Minding the Gap: Addressing Our City’s Divides

What can cities do to challenge inequity and close the gaps – in health, income, opportunity and otherwise – within communities? @HeleneGayle joins a @ChicagoForum panel tackling our divides Tweet This

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Globalization and technological advances have led to new levels of economic prosperity for many. But, at the same time, we know that they have also contributed to growing inequality, especially when looking beyond economic outcomes. How can cities take the lead in ensuring growth is inclusive and provides a foundation for more equitable opportunity?

Earlier this month, I joined leaders from around the world on a panel that tackled this issue – kicking off the Chicago Forum on Global Cities, a three-day international conference hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that raises provocative questions about the influence of global cities and how they can solve pressing global challenges.

Our panel, titled “Minding the Gap,” tackled not only the gaps within cities but also the urban/rural divide facing many regions around the world.

For example, we know that here in Chicago, residents of West Garfield Park have a life expectancy of less than 69 years, compared to an average life expectancy of 85 years in Chicago’s Loop. This significant disparity in life expectancy—16 years!—is more often seen across countries, not within the same city. Inequities like this are both caused and exacerbated by multiple social and structural determinants, such as access to quality education, job opportunities, safe housing, health care, reliable transportation, strong social networks and healthy food that have been historically linked to racial discrimination and segregation.

We see this same gap in the kinds of employment opportunities across Chicago—middle-wage jobs and jobs that require a high school diploma plus additional training have become harder to find. Recent analysis showed metropolitan Chicago’s job growth since 1980 has been concentrated in low-skilled and high-skilled occupations, as those in the middle erode.

Here in Chicago, residents of West Garfield Park have a life expectancy of less than 69 years, compared to an average life expectancy of 85 years in Chicago’s Loop. This significant disparity in life expectancy—16 years!—is more often seen across countries, not within the same city.

It was fitting that 75 speakers, 400 delegates and 66 international partners from 25 countries gathered together in Chicago at the Forum to discuss these issues and how cities can address them. Our city has come to recognize (in part through the findings of Metropolitan Planning Council’s Cost of Segregation study, Prosperity Now’s Racial Wealth Gap and UIC’s Tale of Three Cities, just to name a few) that we cannot be competitive as a region unless we address our “gap” of acute inequity. So how can we address what sometimes seems like an unbridgeable divide?

  • We need to reach far beyond the usual suspects. Aon and Accenture’s Chicago Apprenticeship Network links community college students, workforce- and education-oriented nonprofits and employers to advanced apprenticeship models—expanding talent pools and offering new career opportunities in our region’s most competitive sectors for Chicago-area students. Results are preliminary, but early indicators show that when companies tap into new sources of diverse talent, they also save significant resources by reducing turnover.
  • Our city must do the work, in communities, to improve the lives and health of residents. We’re seeing this on a citywide level through the Chicago Department of Public Health’s Healthy Chicago 2.0 initiative, but also at a community level. For example, West Side United is a collaborative effort of people and organizations who work, live and congregate on Chicago’s West Side to make their neighborhoods stronger, healthier and more vibrant places to live. Health care institutions, residents, civic leaders, community-based organizations, businesses and faith-based institutions have signed on in support of this effort. We need more community-led efforts across the city.
  • We must seek out and encourage innovation: identify new programs and ventures where we could create the greatest opportunity for inclusion from the start. We’re doing this now through Benefit Chicago, mobilizing $100 million in impact investments to finance the growth of impact enterprises throughout the region. In practice, we are empowering individuals who care about their community to participate in its revitalization.

Partnerships of all sizes, across sectors are key to advancing work that addresses inequality – and offer opportunities for innovation. The Chicago Community Trust, and the philanthropic community at large, plays a role here. By serving as a catalyst and convener we can help bring organizations from the public and private sector together around this important work. For example:

  • The Trust is partnering with Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, LISC Chicago and World Business Chicago to engage the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce from the United Kingdom to adapt an Inclusive Growth Accelerator for the Chicago region—work that will engage partners around a binding mission for inclusion. This would include measuring success beyond strict economic measures such as GDP and job growth; working to define and remove barriers that minority and women-owned businesses face; measuring quality job growth and developing metrics that take into consideration where investment is needed most; and documenting progress towards those goals.
  • The Chicago Construction Opportunities Group brings together city agencies, businesses and nonprofit organizations to ensure that the billions of dollars invested in major construction projects over the next decade are a catalyst for structural changes needed to ensure an open, inclusive construction industry that contributes to the prosperity of all communities in the Chicago region.
  • Elevated Chicago—an initiative that views transit hubs as optimal locations where arts and culture, urban design, social programming and development can converge in order to address the region’s deeply rooted racial disparities—has seen success by bringing diverse perspectives from the neighborhoods and public and private sector partners together as equal partners, and by doing so has advanced local community-owned development projects more quickly.

While we still have a ways to go, I’m encouraged by the work being done to move the city in the right direction in an effort to close this gap.