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New Equity report for Grand Rapids will only perpetuate more Inequality

March 27, 2017

Last week, the city of Grand Rapids was visited by members of the Rose Center for Public Leadership to, “to explore new and innovative ways the city can best utilize public land and finance incentives to support the community’s vision of vibrant neighborhoods with high-quality parks, a riverfront recreation trail, more mobility and housing options and economic opportunity for people from all walks of life. 

This visit resulted in a list of recommendations on how Grand Rapids can be a more equitable city. On Thursday, an MLive article stated: 

Calvin Gladney, managing partner of Washington, D.C.-based Mosaic Urban Partners, said equity — creating a city for everyone — helps Grand Rapids compete with other cities for millennials. It also adds to the density needed for a critical mass of people to make certain kinds of initiatives work, Gladney said.

Equity, therefore is viewed primarily through a market lens, since it will help the city compete with other cities for millennials.

In an article published in the Rapidian, the concept of equity through a market lens is expanded by the experts from the Rose Center: 

“Why equity? The experts laid out the following reasons why equity is an investment:”

• Prioritizing equity has a big cost, but it also has big benefits.

• Equity improves fiscal health.

• Equity increases city competitiveness.

• Equity improves pro-formas (bottom line)

• Equity (done right) lifts all boats.

• Equity is risk management.

Again, equity is defined through a Neo-liberal capitalist lens, as increasing competitiveness, improving the bottom line and lifting all boats. The throw back to the Kennedy years reference, lifting all boats, is both revealing and disheartening. The notion of lifting all boats is based on the idea that with the right amount of investment in the “disadvantaged” or “the less fortunate,” we can somehow create equity. This neoliberal economic model has been tried for decades and has never resulted in creating real equity, because it is still rooted in the idea that our economy should drive social outcomes.

Recommendations

The report that came out of the Rose Center project for Grand Rapids, can be viewed here. 

The 80-page report reads like a bad powerpoint presentation for those in the corporate world, with lots of trendy language. However, the report and its recommendations are ultimately rooted in market-based solutions.

First, the report is partly based on interviewing some 60 stakeholders in the community. This is the first mistake in the attempt to create and practice equity in Grand Rapids. The stakeholders, listed above, are disproportionately made up of people from the business world, along with those representing non-profits and local elected officials. I would argue, that many of these stakeholders are actually engaged in the practice of inequality, since their goals are to amass more wealth, to control more public dollars and to influence public policy that benefits their business.

The stakeholder model also perpetuates the notion that those who are experiencing inequality the most, are unable to articulate what it is that they want. Consider the thousands of people in Grand Rapids who are experiencing inequality and what it might look like if they were actually asked what they think would create equality? Until this happens, it is hard to take seriously and of the recommendations that the experts and stakeholders came up with.

Second, the report solidifies the notion that equity can only be achieved through market principles and the benevolence of those with tremendous economic privilege. On page 27 of the report, one can see how business and philanthropic leaders are elevated. The only point on on page 27 that reflects any real understanding of how to create equity is in the last point about trust. Indeed, the system is fixed in Grand Rapids.

Third, on page 43 of the report, we are provided with a list of five equity implementation ideas:

  • Mobility
  • Engagement Process
  • Incentives
  • Workforce Development
  • Disposition Process

Again, such ideas are a reflection of a neoliberal mindset, which believes that we only need to create equity by making some minor adjustments to how we do economics. Such ideas completely ignore historical factors, like structural racism and white supremacy, along with class dynamics, which those that have always run the city have made clear they are not willing to give up.

What Would Equity in Grand Rapids Look Like?

The idea of creating and practicing equity in Grand Rapids is not only a difficult notion, it is something that those of us with privilege should have little to no say in. Creating and practicing equity should come from those who are currently NOT experiencing equity.

What we can do is to identify how unequal the city is, which might actually provide a framework for how to achieve equity.

Grand Rapids is a city of haves and have nots. We have 600 millionaires in Kent County, according to data released in 2014. At the same time we have thousands of families and individuals living in poverty. Most of those who live in poverty are employed, but make wages that individuals and families can barely make a living off of.

Grand Rapids is a city that is deeply segregated and a city that disproportionately benefits white people. Those who are struggling financially are disproportionately those in the Black, Latino and Native communities. Achieving any kind of racial equity is impossible unless there is economic equity, but that goal will never be achieved by simply trying to provide more “opportunities” for those living in a deeply white supremacist culture.

Grand Rapids is a city that is currently experiencing a housing crisis. This means that while lots of new housing is being created, most of the new housing is for those with economic privilege. Thousands of families are being priced out of neighborhoods, resulting in displacement. Gentrification is a reality and even though too many people want to deny this fact, we are seeing how several neighborhoods are being drastically transformed to benefit the professional and creative classes, leaving behind working class people. Working class people are necessary to bus tables and to change the sheets, but they are not welcome in the gentrified Grand Rapids.

Inequality also exists in Grand Rapids in our education system. Those who are part of the professional, creative and capitalist class send their kids to schools that most working class and communities of color children can’t access. Such stratification in our education system has been taking place for decades, but it is most recently embodied in the educational philosophy of the current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.

There are several other indicators of inequality in Grand Rapids, such as who makes up the jail population, those who are plagued by poor health, those who experience food insecurity, those struggling with mental health issues, those in the undocumented immigrant community, queer youth, refugees and many, many more.

Until these areas of inequality are addressed, Grand Rapids will never be a city that creates and practices equity, especially when those who own this city are still the ones who make the decisions about what kinds of policies this community will adopt.

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