The event was scheduled for Tuesday September 29, 2015, but excitement began days in advance. Urban planning students, recent alumni, and activist designers buzzed. Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and CEO of PolicyLink, a US research organization committed to identifying and implementing effective poverty fighting programs for the advancement of low-income and minority citizens, was to deliver the Joint Center for Housing’s 2015 John T. Dunlop Lecture.
Highly respected by those working to expand opportunity equality in a financially segregated nation, Glover Blackwell’s work has consistently influenced governmental agendas since PolicyLink’s founding in 1999. Among the organization’s most recent directives, PolicyLink specialists worked alongside various federal agencies to help develop the Sustainable Communities Initiative. Thanks to PolicyLink’s participation, the grant includes a requirement for public engagement, a measure Glover Blackwell and her colleagues considered essential for the program’s successful local implementation. After it was enacted, the group alerted potential candidates to the new community funding resource and, in preparation for the program’s rollout, raised awareness among likely participating communities through webinars. These free information sessions explained what the grant offered, coached organizers on strategic application responses, and developed standards to guide public participation in the planning process.
To bolster its involvement and effectiveness in shaping policy, PolicyLink has also expanded its collaboration with UCLA economist Manuel Pastor’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity. Together, the two entities analyze, write, and distribute case-based economic studies that verify the relationship between elevating opportunities for the institutionally disadvantaged and larger regional economic growth.
Finding her path
Before her evening lecture, Glover Blackwell had lunch with student members of the Harvard Urban Planning Organization and the Kennedy School of Government. She began the talk by discussing how she started PolicyLink. After graduate school, she worked as an organizer in New York where she first noticed her own ability to get people interested and involved in what was going on in their communities, whether, she noted, through excitement or anger. She then returned to law school to pursue public interest work, where she gained a greater understanding of how environmental, health, employment, and educational disparities affect communities of all sizes and backgrounds. Through this work, she became increasingly interested in the intersection of race and policy, finding this was where she could exert the greatest impact.
As the national conversation of persistent poverty reached a crescendo around her, Glover Blackwell lost interest in litigation and channeled her work into community organizing in Oakland. There she found that city and state agencies were frequently serving the same clients without communicating with each other, leading to systemically ineffective public service allocation. From this endemic local problem emerged the national policy organization dedicated to identifying and “lifting up” what worked in neighborhoods and taking those successes “to policy and then to scale,” by spreading and sharing successful programs with other municipalities.
Glover Blackwell emphasized the need for students going into community development and urban planning to work with organizers, activists and researchers on local, state and national levels. “The most effective organizers understand the full continuum and have relationships all along that continuum. The day has passed when any one of these groups can work alone.” Agencies need to coordinate to get effective responses on the ground, she explained, and to work with advocacy groups to understand what is needed, what resources are available and how they can be utilized to benefit communities. “At a local level,” she concluded, “we can do more than what we’ve been doing.”
During her lecture that night, Glover Blackwell described growing up in a segregated St. Louis, where she benefitted from the tremendous talent of teachers whose own academic careers had been halted by racism and was surrounded by neighbors from an array of income-levels. Everything she needed, every amenity, was right there: good schools, grocery stores, cultural institutions, public transit, safe streets. “Today, when I visit all-black neighborhoods, I see none of that,” said Glover Blackwell. Neighborhoods as well-resourced and economically diverse as that of her childhood no longer exist. “Too many people of color have no opportunities because of their address.”
For this very reason, PolicyLink strives to connect individuals to jobs, educating “from cradle to career, not just K through twelve,” she said, and to “make every community a community of opportunity” like the one she grew up in, so that “every child born can reach their potential.”
A national imperative
In order to accomplish this, Glover Blackwell advocated lifting the burden of implementation off CDCs and nonprofits that often manage affordable housing with tax credits but lack the capacity to fully address housing recipients’ needs. “We have to ask if we’re using housing as way to improve education, improve health, as a job connector, as a wealth builder.” As the nation finally accepts that cities are coming back, as it begins to invest in those places, Glover Blackwell argued that America must act on the assumption these places are going to be successful and therefore “bake in affordability from the get-go.” Rather than gentrify neighborhoods, national funds utilized at the community level need to educate and elevate the incomes of existing community members, not replace them. “This is not a poor country; we need to stop acting like one,” she said.
To emphasize the immediacy of this issue, Glover Blackwell described demographic trends in which growing minority groups will soon be the national majority. “The people getting left behind are going to be in the majority,” she explained. “This is a national problem and we need a national response.” As a nation, America can no longer expect local nonprofits to solve the problem of “toxic inequality that’s stalling out the middle class – an inequality we need to be concerned about nationally, not just for the few but for the many,” Glover Blackwell warned. “We’re starting to realize the nation is going to be left behind if we don’t get this right.”
In her final moments at the podium, Glover Blackwell noted that the evolving national conversation about inequality has motivated Americans to take significant action through organizing and protesting discrimination for the first time in decades. “This is the moment. I see now that there is a ripeness for the change we have always wanted that I have never seen before.”
Afterwards, students took stock of Glover Blackwell’s comments, finding her thought provoking and inspiring. Second-year Master of Urban Planning candidate Shani Carter said, “It was inspiring to meet someone who had worked in so many different capacities in search of how she could best contribute to positive development in communities across the country. I think, especially as planning students, we're all in search of answers to the complex problems we see plaguing cities today and often get frustrated by the limitations of city governments and community-based organizations. Angela offered a very insightful perspective to the dilemma in noting how important it is for organizations (both public and private) to work together at all scales, from neighborhood to national, and cease expecting small community-based organizations to holistically solve problems like poverty and education that must also be addressed at the national level. I remember leaving the lunch saying, ‘I want to be just like her when I grow up.’"