Nekima Levy-Pounds is a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas Law School and the founding director of the Community Justice Project, a civil rights legal clinic. She is an expert on issues at the intersection of race, law, criminal justice, public education and public policy. Follow her on Twitter at @nvlevy.

If We're Serious About Equity, Job Creation Must Become a Priority

Posted by: Nekima Levy-Pounds under Society, Crime, Education and literacy, Government, Politics Updated: May 6, 2014 - 2:01 AM

In recent months, I have attended numerous events and meetings throughout the Twin Cities in which the focus is on achieving equity. I have also heard speeches from politicians and heads of organizations about the need to ensure that equity is a priority in closing persistent and intolerable gaps in Minnesota across areas such as health, wealth, education, and employment. Although I'm sure that many of these individuals and organizations mean well in emphasizing the need for equity, there comes a point in time in which good intentions are not good enough. Talk becomes cheap and without a true demonstration of equity in action, the feeling emerges that we have identified a new buzzword of the moment with little accountability for living out its meaning. This is particularly dangerous in a landscape in which African Americans and Native Americans in Minnesota have some of the highest rates of unemployment in the nation as shown here and here.

Time to Create Good Jobs
Thus, we must be willing to dig deeper and not only reflect upon the meaning of equity, but what its application should look like in practice in our region. From my perspective, the true meaning of equity is all about leveling the playing field. It is about coming to the realization that the racial gaps in key areas of quality of life will never close without a focus on creating jobs in our most under-resourced communities. And not just any type of jobs--but jobs that pay a living wage and that provide a pathway to upward mobility within our community. Sadly, all too often when we see families and children in crisis, we tend to think about addressing their immediate short-term needs, without taking a longer view of the problem and looking toward root causes of the circumstances they face. What is often at the root of the problems is difficulty in finding a good job that will keep a family in stable housing, with food in their refrigerator, money to pay utilities, and hope for a brighter tomorrow.

Short-Term Fixes Don't Solve Long-Term Problems
I recognize that in a crisis, there is often a need for a short-term fix. However, when the problems are systemic and cyclical, taking an approach which emphasizes primarily the short-term will arguably result in more problems in the long run and will merely serve to maintain and reinforce the status quo. When poor families are forced to visit local agencies and charitable organizations for support time and time again, this merely creates a cycle of dependency and makes it difficult for families to strive towards upward mobility. As Dr. King once said, "True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."

I would argue that we have an over-flowing abundance of organizations in the Twin Cities that offer short-term fixes to problems, when what we really need are business leaders, philanthropists, and entrepreneurs (with full support of government) to venture into our poorest communities and help develop jobs that pay a living wage and restore the dignity of the poor. This will not only vastly improve the quality of life for residents, but will reduce the need for spending on criminal justice (currently over $400 million annually in our state) and social welfare programs. Beyond that, increasing access to job opportunities for the under-served will contribute to the health of our economy and will strengthen our regional economic competitiveness now and in the future.

The reality is that many folks who have been marginalized throughout their lives face tremendous barriers to finding and maintaining employment in some of our largest corporations. On the one hand, we must remove the barriers that exist, and on the other hand, we must find alternative solutions. If we can't get the people to the jobs that they need, then we must get the jobs to the people by creating them within their communities. I'm talking about jobs that are within walking distance, and that will allow them to grow and work their way into management-- jobs in which they feel are designed with them in mind-- and that give them a sense of pride and purpose.

We Must Rise to the Challenge
In order for us to overcome, we must look critically at the problems facing the poor, our current response to the problems, and then resolve to rise to the challenge of implementing creative solutions that will force us to think outside the box and invest in the people who need it most. If we continue to do what we have always done, then we will continue to get what we have always had. I posit that it is time for a new thing, a shift from a heavy focus on charity to a more balanced focus on economic justice and job creation, with affordable housing as a complementary priority.

So for anyone claiming to be serious about achieving equity, I challenge you to prove it. Show me the money. Show me the jobs that you are creating in our most under-served communities to truly level the playing field for those in need.
 

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