Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and president of PolicyLink, joins Toni Johnson in a conversation about the steps needed in order to advance social and economic equality in the United States. Highlighting the changing demographics of the country, Blackwell discusses the growing importance of the minority population in creating a robust middle class.
This is Toni Johnson with Heron.org. I’m here today with Angela Glover Blackwell of PolicyLink. We’re here to discuss the meaning of equity, and the role in the economy. Hi Angela, welcome to Soundbites.
Hi Toni, thank you.
Angela, can you tell me a little bit about PolicyLink, and how it got started and what you’re aiming toward?
PolicyLink is a national research and action institute dedicated to advancing a new generation of policies that achieve economic and social equity. We define equity as just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper and reach their full potential. When we think about equity we think it’s important to think exclusively about the outcomes for people, and to understand in depth how you get those outcomes.
Race is very important in terms of understanding who’s being left behind. Place and geography are absolutely important in terms of understanding that interplay between people, race, and geography. So often where you live is a proxy for opportunity. It determines everything including how long you live. And it’s important to understand the role of power and voice in making sure you have authentic strategies that are being put forward.
So we are committed to lifting up what works in local communities, working with local advocates, and setting tangible results for the people—and then measuring our success by whether or not we are making a difference in the lives of people. Whether people have greater access to jobs, greater access to democratic participation, greater ability to be able to move freely to opportunity in a society in which opportunity is unevenly distributed.
So can you talk a little bit about the changing demographic in this country, and what it’s going to mean for people of color and the economy? And the role that jobs can play going forward?
In November of 2011 PolicyLink had its fourth national summit in Detroit and at that time we lifted up that the demographics were changing more rapidly than anyone had thought. We were coming right off of the 2010 census, and it was clear that we were becoming a nation in which the majority would be people of color before 2050. What people often don’t know is by the end of 2019 the majority of all children in this country will be of color and by 2030 the majority of the young workforce will be of color. So we are changing rapidly and the median age for people who are white is 42 and the median age of people who are Latino, the fastest growing group, is 27.
So we can see the nation is changing, that can’t be stopped, there’s nothing to be done about it and it is a good thing. There’s nothing like being a world nation in a global economy. There’s nothing like having a population that is connected to the globe, through kinship, through culture, through relationships. And it's nothing like having a young, industrious, entrepreneurial population at a time that continues to feed the economy.
And so we looked at the shifting demographics and looked in 2011 at an economy that was in deep trouble, and said the only way out is to invest in the people who are going to be the future. If people of color don’t become the middle class there’ll be no middle class. And so we lifted up that time that we suspected that equity was the superior growth model for the nation. You get the equity agenda right, you get the country right! You get democracy right. You get the things that are fundamental about the nation, that it is so proud of, they continue—but they continue in a way that is fully inclusive and a demonstration of what can be.
We just had our fifth summit in Los Angeles in October of 2015, and there we started off with a video that showed that we are in a movement moment. And that movement moment is connected to the problems of race, connected to the problems of the economy and that all those movements are connected to each other, and that we need to understand that at this moment we could make an extraordinary difference if the movements find each other. If we understand it has to be multiracial, multigenerational, multi-issue. And if we don’t confine ourselves to public policy alone, but understand that public and private policy have to work together to build a democracy and an economy that works for all.
And so we think those two things, the shifting demographics and the economic challenges of our times, actually create a path to a fully inclusive society in which all can participate and prosper.
If people of color don’t become the middle class, there’ll be no middle class.Discuss
So earlier this year during the Oscars there was a controversy because no people of color had been nominated for any of the major categories. During this time the New York Times put out an infographic of 500 leaders in the corporate government culture basis and only 44 of them were people of color—and that was across the entire board. Can you talk a little bit about the impact of not having people of color in all parts of the power structures of society?
I saw that article and I knew what I would find when I saw the headline, but to see it was still disheartening. Oh my goodness. We are so far behind. The nation is so slow to take advantage of its major assets. The failure to include people of color at every level will come back to bite this nation, because it cannot tap the asset if it doesn’t have access to the asset. The failure to include people of color in leadership and pace-setting positions means that we are going to be stuck as a nation in a time that is not today.
Today and the future really are going to be defined by how we include the orientation, the point of view, the assets of people of color. That the wealth that the nation will create is going to be dependent on the entrepreneurial spirit of people who are hungry to be able to connect what they understand about their communities to the economic opportunities in the future.
Elected officials who pander to the worst of the nation are going to keep the nation from being able to model for the world what it means to have a truly inclusive democracy that is something worth standing on the world stage and being proud of. If democracy does not work in the context of difference it is not worth perpetuating, and the people who will help it to work in the context of difference are people who embrace that difference. I always tell people who I work with that even though sometimes I may sound as if I think the only leaders who can achieve equity and inclusion are leaders of color, I never mean to send that message, because who are white have an obligation to talk about race, to understand equity, to understand how to work across difference—and when they do, they stand with leaders of color who have the same thing.
I think the future really calls for leaders who bring an outsider's stance. People who understand what it means to have been on the outside, who learn to listen differently, who learn to—and know they have to—build coalitions to achieve what they want because they do not have the capacity to just say "do it." People have to convince and see the win winning it. Those kinds of leadership qualities are rampant in communities of color. A lot of women bring those kinds of leadership qualities, too; we need to lift them up and bring them forward.
The failure of this nation to take advantage of its most important asset, which is its diversity, will hold it back. And it will hold back in ways that are going to be detrimental to the economy, detrimental to the democracy, detrimental to our lifestyle, and detrimental to the climate if I might say that. Because in order to really get climate change right we have to understand how the strategies that are being put forward impact people of color. How the people who care most about these issues are the ones who are impacted by them. In California every time we have a ballot measure that has anything to do with climate, people of color overwhelmingly vote for it, because they have skin in the game. And they see why these things are important.
Do you have any trends that you’d like to highlight? Things where there are really bright spots on the issue of equity or regional and community development?
There are bright spots. I want to start at the national level. I think it is very telling that people who are running for office are feeling the need, particularly Democrats more than Republicans, but everybody is feeling the need to have a position on the issues related to people of color. It is part of the debate. It is even more part of the debate when you are in local communities, so I think our politics are starting to reflect that our nation is different.
The impact that Black Lives Matter has had in a profound way on the conversation about the next great social movement in the country. Because in the phrase "black lives matter" is a challenge to the nation to understand the history of what has happened to black people. To understand how the oppression of black people has set the pace and model of oppression of others and to find people who are Latino, who are Asian, who are gay and lesbian and transgender, understanding that the frame of the Black Lives Matter approach is a way for us to find our oneness as we move forward. That is an amazing trend.
I also think that companies are starting to realize that they need to be able to not just diversify their staffs, their employees, but they need to diversify governance. They need to think about the role that they are playing in their communities and I see these kinds of things happening. I actually think that in general the country is moving in an exciting direction.
It’s not galloping, though, because there are so many people who are afraid and threatened that I think of us as being in a bit of a "groan zone." And while the groan zone is what we have to go through to transition to a better place, we don’t know how long it will last, how ugly it will get and what the fallout might be within it. But I think the shifting demographics, the challenges to the economy, the fact that leaders are beginning to see themselves as having to work across difference no matter what their own race or ethnicity, suggest that we could have a breakthrough. But the American people are going to have to demand it.
Thanks, Angela. For Heron.org, this is Toni Johnson.