Seeking Solidarity Between Place-Based and Economic Justice Work

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on May 28, 2015

Last week, Brentin Mock over at CityLab had an incisive response to Peter Dreier’s Shelterforce article The Revitalization Trap. Mock didn’t dispute Dreier’s argument that the goals of the community development movement won’t be won solely with place-based work and require large-scale policies to address wage stagnation, labor rights, and inequality.

The solution is full employment with decent pay and benefits, and only the federal government has the capacity (and responsibility) to guarantee that everyone who wants to work has a job.

American workers today face declining job security and dwindling earnings as companies downsize, move overseas, and shift more jobs to part-time workers. Place-based policies cannot address these major trends.

But Mock pointed out that there are two reasons to nonetheless not dismiss place-based work. First, he said, is the issue of racism. All of the various economic challenges that Dreier describes do not fall evenly across different demographics—and therefore solutions that only raise average wages or decrease unemployment, for example—will also not do anything to rectify the racial inequities that hold us back:

Dreier is right to look at increasing wages as a way of lifting African Americans out of poverty, but that’s a separate thing from closing the gaps of inequality. Good jobs and living wages are helpful for African Americans, immigrants, and LGBTQ workers, but they don’t help these populations overcome discrimination at the bank that prevents them from getting business loans, or the discrimination that prevents them from renting or buying housing in certain neighborhoods. Having middle-class incomes has not protected people of color from discrimination either, especially when it comes to foreclosures in recent years.

Mock implies here, but doesn’t entirely spell out, that this is particularly relevant to place-based work because place is a (possibly the) major vehicle in this country for perpetuating racial disparities. As sociologist Pat Sharkey puts it in his excellent essay on our assumptions about why integration matters:

Residential segregation provides a mechanism for the reproduction of racial inequality. Living in predominantly black neighborhoods affects the life chances of black Americans not because of any character deficiencies of black people, not because of the absence of contact with whites, but because black neighborhoods have been the object of sustained disinvestment and punitive social policy since the emergence of racially segregated urban communities in the early part of the 20th Century.[5] Residential segregation has been used consistently over time as a means of distributing and hoarding resources and opportunities among white Americans and restricting resources and opportunities from black Americans. Racially segregated communities provide one of several mechanisms through which racial inequality is made durable.

Place-based disinvestment is part of what got us where we are—so it still needs to be undone.

Mock also notes that particularly in a world where places are not treated equally,

Dissing place-based strategies also undercuts initiatives currently in motion that have people of color and disadvantaged communities in the driver’s seats of their own revitalization plans.

You can almost hear the “for once!” that goes, appropriately, at the end of that last sentence. And of course that is a major impetus for a whole lot of place-based community planning and organizing.

So It’s Both/And—What Now?

It’s becoming almost cliché in these kinds of conversations to acknowledge that “it’s not either/or, it’s both/and.” And that is certainly true in this case.

 

It is possible to approach place-based work from the perspective that it will solve all ills by itself—witness the number of people who seem to think we are no longer fighting poverty per se, but just “concentrated poverty” and “blight.”

It is also possible to approach economic justice organizing without a racial justice lens or an understanding of how place affects opportunity and equity.

Each of those approaches are doomed to fail without the analysis, tools, and solutions of their colleagues—and discussions like these caution us from wandering too far in those directions.

But then the key question becomes how do we do “both/and” work? It doesn’t happen automatically.

I would suggest that the way forward would likely include specific moves of solidarity in both directions, and a crafting of strategies with the other theater of engagement in mind. For example:

  • Place-based practitioners might swear off any relationships with low-wage retailers Wal-Mart, for example, recognizing that the short-term benefit to place of having a store is counter-acted by the way in which Wal-Mart and its ilk are directly responsible for the tenuous economic condition of so many of the residents place-based organizations serve.
  • Labor leaders might educate themselves more closely about community preservation efforts and place-based revitalization before weighing in in support of the construction jobs created by a non-community-supported redevelopment project that is expected to cause unnecessary displacement and not return long-term economic benefit to residents of the neighborhood.

What else would you add to this list?

About the author more ยป

Miriam Axel-Lute is editor of Shelterforce and associate director of the National Housing Institute. Her email is miriam at nhi dot org.

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