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Blackwell shares how minority groups contribute to and benefit from economic growth

Published: March 28, 2014
Section: News, Top Stories

On Tuesday, March 25, members of the Brandeis community filled Rapaporte Treasure Hall to listen to Angela Glover Blackwell, the founder and chief executive officer of PolicyLink, deliver the inaugural Fred and Rita Richman Distinguished Fellowship in Public Life lecture. The keynote speech, “All-In for an America That Works for All,” was hosted by the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life on behalf of the Office of the President. Blackwell received a $25,000 award that was presented by Dan Terris, director of the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life and Lisa Lynch, dean of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management.

As part of the fellowship, Blackwell also spent time with Brandeis faculty and students earlier in the week through meetings and a luncheon, discussing the field of social justice and providing insight on effective social justice advocacy.

Blackwell founded PolicyLink in 1999, a national nonprofit research and action institute advancing social and economic policy. Under her leadership, according to The Huffington Post, PBS and other leaders in public life, PolicyLink has become the leading voice in the movement to use public policy to improve access and opportunity for all low-income people and communities of color, particularly in the areas of health, housing, transportation, education and infrastructure. The organization collaborates with a broad range of partners to ensure that these groups can contribute to and benefit from economic growth and prosperity. The mission statement of PolicyLink highlights that the work is grounded in the conviction that all dimensions of equity must drive all policy decisions, as Blackwell emphasizes later on in her lecture.

Terris offered opening remarks about the Richman fellowship and its importance to the Brandeis community. The fellowship honors a person who is active in American public life, has a record of accomplishments and contributions that have had a significant impact on improving American society, strengthens democratic institutions, advances social justice or increases opportunities for all citizens to realize and share the promise of the United States.

“A very high bar, but I think you will agree after today’s lecture that our honoree has not only met but exceeded over her career and in the message that she has been spreading about the values in equity all over the United States,” Terris said.

The Richman fellowship was established by Dr. Carol Richman Saivetz ’69, P’97, P’01, in honor of her parents, Fred and Rita Richman, and is funded by the generosity of the Richman and Saivetz families.

Lynch followed Terris’ remarks, sharing more about Blackwell’s background and legacy.

Blackwell grew up in St. Louis, Mo., in the 1950s, which, according to a talk she gave to graduate students on Monday, was at the time “very racially segregated.” After her years in college at Howard University, Blackwell moved back and forth between the East and West coasts, initially working as a community organizer, and then getting her law degree from the University of California at Berkeley and becoming a partner at the nationally-known public interest law firm, Public Advocates. Following her time at the firm, she established the Urban Strategies Council in Oakland, Cali., where she pioneered new approaches to neighborhood revitalization. She is the co-author of “Searching for the Uncommon Common Ground: New Dimensions on Race in America.”

“The most compelling piece of Angela’s biography is her infectious smile, her positive attitude in the face of extraordinary adversity; even if it takes you 30 years to make progress on an issue, this woman will not be stopped,” Lynch said. “She will find her moment to make a difference for communities, and we are so fortunate to have her first and foremost in our nation and locally here at Brandeis.”

Blackwell opened her talk by stating that Brandeis students are the “most energetic and most committed students that she has met in one time and in one place.”

She spent the beginning portion of her lecture talking about America being at a crossroads and that the current stalled economic mobility can be attributed to a shrinking middle class.

“The middle class is the thing that has made this country so extraordinary,” Blackwell said. “When you think about poverty, any poor country you can think of is not poor because of the absence of rich people. They are poor because of the absence of a middle class.”

Blackwell continued to speak about inequality becoming a defining feature of this country and its economy. In the past, she said, inequality happened elsewhere, but now, she believes that it is a defining characteristic of the country. There is a current seismic shift occurring in terms of demographic change, in which the United States is rapidly becoming the nation in which the majority of the population consists of people of color.

Blackwell sees this diversity as an asset that the nation needs exactly at this moment.

“To be competitive in a global economy, it is an asset to be a world nation, and that is what we are becoming,” Blackwell said. “We are growing to see a population that is connected across the globe through kinship, culture and language.”

Blackwell believes that the country needs to invest in the people who are going to be the future.

“I’ve always said that America can see its future. It’s a five-year-old Latina girl, it’s a seven-year-old black boy, but we have to invest in them to realize the full potential. It is a challenge we have to not run away from,” Blackwell said. “We have to embrace it and think about how to educate ourselves and how to talk about the tough issues.”

Blackwell’s talk continued to speak about the correlation between inequality and economic growth. The International Monetary Fund did a study of 100 countries and found a 10-percent decrease in inequality was associated with a 50-percent increase in the period of growth. Researchers working out of the University of Southern California did the same study in the United States looking at 100 metropolitan areas and found the exact same statistics, highlighting the negative effects of inequality on the nation’s economy.

She added that economic mobility is becoming a part of the national conversation. Researchers at the University of California have been receiving attention from the New York Times for their focus on stalled mobility.

“It’s been stalled for a long time. 30 years and we haven’t seen much of a change, but inequality is growing, and we have a real problem,” Blackwell said. “When you look at what’s contributing to the problem, it has a lot to do with where you live and who your family is, but the general notion is that inequality is bad for growth.”

In moving forward, Blackwell recommended three solutions: grow good jobs, build capabilities and erase barriers to expand opportunities.

“Equity is the antidote to inequality,” Blackwell said. “If we invest in equity, we are immediately dealing with inequality and immediately helping to push growth forward.”

The talk ended with examples of communities that have begun to create new opportunities because the current situation in America, according to Blackwell, is proving that living conditions can be a deterrent from the best possible life for its citizens.

Communities in California, Maryland and Ohio at various periods of time had large percentages of the population living far below the poverty level, but administrators turned this around by building renowned education systems, opening small business and growing upon industries that generate jobs.

“Where you live in America is a proxy for opportunity,” Blackwell said. “It determines whether or not you get to go to a good school, whether you live near a public transit system, whether there are jobs in your community. It determines whether or not you are lucky enough to own that home, and it even determines how long and how well you live.”

A former senior vice president at the Rockefeller Foundation, Blackwell has appeared on Nightline and PBS’s NOW and is a frequent commentator for the nation’s talk news organizations. She serves on numerous boards, including President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and most recently she was appointed by the President to serve on his advisory commission on educational excellence for African-Americans.