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Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 Shout-Outs to those who build the Urban Core in KC and Camden

Another year spent in the urban core.

First half of 2011 I was in Camden, NJ where half the police force was laid off in January 2011. It was a rough, violent year in Camden. The Governor strong-armed his way into getting a county police force agreement by withholding police $ for Camden. When the Mayor and City Council played ball and agreed to support his venture, the state police were dispatched to patrol the streets. That came in November 2011. In December, the Mayor sponsored a gun buy-back program and got 57 guns off the street in exchange for $100 food vouchers at the only grocery store in Camden. Guess people are not hungry enough to give up their weapons in any greater numbers.

Second half of 2011 I was in Kansas City, MO on the eastside of Killa City. 114 homicides and counting. I am guessing there will be at least one tonight on New Year's Eve, especially as fools start shooting guns to "ring in" 2012. Homicide #100 this year was my friend and 17 year old high school student, Ricky King. It still weighs heavy on my heart, but the world keeps turning.

So, on to 2012 - and we do have some things to look forward to!

On the eastside in KC...the Troost Max bus line is in full swing. I take it a couple of times a week to get to UMKC. In addition, the Troost streetscape project and bridge replacement is nearly done. New sidewalks and curbs are a wonderful addition to the bus cut-outs and planters. The Avenue is taking shape! 

To my surprise, however, is the sidewalks and streetscape on PROSPECT Avenue!!! This is truly a wonderful sight. If we could get a Max line on Prospect we would really be in business. Thanks to our 3rd District Council reps, Melba Curls and Jermain Reed as well as our 3rd District PIAC reps for getting this project going. Next surprise is the Brush Creek now extends to just west of Prospect and connects you all the way to the Plaza. So, now you can travel down Prospect on new sidewalks and get on the beautiful, wide concrete Brush Creek Trail and get to UMKC, KCSourceLink at 4747 Troost, the Discovery Center, all the museums, Thies Park that runs all the way up to the Nelson Art Museum, the Plaza Branch library, and the Plaza. This is truly an East Meets West of Troost celebration. Thanks go out to Carol Grimaldi and all the good folks at the Brush Creek Community Partners - an organization that has worked tirelessly on improving the East to West of the Brush Creek Corridor.

Another positive for the urban core in KC is the Kansas City Public School district and its efforts to "repurpose" closed school buildings. Shannon Jax has led a robust community-centered process to identify uses most preferred by neighborhood residents surrounding the schools and seeking matching developer interest. It is the faithful carrying out of the vision to see these building become revitalization assets and not eyesores or dumping grounds for urban core neighborhoods.

The new police chief in KC, Darryl Forte, has started some serious crime enforcement and actually has markedly increased the clearance rate for murders and other crimes. Arrests are up because of his "hot spot" policing which puts more police in hot spot crime areas - so that when crimes are committed and shots are fired, police are IN THE AREA! This had led to quick arrests. I have first hand knowledge of this because Prospect Avenue is where the police cars constantly zoom up and down with lights and sirens blaring. It's noisy, but if it produces results, well, so be it. 

In Camden, the LEAP Academy family continues to be a one-woman juggernaut on Cooper Street. Another success story led by Dr. Gloria Bonilla Santiago is the creation and opening of the Early Childhood Learning Resource Center that will focus on the research of best practices in how urban communities can help parents raise their kids to be ready to learn and succeed. Modeled after the Harlem Children's Zone, it not only is a great piece of infrastructure on Cooper Street, but a wonderful community resource.

Meanwhile in Camden, school board member Sean Brown continues to take on the struggling school district. While his mission is to generate student achievement, he must first cut a swath through the intransigent bureaucracy and crony-politics that are hallmarks of Camden. He's diligent, but climbing a mountain takes time. He may not get reappointed, because he rocks the boat too much. Fair warning to all those in KC who want an appointed board... Meanwhile, keep your eyes on the prize in 2012, Sean!

In KC the saga of the school district continues to play out. Underneath the cacophony of political noise is a school board and interim superintendent, a cadre of dedicated teachers (AFT Local 691) and parents, (DAC) and interested students that are striving to achieve. Airick Leonard West has ably led the school board through the tumult of a very nasty departure by the superintendent and subsequent grab by the state upon de-accrediting the District. I won't go into the details here, but suffice it to say, that urban school districts don't stand a chance meeting the sanctimonious standards of the state while the state does nothing to support the city in making a productive environment in which a district could succeed. Meanwhile, the parents are active and have become a force to direct what happens next. Kuddos to Jamekia Kendrix for her superlative leadership in research-based solutions and community organizing.

I also want to recognize Henry Wash and his leadership of young men through High Aspirations. While there are many worthy organizations achieving results on the eastside, Henry is a former student and has walked through fire to get where he is and become who he is as a role model for other young men. He has resurrected the Urban Alliance, which is focusing on harnessing the networking power of organizations that support urban youth, particularly those that are faith-based. 2012 will be the year of focus on youth success!

Finally, I want to recognize a fellow traveler in Camden, Colleen McGann. Also a former student, she intentionally moved to Camden to support the community and walk her talk. She is the kind of people I love to know and surround myself with in the work that I do! I follow her exploits on facebook as she mirrors my experience here in KC :)

I am determined to make 2012 a positive year. I am no longer listening to the drama queens and kings that fill the 3rd district. I know they will still be there, but they won't slow me down. I can spend my time with the many good people who want to work, want to succeed, and want to help their neighbors - including all the folks on my block - the best block in Ivanhoe! Shout outs to Ms. Fells, Reggie, Antoine, Leonard, Rich, Mr. Clarence and my homie ALW! Also the guy whose name I don't know, but he always calls me Sunshine :)

I am working on 2 projects for the urban core in KC in 2012 through my social enterprise company Viable Third Community - one is a business center for home-based and other small businesses that want to take their economic success to the next level, and the second is an urban farm that uses intensive, 4 season, urban farming techniques, to grow organic, fresh, whole produce and fish in the urban core, for the residents of the urban core, by the residents of the urban core. I look forward to working with all the great people who have the same aspirations and expectations that I have - that urban places can be socially just, liveable, sustainable, and wonderful places to live for all our residents. Shout outs to Brennan, Charlene, Leslie, Karen, Mike, Don, Jerry, Kaeanna, and Roxanna.

See you on the other side of the calendar!

Monday, November 21, 2011

another young man lost to a bullet

Three years ago I lost a young friend in a senseless gun accident. Last night, another young man I have known for years was gunned down without rhyme or reason. Again, I am in a state of shock that this could happen to a young man I have known. Again, I am speechless at the tragic loss of a good life - he was an eagle scout, a senior in high school, ready to enter the military. He was a good kid. Again, I am reading the facebook messages left on his wall - sorrow, disbelief, anger, and healing - all kids who have to mourn the loss of a peer. This shouldn't be.

Rickey King was a kid at Gordon Parks elementary when I met him. He was part of a group of gentlemen being mentored by my friend airick west. I accompanied the group to the symphony, to the art museum, out for frisbee, and on Sunday mornings for pancakes at my house. He was a funny guy and loved, loved, loved his cars. He particularly liked my Acura 6 speed RX-S. I took him to the auto show one year and we ogled the cars. He was quite sure he would get a Mazeratti one day.

Most recently he had decided to join the military after graduating from Southwest high school.  He figured he would be safer there than on the streets of KC. The irony is draining my heart.

I realize young men die on the streets, but I always wanted to believe they were hanging with a dangerous crowd, making bad choices, or some such. I know there are innocent kids killed all the time who are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Apparently, that's what befell Rickey. Wrong place. Wrong time.

So now I am left to try to make sense of this, again. I couldn't make sense of it the first time it happened. I can't make sense of it now. I hope I never have to face this kind of tragedy again, but I am not naive enough to think that it might be me who ends up like Rickey. He was killed on Prospect at 10:15 at night on Saturday. He wasn't at a club, he didn't deal drugs. He wasn't in a gang. He didn't hang with the wrong crowd. I have no idea how this happened to him. In time, the story will unfold. The person he was with was shot but is still alive. He lived with his grandmother for many years. She protected him. I can only imagine her grief. He has a family of mom and brothers and sisters, cousins, and friends. I am sorry for their loss as well as mine.

We don't need a vigil. We don't need a speech. We need to somehow make the streets safe so decent kids like Rickey can live long enough to grow up and live their life. I don't have a solution. I don't have an answer. I wish I did. I wish someone did.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

3 steps to address urban crime and education

So many pieces of flotsam and jetsam have floated by my urban window in the last few weeks. As I observe the debris and am affected by it, I struggle to find an effective position for reflection and assessment. This is not an easy task. It's a wonder that anything makes sense in the world of urban revitalization given the emotions, financial issues, power struggles, intergroup competitions, and so forth.

Kansas City, MO is in the midst of a serious homicide rate over the last month. When homicides spike, everyone gets nervous. Neighborhood people stuck in the midst begin to worry that they might find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. I have heard more gunfire in my neighborhood in the last few weeks than in the last 6 months. Politicians get nervous that they better have a response lest the public hold them accountable. I heard KC Mayor James speak on this the other day. He said that the new Police Chief has a strong plan to attack crime and even in this spike, he has managed to generate more arrests for homicides than usual. What makes me nervous about all this is that no one thinks about addressing the cause of violence. We just don't seem to pay attention to reality.  When the economy was strong in the 1990s and early 2000s, urban crime rates steadily declined. Yes, there is a relationship.

KCMO has been struggling with its urban core school district, now known as KCPS - Kansas City Public Schools. New name, same district. The state is rattling its saber to intervene or take over because the school district is not successful. The state freely admits that most urban school districts are not successful, but no matter, they are going to intervene and do...something. They have no idea what that ill be despite that the district is in the midst of implementing a significant effort to improve student achievement. A questioner at a recent public meeting asked, why is it that the 3 majority black districts in the state (2 in St. Louis and 1 in KC) are the ones that can't make accreditation? Maybe it's that we don't EFFECTIVELY support accreditation in urban districts because it is, by its very nature, intractable? We have to go beyond the classroom to deal with urban education.

Crime and Education are related. Race, crime, and education are related. White power brokers don't seem to get this and instead are crusading about, claiming to be here "for the children," "for the victims," "for the average citizen."  It's time to stop the madness. This Emperor has no clothes!! But as our state commissioner of education said, we cannot let poverty and racism stop us from successfully educating kids. But she also implied that schools would do nothing about those conditions. You can't let it stop educational achievement, but you can't ignore it either. A conundrum that may explain the poor performance of St. Louis and Kansas City school districts. Rearranging the deck chairs won't change a thing, Commissioner.

Kids going to inner-city public schools come in with very specific life issues that suburban kids do not have. It ranges from dealing with violent crime in their neighborhood to the daily stress of poverty. If you've never been really poor for an extended period of time, you have no idea what the stress is like. These life environments and stressors affect education. Put inadequate nutrition on that list too. Urban food deserts explain part of that issue. Often overlooked is the horrendous quality of urban school food that comes from large, institutional food servers. How do kids learn without nutrition? They don't. It's our job to fix this.

So what are we, the average citizen, the fearful potential victim, the parents of children, the removed suburbanite, the concerned leader, and the disinterested resident supposed to do? As I have said for years - we must take responsibility.

Is it really so hard to understand? If a significant portion of our community is suffering to cope, unable to engage, ill-prepared to contribute, and stuck in the cycle of discrimination and hostility from us, then we must take responsibility. I constantly read on other blogs the following comments that are in direct opposition to my admonition.

  • "Why should I have to take responsibility for the inadequacies of others?"Because we contribute directly and indirectly to at least some portion of their inadequacy. 
  • "People should make their own way and stop blaming others." Convenient, when you are the one being blamed. 
  • "Just because I am white does not mean I am directly responsible for the plight of minorities." White privilege is a part of every white person, whether you like it or not. Deal with it. 
  • "Parents must take responsibility at home for their juvenile delinquents. Don't expect the schools or me to do it for you." And these inner-city parents are as overstressed as their kids. Who or what is supporting the parents in this maelstrom? 
Every white power broker in Kansas City that is trying to direct the governance, operations, and policy of crime and education needs to take personal responsibility and stop blaming others. This does not mean taking personal control. Neither does it mean ceding control without accountability. 

Here's how I would solve both the crime and education problem in KC. Feel free to adopt and use. 

1. Unless it is a violent crime or homicide, use mediation to deal with crime. This builds communications. Command and control is too expensive and will not last. Neither will it stop crime. This is not coddling. This is humanity and the most effective use of resources.

2. Triage the urban core to actually work for the kids: jobs or other economic support, business development (even if home based business), and whole, fresh food retail. These are not short-term programs, but a long-term intervention. Out of a sustained environment you will grow lots of support systems because there will be a place for them to succeed. Nonprofits are struggling because of the tidal wave they can't manage. 

3. The City must support neighborhoods and the schools within those neighborhoods and not just with lip service. You can't sidestep this, finesse this, or otherwise look the other way. The city needs to stand for the inner-city schools and put its resources, power, and support behind them. Then, triage its neighborhood support services to the urban core. It's not fair to the other neighborhoods, but too bad. Those neighborhoods have not been fair to the urban core in the last 80 years. The city has for too long followed an equal disposition of resources by council district. End that now! Focus on the urban core and you will see schools improve. 

There you go. Three steps, though not easy. Even I'm not sure I can be optimistic in the face of the unlikelihood that any of this will happen. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Our Children, Our Schools, Our Voice

How much do you value your right to be represented by a duly elected official? It matters a lot to me. I bristle at appointed representation that is not accountable to me, the voter. I recognize that there are instances and circumstances where it is more expedient to have such. But when you mess around with my existing elected systems, I really get mad.

The Kansas City Missouri School Board is about to be replaced. The state Commissioner of Education, Chris Nicastro, has asked the duly elected School Board members to step aside by January 1. They will be replaced by an appointed board. And not just any board, but a politically negotiated board that has been in the works for some months.  Key civic leaders have been organizing behind their closed doors with this state appointee to overthrow the KCMSD Board of Directors in a civic/bureaucratic coup.  My hyperbole aside, this is a real abrogation of our democratic process.

A parent-led resistance has formed and is engaging all communities in the KCMSD to stand up for Our Children, Our Schools, and Our Voice.  Here is a link to their press release, issued on Oct. 31, 2011

Their concerns are justifiably centered on what the state plans to do once it takes over the district.

Our Children are not known to the leaders in Jeff City and one look at how St. Louis has turned out under their supervision is enough to give pause to any parent.

Our Schools are currently implementing a transformation plan that 350 Kansas City residents, parents, and leaders worked on and support. The state is coming in without a plan. Will they stay the course? Will they come up with something new? Will their appointees break faith with those that have already begun the work of this plan?

Our Voice is being silenced by the state that is "interpreting" away the customary 2 year window to regain accredited status, despite their earlier statements assuring that they would not take over the district anytime soon. The fact that the state Commissioner of Education has seen fit to meet secretly with certain civic leaders to hatch this plan for takeover, is in itself a rebuff of our open government system.

I am not absolving the KCMSD of their poor performance in the past 40 years. I have, however, chosen to stand with the transformative leadership, plan, and progress that is currently taking hold in the district.  Our scholars deserve the best. What makes anyone think that Jeff City, via an appointed board, is what they deserve?

Others are supporting Our Children, Our Schools, Our Voice for their own reasons. I urge you to look at the statement of our District Advisory Council of parents and Teachers' Union.  Stand with these Kansas City residents and KCMSD parents and leaders who know our children and schools better than anyone. Decisions are afoot and will be confirmed December 1 and implemented January 1. There is no time to waste.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Prospect to MLK - What's in a Name Change?

Councilman Jermain Reed has asked that Prospect Avenue be renamed Martin Luther King Ave. Many cities have either done this on a permanent or an honorary basis for a major thoroughfare that runs through their African-American neighborhood. It is designed as a sign of respect and honor for MLK and to generate a sense of identity and pride for the neighborhood.  Outsiders typically refer to the MLK designation as code for a neighborhood that whites want to avoid. The white disdain should not be a reason to avoid the honoring of Dr. King.

Councilman Reed's motives are being questioned in the blogosphere - this is apparently the pet project of his mentor, Alvin Brooks. Mr. Reed is carrying the water and that is a fine and noble tribute to his mentor. We can't fault him for that.

Mr. Reed, however, has decided to blow this name change up into a fantasy silver bullet - he claims it will be the start of a transformation on Prospect and will be a source of peace. I find that very hard to believe. A name change is not a silver bullet, though it may provide a more positive imaging for the local neighbors. Don't count me as one of them, though. I live 1/2 block from Prospect. I think I can speak to its problems, potential, and why a name change is not enough.

The most recent changes that I am familiar with on Prospect are the Shops at Linwood and Prospect, the Prospect Corridor Plan, the Bluford Library remodel, and the new Walgreens at Linwood.  These changes have done more for Prospect than any name change ever will. They represent investment, community, and a purpose. Sadly, they are not championed by our current or former representatives as part of a strategy. Mr. Reed says he will go door-to-door on Prospect to get the name change and seek revitalization! Why? What will that do unless you have some steps to take? If you need some, I'm here to help.

Plan for Prospect Corridor (from someone who lives and works there - Viable Third Community)

1. Prospect is used as the travel lane for East Patrol - nightly there are cops in high speed mode racing up and down with sirens blaring, followed by the ghetto bird. Change the police practice.

2. Prospect is the number 2 bus route on the KCATA (I believe that was the case if not currently the case). It has no MAX, it has no streetcar. Get a MAX on Prospect and get some decent bus shelters and street scape put in as has been done on Troost.

3. Support targeted business and community commercial support at the Shops of Linwood and Prospect. Keep business local, profits, local, and investment will reap rewards. We need a social enterprise business center and incubator and we need a fresh/whole foods outlet (farmer market, co-op retail, and sustained support for nutrition). We need sustainable community development that includes green building, green jobs, and a chance for ownership by local folks to invest their sweat, life, and hope into business success. We have the density and the income for a range of businesses in this area. Get strategic and don't accept the nonsense peddled by people who do not understand the intricacies of community economic development. The Glover Plan will not work here unless you are ready to subsidize it's construction and operation for at least 20 years. If so, then build it.

4. Support community enterprises, not social services and non-profits. There is a huge difference and people need to learn and implement this. The Emmanual Community Center is wonderful! But it could be a social enterprise and not just a non-profit. Help these organizations learn to become self-supporting, not just dependent on charity and subsidy.

5. Expand the Bluford Library with a computer center in the Linwood Shops on the West side of Prospect. Computers are the #1 resource for people in the area and the Bluford library is woefully understocked.

6. Put a zoning overlay onto all of Prospect Corridor for mixed use and height. Be mindful of the Sante Fe Historic area and use that as a branding advantage on that part of Prospect. Fill in the vacant land with housing and stores and subsidize them as needed. If we can pay for the Block Building downtown, we can pay for some decent construction on Prospect. Organize a corner store initiative to incentivize these stores to carry fresh foods (as has been done very successfully in Philadelphia) and to upgrade their appearance and operations.

7. Make a CID on Prospect and get the trash picked up. That's a no-brainer.

There you go. You just got some free expertise. This is my plan for Prospect. Contact Viable Third Community if you want to get going on this. I'm already on it! 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Shoulder Responsibility for Urban Ills - Yes We Can, Yes We Must

The KCMSD - Kansas City Missouri School District has just lost its accreditation from the state. This was not a surprise, but it is tragic, considering that it lost it 11 years ago as well. A month ago the latest and greatest urban school superintendent walked out the door for the greener pastures of Detroit. Better salary, more power, and no messy loss of accreditation to have to live with. Apparently, the average tenure for an urban school super is about 18-30 months. Some speculate they move along so quickly because the local district gets frustrated with their lack of progress and fires them. I have no doubt this does happen. But in the case of the supposedly elite superintendents, I think they leave when the going gets tough.  They are well trained in the art of organizational management and it works well for them if they are allowed to run the district as an autocrat. But public schools are just that - PUBLIC - and accountable to voters, citizens, corporate and civic leaders, organizations, businesses, and anyone else who wants to ride herd on the performance of the district. Most urban superintendents I've seen are pathetic at public engagement, parent engagement, compromise, and communication. If they could just run the schools in their little bubble, they would be happy and successful, maybe. But they can't and they blame it on the board, blame it on parents, blame it on the community that they are "uncomfortable" and must leave, or they can't satisfy anyone and are asked to leave. No one is managing expectations. No one is framing the progress. And no one is keeping the superintendent in check and instead allows them to bring in whatever new program they represent, bring in whatever consultant group they are associated with, and like a snake oil salesman - promise results that never come.

The KCMSD Board of Directors gave the last superintendent a great deal of leeway and supported him in near unanimity and without much question. He left anyway. The board is being blamed for a district that slides farther away from full accreditation. The teachers are being blamed for ineffective teaching as evidenced by sliding test scores. The parents are being blamed for not being good role models and for not adequately instilling the virtues of school attendance into their children. Much of the finger pointing is coming from the civic leaders - most of whom do not live in the district, let alone send their children there, and from suburban people who routinely thank God they are not in the District. What have they done to help the situation besides stand as Pontus Pilate and absolve themselves of all responsibility?

Urban problems are vexing. We all know this. But as airick leonard west has pointed out in his comments on today's decision , the improvement of the school district is similar to the improvement of urban neighborhoods. They are linked, they are difficult to turn around, and they require a long haul process of engagement and attention - not a quick fix or a silver bullet. Everyone - and that means everyone from Henry Bloch down to the convenience store clerk at the BP Station across from Central High School - must be involved in promoting the success of our scholars in the KCMSD. Read airick's post for his take on how to be involved and have an impact. Read the joint op-ed by Mayor James and Superintendent Green in the Star. The City is prepared to step up. Mayor James talked on Saturday about a 3 year reading program city wide (across all 14 school districts) to get kids up to grade level before third grade.  A nascent alliance of urban youth groups called Heartfelt Change is planning to provide services and attention through an out of school suspension program, so that kids who get kicked to the curb for fighting and worse, will have a place to keep up, get help, and address their issues instead of just hanging out on the streets.

We all have to take a role and shoulder responsibility for the success of our District. That means getting real with the scholars - mentoring, supporting, bringing time and talent to schools, donating, cheering, coaching, and doing whatever is necessary to bring these scholars to success.

Yes we can. Yes we must.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Chamber's Big 5 - Urban Neighborhoods - I have the solution

The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce has released their Big 5 Goals for the metro - to which the Chamber will devote member energy and resources. Here is the one of most interest to me...

The Urban Core Neighborhood Initiative - Co-Champions: Terry Dunn, President & CEO, JE Dunn Construction Group, & Brent Stewart, United Way of Greater Kansas City

You can’t have a hole in the regional doughnut. And as former Chamber Chair John Bluford (Truman Medical Centers) said during the Big 5 discussions, “Poverty is the number one negative factor in determining the health and health mortality of the general population.”

Jackson County’s poverty rate is high when using the official formula – 15.4 percent of the population. That number is higher still for what most experts consider a more accurate measurement of poverty (200 percent of the federal poverty level). Use that measurement, and Jackson County’s poverty rate is 34.2 percent.

Dunn and Stewart are already meeting with key leadership, organizations and foundations, and hope to have a strategic plan within the next 90 to 120 days. Violence is one critical area of focus, along with education and economic development.

I actually applaud the Chamber's recognition of the need to improve urban neighborhoods. It's finally recognition that they can't just leave for the suburbs and expect their business climate downtown to thrive. So now they are going to fix what they made wrong by leaving KC in the first place, taking their investment, jobs, property tax, and retail dollars with them.

I have an easy solution that does not require a 90-120 day planning period (which is what this Chamber task force is doing right now). My solution will guarantee results that existing residents cannot achieve. My solution will never be implemented because it requires too much sacrifice by the fixers.

My solution - have chamber members move into the urban core. I don't mean as gentrify-ing interlopers or as gated subdivision fortress dwellers. I mean, move into the urban core and work daily to solve this problem. Live the urban core every day and work to make it better. Share in the sacrifice and give generously from your own self to generate a sustainable community.  Stand side by side with the thousands of good citizens that are here trying to make their neighborhoods, blocks, and the urban core a quality place to live. 

My solution will be rejected, but I am putting it out there as a real one. I know it is real because I do it, every day.  

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Help - Conflict for an Ally

I've just seen the movie, The Help. I felt compelled to comment on it and raise some issues that are difficult for me to grasp in complete clarity.

If you have not seen the movie but plan to, don't read any further because I will be revealing plot points.

I am conflicted after watching the movie. It pulls at my white heartstrings and makes me feel sorry for the black maids who get trampled upon by the evil white women of Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s. It makes me cheer when the most evil of the white women gets her comeuppance.

But it also tried to make me feel that the Cicely Tyson character died of a broken heart because she had been brutishly thrown out of the white home in which she lived for 30 years. That was the “tell” in the movie for me that it was over-reaching. The movie kept sliding after that, trying to get me to see the whole struggle as a black-white, zero-sum game. Down with the evil white women, up with the courageous black maids. While those emotions ring true, it left no room for the more subtle points.

Cicely Tyson's character is thrown out because her daughter acted uppity in front of the DCR ladies, otherwise known as the upper class KKK. When our white protagonist, the ever-ernest Skeeter, discovers this and that the maid has since died, weeping can be heard in the theater. I don't know if they were white or black tears, but the tears are because we are buying into the fact that the maid died of a broken heart after being fired – forever separated from the white children she lovingly raised and the household she served. I did not weep. In fact, it made me mad. The maid had been kicked in the teeth after years of loyal service, in a job that was one of the few available to her and she bore that burden. She probably did come to love the children and had loyal, familiar feelings for the family. But let's not lose sight of how that came to be and what it represents. I felt like the movie went for the easy stuff and neglected the more difficult points.

The character, Abiline, is the only character that speaks truth to power at the very end of the movie. She realizes that now that she too has been dismissed by her white employer, she is in fact free to become what she wants to become.

Our protagonist, Skeeter the white writer, leaves Jackson for NYC to pursue her own career based on the success of her book of stories as told by black maids. As the credits rolled, I thought what would have happened if she had instead moved across the tracks and lived on the other side of town? Instead, she used the book as her stepping stone out of Mississippi and on to better things. In fact, the two main black maid characters implore her to do just that, even though Skeeter wants to stay behind to protect them. But we can watch her fly with a clear conscience because the black women have set her free. None of this sits well with me and I am conflicted greatly when putting this all into today's situations.

Through this movie I am questioning what makes an ally valuable. Was Skeeter an ally because she provided a vehicle to tell the maids' stories – yes. Because in Mississippi 1964, there was no other vehicle. What about today? I think what the conflict is showing me is that I cannot be presumptive and be supportive at the same time. I cannot castigate other white people in the name of black people and be authentic. I cannot assume that I have a complete, close, or authentic understanding of what it is to be other than white in our country, regardless of where I live or the experiences I have had. I know more and have a better understanding than most white people. I give myself that. But living here, experiencing what I experience, and empathizing as I do does not mean that I can speak on behalf of, in lieu of, or as a proxy for anyone but a white person, which is what I am. But as an ally, I have an obligation to speak from my authentic self and speak to other white persons about what we are doing, what harm we are causing, and what changes we must make in ourselves.

I don't need to be the great white translator for whites who won't ever listen to blacks, under any circumstance. And I feel like that is what I have been trying to do. Those intransigent white people won't listen to me either, but the other white allies or want-to-be allies can cheer me on. Just as the audience cheered on Skeeter today. Without Skeeter, this story never gets told. Without Skeeter, nothing changes. Without Skeeter, the black maids will never do more than have to hold their tongues and take the crap their white employer gives them. But that was Mississippi 1960s. What about today?

My fear is that there are very ernest young white people who will see this film and want to be a modern day Skeeter – championing the cause, opening a door, giving voice to the voiceless! Huzzah! And it just doesn't ring true. It's taking a short cut in this day and age. I see it in the young families that move to the East Side to “lead the way with love in their hearts.” They are missionaries who come with new ideas, technology, and a can-do spirit to help uplift the downtrodden by their example. They will build community where they see none and then invite the community to join them. I fear at times I am one of them. And I suddenly feel completely fraudulent. This may be my geographic community, but it is not my community of people. No matter how much affinity I have, I cannot speak from a point of view of actually being someone other than a white woman, because I am not. But I can speak from a point of view of humanity – that is something we all share.

So what am I to do with all my great ideas and interests to build opportunities in this community? Do I give up being right about what I know and what I believe I can do? If I know that lighting a match to gasoline will cause an explosion, I have an obligation to say that is so, in order to prevent someone from getting killed. But if I have a strategy that I think will work, do I have any real sense that is true, if my perspective is not authentic? No, I don't. I can offer it up as an option, but I cannot promote it on behalf of people who are not me, and I am not them. This is what it means to work in community.

Am I unnecessarily walking on egg-shells? Can we get beyond race-based strategies and leadership? If the city is broken, then we need the best solutions to fix it, regardless of who brings it forward. But how do I know it is the “best” if my judgment is affected by my own privilege? I cannot erase my privilege. I can recognize it, I can refuse it, and I can raise awareness of it in hopes of dampening its presence, reducing its power, and eliminating its position. But I alone cannot erase it – it's there.

I recognized very early in my career that it doesn't matter how much empathy, affinity, or love I carry with me – that because of the color of my skin I could be a victim, a privileged person, or absent from the issue. A bullet does not know my politics. A privilege does not get erased because of my politics. And my absence from the entire conflict is something only I as a white person can choose. I recognized that the only way I could make any personal progress on these fronts was to be in intentional community. It is the only way I could observe, learn, and participate first-hand in the world of social injustice and racism. It is the only way I can make a difference based on MY race. That is the subtlety that the movie misses completely.

It is authentic for me because I listen, learn, observe, and adjust my own attitudes – not just speak for the non-white people in my community. And I must be hyper-vigilant of what adjustments my attitude needs. I cannot be Skeeter, the great white hope. I cannot be the Doctor with all the answers. I cannot be the defiant white woman who pioneers a place in the urban core.

I have to be the privileged person whose attitude is always kept in check by the authenticity of my neighbors. It is my responsibility to recognize that. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Kansas City's August "surprise"

August is the month everyone takes vacation or at least checks out of real work to enjoy the fleeting days of summer before going back to school and getting back into the routine. In politics the August "surprise" is usually some dramatic event that requires political attention when in fact, politicos are elsewhere. Congress is on a hiatus right now.

Here in KC, the August surprise is not really a surprise, but local politicos are standing around like it is. Teens have mobbed The Plaza late at night and caused disturbances. This weekend, shots were fired, several teens were hit (no life threatening injuries or deaths), and the Mayor who was there to observe or lend support or something, got shoved to the ground by his security detail when the gunfire happened.

Now the city council, scarred residents, and the Mayor are considering curfews, which is the solution Mayor Nutter is using in Philadelphia to thwart teen flash mobs that are assaulting people in that city's downtown.  Apparently the social science literature indicates that curfews don't have any impact on crime or juvenile behavior as a long term strategy ( See TKC Monday, August 15 or here for details).

Of course the curfew would have to be city wide and that does not sit well with other retail areas where kids have not yet become violent and may never become violent. Of course, most kids have nothing to do to amuse themselves and apparently there are parents that are unable, unwilling, or uninterested in keeping their kids at home at 11:00 at night. Some of the kids at The Plaza were 15 and under. And not all the kids are from KCMO. Some are from Raytown and other cities.

Kids have no where to go
1. no movie theaters on the east side
2. no community centers or other public spaces are open at night on the weekend Greg Klice center closes at 5 on Saturday and is not open on Sunday. Same with the Brush Creek Center. The Linwood YMCA is open until 1pm on Saturday, closed Sunday. The Cleaver Y on Troost is open to 7pm on Saturday and 6pm on Sunday. The 2 Boys & Girls Clubs locations on the east side are not open on the weekends.
3. The skating rink is north of the river.
4. There is a bowling alley in Raytown, one in the Power & Light District, and one near Ward Parkway.
5. Public library branches closed on Saturday nights and open Sunday afternoons - it's where the computers are - which is what kids like.

I am sure there are probably a few teen places in KC/Raytown for Saturday night activities - but there are a lot of kids.

Why do parents allow their kids out late at night?
Some parents are working, some don't parent well and can't control their kids, some don't have any help and take time off from parenting, some have given up. When you are poor and live in a constant state of depression, you cope. Sometimes parenting is not part of that coping. Not an excuse, just an explanation.

Single parent households are tough to maintain - ask any single parent rich or poor. Add violence in your neighborhood, despair in your neighborhood (and don't buy this - we were poor but didn't know it crap - poor people know they are poor), and a lack of role models that model anything other than what is being acted, and you have a recipe for disaster. Not an excuse, just an explanation.

Generational poverty does occur and it is a modeled behavior. Not all poor people model this, but some do. Their kids see a parent that never has a steady job or a way out and they learn to live likewise. Some kids don't and model other behaviors. It may depend on who is in their life, how many outside influences they pay attention to, and what they see for themselves - based on what glimpse they have seen. Not an excuse, just an explanation.

What can anyone who is not a parent of a flash mob kid do to turn this situation around? 
1. if you know a flash mob kid - get in their life and model some good behavior
2. if you don't know a flash mob kid - get in the life of an at risk kid and model some good behavior
3. if you don't want to be up close and personal with a kid who is not your own, then donate or volunteer with organizations that are willing to be up close and personal.
4. advocate that the city, corporations, and Highwood Properties contribute to weekend open hours for city centers, libraries, YMCA, and Boys & Girls Clubs or other locations that can serve kids. You have to have more than one place open though or you will be swamped with kids. There are a lot of kids.
5. Why aren't churches open on Saturday nights for games and dances?

I know that people want to control and repress as a first impulse - just like we throw everyone who touched drugs into jail. How's that working for us? Yeah. Same thing with a curfew. You think kids will go home? No. They will attempt to flaunt the curfew and will hang out elsewhere, probably on the east side and then the powerful folk will say - well see, it worked, they are off The Plaza.  Control is waaaaay more expensive than support.

Over 100 homicides on the east side. How's that working for us? We reap what we sow. And don't give me that crap about report criminals to the police. When you have to fear for your own safety, let's see you snitch.

There are rag-tag community groups, well-funded community groups, and prominent community groups that try to make a difference in their east side neighborhoods. 23rd Street PAC is having a family activity next weekend. Voices of the People has a weekly Friday night gathering at 38th and Chestnut. Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council has activities at their building regularly at 37th and Woodland. Every Wednesday afternoon the Front Porch Alliance has Teen Talk at Michigan and Linwood. High Aspirations meets weekly at Bluford Library and elsewhere with young men.

There are positive things going on, but it is not enough. We need more. We need the city to embrace these kids and say your problems are my problems, your issues are my issues, your success is my success, your failure is my failure. Pretty simple. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Urban Food Desert

I've written a new Storify piece and this one is on Urban Food Deserts. This is a new buzz trend around urban areas, but it has a lot of layers if you look at it as more than the absence or presence of food. Take a look at or click on the title above to read it.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Girl dies from stray bullet - KCMO. We need a market solution

She was 11. She was enjoying fireworks in a fenced backyard with adult supervision. She died from a gunshot wound that came from someone shooting off a gun for fun. The stray bullet found her.

Bullets find a destination - a tree, a house, the ground, a person. They don't just fall to the ground. When you fire a gun with a bullet in it, the bullet will hit something. In this case it was an 11 year old girl who had nothing to do with the bullet. But she became its destination.

My neighborhood pal, DeShawn, also fell victim to an unintentional bullet that found him 3 years ago. He was 14 or 15. Last week a 24 year old man was sitting in Sanford Brown park 2 blocks from my house and was killed by a bullet that seems to have been fired without intention of hitting him. He was sitting in the park talking to his father.

Guns are everywhere in KCMO. The police have been ineffective at managing weapons for years and now they are so prevalent, that there is no stopping them. Other cities have had cash for guns programs to get weapons off the street. But that type of thing just gets the tip of the iceberg. Weapons have a cache like no other object. It is power in your hand and I've seen the look in people's eyes when they hold that power. It's power that we don't ordinarily have at our disposal in our circumscribed existence. We are told what to like, sold stuff we don't need, fed junk food, left to fend for ourselves to find nonexistent jobs with poor salaries, for which many people will not be hired. We are forced out of our homes due to our own foreclosure or the foreclosure on the landlord. Our goods are put on the street because we have no where to put our accumulation of possessions as we urban couch surf with friends, relatives, or wherever we can find a spot of shelter. It is not surprising that guns provide a measure of control in an out of control existence that many people face day-to-day.

The random bullet trajectory phenomenon is becoming too common. Once a week I read about this in KCMO, in Camden, in KCK. I'm sure it is no different in every urban place in the country.  Meanwhile the police are helpless to stop this most insidious form of violence. There is little we can do to prevent these random firings. The shooters have little incentive to think before they shoot. It's all part of the randomness that they associate with what passes for "life." The police can't confiscate guns because we defend our right to have them. But having a gun won't protect you from the random bullet looking for a destination. Police will investigate and try to find the shooter and put them in jail, as they should do. But that won't bring back this little girl who was having fun in a fenced yard, supervised by adults, minding her own business.

A child was shot in Camden, NJ last week - caught in crossfire on the street. We can keep our children off the street to minimize their exposure. But random bullets find their way into houses too. I've read too often the story of someone sitting in their house and wounded or killed by a stray bullet that came to rest in their body as it sought its final destination.

Of course, the obvious solution to gunfire is to make bullets cost about $100 each. Use the market to force those with guns to think carefully about shooting before they do so because it costs them money. Heck, make bullets cost $500 or $1000 a piece. People who are adamant about self-protection can purchase those bullets like an insurance policy. Odds are they will never shoot a bullet anyway. We better get creative in understanding the social motives of the bullet and stop relying on ineffective criminal justice to protect us. Deterrents don't work because the odds of being caught are slim. Market forces could save innocent lives.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Camden High School Performance Indicator - Graduates

Thanks to Camden City School Board member, Sean Brown, for posting the most recent report on graduation rates from the City's high schools. Here is the link.

The most well-known schools are Camden and Wilson. There are 3 other high schools that are special curriculum schools but are in-district. The report does not include charter high schools such as LEAP Academy.

The facts are the graduation rates. The definitely graduating rate for Camden is 59% and Wilson is 51%.  There are several other categories of possible graduates that could raise the rates a bit. The 4 other schools have much, much higher rates and their school populations are much, much smaller than either Camden or Wilson.

What this data does not show us is the number of dropouts that contribute to the graduation rates. How many students dropped out to yield only 500+ students for graduation between the 2 main high schools? Those students are the casualties of a poorly performing school district.

The city of Camden cannot afford to have a poorly performing school district. Period. It's success should be included as one of the top 3 Economic Development goals of the city. Period. Charter schools are fine, as long as they produce. There is nothing magical about a charter school. If they produce great results, then they should be rewarded and replicated. If they do not produce results, they should not be rewarded and should not get special treatment. Performance is the ONLY thing that matters.

The Mayor of Camden now controls the entire school board through appointment. The Mayor MUST be held accountable for the performance of the school board and the board must be held accountable for the performance of the district. Unfortunately, voters only have access to accountability through the Mayor, since they no longer elect the board. The residents, however, can turn this to their advantage by actually holding the Mayor accountable.

Residents of Camden need to be packing the School Board meetings with demands for improvement. School Board members need to be soliciting resident involvement and through engagement, improve the schools. Let the district staff and superintendent focus on performance in each school building and hold them accountable. Does the board have annual performance criteria for the superintendent? If not, set them. These are not negotiable items in a contract, these are merely annual goals.

This is a Public Relations campaign and either Camden is going to fight for its future or it is not. I'm willing to bet on the good people of Camden and their desire to see their city do well and their children succeed as a component of that future. Let's see who steps up.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mom and Racism

I grew up in a highly political, conservative, and yes, racist household. It had a profound affect on me, mainly to drive me in opposite directions. My mom was the gestalt of our home - tenacious in her beliefs, hard-headed in her actions, uncompromising in her world-view. This was a tough standard to emulate, but I am all that and more. But I never believed any of her beliefs, positions, or sentiments about the world. I learned over time, that her views were imbued in her by an equally tough father. My grandpa was the quintessential racist of Chicago. The N* word tripped off his tongue with ease and frequency. When my mom was around him, she followed his lead. He proudly carried a ball-peen hammer in his cars in case any N* tried to jump him. Of course that never happened, but in Chicago, old feisty white guys never took the chance, just in case. My mother often recounted that adage, because, well, you never know when a N* might jump you. In this family milieu I formed my basis for race relations.

My mom was a tenacious politico, stumping for Goldwater, Wallace, and was a loyal member of the John Birch Society. She believed that Martin Luther King was a communist and a threat to our country. I attended Birch meetings in our home and at other cell locations watching movies about how the negro people would burn our country to the ground. I was speechless, horrified, and dumbfounded that I found myself in this bizarre hot-bed of radical loony-toons. But what I gained from the experience was a fervent belief in integration, support for the minority position, and recognition that working for a cause was a good thing, because it gave you hope that your point of view would prevail. I learned that to believe and work with others towards a cause was as normal as sitting at the dinner table. I just chose different causes and positions.

My mom was equally active in local politics, stumping for candidates, handing out literature, talking up elections, working at the polls. I have no doubt this is where my love of politics began and my life-long fascination with local politics took root. Thanks, mom for this lesson as it afforded me a great career. But, as was her way, she delved into the radical fringe of the local. She started to hang out with Phyllis Schlafley - yes the one and only darling of conservative women. Of course this was long before she became famous. At that time, she and my mother engaged in a campaign against sex education in the schools and donned the acronym SOS - Save Our Schools. Of course this occurred at just the moment in my life when sex was a great curiosity to me. To have my mother hold protests against sex information was deeply confusing to me. Unfortunately, she also brought race into the issue - there should be no interracial anything, least of all in the realm of personal relationships, sex, marriage, etc. On that issue I took great exception, because I didn't understand what possible explanation could be rational to lead to this edict. My mom spoke in front of school boards, to reporters, handed out pamphlets, and stood firm in her position about SOS. I was mortified by the subject (mainly because she had not done much in terms of sharing the secrets of sex with me...), but mostly mortified that my mom would be out there saying students should be shielded. This was a time in the country when free love was the rage. But there she was campaigning and being steadfast. That was a lesson I gladly learned.

As my mom got older, she actually withdrew from politics. She loved Ronald Reagan (and Joe McCarthy) and felt that Reagan caved. She couldn't stand it and stopped reading the paper and watching the news. I'm sure the Communist Broadcast Corporation (CBS) and Walter Cronkite (whom we watched every evening) were glad to have her withdraw, lol. But I had learned a lesson early that reading and watching the news was an essential part of citizenship. I have never stopped doing that and though my mom quit on it, I have never felt that response. So thanks, Mom, for making me a good citizen.

In the last years of my mom's life she softened. She gathered her estranged family and embraced them. She met my BFF who is black, and embraced him. She said to me, color doesn't matter as long as the person makes you feel special and is good to you. I nearly fell off my chair. But it told me that all along, though she never showed it or allowed it to come out, there was compromise and learning inside her. I must have seen that in my subconscious, because I have always been that person, and I could not have learned it anywhere else unless there was a kernel of it in my mom. Her sharing that with me was a culmination of a journey for both of us.

So yes, I learned racism at my mother's knee. I learned how ugly it was and how damaging it was in terms of the energy and effort it took to maintain it. I never bought into it, but it took me many years to learn how much it affected me. It wasn't until I learned what white privilege meant that I fully understood how ingrained racism is, even in a liberal do-gooder who eschewed her racist family teachings.  Those teachings were still there and though I professed to refute them, they distinctly colored my view of how to overcome it. If I had never had such a blatant upbringing, I might never have come to realize the insidiousness of it. If I had a mother who was polite and whitewashed racism, I might never have known its power and that it even existed. For that, mom, I have to say thanks. Your tenacity, hard-headedness, and uncompromising views gave me a strong platform from which to live MY life with MY views and taught me lessons I didn't know I needed to learn until I learned them.

Examine your own family upbringing. What did your mother teach you about race and politics? What do you need to learn that you don't even know you need to learn? I urge you to explore it and grow, because our world depends on you to learn from your mother and build a just, safe, and healthy society.

Happy Mothers Day!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Locusts in a Neighborhood

I am following the progress of a new group in KC called: Emerald City KC: Blight to Bright: 52 Houses in 52 Weeks. You can find them on Face Book where they are gathering steam.

Emerald City is the brainchild of two women, one of whom is a realtor, to create an artist district within the Manheim neighborhood - Troost to Paseo, Cleaver to 39th. Their goal is to inhabit 52 houses in 52 weeks and to fill those houses with artists, urbanists, and other intentional living advocates who want to create a community. This sounds absolutely perfect for a blighted neighborhood that is close to the Plaza, but miles away in social terms.

One tiny issue that seems to be overlooked - there is a community already here - the Manheim neighborhood. There is no mention on their FB page about their coordination, collaboration, or even communication with this neighborhood. Brush Creek Community Partners has been working with this neighborhood to advance their interests. Don't have any idea if the Emerald City kids have talked to them either.

Basically, this is a group of locusts who have descended on Manheim and decided to make it their own. Their vision, notwithstanding, does not give them license to do this. Why 52 houses in 52 weeks - except that it is a catchy phrase? Why not 20 houses in 20 months?

Their sustainability plan (to go along with the Green Impact Zone in which this neighborhood sits) is to have a REIT (Real Estate Trust) to be a membership co-op for those who "buy-in" to the neighborhood and the Emerald City artist theme. Co-op is one approach. A REIT is not necessarily the best approach. I would prefer to see a Community Land Trust myself - but at least they are thinking about affordability and community ownership.

So far as I can tell, they are not a 501c3, but they want banks to donate housing to them as Wells Fargo has done with the Ivanhoe Neighborhood. Having been on the Ivanhoe Board of Directors, I can tell you that taking on housing is not for the faint of heart. It is very hard work to get housing in the urban core fixed up, rehabbed, and sold. The Emerald City group has been splashing about real estate finds and touting $400 mortgages.

As a property owner in the urban core who bought a foreclosed fixer-upper, I can tell you that there is not a mortgage company out there that will touch a single home for under $50,000 and that was when mortgage money was easy. Unless you bundle these houses, you will not get a mortgage. Perhaps that is what the co-op strategy is about. Of course, rehab of these houses is expensive. And if you just descend on the neighborhood without any commitment or entre, you should expect to have vandalism.

I am not opposed to the Emerald City idea - it might be great for this neighborhood! I applaud the vigor with which people are embracing the alternative urban pioneer concept. Hoo-ray!

But the process by which they are going about this is highly suspect and smacks of gentrification (though they profess to not be gentrifiers). You have to join the co-op to get the benefit. What will protect the existing neighbors from being priced out and forced out? What if you are not an artist and you don't want the empty school building turned into an artist colony? Many urban core residents support senior housing so people can age in place. How will this collision of interests be handled? A far as I can tell, the EC is moving full steam ahead because, well, they have a great idea and why shouldn't they?

I'm not in KC, so this is not something I am on the ground for. I hope other friends will look into this and encourage Emerald City to adopt good community development principles and actions that work with and not against the interests of the Manheim neighborhood.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

After the Election

The confetti has rained and the balloons have been released. The "unity" talk will continue for a while until the first difficult issue breaks. The hope for a productive city will linger. The future seems filled with possibilities that will disappear sooner than we would like.

I think about how good people felt 4 years ago when Mark Funkhouser was elected. That lasted about 5 minutes that turned into 4 long, brutal years that have left the city a bit battered and bruised in some regards.

Today I feel hopeful again with Sly James elected mayor. My concern is that the city council is filled with retreads and re-elected reps. Will they do a better job with a new mayor? Or will it be business as usual? That slippery slope of politics is slippery for a reason...the darn line of ethics keeps moving. I've seen it a hundred times. Politicians get elected thinking they will make a difference. They find out there is a huge level of resistance to their call for change and new ideas. Frustration gives way to compromise and then, slowly but surely, the compromises turn into compromising positions.

Power is seductive. Those who win office and suddenly find power in their hands begin to learn how to use it and don't realize they are being used by it. They rationalize that it is more important to stay in office and keep trying, even it means compromising in ways they never thought they would. The phrase "pick your battles" is a wonderful line of cover. I see it all the time in the University, in politics, even in interpersonal relationships. Compromise for the sake of unity, for the sake of peace, for the sake of moving forward out of a stalemate.

The problem with this strategy is that it moves the line of what is acceptable. After a few compromises you find that what is acceptable has moved greatly. How did you get so far from your original position and principles? But you are here now and the justifications begin. If I could just stay a little longer, I could make a difference, change things, have an impact. But that is not the place for elected officials.

The job of an elected official is not to be a changemaker, but to unleash the changemaking potential of others. This is what Mayor Funkhouser never got. He wanted to be the star. This is typically what most politicians don't get. They want to be kingmakers, out front and special, they want to shine. But when you are part of an elected group, you must work as a unit. There is not much room for being a star. However, you can be a leader, leading the group to see how to advance the agenda, how to work to allow things to happen - not make them happen, not control how they happen.

Politicians often think they are the only ones who can actually see what needs to be done and the ones who must control every aspect of how it is done. Some will try to legislate as a form of dictation. Some will try to micromanage other public employees. Most will not hold themselves accountable as they serve the interests of their special friends, special supporters, and those who curry their favor. This is where politicians lose their way. They think that their job is to give approval to this direction or that direction and to "make it happen." Unfortunately, that skips the most important part of their job - leadership. You must lead to make things happen, not just make them happen on your own. Empower others, lead, support, encourage, stand for something. These are not easy distinctions. No one is perfect. Some have given up even trying.

I wish the new mayor and city council the best as they embark on their new terms. I'll engage the public process, throw out suggestions, raise issues of accountability, and remind you of what the public expects. But don't get in my way or the way of others that are legitimately trying to make this city better. We've not been elected to anything. We are not accountable to you. You are accountable to us. That's change I can believe in.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

KC Elections Round 2 - 3rd District

The March 22 elections are nearly here. The mayoral race has boxed Sly James into a corner unfortunately. He and Mike Burke decided to run a no-mud campaign. That seems to have left Sly with no where to go as Mike racks up endorsements and runs a "well of course you want to vote for me" campaign. In KC that means Mike Burke gets to do a well - you know... style campaign - Hey it's not slinging mud, but you know...

Sly has nowhere to run with this. A shame. But maybe the voters of KC are smarter than Mike thinks and will vote with their brains.

I'm much more concerned about the 3rd District races. The in-district race is a mess. Fletcher is still appealing his residency and this has left Jermain Reed in limbo. If Fletch wins his appeal, Jermain is not in the runoff. If Fletch loses the appeal, Jermain is in, but with only a couple of weeks to go. Meanwhile, Brooks is sitting in the catbird seat. This is a real shame.

The at-large race pits newcomer Brandon Ellington (although he ran in-district 4 years ago and lost) against one of the most established and recognized political family names in the KC metro - Curls, as in Melba Curls. I've been supporting Ellington because I don't think Melba has been an effective representative for the dire situations facing the 3rd district, let alone the city at-large.

Ellington is running a grass-roots, low-budget, guerrilla-style campaign. But the latest salvo comes from a very real, speak truth to power, photo essay. Unfortunately it is only running on Facebook now, but hopefully you can see it from this link:!/album.php?aid=71109&id=1250676511&fbid=1562958234467

It's called "This is What the 3rd District Really Looks Like" and is a stark reminder that the current reps, Brooks and Curls have done nothing to address the needs of this district. While Curls represents the at-large, that also means she has standing to invite the entire city to work with the 3rd. She has squandered her time in office. Perhaps this race will be a wake up call for her and if re-elected she will become more active and responsive? I have no evidence to suggest that will be the case.

Brandon Ellington is green, put a fast study. He has a lot to learn, but has the capacity to do so. He knows the 3rd district and wants to make a difference. He has the street cred to know how to make a difference. He has the passion and the connections to rally the rest of the city to finally be a partner in reviving the 3rd district and stimulating opportunities for the residents that live there.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Kansas City Elections Round 1

Well the primary results were no surprise to me - my prediction was Mike Burke and Sly James all along for Mayor in the General Election. All those who actually thought Rowland or Herman could win were just wishful thinking. Some thought the incumbent Mayor Funkie would split the field and sneak into the runoff. I think the Anybody But Funk sentiment was so strong that people voted smartly and picked winners to ensure a Funk defeat.

The fact that KC may see its second African-American Mayor if James is elected is a very important political issue. KC is typically viewed as being uber-divided and segregated - yet James ran a great race (albeit with dismal turnout levels). He also won without the endorsement of any of the African-American political groups. I'm anxious to see the precinct votes to see how he did on the Eastside. Mike Burke was the only candidate to have 2 campaign offices - one on the westside and one on the eastside. Anxious to see if that made any difference in terms of votes.

The most interesting race was 3rd District at-large. The white candidate, Durwin Rice, was counting on his city-wide recognition as a good citizen (which he is) and his Tulips on Troost fame to garner him enough votes to overcome the resistance he would have from voters who actually live in the 3rd District. I have to say that I believed white voters in KC would vote for him and put him through to the General Election. He failed. Ellington and incumbent Curls will face off in March. I really thought that if given a choice, KC white voters would vote for Durwin over the two black candidates. Glad I was wrong. And it looks as if the same number of votes were cast for the 3rd at-large as the other at-large races, meaning voters did not just skip over the 3rd district race. I hope that Durwin Rice will continue living in the 3rd and be an active resident. The 3rd needs all the allies it can get and he would be a great one. Welcome, neighbor.

The General Election races in the 3rd and the 5th districts at large and the 3rd in district will ensure that 3 African-Americans get elected to council. Unfortunately, there will not be any Hispanic reps on council. This continues to be a difficult issue. The Hispanic political clubs backed the same losing mayoral candidate that the African-American political club backed. Looks like cash did not translate to votes in that race and that will definitely diminish their political clout. There is definitely political room for new groups to step up and represent. Should be interesting to see how the remaining candidates court the Hispanic vote and whether they go for endorsements.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sustainable Cities

Is Camden sustainable? Is Kansas City? Is Detroit?

These 3 places are facing the exact same question and are answering it in very different ways.

Camden is facing a financial crisis because the fiscal house of cards has collapsed. Some are suggesting that the solution lies in municipal bankruptcy. It would be a way to get out from under very costly union contracts (seems to be a popular strategy for fiscal relief these days - see Wisconsin). Bankruptcy may be a way to get out from under a tangled mess of property tax liens that cripple the city's ability to redevelop properties or even build on vacant lots. It may be a way to renegotiate subsidy agreements that currently allow private sector development to avoid property tax and instead pay a fixed payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT). Mayor Redd has stated that bankruptcy is not a good option for Camden. The city has a terrible reputation, is woefully in the red, can't possibly have a good bond rating that is real, and has no prospects for future revenue except to raise property taxes on a population base where 36% of people are in poverty and/or to seek concessions from the Police and Fire Unions which has gone nowhere. Bankruptcy may in fact be the BEST answer given the alternatives on the table. A municipal mulligan, if you will.

Detroit has been losing population for decades. It's economic development has ceased in the hard industry sectors, and crime, abandonment, and other urban ills are omnipresent. Detroit has become the destination for progressive, local source, new community advocates - an amalgam of sustainable community developers. Urban agriculture enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, and other creative economy types have arrived in Detroit's vacuum and are establishing themselves to fill the space. It is an organic transformation in more ways than just what is served on the table. Whether it will translate into sustainable jobs for the existing residents of Detroit remains to be seen. The other crucial outcome is whether it can be infused into the local political agenda and supported over time.

Kansas City is at a cross-roads with its city election primary on Feb. 22 and general election in March. It is a nonpartisan race, so basically it is a primary and runoff of the top two candidates in each race. Some races are unopposed and the outcome is already done. There is a six-way race for Mayor (Rowland, Burke, James, Herman, Funkhouser, Klein in about that order). These races will determine how and whether Kansas City takes on a sustainable future or continues to wither. It would be a pity if KC had to take the Detroit route to sustainability - which is basically, die and be reborn in spite of yourself. It takes a long time for that to happen. But KC is in real danger of that scenario because progressives and advocates of localism are being stymied in favor of very tired, very old economic development strategies. The downtown hotel subsidy strategy is not viable but is dominating the conversation of economic revitalization. KC needs to catch up to the creative economy and get out in front of the green economy to seriously solidify its future.

The current mayor has identified a series of strategies including "Schools First," "New Tools," make KC the "safest big city in America" and fill the donuthole. These are all variations on the theme - bring people back to the city and to do that, make the city safe. There is not much of substance here. Other candidates are not much better, but JAMES and BURKE probably do the best job of articulating something that approaches useful.

Sustainable Cities - is a concept whose time has arrived and is desperately needed in Camden, Detroit, and Kansas City. An emphasis on developing local jobs for local people, sustainable energy and environmental justice, local agriculture and food sourcing, and attracting people to the city who will support a progressive agenda that includes social enterprises, local economy, green technology, and jobs for local residents. It's a fairly simple agenda but has not been articulated as an agenda in KC, though candidates have spoken to bits and pieces here and there. Incremental change is about all we can expect, but is not going to cause much of an impact. The good news for KC is that the city has quite a bit to work with - the Green Impact Zone, a few entrepreneurship programs and incubators, Stowers medical research center, and the Kaufman Foundation's emphasis on entrepreneurship (that also connects UMKC's entrepreneurship program in the Bloch School of Management). The city has a variety of urban agriculture interests, green urban development professionals, and lots of advocates. Yet much of this activity remains in silos in KC and the desperately needs some cross-cutting strategies.

Those cross-cutting approaches - and these are sustainability strategies, are coming and they are designed to cut across those silos in new ways to unleash the creative potential of the Kansas City and Camden's of the world. This will result in exponential economic development that far exceeds the influence that subsidized hotels and entertainment zones could ever have in these places. Not every city will be or should be a tourist destination. Save that for the really great cities (world-class), historic cities (Philly, Boston, Rome, Beijing), and new cities (Dubai). Cities can build tourist niches based on indigenous artifacts or events (Rio, New Orleans, Pasadena, Hollywood, Paloma, Washington DC, Seattle), or transit systems (Japan's hi-speed rail system, Curitiba, San Francisco), but most will fail at this strategy. Artificial tourism does not last - just ask the cities that built Festival Marketplaces from the Rouse company - Toledo anyone?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Time for Ideas and Action in Camden

I posted this on my Facebook and got no response. Let's see if it does any better here.]

This article gives a very chilling perspective of what is happening in urban places in NJ. I don't mean suburbs. I mean Trenton, Newark, Jersey City, Elizabeth, and of course, Camden. The Governor has cut state aid to cities. Cities rely on property tax. Poor cities don't have a property tax base. The housing crisis has made revenue raising even more difficult. Any student in urban affairs knows the elements of this model and the outcome. Without intervention, there is a death spiral.

I chair a department of Public Policy and Administration at an urban campus of a major university. This department includes Urban Studies, an MPA, and a Ph.D. program in Community Development. I am embarrassed that this campus, department, faculty, and students have not been more forthcoming with ideas, prescriptions, and fostering a dialogue about the future of Camden. politics with a small "p" is part of it - no one wants to step on toes, the University has a unit that is working with the mayor on some reforms but it is dormant at the moment, wouldn't want to make anyone look bad, etc. Politics with a capital "P" is part of it - the Democratic mayor is trying to placate the Republican Governor by doing as he wants and we wouldn't want to get in the way of that agenda or we might never see another dime from the state. Those that control the Democratic party and are state elected officials are strangely silent on these issues. The Mayor is about as tight-lipped as she can be, saying virtually nothing to the press unless it is a tightly controlled public statement with no Q/A. This does not instill confidence in her leadership. But the people of Camden so desperately want her to succeed, and that includes me, that we don't want to take her to task too loudly. We continue to cheer her on, although with more muted huzzah's as time goes by.

I believe the time has come to start the public dialogue. I am doing it from my blog and facebook and not from my position on campus. I do not have the ability to control University politics, but I will share this with colleagues, Ph.D. students, our unit on campus that is working with the Mayor, and the Chancellor who has been a strategist for the Mayor.

I believe that a public dialogue must include interest groups and nonprofits, citizen groups, and individual citizens. Institutions and stakeholders generally have a route of access to power and elected officials. They can weigh in as needed. But often, their agendas will color the dialogue. I think the dialogue has to get started and rolling first, before it gets bent to their reflection.

Strategies to Bring Back Camden: That Should be Openly Discussed

1. Alternative Revenue Streams: the state of NJ can approve a payroll tax for a city. A payroll tax is tax a way to generate revenue directly to the general fund or to a designated service, paid for by those who come to Camden and use its services. More importantly, the bulk of the employees in Camden work for entities that do not pay property tax. It is a way for those places such as Cooper, Rutgers, L3, the county, the feds, the aquarium, to provide direct revenue to the city.

2. Empowerment Zone redesign: currently the Camden Urban Empowerment Zone allows entities within its borders to have a reduced sales tax. This is designed to make goods a little cheaper. However, sales tax revenue goes to the state and then by formula returns to the City (I believe this is how it works, but each state is different). Apparently, other urban places in NJ have a deal where property taxes are assessed in the EZ and the revenue goes directly to the city. EZ development often has tax abatements. I may not have the details nailed down, but this is an area that needs to be redesigned to the advantage of the city.

3. property tax liens: there is an abandoned property law that the city does not use, despite having been given strategies by local CDCs on how this could work for the city. The city sold liens to a private company and received revenue for those sales. The company has had difficulty selling those liens to investors. This is a somewhat complex financial endeavor, but it needs to be reviewed to be sure that the city is using a strategy that will actually get properties back on-line and used, not sitting in lien limbo forever. In addition, the city needs to seek an ability to wipe clear outstanding liens that it holds on its books. In exchange, the city could acquire the property, grant clear title, and move on with the business of using the property. This is an important area in which being stalled is being dead.

4. land assembly and land trusts: If Camden is going to entice outside investment, it must assemble land for that development. Cities are always in a unique position to be able to do this. There is enough abandoned property and hazardous property that the city can begin getting tough on acquiring land. I don't mean doing it by eminent domain of occupied property. I mean acquiring property that has been dormant for 20 years, that is vacant and a hazard, that needs to be torn down because it has been declared unfit to inhabit. Assembling tracts of land is a huge advantage to a developer and can allow the city to dictate the use or concessions for the community from the developer. Much of that part of the equation has been missing in Camden development. Land trusts are means by which the city can guarantee affordable housing prices and make housing affordable right now to people who want to buy homes. The city or a nonprofit owns the land and the buyer purchases the structure. When the owner wants to sell, the land trust has rules about reasonable profit and resale to the next buyer. Portland has done an excellent job with this.

5. police and fire: there will be no investment, no retail development, no success in higher education if police and fire are not adequate. The city needs to determine how many police and fire personnel it needs and THEN go about figuring out the best financial route to get it. If it means purchasing service, regionalizing service, or rewriting contracts, then it should be done. Dickering about clothing allowances and pensions is a non-starter for the union and the city should walk away. Find an alternative and lay them all off, but don't leave the city vulnerable. That is just folly.

6. lay off unnecessary departments at City Hall. We have a CRA and a Planning Department. We don't need both. We have code enforcement that is not part of the development strategies. Shut it down until it becomes part of the revenue building strategy. Eliminate parking authority and parking fines. The cost of collecting revenue must be considered when determining net benefits and that includes collecting the fines. The bureaucracy that is involved in the court processing could be streamlined. Stop nickel and diming the residents when the net revenue is probably negative.

7. invest in HR, but outsource it. The myriad of labor laws in NJ requires very specific guidance. The City does not have a personnel specialist. Outsource it.

8. Reduce pension and benefits for all non contract employees, including the mayor and council. This may be symbolic, but you can't ask the unions to cut if you won't cut your own. I understand from someone that the mayor took furlough days, but this is not widely known. Has she? Has council? What are the financial benefits to the city

9. Be transparent. The Mayor claims benefit packages increase the cost of a police person to $140,000. The police department union disputes this. Put the figures out there and itemize. Stop playing games for political advantage. Let the facts speak for themselves. Do the same with employee salaries and benefits in City Hall and the fire department.

10. Are there revenues that can be improved from the private water company contract (last I heard there was a dispute that went to court about who owes whom, to the tune of millions of dollars)? Are there revenues that can be improved from any of the developments that were built with Economic Recovery Board money

11. Use federal revenue, tax credits, and other finance vehicles (and the city missed out on a lot of stimulus money) for innovative development deals. There are many options that can be used that don't seem to be used in Camden. We have a friend in the White House and a direct route to federal HUD. USE IT!! Social enterprise could be the best economic development strategy Camden has and it is totally untapped. Let's get Grameen Bank here, let's generate some green businesses, let's try cooperatives. We have generated some ideas on campus and they are ready to be used.

12. Give attention to education. The city needs an education strategy that includes improving the public schools, partnering with the charters, and ensuring that there is an educated labor force. The City has tremendous power over education in Camden and needs to use it.

13. Address drugs with an organized strategy. Drug use, drug violence, drug sales will not end by putting more cops on the street. What else have we got? Other cities have made strides and improvements. What is our end goal and let's get moving towards it. Drug sales will not end, but they can be contained, controlled, and de-escalated as a means to protect the citizens. Right now, it's the wild west

14. Visibility of our leadership: I am tired of hearing that the elected officials in Camden don't really live in Camden. Either they do or they don't. Invite the media to provide proof of your existence as a citizen of Camden. Do you shop here? Do you drive in the city? Do you go to church here? Engage with the people.

This is just a start and by no means a comprehensive list or even the best list. It's just the ideas that I have as someone who has built a career on these issues. I don't pretend to be omniscient on this.

I recommend that there be public forums where the city presents information and options. In lieu of that, I suggest that citizen groups, nonprofits, neighborhood groups, and others organize public forums to engage and be strategic. You don't get anywhere with people coming and complaining. You get somewhere when people define what it is they want and then look for the best strategies to get those things. I believe that if the people get engaged, and I don't mean every citizen in Camden, but those who wish to be actively engaged, then the city will respond.

I think CCOP, Cooper's Ferry, CCDA, People United, and other groups should take the lead and make this happen. They may need to be convinced to set down their own agenda for a moment and their own desire to be seen as THE leader and work together. Camden is worth it and this is the time. Complacency on our new reality is about to set in and we can't afford that.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Insanity of Camden

I'm taking a scene out of the old movie Network - I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!!! The city of Camden topped itself tonight. Just when you think it couldn't be done, the city takes an even more ridiculous action than laying off half of the police force and a third of the fire department.

Yes, the City of Camden has asked for a 23% increase in property taxes, effective May 1. This request requires state approval because Governor Christie this year managed to get a statewide 2% annual cap installed. So Camden needs a 21% exception to the new rule. The increase would cover the $26million budget gap this year. But what about next year? This is an unsustainable solution.

  • The average housing value in Camden is $26,000. Yes, that is $26,000.
  • The average property tax currently paid on that house is $1700. Yes, that is correct, $1700.
  • The city turned the library system over to the county this year to save money - and now residents will be taxed by the county library system.
  • The county has re-valued property this year. And apparently in Camden this does not take into account the terrible market - with terrible schools, half of a police force, and high crime rates.
  • This tax increase will not be applied to currently abated properties that may pay a PILOT. That includes the defense contractor L3 which has a large campus in downtown Camden, the Port Authority, the Aquarium, and the Susquehanna Music Center. Add to that all tax exempt property such as Rutgers, federal buildings, county jail, waterfront baseball park, Camden Community College and you have a huge revenue problem.
The city council members that voted for this 23% tax increase actually stated, there is nothing else we can do. We have to get off of state aid and so we have to raise revenues.

First of all, there are other options besides property taxes to raise revenue for city government.

  • payroll tax would be one option - taxing all the employees that use Camden every day and work for entities that pay no taxes
  • increase fees and sales tax - though this may only shift the burden to Camden residents through other means.
  • cut salaries and services - starting with the Mayor and City Council. Issue snow shovels and end plowing. Go to once a week trash pick up year round and privatize it.
These options are about as popular as a draconian tax increase, but will not kill homeownership and affordable housing in Camden.

I'm a renter and expect to see the tax increase and property re-evaluation in increased rent. I have a very astute landlord who will weigh the market costs and demand before passing this on. Other landlords are not as concerned and will pass it along in full. Renters who can't afford this will look elsewhere for affordable housing or won't pay and evictions will rise. Landlords will begin walking away from properties in larger numbers, leaving the city with even more abandoned housing. Homeowners will fall into arrears and face tax liens and foreclosure.

Perhaps this is the goal - put as much property in Camden into bankruptcy and delinquency as possible and shed the city of most of its current residents. Then the city could start over again and build a property tax base.

Of course, the most realistic and positive way to get out from under the fiscal collapse of this city is to generate economic development. It would not be easy, but could be done. Imagine...the city stops all other activity except for building the economy. Put the mayor and her MBA to work. It would probably raise more money and be more sustainable in the long run than a 23% property tax increase.