National League of Cities CEO & Executive Director Clarence Anthony, seen here speaking at NLC’s Congressional City Conference in March. (Jason Dixson)
The tragedies that have occurred in Ferguson, New York City, Baltimore, and other communities throughout America have rightly sparked conversation about the social, cultural, racial and economic factors that affect the everyday lives of city residents – particularly minorities, at-risk youth, and the poor. What can cities do to promote equality and economic opportunity for people of all races, ethnicities, ages and economic backgrounds?
When tragedies like this occur, it not only erodes the relationship between the police and the community, it highlights the fact that there is a growing economic disparity that city leaders in America must recognize and address. High unemployment rates and low graduation rates among citizens in cities, towns and villages shows that certain neighborhoods have prospered while others have not. It’s important that city leaders understand that you have to engage with, and design initiatives for, all constituents in every neighborhood.
For example, city leaders must focus on creating vibrant downtowns while developing inclusive and affordable housing in neighborhoods. This type of approach to public policy will create more engaging cities where citizens can live, work and raise their families within the community that they call home. One way we can accomplish this is to create incentives so that the private sector will hire from within the community. When city leaders promote this type of growth, cities benefit and residents become vested in their community.
Cities should also examine the appointment process for city advisory boards and councils. For example, a planning and zoning commission that doesn’t reflect the ethnic, racial or gender diversity of the city is not truly representative of that city. From parks and recreation departments and advisory councils to tourist development councils and workforce boards, every policy board that advises the elected leadership should represent the diversity of that city. It can be done, but you’ve got to be very strategic and intentional, and have a real commitment to making sure that every segment of the population is represented.
These are just a few of the concrete steps that cities can take to ensure that their communities are equally represented in government. If a community is under-represented, and its needs are not served, then its residents will not be vested in the city as a whole. They won’t feel like the city is their home. And then you’ll see the tragic events that have happened in countless cities across the nation continue to occur. All of these cities have people who feel that they are not part of a community; that they are not “real” citizens with a voice in government. And they will find other ways to make their voices heard.
So there can’t be a disconnect between municipal authority and the people it represents.
You have to have that connection. You have to include them in the governance process, in the community process. I was just at a conference in Philly – Cities United – and it had a panel of young African American men, and their message was “Don’t talk at us; talk to us, and with us.” Many of them were in their mid-twenties, and public policy and programs are being designed for them – but without their input. That has to change. You have to include them in the development of the community in which they live.
The root causes of the recent tragedies are complex and nuanced. Two distinct events consistently stand out, however: the death of a young black male as a result of an interaction with police, and the violent public response that subsequently occurred. What steps can city leaders and local elected officials take to address the potential for these tragedies to occur in their cities?
There has to be an acknowledgement that there are still challenges in communities throughout America when it comes to race relations – specifically, race relations with police departments. Something must occur to strengthen trust between the minority community and police in cities throughout America. At this point, unfortunately, we are starting to see police being targeted in reprisal; community trust continues to erode. We must start a conversation of understanding and partnership – and that conversation must be led by city leaders. The elected officials who are members of the National League of Cities are exactly that type of group; they’re city leaders who strive to create a bridge between police and communities, so that real conversations can occur.
In addition, I think city leaders should start to re-examine – and implement, wherever possible – community policing policies that provide for a real understanding of the communities they serve; there must be understanding to have a relationship with the community. Once you have that relationship, you’ll be able to engage. So city leaders must be able to look at how they’re investing their resources and what kind of progress is being made throughout the community as a whole. When city leaders acknowledge that they have diversity in the community, and they create opportunities to bring people throughout the community together, that creates relationships and real conversations.
This is happening in some communities, but we need it to happen everywhere. The questions involving black males in America focus on more than just police relations – they take into consideration the high unemployment rate, the low high school graduation rate, and the level of poverty that exists in cities throughout America, among other factors. The takeaway is this: city leaders have to focus on improving engagement and relations in their communities. We have to look at how we provide creative and innovative techniques to reach the African American community so that we can achieve our goal of making true connections that are lasting and productive. It will take hard work and partnerships with our educational system and the private sector – and on the law enforcement side, those same partnerships need to develop, focusing on education and training on how to value diversity and how to communicate across cultures.
The change we need will not occur overnight; it will take patience and time to build the trust that our cities deserve. We need to spur conversation, in an effort to reach a certain level of trust and understanding between police and communities. The National League of Cities is quickly becoming a nexus of conversation about race, equity and leadership in American cities. That conversation is long overdue.
Do you see the Cities United event in Philadelphia as one of the forums for that conversation?
Yes. I think Cities United is not only a forum for that conversation, but an excellent tool to help elected officials get the technical expertise they need to deal with the larger issues involved. For example, Cities United provides consultants that help city leaders respond to the challenges faced by American cities that we’ve discussed today.
How does the National League of Cities’ lead that conversation?
Our REAL initiative is a very important tool and resource for city leaders. It’s designed to help them address racial tensions in their communities and create meaningful conversations around racial diversity and equity issues. REAL stands for Race, Equity And Leadership – and the piece that we really have to elevate is the piece on leadership, because our members are the ones who are responsible for governance in American cities.
Earlier, you posed the question, “What should city leaders do if something like this happens?” The challenges we’ve spoken about today are especially difficult challenges for any city leader to face, and it’s the responsibility of the National League of Cities to develop best practices around these issues, give city leaders the space to discuss the challenges they face with a network of peers, and then provide them with the tools they need to manage the situation if something like what happened in Baltimore or Ferguson occurs in their community.
I wish I could sit here and tell you that this will be the last time that tragedies like these will occur. But the reality is that, until a systematic strategy is in place to bring about full economic participation as well as improved relations between police and the communities they serve, these tragedies could happen in any city in America. City leaders are standing up and saying, “we need to fix these issues before something like this occurs in our community.” That’s a conversation that needs to be had. We’re going to start seeing city leaders begin to deal with the injustices, the inequality, and the creation of opportunities for all of their citizens.
And that’s what we have to do: we have to build a city in which everyone is a participant, where all citizens feel like they can raise their kids, and live and work and play in a safe and vibrant environment. You don’t call a place home when you don’t have a system of governance that supports you. Right now, I think that’s one of the biggest challenges American cities face. But if we can rise to that challenge, I think we’ll have more people out on the streets saying “Hey, this is our neighborhood; we own this.” We have to create cities that all citizens can call home.
About the Author: Paul Konz is the Senior Editor at the National League of Cities.