Recently I was asked to answer the question: How can cities better connect all residents to economic opportunity?
It’s been a few months since that question was posed to me and I’m sure it is one of many on the minds of residents of Detroit and cities everywhere. The answer is not “one size fits all” and involves a spectrum of opportunities beyond just economic ones.
It would seem that the scope of one’s opportunity is relative to a history of previous opportunities to build upon. The case has already been made regarding the effects of systemic racism and inequity on opportunity. A city that does not work to address these imbalances will, by default, continue to build the opportunity portfolios of the privileged, while ignoring those in less-privileged positions and patting itself on the back for creating an environment where opportunity exists.
Opportunity for all cannot be driven by privilege and position. By ignoring the voices of those in less-privileged positions, cities unknowingly lose out on robust infusions of innovation from those who and have been able to overcome and navigate a system of obstacles and inequity that some have never had to even consider. A city that wants to connect all of its residents to opportunity must be egalitarian in its sociopolitical philosophy, rigorous in its resident engagement, and holistic in its execution strategy.
Cities that do not view all of their residents as equal and deserving of all of the benefits and resources that flow into them will not be intentional about doing what is required to make thriving connections happen. Opportunity for all will not happen if the opportunities presented are not varied and diverse enough to reach all and within reach of all. Opportunities that attract new residents must exist side-by-side with opportunities that appeal to existing residents.
Engaging residents to inform plans about what opportunities the city needs to add to its landscape is an effective strategy that creates a rich tapestry. In our city, the Detroit Future City: Detroit Strategic Framework Plan (DFC) was published in 2012 after 24 months of public engagement and interaction. Opportunity is one of the threads that runs through the DFC plan. Now that the framework is in print, it must become more vibrant as it continues to change and grow and is further informed and rigorously stewarded by Detroit’s residents and civic leaders.
Innovative solutions that connect all residents to opportunities can come out of sustained, focused community engagement. I say that if “necessity is the mother of invention,” then opportunity is the fabric of innovation. As with innovation, opportunity for all has to be the warp and weft of a world-class city.
Opportunity must be relevant. Not all opportunities will be relevant to all, but opportunities should be varied and diverse enough that they are attainable to all. We need intentionality in providing a plethora of opportunities across multiple sectors.
Opportunity must be relative. Opportunities should have on-ramps of participation relative to all of a city’s residents. Providing guidance and resources that help position residents to access multiple opportunity on-ramps relative to both where they are and where they want to go is sometimes necessary. This can happen through dynamic school, business, and community partnerships that, among other things, expand the knowledge of residents around what is available now and in the future.
Providing economic opportunities that can only be seized by a segment of the population is to exclude some by default. It cannot be about socioeconomic position, but about seeing to it that there are pathways for individuals to begin, advance, and expand upon opportunities. There must be something for everyone.
Connecting residents to economic and other opportunities requires connecting to ALL residents. In order to create a vibrant tapestry of innovation, we must foster robust, relevant, and relative opportunity networks that include the difficult work of building inclusive relationships. Whatever is created has to be created together.