Detroit City of Design Podcast

Angela Glover Blackwell Explains Why Designing Equitable Systems Is Imperative to Our Growth as a Nation

Episode Notes

Angela Glover Blackwell is the Founder in Residence at PolicyLink and the host of the Radical Imagination podcast. She has helped grow and define a national equity movement focused on innovating and improving public policy to ensure access and opportunity for all low-income people and communities of color. Host Olga Stella talks with Angela about how COVID-19 has exacerbated inequality issues as well as how everyone benefits when we implement solutions for our most vulnerable populations.

Links for reference: Policy Link, Radical Imagination Podcast, UNESCO City of Design Designation, The Curb-Cut Effect, How the GI Bill's Promise Was Denied to a Million Black WWII Veterans

Episode Transcription

Olga: [00:00:00] I'm happy to be here with Angela Glover Blackwell. She's the founder and residents of PolicyLink and the host of the Radical Imagination Podcast. Through her writing, speaking and leadership, Angela's helped grow and define a national equity movement focused on innovating and improving public policy to ensure access and opportunity for all low-income people and communities of color.

Today, we discuss ways to design solutions that support our most vulnerable populations, especially now as the country's infrastructure and resources face unprecedented challenges. 

Angela, I'm so honored to be speaking with you today. You're an icon in the equity movement and for years I’ve repeated your mantra that “equity is a superior growth model.” Can you tell our audience a little bit about why you believe that? And how you came to develop that mantra at PolicyLink?

Angela: [00:00:50]Well, it's such a pleasure to talk to you and I am such a fan of Detroit. It is always wonderful to have an opportunity to connect. For years, actually through my entire adult life, I have been trying to advance a fully inclusive society and addresses the issues of racism that keeps so many people from being able to fully participate and reach their potential.

However, around 2008, 2009, 2010 I became aware that we were actually becoming a nation that would be majority people of color faster than was it being reported. My colleagues and I began to think there are real implications here. By 2044 we'll be majority people of color, but since 2012 the majority of children born in this country had been of color.

By the end of this year, the majority of children under 18 will be of color, and what we know is that the majority of the young workforce by around 2030 will be of color. What this means is that the very people who have been left behind will determine the fate of the nation. And it's going to be up to the national leaders and people who care about a fully robust democracy and an inclusive economy to start paying attention to the people of color who are becoming the majority.

The state of the nation is dependent on the ones who've been left behind. Now that realization really made the equity agenda become urgent for everyone because we know about the gap in infant mortality, the wealth gap, the education gap, the health gap in general. On every indicator of wellbeing, people of color, particularly people who are Black and Latinx have been left behind. If the nation is going to be able to be prosperous, if we're going to have a workforce ready for the challenges of the 21st century. We go on to have the kind of innovation and entrepreneurship that has really defined so much of the economy. It is important that the people who are going to be the future receive the full investment that they're going to need for that future to be bright.

And so, while I will always be committed to the notion that achieving equity and inclusion is a moral imperative for the United States of America, it has become an economic imperative. The economy will not thrive in the future if the majority of people in the nation are not able to lead, contribute and guide. 

A democracy that does not work in the context of difference, is not a democracy word crowing about on the global stage. But one that is fully inclusive, and we can actually see everybody being able to have a voice, that is what the nation should be striving for. So I began to use that phrase, equity is the superior growth model. Because if we get equity right, just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential. If we get equity right, we get it all right. We get the environment right because we know that the people of color who are low income or often, the ones who are hit first and worst by the degradations that happen to the environment. So if we get it right for them, the environment is right. 

If we get the workforce, right. And people were making living wages and they have childcare and they have health insurance and all of those things, then the economy will thrive. What could be more exciting in a global economy and having a world nation, which the United States is, which people in the nation are connected globally through kinship, through custom, through relationship, through language.

And here’s one last fact about equity being a superior growth model: people of color, people who are Latinx, Asian, and African American are three times as likely as people who are White to start a small business. And that entrepreneurial spirit is exactly the thing that could drive the economy well into the future.

Olga: [00:05:11] I mean, I couldn't agree more. And I think that's exactly why we're an organization that champions design. And when Detroit received the UNESCO city of design designation, uh, in 2015, this question of how can design advance exactly the kinds of things that you're talking about because what else, you know, in a city like Detroit with so many challenges, with so many social and economic disparities and why else would it matter? It's exactly for all the reasons that you've, you've just outlined. And when I heard you speak, um, earlier in 2020, you were speaking about how important it is to design solutions with nuance and specificity for vulnerable populations.

And then when we do that, everybody wins. And what struck me about that, cause it was in a slightly different context, we weren't in a design setting when you were talking about that was that you were essentially defining inclusive design.

Olga: [00:06:09] Can you tell me a little bit more about what you mean about what it means to solve problems with nuance and specificity for vulnerable populations?

Angela: [00:06:18] One day I was sitting in a green room getting ready to give a speech to a number of business leaders and civic leaders, and my plan was to talk about equity being the spiritual growth model. And while it appeals to some people for others, that statement kind of their eyes glaze over, they don't quite buy into it.

I was trying to think of a better way to say it. The example of the curb cuts in the sidewalk came to my mind because I thought, no, it's curb cuts. What they actually represent while they're there because of the advocacy of people with disabilities in wheelchairs, they benefit everyone. How many times have people been pushing a stroller or something else? The curb cut made what they were doing so much easier. I said “that's it, It's the Curb Cut Effect,” and if once you realize what it is, it's everywhere. So that there are other examples, like preschool, preschool actually started as a big movement in this country from the head start program. Head Start started because poor children in Mississippi were not getting the stimulation and the orientation and development that they needed to be able to start school ready to learn. And so they started this preschool program called is Head Start. Head Start actually began to bring it to the consciousness that all children needed, that kind of deliberate stimulation and development work so that they could start school. With the basics to begin to learn. It led to children all over the nation getting that kind of early childhood development program.

Here's another example. I often think that this would be the gold standard of the Curb Cut Effect if it hadn't been for race discrimination, and that's the GI Bill. The GI Bill started. Because of few people, they thought about a hundred thousand out of the 16 million returning veterans from World War II, might need a little extra assistance to be able to integrate back into society.

Well, 8 million of those returning veterans took advantage of the educational opportunities and many more millions took advantage of the mortgage support. It is no stretch to say the GI Bill made the White middle class, and I have to say White middle class because so many people of color were excluded from those benefits. 

So when you think about it, those are both examples. If we have to go for the most vulnerable, struggling veterans, poor Black children in Mississippi, people struggling to get around the nation in wheelchairs other than if you go to the most vulnerable and you design programs and policies with the nuance that will make it work for them, the benefits cascade out to everyone. I think that's true now that in this nation, we know that people who are Black and low income. People who are Latin X and low-income people who were in some Asian groups that are particularly struggling, need to have a real focus on what they need. And it's different given the circumstance, and you have to pay attention to that difference.

For example, many people who are Latino in this nation are working, but they are working at very low wages. They are making the kind of salaries that allow them to be able to have a high quality of living, and people are living often in very crowded conditions. So it is good income that is holding back there, but many people who are Black, they have been pushed out of the labor market altogether, and unemployment is the problem there. But if you were to solve that problem in 2015 for example, the GDP of the nation would have been $2.5 trillion higher if we had solved the discriminatory practices that keep people who are Black and Brown, but being able to fully participate in the economy.

And so that is an example of equity is the superior growth model, and it is an example of solve problems with those who are most vulnerable, and there's a huge impact that spreads out to everyone. The truth of the matter is that opportunity actually can cascade up and out and rarely trickles down.

Olga: [00:10:40] That's right, and I think now, even now with our country gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic and many of the cracks and the deficiencies in our social and economic systems exposed, there's even more of these opportunities coming to light. 

I know you've been watching what's happening across the country if there were one or two or three of the kind of top issues that have really come to your mind where we could apply this kind of thinking to make a difference, not just for vulnerable populations, pro for everyone, what would those be?

Angela: [00:11:13] Absolutely, COVID-19 has splashed into the raw wounds of the nation, like gallons of alcohol. 

It is just extraordinary what has happened, and what is being brought into sharp relief is all of the disinvestment and neglect in health, making sure that people who were Black and recent immigrants and people who were living in low-income communities often of color. Because the nation has failed to make sure that people had access to health care, access to fresh fruits and vegetables, access to the kind of lifestyle that allows one to develop without the extreme stress that leads to heart disease and hypertension.

Because all of those things have been neglected and we haven't really put the full force of the nation's healthcare system behind trying to close those gaps. 

We found that some people would just physically more susceptible to what the COVID virus is doing to people's bodies. But what we also know is because the economy has not been fully inclusive and people have not been able to get onto the ladder to move up in their job, the frontline workers are disproportionately people of color. People working in the grocery stores, people who are driving the emergency medical vehicles, people who are the deliverers, and these economies have been turned into gig economies. In some instances, people have not been able to benefit from having unions, in some instances. People have been marginalized with part-time jobs when it should have been a full-time job that these are the very people, even though they are more susceptible to the negative impact of the coronavirus are more likely to be exposed because they did not have the capacity to shelter-in-place because they are some of these frontline workers. 

And for those who are able to shelter-in-place, for those who are staying at home because of the housing disparities in this country, people are living in super crowded conditions. They're not able to be able to do the kind of separation and their vulnerabilities because of the economic pounding that they're going to receive is not going to make just things bad now, it's going to make the bad well into the future. 

And one other thing, I talked earlier about the fact that people who are of color or more likely to start small businesses, but they are not huge businesses. And the small business definition in this country is size a hundred or fewer employees to have 500 employees, if you are Black or Brown in this country it is a huge business, as far as our communities are concerned. We're talking about very small businesses and the small business administration has never reached them. And what we have now in place in this nation is not doing any better. That we need to have a targeted focus on very small businesses run by people of color, so that those businesses that were hanging on by their fingernails before the virus can get the kind of stability they need to be able to thrive into the future.

And so every disparity, every impact of discrimination. Every legacy of racism that has been right here staring us in the face has now become a super crisis. The only silver lining that I can see, and I have high, expectations because I know that the advocacy community is going to push hard on this, that we will need to recover to something much, much, much better than what we had before.

And we need to get the lesson of the coronavirus, which is that we are all connected. There has never been a more stark example of our mutuality that what happens in one corner. Happens to us all to some degree. Some are more exposed than others. Some are more vulnerable than others, but nobody can hide and we see the economy cannot hide.

We have to begin and stop putting up these barriers and fanning hate and distrust and begin to see that we really are all in this together, and therefore we must have a focus for a long period of time on making sure that those who have been disproportionately left behind become the primary target of our investments going forward, and we can finally heal the wounds of the founding of the nation.

This was a nation founded on stolen land genocide and human bondage. It is painful to hear it and more painful to have to know that the legacy of it continues to this day. We have to go back and again to think about every crime that has been done. And how do we understand how they continue to be done as harms into this moment and move us forward?

Olga: [00:16:53]I think it is a moment to get reenergized and to refocus our energy on what we can do, both individually and collectively.

And so when we start to think about that, whether designers or nonprofit leaders or city government leaders or business leaders, maybe we can talk about a couple of examples that you've seen in your career where, you know, solutions have been developed like universal Pre-k or better housing choices.

These kinds of solutions that are developed with nuance and specificity for vulnerable populations. Maybe go into one or two of those examples and help our audience understand what are the essential elements. How do you actually do this?

Angela: [00:17:08] One of the problems that are faced in San Francisco, Oakland, Washington DC, Boston, New York, and some in Detroit, is this issue of gentrification and displacement. I think that Detroit is not experiencing as at the level that the other places I named, but I do know that in the downtown development, there are advocates in Detroit who are worried who worry about the displacement.

But let me just move to the Oakland experience because it's a good example of what you're talking about. Oakland, California, has always lived in the shadow of San Francisco. And San Francisco has been a real attractor for the knowledge base, IT all of that. And the prices have just been gone up, up, up till they had gotten out of the reach of most and people in turn to Oakland, a lovely city just across the bridge from San Francisco on the Bay, a beautiful old Victorians, a lovely community.

People have been buying up those houses and the practice had been going up. Well for the past decade, just skyrocketing and the low-income people who have lived in Oakland, California. When I first moved to Oakland over 40 years ago, it was over 60% African American. Now it's down to around 30% or 25% something like that.

But the gentrification problem was really hitting people of color, Black, and Latino, hard. And is it hasn’t stopped, but one of the things that have happened, because of the advocacy is they have developed a plan to try to do something about it. It really is informed by what happens to those who are suffering most. The fact that people often live in small units, and those small units were exempt from just cause eviction until they were able to get something on the ballot to say, even smaller units, you have to have just cause eviction, you can't just put people out. That opened up a whole new realm of housing that had to at least be scrutinized before people could be pushed out.

That right away in California, the city of Oakland moved to stop all evictions during this COVID crisis, and that was very important because we knew that was the problem. We have had the mayor developed a plan for housing that actually has prioritized people who were low income and pushing down 30% of the median income when we talk about inclusionary zoning. Those are things that are designed so that the people who suffer most of the displacement problem are able to have some ability to hold on to their property, to stay where they are. 

Because the problem with Oakland now is it's becoming such a hot spot. It was developing into two distinct classes of people, some who were very well off and others who were very poor and pushing out the middle-class, because it's the middle-class who were the ones who really make a place vibrant and the Black and Latino middle-class was really the thing that brought vibrancy to Oakland, California. So what we're finding is as we're able to stabilize housing, we're able to stabilize it, not just for people who are very poor, but for middle-class families who are trying to raise their children. That helps the economy, that helps the schools and helps civic engagement, and so there's an effort now to redesign Oakland from the standpoint of those who were most vulnerable, and that is very exciting.

Another thing that I think is a good example, is in the area of access to fresh fruits and vegetables in communities in Detroit. Very much like this, Detroit and so many places, you knew that this was wrong when a major city had very few grocery stores, and if you found a city like that, it was a city that had a majority of people of color population. And if you had a city that did not have a majority but had pockets of a Black community, you would often find there was not a grocery store there. And so the effort to try to deal with the problem of access to fresh fruits and vegetables is very much defined by people who are low income, dependent on having grocery stores in their neighborhoods, not able to take a car because often they don't have cars to other areas. But getting grocery stores more prevalent all over communities, not just improve the quality of life for people who are living in those communities, it improves the quality of life in the whole community. Dealing with issues like obesity, better, putting great pressure on the healthcare system. Being able to have people healthier so that they're able to go to work. Thinking about being able to increase the opportunities for sometimes small farmers through farmer's markets and other things, and trying to fill that gap. And so it's another example of looking at a problem from little self remote and developing solutions and finding that their economic benefit, their health benefits, their employment benefits all along the way. 

One last example I'll give is one of transportation. Transportation is often the thing that you can really see where racism hits the road. Because you'll find that in terms of public transit investments, that they are not often for low-income people of color, but as low-income people of color who are disproportionate dependent on the public transit system.

That's true in New Orleans. It's true in Atlanta. And if you invest so that the people who actually use it can access it easily in terms of where it stops when it runs, the quality of it, the dependability of it, you improve the quality of life for the low-income people of color who are dependent on it, but you also make it better for employers because people can get to work. You make it better for businesses because people can move into areas where there's more shopping and people can access higher education. New Orleans has designed its system now around the very people who are most dependent on it, which they had not been doing all this time, and other cities are following that same path.

Olga: [00:23:22] Those are all really important and meaningful examples, and I think each one of us can start to see how those benefits do end up impacting all of us, not just the vulnerable communities that are served at the core. And I think that's why we're such champions for inclusive design practices and processes because it really does lead to outcomes that are better for everyone.

You know, I love listening to your podcast, Radical Imagination. And I was hoping that you talk a little bit about, you know what you mean by “radical imagination,” cause I think it'd be very inspiring in this time, especially.

Angela: [00:23:58] Thank you. I, um, have been so moved and impressed by what it is that people are trying to do to live up to the full potential of the nation.

PolicyLink has a national summit every three or four years, and the last equity summit, which was in Chicago in 2018, our opening plenary was about radical imagination fueling change. And the point that we were trying to make in that opening plannery is that once you commit to achieving racial equity, you have to acknowledge that you are asking the nation to do something that it is not done. And that the systems that we have, whether they are systems of policing or systems of social service or even educational systems, those systems really were not developed. To produce an outcome in which all could reach their full potential, including low-income people of color who were being systematically left behind.

So once we commit to equity and racial equity, we have to open up our imagination beyond thinking merely of reform and thinking about how do we up end these systems to engage them in a way that they will achieve something that they never envisioned. And what has inspired me is how many people have already stepped into that space that I've talked to people who have talked about prison and police abolition, not as a way to create anarchy, but a way to take a stark look at why are we asking police departments to make our neighborhoods safe when those systems began to catch runaway slaves and to make the frontiers what they thought safe for the pioneers who were coming there. Those same systems have morphed into our police departments, but if we take a closer look, we think that the tension in low-income communities that the killing of young Black men that often makes headlines that these things are not terribly inconsistent with why these systems started. So when we talk about police abolition, we say, let's start by asking, what does it take to be safe? And the answers are trust, relationships, paying attention to the needs of people. And if we have to have something that has to respond to vicious crimes, we might have something like that, but we wouldn't be asking that unit to be the same thing that creates safety and harmony and community. When we talk about prison abolition is not to be naive to think that sometimes people don't need to be separated from society. When you look at the fact that the vast majority of people who were in prison are not there for violent crimes, they're there for drug offenses and petty things that we need to think about differently.

And I'll just give one other example. When we think about what we need to do in the area of housing. Housing ought to be a human right, and we wouldn't have all this homelessness. And so we think that to really build a system that will help us to have a fully inclusive society, we have to bring a different kind of imagination, a radical imagination. And once we put the ideas out there, like a guaranteed job for people who want to work, they're not so radical after all, Roosevelt did it in the 1930s and it is true that almost every episode of radical imagination, hen you sit back and think about it, it's just common sense and not all that radical.

Olga: [00:27:32] I think some of the best ideas are like that, but it just takes breaking the mold and mixing things up cause it's easy to get stuck in a rut and it's easy, especially in today's media environment, and then frankly, the way social media works. We get stuck in our, in our bubbles, in our communities, and certain messages get reinforced about entitlement and who's worthy, and I've really appreciated listening to the podcast because it just helps remind me to get out of my own rut sometimes. 

Angela: [00:28:02] I think it's easy for us all to fall into it. Just sort of thinking, how are we going to go from here? Just like this awful moment that we're in right now. We have to imagine that we're going to come out of it, but it's so frightening while we're in it and we should imagine that we can come out of it and start to be better.

Really building on what we've seen in terms of how we're connected and thinking we're making investments that we're not just making investments to crawl back to where we were before, but we're making investments to lead to future that has always been there waiting for us if we would just see it.

Olga: [00:28:36] As we wrap up our conversation today, which has just been so wonderful. What do you think, Angela? We, you know, as individuals are leaders in our communities, within our organizations. What are the types of things that we can be doing to start to practice some of this radical imagination or to start to make this change because their world is never going back to how it was, you know before the virus hit our country, our globe.

Angela: [00:29:01] I think what it takes is for us to ask where do we want to be? What do we want to achieve? And not to say what can we do within the constraints of what we have seen, and if we start calling out those outcomes that all reached their full potential. That's a different kind of educational system. If we say, every community is a community of opportunity. That is a different kind of investment in terms of economic activity and safety and inclusion. That if we ask how do we have an economy that is a shared economy that shares the prosperity, that values everybody in it, that is a different way of doing business.

We have got to call out some big, bold ambition and really put some numbers on them and begin to describe them and then back into what the input ought to be. Not constrained by what it is that we have or what it is that we've done because we are the richest nation on. And I always get annoyed when people start talking about the United States not being able to afford something, we are not a poor nation and we need to stop acting like one and we need to apply our wealth to a vision that is as big as the greed that we have seen in the past, and let our creativity flow so that we can get there and every one of us can do that. We can do that in our individual work. We can do that as part of our democratic participation, and we can do that with our organizations and our voices and our compassion. It will not be scary. Some people are just so frightened about a fully inclusive future because they think there's no place for them in it. If people who are white in this nation would commit themselves to make sure that they try to provide for people who are of color what they want for their own families, they will find that it will flow to their families because we will be in a place of shared prosperity, not just ordered prosperity.

Olga: [00:31:01] That's right. Again, so happy to have had you on our show today because this is exactly what the Detroit City of Design initiative has been about, but how we can use design and design-thinking and designers to help support these kinds of outcomes and how we can work across our community. And I know you continue to be active here in Detroit with your work, and we're just so looking forward to continuing our relationship with you.

Angela, thank you so much for joining us today.

Angela: [00:31:29] It was a pleasure speaking with you.