Blog Post

Civic Engagement to Address Social Disadvantage

October 12, 2017
Anne Marie E. Brady
Marisa Novara
4 min read
Photo Credit: Rlassman / Shutterstock

Thoughts from GMF’s transatlantic Vibrant Neighborhood Forum in Detroit, Michigan.

The ability to engage in the public domain is essential everywhere and perhaps especially so in neighborhoods segregated by race/ethnicity and/or income that have been disinvested or purposefully excluded from public decision-making processes — decisions that directly affect the well-being and quality of life of neighborhood residents. In tandem with action to invest equitably across communities and groups of people, civic engagement is critical to ensure that residents are equipped with the relationships, knowledge, and resources to effectively shape their future and ensure benefits to both existing residents as well as newcomers.

GMF’s Urban and Regional Policy program brought together city government, community engagement, and resident stakeholders from the cities of Memphis, New Orleans, and Detroit in the United States and Torino, Cologne, and Brussels in the EU to explore, from a transatlantic perspective, how to best engage communities segregated by race/ethnicity and/or income as a means to ensure resident voice is inserted into city-level decision-making processes. This includes exploring how community residents, groups, and partners leverage their voice to access resources, shape decisions, and work across groups, institutions, and sectors in a way that is meaningful and beneficial to the neighborhood.  

While in Detroit in late September, the question remained: can civic engagement strategies help address the adverse social and economic effects of segregation by race/ethnicity and/or income? And perhaps most important, why should we care? To address this question, the groups’ time together was grounded by findings from a recent study out of Chicago, the Cost of Segregation. This study, a project of the Metropolitan Planning Council and the Urban Institute, found that the costs of racial and economic segregation are significant. For instance, were the Chicago region to move to the segregation median of the nation’s top 100 metros, the study finds that it could expect an additional $4.4 billion in African American annual income, 83,000 more bachelor’s degrees, and 30 percent less homicides.

These findings also had relevance for the three European cities, which are all experiencing an influx of refugees, migrants, and immigrants. As these new populations settle in and more continue to arrive, questions remain about how cities will respond. Can they avoid the kind of segregation that so many northern U.S. cities created during the Great Migration? Given the evident negatives — both immediate and long-term — of racial and economic segregation, the imperative to create deliberately open pathways to integrated home, life, and school environments looms large.

What is the role of civic engagement in achieving these goals, and how do we do it better?

While in principle this is a worthy objective to both better understand and better execute, in practice, it can be difficult to achieve in any uniform manner within a city, let alone between cities. This in part rests, on the one hand, with the twin issues of trust and apathy that can hold residents back from engaging. After all, neighborhoods that experience social disadvantage do so, in part, because they have been ignored by the very political system residents are then asked to engage with. Why should they trust that new initiatives will yield different results?

On the other hand, there is the issue of city governance structure, degree of financial resources available, and past policy precedent. While there are many methods and tools that residents can use to engage at and within the neighborhood level, it is the ability of the community to take that engagement to the next level — to break through engrained governance structures that may or may not welcome new methods of engagement, to access needed funding, and to shake up path-dependent policies that have heretofore spurned advantage. While concrete tools and strategies are needed, it also takes a fundamental reframing of approach by city government to effectively engage with the communities they serve.

And for that to happen, vision is needed. The Vibrant Neighborhoods Forum inserts vision into this process by asking each city to start by discussing the historical and cultural precedents for engaging residents in a selected neighborhood. Given past precedent and current experience, participants then explored how neighborhoods can leverage community engagement to address social disadvantage by exchanging experience working with different models of engagement, including a discussion of the successes and challenges. Through this, each city will use the intervening six months to build upon prior civic engagement initiatives to address a problem in their neighborhood with the end goal to incorporate a clear strategy into a city’s neighborhood engagement strategy.

In order to fully understand their starting points, European cities also agreed to a self-audit of sorts: they will return to the group having tracked and mapped where residents of their cities live by country of origin and income. With these residential patterns acknowledged, we can work together to ensure that the mistakes of the United States over the past century — and their long-lasting consequences — are not repeated.

Marisa Novara is the vice president of the Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago and a former German Marshall Memorial Fellow.

Anne Marie Brady is the program officer with the Urban and Regional Policy Unit at The German Marshall Fund of the United States.