Community Coalition Takes Aim at Port Trucking” by Doug Bloch. Race Poverty & the Environment, Vol 14-1 Spring 2007

2. For a full discussion of regionalism and its variants see: Pastor, Manuel, Benner, Chris, and Matsuoka, Martha. This Could Be The Start of Something Big: How Social Movements for Regional Equity are Reshaping Metropolitan America, Cornell University Press, forthcoming.

3. See

Martha Matsuoka is an assistant professor in the Urban and Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College in southern California. In the 1990s she was the director of Urban Habitat’s Economic Conversion Project.

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The Clean Trucks Program and the campaign leading up to it represent key elements in what has become known as 'social movement regionalism.'

Breaking Through to Regional Equity

A new civil rights movement is emerging in communities throughout the United States. It presents a vibrant vision and voice in contrast to the usual story of urban sprawl and concentrated poverty. Through bold regional organizing and advocacy efforts and innovative partnerships and policy reforms, new alliances are creating working models of metropolitan regional equity in inner cities, suburbs, and rural areas across the nation.

Too often, low-income residents and communities of color are saddled with polluting facilities that contaminate air, land, and water. These communities typically lack access to grocery stores, libraries, parks, banks, and vibrant public spaces. Most have no living-wage jobs near where they live, and often no transit options that would make employment elsewhere in the region a viable option. This skew in distribution of resources and opportunity can be attributed in part to spatial racism—policies that reinforce inequitable structures even when individual attitudes of prejudicial behavior may have shifted.

Because the dynamics that create poverty in our urban cores are regional in scope, solutions must take into account the region as a whole. Even when extensive resources are directed to lifting a pocket of concentrated poverty, this action alone will not solve the problems. In today’s fragmented geographic and political landscapes, multi-sector coalitions are working to ensure that all communities in the metropolitan region can participate in and benefit from their region’s economic growth and activity. Groundbreaking practices and strategies are transforming policies that affect housing, jobs, land use, and transportation.[1]

Public policies have reinforced, and in some cases caused, racial segregation and neighborhoods of concentrated poverty in America’s cities and suburbs.[2] Increasing fragmentation of municipal governments within metropolitan regions has contributed to the development of opportunity-rich areas whose residents wall themselves off from the rest of the region.[3] This separation leads to vast disparities in housing, schools, tax bases, transportation, and wealth between inner cities and suburbs.

Moving toward equity requires a deeper understanding of the disparities that unravel our social fabric. The isolation of those residing in America’s hollowed-out urban cores, as well as the social costs of sprawl, are exacerbated by outmoded policies that need to be reexamined. Public policies that result in racial segregation and isolation are also responsible for haphazard low-density development, duplication of public services in the suburbs, traffic congestion, destruction of critical habitat, squandering of energy, and related air and water pollution.[4]

Through the lens of regional equity, the jurisdictional geographic focus of metropolitan planning expands the definition of “urban” to include not only the inner core of a city but also its surrounding suburbs and rural areas. From this regional perspective of concentric and interdependent rings it becomes apparent that the problems of sprawl, vacant properties, and lack of affordable housing are all interrelated, as are their solutions.[5]

The Quest for Sustainability

If the quest for sustainability is to be a genuine force for metropolitan transformation, then social equity and the struggle for racial justice must be integral to the concept. Building on the work of social scientists Julian Agyeman, Robert Bullard, and others, we call this the quest for just sustainability.[6]

This quest has far-reaching consequences. When taken seriously, it sparks a new dialogue among environmental and racial justice advocates and strategic thinking about how shared objectives might be realized. Secondly, it promotes a re-examination of the concept of “smart growth” to ensure that projects receiving wide public acceptance incorporate social equity, as well as environmental goals. Thirdly, it lays the groundwork for explicit performance standards for “equitable development,” to be adopted by the development industry and embraced by the general public. Finally, this work at the metropolitan level in the United States should create a road map for regional equity including short range and longer term strategies, indicators, and policies.

Sustainable communities are often defined by the three “E”s: economic prosperity, environmental soundness, and (social) equity.[7] Twenty-first century metropolitan regions need to take all three forces into account as they plan for the future. While the economy was the historic driver of urban planning, the second half of the 20th century saw the rise of “green planning”—preserving parks, wetlands, and open space. The ecological conditions that support life have come to be acknowledged and valued as part of the economic competitiveness and social desirability of a region.

Environmental organizations in industrialized countries have often misinterpreted sustainability, ignoring social equity.8 The 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, explicitly refers to reducing poverty and inequality as central to sustainable development.

To highlight the importance of equity, Agyeman coined the term “just sustainability,” defined as “the need to ensure a better quality of life for all, now and into the future, in a just and equitable manner, while living within the limits of supporting ecosystems9.” A viable and sustainable economic future calls for healing the land, maintaining or restoring its vitality, and dismantling our toxic legacies.[10]

Achieving Equity at the Regional Level

Addressing concentrated poverty in the United States in the 21st century requires a shift in geographic consciousness among advocates of fairness, opportunity, and full participation of disadvantaged populations.[11] The 20th century perspective of the city as a compact urban space within municipal boundaries is no longer adequate. Formerly, poverty was isolated in a few African American inner city neighborhoods, and in rural areas like Appalachia. Although poverty persists in many urban and rural neighborhoods, a study of 15 metro regions by the Institute on Race and Poverty found that by 2000, roughly half of the African American population and more than 60 percent of Latinos lived in financially stressed suburban areas. Immigrants arriving in the United States in the early 20th century typically settled in inner city enclaves. In the 21st century, many immigrant populations are bypassing older cities altogether and moving directly to the suburbs, where poverty is now spreading. As David Rusk points out in his influential book Cities without Suburbs, “the city is now the region.”

To be effective, organizers must come to terms with this new metropolitan landscape. The goal of regional equity is to reform those policies and practices that create and sustain social, racial, economic, and environmental inequalities among cities, suburbs, and rural areas—and to integrate marginalized people and places into the region’s structures of social and economic opportunity.

Substantial spatial separation—enforced by policy—continues to divide humans across racial and economic lines; however, the biological reality is that we are all part of an interconnected living system. While “across the highway” has replaced “across the tracks,” the myths that foster separation persist, inscribed in the architecture and design of our cities. A metropolitan regional perspective enables us to acknowledge the reality of differentiation and subsystems, while also seeing the wholeness of the living system. Linking these interdependent geographic rings, thereby challenging spatial divisions by race and class, has proven to be a powerful regional equity strategy.[12] The quest for regional equity links economically isolated and racially segregated residents with opportunity structures throughout their region, revitalizing inner city and suburban neighborhoods and urban markets—the assets and key building blocks of a healthy region.

Building Community in the 21st Century

We tend to think of building new neighborhoods or rebuilding older ones as constructing buildings, planting trees, paving sidewalks, and engaging in other activities to improve the physical appearance of an area. But building a community should be, first and foremost, a social activity based on restoring trust, solidarity, confidence, and faith in the capacity of individuals and groups to implement change. This requires healing the scars of internalized racism, separatism, cynicism, and resignation. It also means restoring awareness of the relationship between human communities and the life support system of the planet upon which they depend.

Events of the final four decades of the 20th century undermined the sense of social cohesion among large sections of the American population. Although the civil rights movement challenged the legacy of racism embedded in United States history, it also stimulated a national backlash and a retreat from engagement followed by an overemphasis on individualism, reinforced by consumerism.

In the opening decade of the 21st century, social movements play an increasingly visible and important role in building and rebuilding a sense of community in America’s cities, suburbs, and rural areas. Given the disruptions of the global economy, and the technological transformations of the information age, social movements often provide the basis for new forms of identity.[13] Neighborhoods, groups, and communities, building on their ethnic, class, or territorial awareness, come together to fight their common opponents: big-box industries like Wal-Mart, toxic dumping, and other issues affecting survival and local quality of life. Now, groups that previously forged a shared identity through saying “no” are building new regional power alliances and creating proactive, positive alternatives for the future.

The regional equity movement creates remarkable new opportunities for community building among an astonishing range of metropolitan social justice actors: environmentalists, labor and blue-collar organizers, clergy, civil rights advocates, community organizers, immigrant activists, and African Americans. This burgeoning movement demonstrates a community-building process in which participants respond to an imminent threat, build organizational and leadership capacity, acquire zoning and litigation tools, and engage in a community visioning process, thus acting to produce positive assets for the region as a whole. It is building a new context for multiracial, multiclass, and gender-balanced leadership for a practical vision that may well prove attractive, even essential, to established metropolitan elites and decision makers.


1. Bullard, Robert, ed. Growing Smarter: Achieving Livable Communities, Environmental Justice and Regional Equity, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007;

Blackwell, Angela Glover, and Fox, Rhadika K. “Regional Equity and Smart Growth: Opportunities for Advancing Social and Economic Justice in America” in Remaking American Communities: A Reference Guide of Urban Sprawl, Soule, David C. ed., Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007;

Pastor, Manuel Jr., Benner, Chris and Rosner, Rachel. Edging Toward Equity, Santa Cruz, CA: Center for Community, Justice, and Tolerance, 2006.

2. Jargowsky, Paul A. and Steiner, Rudolf. Poverty and Place, Ghettos, Barrios, and the American City, New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1997;

Massey, Douglas S. and Denton, Nancy . American Apartheid, Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

3. Pastor et al., Edging Toward Equity, 2006.

4. Wolch, Jennifer R., Pastor, Manuel Jr., and Dreier, Peter, eds. Up Against the Sprawl: Public Policy and the Making of Southern California, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

5. Katz, Bruce, ed. Reflections on Regionalism. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2000.

6. Agyeman, Julian. Sustainable Communities and the Challenge of Environmental Justice, New York: New York University Press, 2005;

Agyeman, Julian, Bullard, Robert D. and Evans, Bob. Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003;

Bullard, Robert. Growing Smarter, 2007.

7. Wheeler, Stephen M., and Beatley, Timothy. The Sustainable Urban Development Reader, Oxford: Routledge, 2004.

8. Ibid.

9. Agyeman, Sustainable Communities and the Challenge of Environmental Justice, 2005.

10. Bullard, Robert D., ed. The Quest For Environmental Justice: Human Rights and the Politics of Pollution, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2005.

11. Anthony, Carl. “Race, Poverty and the Human Metropolis in The Humane Metropolis” in People and Nature in the Twenty-first Century, Rutherford H. Platt, ed., Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006.

12. Orfield, Myron. American Metropolitics: The New Suburban Reality, Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2002.

13. Buechler, Steven M. Social Movements in Advanced Capitalism: The Political Economy and Cultural Construction of Social Activism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000;

Castells, Manuel. The Power of Identity, 2nd ed., Oxford and Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 2003.

M. Paloma Pavel, is founder and president of Earth House Center in Oakland, California. This article is adapted from Breakthrough Communities: Sustainability and Justice in the Next American Metropolis edited by M. Paloma Pavel, to be published in June 2009 by The MIT Press. © 2009 Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All rights reserved. (For more information on the book.)

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Regional Equity Goes National

A half-dozen leaders in the regional equity movement join an intergenerational conversation with movement elder Carl Anthony on the prospects for national change.


  • Carl Anthony, Co-Founder, Earth House Leadership Center, Urban Habitat, Oakland
  • Juliet Ellis, Executive Director, Urban Habitat, Oakland
  • Nathaniel Smith, Director, Partnerships & Research for Equitable Development, Emory University, Atlanta
  • Cecil Corbin-Mark, Director of Programs, We Act for Environmental Justice, New York
  • Leslie Moody, Executive Director, Partnership for Working Families, Denver
  • Dwayne Marsh, Director for Policy Engagement, Policy Link

Jesse Clarke: Can you situate the movement for regional equity in a historical context? What came before, and how do these different movements relate to one another?

Carl Anthony: We all have a rather short memory, but most of the social movements that we think of today as being defining movements of our time actually have roots that go way back to the 17th and 18th centuries, or even the 16th century, with the European expansion. The ones that are most familiar, the Civil Rights Movement and the abolitionists’ movement had their beginnings with the struggle against slavery. The Labor Movement had its beginnings in England in the Industrial Revolution which followed from the colonization of the New World.

The Women’s Movement also had groundings in those days when the families were broken up in order to provide for manpower for the Industrial Revolution. The indigenous people’s movements and most of the anti-colonization movements around the world go back to that time. Even the environmental movement goes back to the colonization of islands in the New World where people could see the devastation based upon the exploitation of natural resources.

We are actually in an inter-generational struggle that goes back quite a long time. When the Civil Rights Movement came to its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, it was a movement about human rights, but it was also a movement about spatial geography. That’s a concept with which most people may not be very familiar; but we had a whole region of the country in the South where African Americans were being terrorized. It was a place where it was embodied in law that black people could be lynched, that they had no voting rights. They couldn’t even go and buy a cheeseburger at a five-and-dime. Participation of blacks in the commercial and civic culture was off limits. So, even as African Americans struggled in that space for inclusion into daily life, similar struggles in a different space but from the same origin were taking place in the North.

As the migration of African Americans came into the cities, the spatial context of the struggle changed, and a lot of the struggles then became grounded in urban neighborhoods. This context of struggles for neighborhoods took on a very powerful meaning in the 1960s. It was built upon not only the history of African American displacement, but also on the struggles of other immigrant groups to participate in the United States on an equal footing.

The struggle for black power and the culmination of that movement for equality in both the South and the North resulted in the new electoral politics of the 1970s. Almost every major city in the United States went through a process of trying to accommodate the struggle, the insurgency, of African Americans. African American mayors and members of City Councils were elected in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New Orleans, Raleigh, and most other big cities.

Simultaneously, with the emergence of African American leadership within the cities, the white population left—they actually left and they took the resources with them. So we had a huge fiscal crisis in every city across the country and African American mayors and leadership were left coping with diminished fiscal capacity and rising social needs. 

So, as we talk about regionalism, we need to really understand that, in some ways, this is not really new, it’s actually an old struggle. There are a number of conditions that have made it possible for this to become a battleground at the end of the first decade in the 21st century. And I’ll just mention several key influences.

Rise of Environmentalism: First is the rise of the environmental movement, which produced a public questioning of life in the suburbs as being the optimal quality of life for everyone. During the 1950s and 1960s, the suburbs were thought of as being the best possible way of life.

Suburban Decline: The second really important influence was the recognition that all suburbs are not the same, and Myron Orfield’s groundbreaking work with Metropolitics actually demonstrated that some of the suburban places are getting the shaft in the current pattern of metropolitan development so that they’re receiving a lot of the same problems that the old inner cities used to realize.

Globalization: The third influence has been globalization. The structure of our metropolitan regions have been changed radically in the last 20 years because of globalization.

Demographics: In addition, there are two more points that I want to mention and maybe open it up for conversation. There has been a big demographic change. The quality and character of individual families changed in the last 30 years. The “single person” and “single head of house­hold” are the dominant household types in the United States—the“Ozzie and Harriet” lifestyle is certainly not predominant.

Migrants from all over the world, particularly from Latin America and the Asian Pacific islands, have become a very important political force. And finally, the African American community is finding itself in the middle of a dilemma because it is actually being undermined by the success of a relatively small fraction of people who have achieved middle class status as a result of the 1960s.

A class divide is opening up within the African American communities. While some people are managing to get over to the middle class, tthe bottom third of the population is actually worse off than they were in the 1960s.

So, as the African American middle class moves up, they also are moving out. We now have 60 percent of the Asian American population, 50 percent of the Latino population, and 40 percent of the African American middle class population living in the suburbs. This is quite a different picture than it was in the 1960s and 1970s.

Lastly, the mortgage crisis that has really come to a head in the last couple of years, has demonstrated that the old idea of metropolitan development is dead. The struggle for regional equity will be a struggle whereby the middle class people who have now moved into the suburbs join together with those in the inner city to create a new reality for our metropolitan regions.

Jesse Clarke: Carl Anthony has laid out the trajectory of the social movements which came together under the regional equity banner. (See preceding Carl Anthony interview excerpt.) That naturally leads into the question, how do you differentiate between the regional equity movement and other civil rights and social justice movements that have similar objectives or similar demographic bases?

Dwayne Marsh: Policy Link came to this frame both because its leadership was committed to the idea but also because it came from the ground up. There was an early gathering of about 30 or so people doing work in what we then called “community-based regionalism.” In that conversation, there was a clarity of understanding that you can’t make lasting neighborhood change without at least a regional analysis, if not a regional strategy for moving power. The reason our own tri-annual gathering of regional equity advocates has tripled in size is people are finding practical usefulness in this kind of real-world theoretical framework.
The principles that drive a regional equity analysis cannot be easily stretched into something that doesn’t consider the interests of working class, low-income people of color. One can contrast that with “ Smart Growth” as a frame. People looked at Smart Growth and agreed with some of the principles, but felt like too often, at the end of the day, no benefits accrue to their constituencies.

Nathaniel Smith: To go back to what Carl’s piece addresses, we need to understand that this movement is not an independent movement unto itself but a continuation of a broader, longer, movement for social justice in our country and in our world. The regional equity framework allows individuals to get together who may not have thought of being under the same tent. It gives them the opportunity to find that common thread that binds us together as human beings.

If you go back to one of King’s last speeches at the National Cathedral, “Remaining Awake in a Great Revolution,” one of his great quotes is: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
What he’s talking about is how we’re all connected as individuals. What he’s talking about is regional equity. And what we need to do is to build upon that great quote and move forward in really promoting social justice in our broader community.

Juliet Ellis: I really appreciate Nathaniel’s comments highlighting interconnectedness because in doing the work in the Bay Area we hear again and again that one of the reasons people want to be part of the effort is the understanding that we’re stronger when we work together. Our fights are similar and there is synergy in us working together for the real solutions.

The beauty around the joint equity work in comparison to other movements that are out there is the fact that the regional equity agenda is explicitly about equity. Not just smarter growth, not just greener jobs, but equitable participation for low-income people and communities of color. The tent is big enough but it’s explicit enough. So unlike the kind of coalition work where Urban Habitat is alone in advocating for the equity part of the equation, our regional equity work is an easy natural fit.

Carl Anthony: I think one of the other wonderful things we’re experiencing in the Unites States (and you see this in the Presidential contest), we’re welcoming a new generation that is saying not only can we represent the communities that we come from, but we can provide leadership for everybody. 

Dwayne Marsh: I think that’s so right, and this concept that we are all interconnected and intertwined leads to the realization that we are mutually vulnerable: the vulnerability of one is the vulnerability of all. And this is an idea that resonates as a true American ideal. Ultimately, it’s the same premise as the New Deal, which became a signature piece of American political thought: the security of one is tied to the security of all.
Unfortunately, for the last decade, and even longer, urban centers have been subject to an assault. Our urban centers weren’t seen as interconnected to the place where “white flight” took flight to. There was a refusal to recognize that there is a direct connection between what’s going on in the urban environments, and the suburban ones.

I think that once again it’s becoming very clear to people that we have to work together in larger, more diverse coalitions to build our power together. It’s also becoming clear that to build power together in a regional equity movement is to deal with transportation issues, with employment, with housing, and with the environment in a broader way than in the way just one person or one organization might be approaching it locally.

Jesse Clarke: So, what sort of power are you talking about building?

Leslie Moody: In Denver, we’re working in a number of major metropolitan areas on both, site-specific development campaigns to win community benefits agreements and on larger community benefits policies and principles in cities. We’re seeing the incredibly transformative nature of the regional equity movement: people moving from isolation (sometimes connected to a community organization or a union or a church, but feeling like they have no access to power) and then, through this work, realizing that they not only can access power, but that they have the power to govern.

The meaning of this political movement in the country right now, as well as the movement we’re seeing in cities, is really inspiring and exciting. Over the last eight years we have been subject to a concerted attack on the role of government in society and the power of government to hold corporations accountable and to hold communities to a high standard. There had been a sense that progressive governance was removed as a possibility. Now we’re seeing the revitalization of a progressive vision of what our cities can be, the power of government to raise the floor, level the playing field and create opportunity, whether it’s through the education system or through housing opportunities or job opportunities, and people ready to actually jump up and govern. 

And so, I think there’s a moment when you pull enough groups together who have been isolated and competing for resources and frustrated long enough that we can all start saying, “Wait a minute. We have a vision. We share this vision. And if we combine our resources, our membership bases are able to actually think about how power is structured in our region. We will be the folks, we will be the people who can decide the future of our cities and our regions.”

Jesse Clarke: In terms of the political power of governance, how do you think the current situation compares to the situation in the 1970s when African American mayors and city councils took power and then found that the treasury was bare and the political power that they were exercising was the power to administer scarcity, the power to withdraw investment, the power to ration social services and healthcare? When you look at the social institutions like unions and other movements like the Civil Rights Movement that held economic power outside the electoral system, how do you see regional equity building that kind of autonomous power that’s not dependent on elected officials’ transitory power?

Leslie Moody: When you get right down to it, unions have an economic power that is really unmatched in a lot of the other organizing that we see. (And these 100-year-old labor institutions are going through their own challenging restructuring.) Unions have the power to bargain a contract, to improve your job, your wages, and your working conditions. It gives people a real sense of security despite the overwhelming economic power of developers and large corporations. In addition to conventional union organizing, we need to figure out what real economic power resides in our families, neighborhoods, and communities.

Carl Anthony: Our social and economic institutions go through phases of being powerful and dormant, but take a 50-year perspective. When Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks started organizing in Montgomery, everyone thought that the South was dead. But the churches, historically black colleges, and even the elected folks lined up behind this new agenda. Our unions are going through really huge problems, but they’re also bringing in new assets, such as the new immigrant labor force. We’re beginning to see the value of having these institutions that have had some challenging history but also have some sound operating principles that we will need to get us through the next stage.

When we talk about social movements capable of autonomous political action, we’re talking not only about labor, the environmental movement, the environmental justice movement, or the Civil Rights Movement; we’re also talking about all of the other people of color movements, all of the social movements for progressive social change. They have an opportunity to come together and govern. We’re moving into a position where we can posit what we do want and what we can make happen.

In 1961, no one thought that when those four students went in to ask for a hamburger that it would have the transformation value that it had. They thought it was about a hamburger. It was not about a hamburger. It was about transforming American society and we see the fruits of that in the electoral process for the presidency of the United States. But we haven’t seen anything yet. We realize that Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton are only two of thousands and thousands of people who have this capacity to stand up and really demand the changes that we need. We’re at the beginning of something that could be quite powerful and transformative.

Nathaniel Smith: When you look back at Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Dr. Abernathy, Dr. Larry and other people that began the civil rights movement in Alabama, there are some lessons that can be learned about how to sustain that spark. We’ve learned that you need to get beyond the technical explanation of regional equity and focus on developing a common language. We’ve learned that you need to get everyday people to understand their stake. We learned that we need to tell neighborhood-based and grassroots stories around regional equity, and keep those close to our hearts.

Just as in the civil rights movements, its not just specific issues, tactics, or even strategies that will hold us together over the long term. It’s the common language, the values, the stories, the passion, that we have for social justice, that will keep us together during the work that we have ahead of us.

Jesse Clarke: Are these regional equity organizations ready to start collaborating on a national agenda? What are some of the key elements that agenda would have regardless of who’s in office in the federal government? What are the political and social objectives of the movement that need to be knit together to create a common national platform?

Carl Anthony: The bad news right now is that there’s no regional government in this country. The good news is that there’s no regional government in this country. We will need to develop and sustain the capacity of our folks coming from the bottom up, from the grassroots up, to mobilize their own neighborhoods and their own communities and their own labor unions and their own educational campaigns. But then to move beyond their originating base to enlist the folks from the inner-ring older suburbs and with the white working class.

We can now see the possibility of connecting the progressive elements of the environmental movement to the working class, with issues like green collar jobs and the green economy. We can do it in a way, as Nathaniel pointed out, that the average person in the community can understand—what’s in it for their children and their grandchildren and their neighbors.

To some extent, we also need to consolidate. There are several hundred regions around the country. But if we’re able to build strong organizations in just a dozen of those regions, that would have a huge catalytic impact on national politics.

Cecil Corbin-Marks: I don’t think that the agenda coming out of the regional equity movement is going to be focused on a unitary platform. It’s not an agenda around a set of core issues because the issues play out in fundamentally different ways regionally. Furthermore, when it comes to coalition building, it’s easy for the status quo forces to pick people off around issues.

There have to be different agendas on a variety of different levels to achieve particular types of outcomes. Policy and planning processes; participation in political campaigns and the elections; pressure on appointments and making sure that key decision-makers are put in key positions—each will need to be aproached based on the particulars.

The question is not “What agenda can we unite around?” but “What are the values around which we shape an agenda that can lead us to a common place?”

Leslie Moody: I agree. I don’t think that a focus on narrow issues is the way to go. We need to focus on shared principles across a broad spectrum of issues: on standards of employment; on requirements for public participation in decision-making; and on equity in financing. As we look at potentially huge federal investments in infrastructure, transportation, housing, the green economy, we need to agree on standards that will control how these dollars devolve to the state and city level. When that money comes in, we want a voice about how it’s going to be spent. We want to be able to screen the employers and consultants that are bidding on that to make sure they’re doing local hiring, creating high-wage jobs and real career opportunities. What are the things that we demand, no matter what the issue or the funding stream?

Dwayne Marsh: If we’re going to do real mass mobilization, we have to move beyond the tens of thousands who have been touched by the work of community based organizations, to the millions of people who need to be. It’s a battle for the uncommitted part of this country and we have to look for issue opportunities to do that.

Juliet Ellis: What’s great about the regional equity frame is that it allows us to be able to talk about issues in a really comprehensive way. So I worry less around issues being picked off in that “divide and conquer” process that we’ve experienced in the past.

Organizations like Urban Habitat are talking about education, transportation, and housing as a comprehensive story. So I say, yes, there is the opportunity for us to get on the same page and articulate our shared values and shared principles around participation, winning electoral power, and so on. But there’s also a real hunger to figure out how to actually move these issues on the ground locally. How do we share strategies, so that we’re not reinventing the wheel every single time. What is working in Denver that we could actually apply to what we’re trying to do here in the Bay Area?

Carl Anthony: I just want to add one other part. On the capacity question: for many, many years, most of us have been operating with one or two percent of our capacity because we’ve been spending a huge amount of energy just trying to cut through all of these different overlays and frames. What this particular movement allows us to do is look more holistically. And that has a potential of liberating capacity.

We haven’t talked much in this conversation today about the prison system, and how many people are actually being wasted by sitting there, and how do we liberate that potential, not only to disrupt the systems that are wrong but also to begin to create the kinds of systems that we really need?

The country is longing for vision and the grassroots mobilizations coming up from communities of color are extremely inspiring. It’s an inclusive approach that includes everybody and anybody who is progressive, who has something to contribute. The capacity question is very much linked to having a faith in ourselves to mobilize the people of the emerging generation toward a new vision of the whole society.  

Race and Regionalsm | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Fall 2008 | Credits

Recording of the roundtable interview "Regional Equity Goes National"

Listen to a recording of the roundtable interview Regional Equity Goes National".  Or view the edited article.
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