What Matters When You’re Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity

We’ve detailed here on the blog that where you start often determines how far you can go—and for people born in low-wealth neighborhoods, it often means not getting to economic security. Many of these communities have higher crime rates, under-resourced schools, and poor health outcomes that become almost insurmountable barriers to those living there. The odds of overcoming are most discouraging for women and people of color. (For example, see this recent study enumerating the challenges facing black women and families in the rural South.) If we want to strengthen communities that are disconnected from opportunity, we have to understand that the disconnection wasn’t accidental. In many ways, our communities and systems have been built to exclude and draw lines of difference. A history of racist policy, practice, and behavior created these divisions and now, our fear of these communities and what would happen if “their” problems spill beyond neighborhood boundaries drives our treatment of them.

To build an infrastructure of opportunity that is real and universally accessible, we can’t just build ladders for the lucky few to escape from low-wealth communities. We need to change how our systems work in low-wealth communities; that requires reducing segregation, separation, and disenfranchisement. The hostility and dehumanization that low-wealth communities face is most starkly apparent in policing practices. Last month, the Black Lives Matter movement released a 10-point policy plan—Campaign Zero—to reduce police violence. There is an unsurprising overlap between that plan and the kinds of actions that make a strong infrastructure of opportunity.

The plan envisions safer neighborhoods by “limiting police interventions, improving community interactions, and ensuring accountability.” In an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, Black Lives Matter movement leader Brittany Packnett explained the initial focus on police violence: when the context is hostile, you can’t expect positive outcomes. Addressing what Packnett describes as the “criminalization of blackness of marginalized communities” opens the door to addressing other institutionalized inequities. Packnett emphasized that the Black Lives Matter movement is more broadly about the effects of institutionalized oppression and racism—which lead to crime, poor schooling, poor health care—and noted that “we need to be talking about how to make our communities healthy from the inside out as a means of reducing crime.” (Indeed, recent research shows an indisputable connection between socioeconomic factors and health. Higher levels of employment, income, and education are closely correlated with improved health outcomes for individuals and their families.)

Campaign Zero proposes federal, state, and local agendas. That local agenda is particularly important since improving mobility and increasing access to opportunity can appeal across political lines; cities can act while legislatures and Congress appear stuck. The local recommendations in the Campaign Zero plan are integral to an infrastructure of opportunity: reviewing existing policies, passing new, more inclusive ordinances; training for public safety officials; sharing data; hiring practices that make police forces reflective of the communities they serve; building community partnerships to understand how communities interact with police force; and mobilizing residents to identify structural inequities in their own community and involving them in oversight. Taking these actions requires asking hard questions:

  • How inclusive is the culture of the community’s leadership and institutions?
  • How broad is engagement? How do you ensure authentic engagement?)
  • Can the community forge a leadership group that is cross-system and multi-level, with new voices and meaningful participation?
  • How will data be used to inform difficult conversations about strategies and solutions?

In order for individuals to feel they belong and can thus thrive in and contribute to their communities, we need systems—including policing practices—that are responsive and just, regardless of race, gender, or zip code. It’s important to note that zip codes that have better outcomes for low- and middle-income young people tend to have better outcomes for high-income young people, too, indicating that the types of resources, systems, and investments that matter for economic and educational success are beneficial across the board. By investing in long-term, place-based efforts across the region, we can get closer to providing all Southerners with a chance to belong, thrive, and contribute.