Angela Glover Blackwell on Building Communities of Opportunity

Curb cut and ramp / CSE Landscape Architects
Curb cut and ramp / CSE Landscape Architects

“Where you live in America has become a proxy for opportunity, and we have to do something about that,” said Angela Glover Blackwell, the founder and CEO of PolicyLink, a research and advocacy organization dedicated to advancing economic and social equity, at a lecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD). What can help is creating more “communities of opportunity.” One of PolicyLink’s goals is to “lift up what works,” which involves supporting local organizations that help create these communities.

“It took me a long time to realize that my personal story had anything to do with my work,” said Blackwell.

Blackwell grew up in one of these communities of opportunity. Although she was raised in the African American part of segregated St. Louis, it was deeply nurturing. The neighborhood was filled with family homes. The residents were exclusively African-American but diverse in income and educational background. Her family’s physician lived just down the block, giving them easy access to healthcare. The teachers at the neighborhood school were community members. Blackwell and her brothers were able to walk to school every day because the school was close to their home. The strength of her community acted as a buffer against the harsh sting of racism and segregation.

“I now go to neighborhoods that are all black and poor and I see none of that,” she said.

Blackwell then explained why we need to create more communities of opportunity today:

First: By 2044, no one ethnicity will be a majority; there will be a majority of different minorities. So “we have to invest in people of color because if they don’t become the middle class in this country, there will be no vast, stable middle class.”

Second: helping the most vulnerable helps everyone. Blackwell used curb cuts and ramps, which make it safe and accessible for people to move between a sidewalk and street, to make her point:

“Curb cuts are now in every city across this country. They are there because people with disabilities advocated for them. But how many times have you been pushing a baby carriage and been so happy you didn’t have to pick up that contraption? How many times have you, like me, been pulling a suitcase and you were able to make that train? But I bet you didn’t know this: those curb cuts have saved lives. Those curb cuts oriented people to go to the corner to cross the street safely. You were supposed to go the corner, but the curb cuts tell you exactly where to go. They are an example of how when you solve problems for the most vulnerable, you solve them for everybody.”

Blackwell’s talk ended on a hopeful note. “I have been doing this work for a long time now, since the 1970s, and I see now there is a ripeness for the change that I have never seen before.”

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

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