Two years ago, I collaborated on a study examining how cities facing economic distress can recover in more racially and economically inclusive ways. We described it as an inclusive recovery: one that doesn’t assume economic growth will automatically lift the fortunes of all community members, but, instead, actively centers the contributions of historically excluded residents to ensure everyone is lifted in the rising tide.
In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis—and an overdue national reckoning with racial injustice—our research has sparked new conversations with policymakers and practitioners across the country seeking to apply its lessons to the urgent challenges facing cities today. This appetite for new thinking (along with the three years’ worth of data recently added to our original set) inspired me to imagine a series of short articles elevating the creative and courageous approaches local actors are pursuing to build more inclusive recoveries.
Our new limited series, Inclusive Recovery Insights, should evoke conversations about centering local recovery strategies around the contributions of historically marginalized groups, encourage creativity in applying these strategies to post-COVID-19 realities, and challenge assumptions about who should have power, voice, and influence in shaping the future of the cities and communities we call home.
Right now, America’s cities have an enormous opportunity to reimagine inclusive growth while resolving harmful, centuries-old inequities. We want to shine a light on their way forward.
A collective vision for inclusive recovery
Fresno, the largest city in California’s Central Valley, is among the nation’s fastest-growing areas, with 20 percent population growth since 2000. But decades of economic and racial disparity have created a dangerous dynamic within the region: increased expansion with ineffective land-use policies have isolated growth to the city’s outskirts, fueling the nation’s second-highest rate of concentrated poverty and steering economic investment and opportunity away from its poorest residents. We ranked Fresno low for cities studied in our inclusive recovery report—and last among cities in California.
I spoke to former mayor Ashley Swearengin last year about the city’s plan for shared prosperity; when I spoke to her again recently, she still remembered the “gut punch” of seeing empirical proof of its challenges.
Swearengin, CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation (CVCF) and a member of Urban’s board of trustees, said the Urban Institute’s findings challenged Fresno’s civic, community, and business leaders to take a deliberate, data-driven approach to correcting policy.
“Data has been absolutely central to our discovery process as a community and uncovering layers of inequitable economic opportunity,” she said. “It caused an about-face for our institutional leaders, many of whom—myself included—have been working for 20 years on what we had believed to be institutional reform.”
The Developing the Region’s Inclusive and Vibrant Economy, or DRIVE, initiative illustrates a commitment to challenging assumptions and fostering creative approaches to address Fresno’s economic inequities. The 10-year plan details what community stakeholders believe might fundamentally transform greater Fresno, create economic mobility, and foster an inclusive, vibrant, and sustainable economy.
The plan created in late 2019 is both a blueprint and an invitation. As its strategies have gained momentum, more organizations joined the effort, and funders gained the confidence to invest: Governor Gavin Newsom announced plans to support the initiative in the 2020 state budget, and the James Irvine Foundation awarded DRIVE a $15 million grant.
Swearengin cites growing funder interest in the work evolving in Fresno: “Philanthropy is our social risk capital. Public dollars would take far too long and be too difficult to use. Our philanthropic partners are making this work possible, and it will result in significant policy and institutional change.”
The pandemic hasn’t erased the collaborative’s sense of urgency or momentum, she added. Instead, it’s forcing a conversation on what “returning to normal” means for the broader economy and its historically disadvantaged communities.
“I can understand the compulsion,” Swearengin says. “Especially for cities with higher-than-average income levels, I can understand how they must feel. COVID just came along and blew a hole in their ship, and I can see why they would just try to board up the hole and keep sailing. But communities like Fresno don’t have that luxury. We don’t just need a repair or fix. We need a fundamental change in the vehicle that we’re all on to drive towards prosperity.”
Planning for inclusive recovery
As one might predict, the coronavirus pandemic has taken its toll on the people of Fresno. The crisis deepened and magnified systemic failures, hitting farmworkers, refugees, undocumented communities, and Black Americans the hardest and exposing long-standing disparities in food, housing, and access to quality health care. The danger is that marginalized communities would find themselves completely ignored as leaders plan for the future.
Artie Padilla, CVCF program officer for neighborhood development, told me that DRIVE’s cross-sector partners are mobilizing to ensure recovery efforts center Fresno’s most disinvested neighborhoods and the families hardest hit by the pandemic.
“DRIVE’s anchoring heart is that we elevate the voice and power of the people,” he said. “That focus hasn’t changed. We’re trying to leverage this situation to build more connectivity with our residents.”
To do that, he said, partners routinely share data about resource availability and resident-identified needs, avoiding shortages that could plunge disinvested communities into deeper distress.
The critical role of resident voice is ever present in Padilla’s mind as he transitions to CVCF from his role as executive director of Every Neighborhood Partnership, a neighborhood-based organization he helped launch. He says part of his new role will be to help expand Fresno’s progress into a countywide vision for resident development and neighborhood development in rural parts of the region.
“Ultimately, we want to see residents become leaders in their own neighborhoods: in politics, community advancement, school partnerships, and every element of life,” he said.
Applying our inclusive recovery insights
Fresno is a promising example of what’s possible when city leaders use quality data to raise awareness, identify gaps, attract resources, and hold partners accountable to actualizing principles of inclusion. But like cities across the nation, its leaders face difficult decisions about creating promise and opportunity for all residents while managing an uncertain recovery.
Together we can seize this opportunity to take on the deeper work of weighing intentions, challenging perceptions, centering marginalized voices, and stretching possibilities for a more inclusive recovery in American cities.
I hope you’ll join in this conversation. We have much to do and learn.