What I Learned by Talking to 270 People Working to Create More Equitable Cities

Oscar Perry Abello is a New York-based writer who has been a Next City equitable cities fellow since 2016. As he wraps up his fellowship, he reflects on the reporting he has done on entrepreneurship, poverty, inequality and more.

Someone recently asked me what is it that I want my work to say to the world. What is the point that I am making through the facts and figures, anecdotes and experiences I share in my reporting? For example, in the work of Nikole Hannah Jones, a journalist I look up to, I hear a message about racial segregation retold, reiterated and remixed with a fierce discipline to which I aspire.

In story after story, Jones demonstrates that a scourge outlawed as a result of the Civil Rights Movement still happens every day in cities, towns and school districts across the United States. My beat is different, but related; I report on the rebuilding of urban economies and the ongoing development of communities that, as Jones has shown, continue to be shaped by deep racial divides.

When I first embarked on my journey as Next City’s equitable cities fellow, I saw it as an opportunity to test my underlying beliefs and assumptions about who was doing the work of building more just and fair economies. My belief: that survivors of oppression were not simply damsels in distress, waiting for someone else to come in and save them. History is certainly laden with slave uprisings, movements for equal rights across ethnic, racial or gender lines.

Many well-known and not-so-well-known names and faces are now associated with those movements — Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Toussaint Louverture. And there were many names and faces history has forgotten, those who did the organizing and building work at the grassroots that vaulted those names into our history books. Certainly, I thought to myself, in times such as ours, those names and faces are still there, plugging away, laying the groundwork, bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice.

I knew I needed to find those names and faces, to document those stories. So I started counting.

Out of 152 stories I wrote in my first year as Next City’s equitable cities fellow, 116 had at least one source who was either a person of color or a woman; 67 had at least two and 30 had at least three people of color or women as sources. Out of 270 sources I interviewed for those stories, 125 were people of color and 124 were women.

There was DeBoRah Dickerson, born and raised in central Brooklyn, who helped to survey vacant buildings around New York City for affordable housing as part of a project led by formerly homeless individuals like herself, and Sparkle Burns, resident of St. Louis’ largest public housing complex, helping to build a new onsite workforce development program.

There was Jamesetta Ferguson, a Louisville pastor who was learning how to leverage church property as an asset to maintain itself in the face of dramatic changes coming to its neighborhood, and India B. Walton, a nurse in Buffalo, who helped convince the state to take action when her neighbors were threatened by new development, and Jessica Norwood and Derrick Brazile, who were building a new ecosystem to fill in the “friends and family” capital gap for entrepreneurs of color.

There was Nate Yohannes, former refugee, working as a White House appointee to infuse more social impact into a federal investment program, and Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren, who was helping communities build wealth through supporting worker-owned businesses in the city.

Those stories represent just a tiny fraction of the inspiring work I’ve been able to report on over the last two years as an equitable cities fellow for Next City. Collectively, they demonstrate the power and agency of black and brown communities to build stronger and more equitable cities.

How hard was it to find examples of women and people of color doing that work? Not that hard at all, I found. And it got easier as time went by.

Of course, the writing was hard, and painful, and frustrating, as all writing should be. I had to learn to be OK with leaving out 70, 80, sometimes 90 percent of what I had talked about with any given source. I began to learn how to judge what level of detail is necessary to be compelling without being overwhelming. But time and again, for every economic challenge I reported on, I found someone who had faced that challenge and opted to find a way to solve it. Sometimes, they were building a business. Other times, creating a social program or changing a public policy.

But as my content audit revealed, there were white folks and men, too, in the stories I reported. The truth, I learned, was that there’s room for everyone in revolution. After all, back in its time, the Underground Railroad was an international network of people from different races, different levels of wealth and privilege. It started with runaway slaves summoning the courage to seek freedom, but along their way they had more than allies, they had accomplices — all of them working together to break the unjust laws of their time.

It’s a strange bubble I now inhabit. For every scary idea that President Donald Trump puts forth, the first thing that comes to mind is not boiling rage or wild speculation about the underlying motivations of such harmful choices, but rather, who are the five, 10, maybe 15 people I can turn to and ask what do they think, and how will they now respond.

For some of them, I’ve already heard, Trump’s policies are just a more obvious extension of injustices they’ve long known. Washington has long made decisions harmful to urban communities, particularly communities of color. Not to minimize today’s struggles, but some of the folks I’ve interviewed, or at least their ancestors, have been through worse. They did more than survive. They overcame, overhauled and overturned.

The work of building and rebuilding more just urban economies will continue. I’ll stick with telling that story as long as I can.

Find all of Oscar’s stories for Next City here.

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