Two years ago, I collaborated on
a study examining how cities facing economic
distress can recover in more racially and economically
inclusive ways. We described it as an inclusive recovery: one
that doesn’t assume economic growth will automatically lift
the fortunes of all community members, but, instead, actively
centers the contributions of historically excluded residents
to ensure everyone is lifted in the rising tide.
In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis—and an overdue national
reckoning with racial injustice—our research has sparked new
conversations with policymakers and practitioners across the
country seeking to apply its lessons to the urgent challenges
facing cities today. This appetite for new thinking
(along with the three
years’ worth of data recently added to our
original set) inspired me to imagine a series of short
articles elevating the creative and courageous approaches
local actors are pursuing to build more inclusive recoveries.
Our new limited series, Inclusive Recovery Insights, should evoke conversations about
centering local recovery strategies around the contributions
of historically marginalized groups, encourage creativity
in applying these strategies to post-COVID-19 realities, and challenge assumptions
about who should have power, voice, and influence in shaping
the future of the cities and communities we call home.
Right now, America’s cities have an enormous opportunity to
reimagine inclusive growth while resolving harmful,
centuries-old inequities. We want to shine a light on their
vision for inclusive recovery
Fresno, the largest city in California’s Central Valley, is
among the nation’s fastest-growing areas, with 20 percent
population growth since 2000. But decades of economic and
racial disparity have created a dangerous dynamic within the
region: increased expansion with ineffective land-use
policies have isolated growth to the city’s outskirts,
nation’s second-highest rate of concentrated
poverty and steering economic investment and opportunity away
from its poorest residents. We ranked Fresno low for cities
studied in our inclusive recovery report—and last among
cities in California.
I spoke to former mayor Ashley Swearengin last year about the
plan for shared prosperity; when I spoke to her
again recently, she still remembered the “gut punch” of
seeing empirical proof of its challenges.
Swearengin, CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation
(CVCF) and a member of Urban’s board of trustees, said the
Urban Institute’s findings challenged Fresno’s civic,
community, and business leaders to take a deliberate,
data-driven approach to correcting policy.
“Data has been absolutely central to our discovery process as
a community and uncovering layers of inequitable economic
opportunity,” she said. “It caused an about-face for our institutional
leaders, many of whom—myself included—have been working for
20 years on what we had believed to be institutional reform.”
The Developing the Region’s Inclusive and Vibrant Economy, or
initiative illustrates a commitment to challenging
assumptions and fostering creative approaches to address
Fresno’s economic inequities. The 10-year plan details what
community stakeholders believe might fundamentally transform
greater Fresno, create economic mobility, and foster an
inclusive, vibrant, and sustainable economy.
The plan created in late 2019 is both a blueprint and an
invitation. As its strategies have gained momentum, more
organizations joined the effort, and funders gained the
confidence to invest: Governor Gavin Newsom announced plans
to support the initiative in the 2020 state budget, and the
James Irvine Foundation awarded DRIVE a $15 million grant.
Swearengin cites growing funder interest in the work evolving
in Fresno: “Philanthropy is our social risk capital. Public
dollars would take far too long and be too difficult to use.
Our philanthropic partners are making this work possible, and
it will result in significant policy and institutional
The pandemic hasn’t erased the collaborative’s sense of
urgency or momentum, she added. Instead, it’s forcing a
conversation on what “returning to normal” means for the broader
economy and its historically disadvantaged communities.
“I can understand the compulsion,” Swearengin says.
“Especially for cities with higher-than-average income
levels, I can understand how they must feel. COVID just came
along and blew a hole in their ship, and I can see why they
would just try to board up the hole and keep sailing. But
communities like Fresno don’t have that luxury. We don’t just
need a repair or fix. We need a fundamental change in the
vehicle that we’re all on to drive towards prosperity.”
As one might predict, the coronavirus pandemic has taken its
toll on the people of Fresno. The crisis deepened and
magnified systemic failures, hitting farmworkers,
refugees, undocumented communities, and Black Americans
the hardest and exposing long-standing disparities in food,
housing, and access to quality health care. The danger is
that marginalized communities would find themselves
completely ignored as leaders plan for the future.
Artie Padilla, CVCF program officer for neighborhood
development, told me that DRIVE’s cross-sector partners are
mobilizing to ensure recovery efforts center Fresno’s most
disinvested neighborhoods and the families hardest hit by the
“DRIVE’s anchoring heart is that we elevate the voice and
power of the people,” he said. “That focus hasn’t changed.
We’re trying to leverage this situation to build more
connectivity with our residents.”
To do that, he said, partners routinely share data about
resource availability and resident-identified needs, avoiding
shortages that could plunge disinvested communities into
The critical role of resident voice is ever present in
Padilla’s mind as he transitions to CVCF from his role as executive
director of Every Neighborhood Partnership, a
neighborhood-based organization he helped launch. He says
part of his new role will be to help expand Fresno’s progress
into a countywide vision for resident development and
neighborhood development in rural parts of the region.
“Ultimately, we want to see residents become leaders in their
own neighborhoods: in politics, community advancement, school
partnerships, and every element of life,” he said.
inclusive recovery insights
Fresno is a promising example of what’s possible when city
leaders use quality data to raise awareness, identify gaps,
attract resources, and hold partners accountable to
actualizing principles of inclusion. But like cities across
the nation, its leaders face difficult decisions about
creating promise and opportunity for all residents while
managing an uncertain recovery.
Together we can seize this opportunity to take on the deeper
work of weighing intentions, challenging perceptions,
centering marginalized voices, and stretching possibilities
for a more inclusive recovery in American cities.
I hope you’ll join in this conversation. We have much to do
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