By Tina Barseghian

What makes a community flourish? It’s a subjective question, and the answer depends on what each community needs, of course. But even weighing the many variables from city to city, a few universal themes emerged at the NationSwell Summit Roadmap to the Future, a recent gathering of civic leaders who had assembled to share proven solutions. These tactical and practical insights could help to build inclusive and forward-thinking communities that respond to residents’ needs.

#1. LISTEN — AND RESPOND — TO YOUR COMMUNITY

“Every decent idea I’ve had came from my community,” said Richard Berry, mayor of Albuquerque. “Those ideas came from a 16-year-old student, a refugee, a panhandler, and a homeless person.”

A 16-year-old came up with the idea that led to the Running Start for Careers program, after Berry heeded his advice while visiting an industrial arts class. The program develops industry-taught elective classes in high school for which students receive school credit. Students graduate with an industry certificate — whether it’s in film, or medical sciences or lab sciences — to show potential employers. Since the program was launched, Berry said that 1,200 kids, particularly Latino boys, who were at 45 percent graduation rate, are now at 98 percent on-time graduation.

Albuquerque mayor Richard Berry, center. Photo credit: Adam Schultz for NationSwell.

“That’s just listening to a kid,” said Berry. “Everything has to do with listening and doing with intentionality.”

Another program — connecting panhandlers with a day’s worth of work cleaning city streets, and providing lunch and access to service they need — blossomed out of a conversation Berry had with a panhandler. “I saw that he was holding a sign that said, ‘I want a job,’” Berry said. “We took him at his word.”

The program, called There’s a Better Way, was piloted with $50,000, and is now being scaled and replicated around the city. Since 2015, 4,000 day jobs have been offered; more than 400 people have been connected with employment services; nearly 700 city blocks have been cleaned; and nearly 200,000 pounds of litter has been removed.

During Berry’s tenure, Albuquerque was voted the second Best Run City in the nation with a population of more than 500,000. To mayors and city leaders, he says: “Listen with intention, and don’t underestimate the power of pilot projects. Your community will support you. Lower the barrier of risk for your community and they’ll let you do what you need,” he said.

In Los Angeles, FUSE fellow Aparna Mukherjee is working to create a model for inclusive civic engagement, soliciting community input to ensure that Angelinos’ voices are represented in decision-making and policy.

#2. ADDRESS RACIAL DISPARITY IN EDUCATION

“Race is the enduring American challenge,” said John King, former U.S. Secretary of Education, and president and CEO of The Education Trust, in a panel discussion called Equity and Opportunity for All. “The reality is there just beneath the surface. What I hope comes from this era is to acknowledge it, to get to the roots of systemic inequality.”

Cities are racially and economically isolated, King said, and many Latino and black students go to schools that have far fewer resources than their wealthier neighbors. These students are following the rules, and still not succeeding.

“People live very separate lives,” King said. “There are solutions, but there’s a gap in political will.”

Panelists Brittany Packnett, left, and John King, center. Photo credit: Adam Schultz for NationSwell.

Part of the solution is building a common lexicon. Understanding the difference between the words diversity, inclusion, equity and equality are imperative, said Brittany Packnett, Vice President of National Community Alliances for Teach for America and co-founder of Campaign Zero, a police reform initiative.

“Diversity is wonderful, but it’s not enough,” she said. “Inclusion is the next step, where [people] feel welcome in the room. Equity means they have the same outcomes regardless of their background. That’s not the same as equality, which means everyone gets the same. We often stop the conversation at diversity. If we’re lucky, we get to inclusion, and people don’t know the difference between equity and equality.”

At the same time, more people of color are rising up in leadership roles in education, Packnett said: “Black and brown school leaders…are bringing our experiences and leading conversations.”

So what are the calls to action?

“Most fundamentally, get political,” King said. “We have to change how we organize society. People need to run for office at the local level — city counselors, school boards. And elect people who are going to do the right thing.”

For Packnett, it’s about perspective. “We have to get real about the structures and institutions that have created a stratified society,” she said. “And when you do decide to act, make the decision to fight for something instead of just against something. If you knit something together that comes from hate, that will come apart. Coalitions remain together when you work together for something…fight for truth, justice, love, and equity.”

In Stockton, Calif., where nearly 40 percent of students are considered “ethnically diverse,” and only 19 percent of third-graders are at reading level, FUSE fellow Jason Weiner is working to connect at-risk kids to higher education opportunities and reconceive how young people are educated from cradle to career.

#3. RESPECT YOUR ELDERS

America, as a population, is getting older. The number of people age 65 and over grew from 35 million in 2000 to 49.2 million in 2016, according to the US Census Bureau. That’s 15.2 percent of the total population. Considering these staggering numbers, how can we, at society level and in local communities, help to make sure this population gains access to what they need, in a way that gives them a sense of independence, dignity, and value?

Until very recently, it was common for people to have one steady path through their lives with three distinct stages — study, work, retire — but it’s time to move away from that model as a society. “Now people are continuously studying, continuously working, and continuously having micro retirements,” said Lux Narayan, CEO of Unmetric, a data analytics firm during a panel called “The Well Lived-Life.” (Narayan gave a well-known TED Talk earlier this year “What I Learned from 2000 Obituaries.”)

Panelists Anu Partanen and Lux Narayan with moderator Kamili Wilson. Photo credit: Adam Schultz for NationSwell.

Differences in income levels are leading to how people live as they age. Disparities in race, health, income, must be addressed when designing new systems, products, and services we all rely upon to improve our lives, he said.

In Nordic countries, for example, social services are guaranteed for the elderly, with the goal of helping them become more independent. Seniors are provided with home visits to teach them how to access the public services they need, said Anu Partanen, author of The Nordic Theory of Everything. “The more difficult it gets to get health care, the harder it becomes to have a secure financial future, and harder to live independent lives,” she said. “What kinds of simple, easy-to-use functional services we can create to help elders?”

In Long Beach, Calif., where more than 22 percent of Long Beach’s elderly residents will be living below the poverty line by 2025, FUSE Fellow Karen Doolittle is working to improve the quality of life for senior residents by designing a coordinate system of health and social services.

#4. INFUSE CAPITAL IN CITIES BEYOND SILICON VALLEY

In towns across America’s heartland, there’s great promise for new enterprises that can and should be sprouting up fueled by risk capital, said J.D. Vance, author of the popular book Hillbilly Elegy, as he Skyped in to a session called Navigating the Land of Opportunity.

For this to happen, venture capitalists need to free themselves from their psychological and physical attachment to Silicon Valley. “[For some Silicon-Valley-based investors], if they can’t drive to a company, they won’t invest,” Vance said. “But you can put risk capital in so many areas that could be used efficiently.”

Talent is also a critical piece of the puzzle. Stanford and U.C. Berkeley offer an exciting pool of talent to Silicon Valley, but Vance was quick to point out that Indianapolis and Columbus are also home to world-class universities. “They can attract talent, train talent and create intellectual property,” he said. “They don’t need to be in Silicon Valley to do that. They can still have a vibrant ecosystem that works.”

And contrary to what some tech investors might believe, software isn’t the only potential growth industry. For example, in Indianapolis, Vance said, venture capitalists have invested in a company that’s working to develop cheaper and faster ways to test the water supply, responding to the pressing need in that city.

“There are lots of companies that fit that model,” Vance said. “They’re built on an anchor industry that’s unique to that particular place.” Ripe opportunity for investment.

Vance called on summit attendees to get involved in challenges on a local level to help build more economic opportunity in different areas of the country. “There are folks not that far away from you who are struggling,” he said. “Don’t discount the positive impact one-to-one relationships can have on people. By helping them, we can build bridges.”

In Pittsburgh, FUSE fellow Cynthia Shields is working to strengthen the pipeline of skilled workers by aligning programs and strategies; and in Philadelphia, FUSE fellow Barry Wilkins is working to provide better job opportunities for underserved populations by building partnerships with local businesses, industry organizations, educational institutions and city agencies.