By Guest Columnist NATHANIEL Q. SMITH JR., founder and chief equity officer of the Partnership for Southern Equity
Metro Atlanta has a unique opportunity with the July 31st Transportation Improvement Act (TIA) referendum to make equity a priority when considering the long-lasting impacts this multi-billion dollar investment will have on our region.
Decades ago, “equality” was the rallying cry as black leaders demanded equal access to build Hartsfield- Jackson International Airport, prepare for the 1996 Olympics, and compete for top government jobs, construction projects and elective offices.
But now the playing field has changed. Despite the accomplishments of the past, disparities between white communities and communities of color have widened significantly, creating a region of haves and have-nots.
And stakeholders are no longer just black or white. Metro Atlanta has one of the largest Hispanic populations in the United States, and Asians represent the nation’s fastest-growing immigrant population. In 2010, 36 percent of new immigrants were Asian compared to 31 percent who were Hispanic, according to a Pew Research Center report.
In order for the Atlanta region to remain economically viable and competitive in the global marketplace, we must continue to push for just and fair inclusion for all stakeholders – black, white and new Americans of all colors – not just some segments of the population.
But even as we strive for a more equal society, we must now advance the case for equity.
So what’s the difference between equality and equity? Here’s an oversimplified but useful way of looking at it: Equality ensures that everyone in society has access to a pair of shoes that are the same in every respect. Equity, however, means also having the ability to self-determine which shoes best fit your feet, what style you like and what color you prefer.
Partnership for Southern Equity (PSE), created in 2008, is committed to doing just that. Our goal is to form a “new covenant” between a diverse group of individuals, organizations and corporations that is focused on promoting balanced and inclusive growth within the context of the specific communities that are being affected by public policies.
Our 21st Century Covenant redefines success as doing well when all communities have access to available resources and opportunities that best suit their respective needs and aspirations. We believe equity is the superior growth model that effectively levels the playing field by opening up opportunities to metro Atlantans in the areas of economic development, education, the environment, health, housing, public safety and transportation.
Our equity principles for prosperity are clear:
• Development must happen with people, not to people;
• Reduce local and regional disparities for balanced growth;
• Promote coordinated, galvanizing investments that result in measurable success based on outcomes for people, planet, and profit; and
• Ensure meaningful community participation, leadership, and ownership in change efforts.
Since its inception, PSE and its network members have fostered an environment for discussions about equity by convening a sustainability summit, coordinating “Equity Matters” Forums and co-hosting “The American Dream Foreclosed,” a conference about local and national solutions to the housing and mortgage crisis.
We also held Equitable Planning work sessions with the Atlanta Regional Commission to discuss the metro-wide planning organization’s long-term transportation goals and have been actively engaged in key TIA deliberations.
The upcoming referendum is one of our top priorities because we believe transportation equity is essential to the overall well-being of residents throughout the region. But public transit is underfunded, it’s limited in suburban areas and inadequate in some urban neighborhoods. Many communities don’t have any public transit even though they want it, leaving residents without convenient access to jobs, health care and education.
The voice of the elderly must also be heard in transportation discussions. A 2011 report from Transportation for America, a nonprofit advocacy group, rated Atlanta as the worst metropolitan area to, “age in place.”
By 2015, just three years from now, an estimated 90 percent of seniors between 65 and 79 will live in neighborhoods with little or no access to public transit, according to the study. That’s not acceptable. Transportation options need to be developed for seniors that are safe, accessible and promote their independence. The referendum gives us an opportunity and the resources to make an impact like never before.
Transportation also provides opportunities for sustaining and jumpstarting local economies via the development and implementation of these projects. Local, regional and state policies that encourage equitable workforce and procurement opportunities ensure both equity and economic viability.
The TIA gives metro Atlanta leaders an opportunity to address these inequities by bringing together a diverse group of people to provide input on how transportation projects should be implemented.
We can’t continue with business-as-usual and limit dialogue to a small group of influential leaders from the north and south sides of the region. The stakes are too high; the long-term ramifications are too great.
The bottom line is that the TIA project list and local efforts funded by additional TIA dollars should include and encourage investment in under-invested communities as well as projects that improve accessibility and preserve or upgrade existing transit service and facilities.
Win or lose, however, the referendum only provides a starting point for some of the discussions that must take place in the Atlanta region. Through forums, research and organizing, PSE will continue to advocate for policies and actions that promote balanced growth, sustainability, economic opportunities and initiatives that will help us prosper together.
Equity not only makes a moral statement, it also makes good business sense. The chorus of voices that are calling for a more equitable region are growing louder. Metro Atlanta, are you listening?