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Three Considerations for more Inclusive Economic Development

By Ryan Shen, Coro Fellow, Public Affairs

The last decades’ movement around racial justice offers new opportunities for introspection in economic development consulting, especially when racial and income inequality are historically intertwined. At the same time, the United States is projected to become a plurality nation by 2044, where no race or ethnic group is projected to possess more than a 50% share of the nation’s total racial demographic.

Even Pittsburgh, Fourth Economy’s home turf, far away from America’s Hispanic and Asian cultural centers, has seen a 39% increase in Hispanic populations and a 32% increase in Asian populations since 2010.

Across sectors, institutions have celebrated diversity and inclusion within executive leadership, correctly concluding that various perspectives have a higher chance of approximating the varied factors that affect an organization’s work.

Race-centered narratives get complicated, however, after understanding that ethnic groups have disparate socioeconomic outcomes. For example, Americans consistently underestimate differences between Black and White wealth. Still, according to the Migration Policy Institute, in 2018, Nigerian Americans held a median income of $68.7k even though Sub-Saharan African immigrants as a whole experience higher rates of poverty than immigrants overall.

Asian Americans are considered the wealthiest racial demographic. The 2018 median income for single individuals was $87.8k, but 17% of Hmong Americans live under the poverty line, four points higher than the national average.

In September of 2018, Hispanic American household income for those 16 or older was $25k, but the median Ecuadorian American household income was $28k, and poverty rates are 6% lower than that of Hispanic Americans.

Research on these manifold slices of America is complicated and inconclusive. Correspondingly, administering social services or rolling out community assets to people of color requires cultural sensitivity and mutual trust. Serious work to establish equity takes patience and must embrace the complexities of race as it intersects with all aspects of our institutions.

Economic development serves to boost a region’s liveability, but engaging with the work responsibly needs practitioners who ask questions that begin with “how” and “who.”

Going forward, it’s worth asking how those of us working in economic development ensure that the momentum of this social movement offers solutions to those who systematically have less access to opportunities.

Here are three DEIB considerations for economic development practitioners:

1. Understand that race is not monolithic, and different ethnicities and subcultures have varying access to cultural capital. At best, measuring outcomes by ethnic groups can help you generate patterns, but as historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. said, “If there are 40 million black people, there are 40 million ways to be black.”

Closer to my experience, as a Chinese American, I recognize that because my parents emigrated out of a major city in the 80s for post-graduate education, their opportunities to establish a community of support in New York’s Cantonese Chinatown created a chain of events that affected my upbringing in very different ways than children of more recent Mandarin-speaking arrivals.

Economic development practitioners would be wise to consider how including certain members of a demographic in community surveys won’t guarantee insights for the rest of that population.

2. Speaking of community engagement, establishing trust is especially important when representing the diversity of opinion within a demographic.

Answer how your work will materially benefit conditions before soliciting their involvement. In a best-case scenario, you’ll have someone from the community itself assisting you in your outreach strategy.

3. Be open to hearing people’s stories, and practice active listening. While this consideration is generally a good tactic for everyday life, inclusion is fundamentally about dignifying someone with an opportunity to be heard. At the same time, listeners aren’t always entitled to hearing traumatic stories. (Those tend to be uncomfortable.)

There are a lot of dimensions to being in this country, which often includes stories of celebration, relief, adversity, and surprise.


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