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Can We Build Inclusive, Innovative Local Economies?

A new learning collaborative is charting efforts in four metros to connect minority communities to entrepreneurial resources.

A fashion designer and entrepreneur works in her home studio.
(AP/Bebeto Matthews)
Fifty years ago, Detroit was raging hot with racial tension between a predominantly black population and a predominantly white police force. That powder keg exploded at the Algiers Hotel in 1967. The new movie "Detroit" explores this historic event.

In that same year, legendary Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown assembled many of the nation's top athletes in Cleveland at the Ali Summit to show support for Muhammad Ali, whose undeterred social activism had been met with a ban from the pro boxing world that he was destined to dominate.

Also in 1967, New Orleans was killing a vibrant commercial corridor along Claiborne Avenue, tearing the heart out of one of the country's oldest African-American neighborhoods, to make room for an elevated interstate freeway.

Meanwhile, in Durham, N.C., which had been the home of "Black Wall Street" for half a century, black residents could no longer tolerate chronic deplorable housing conditions. Tensions boiled over in 1967 and the National Guard was summoned to restore order.

After 50 years, how have these cities and their metropolitan areas changed? How have access to quality affordable housing, community development and economic opportunities progressed? How have businesses prospered and helped to improve the quality of life across racial divides? How have the cities' and regions' economic strategies and plans been implemented to include all residents and produce measurable progress in an inclusive local economy for a diverse population?

These are just a few of many questions being asked by Forward Cities, a multicity learning collaborative supported by the Case and Kresge foundations that encompasses metropolitan Detroit, Durham, Cleveland and New Orleans.

In each of these metros, local efforts have been launched to build and develop inclusive innovation ecosystems. Forward Cities teamed with ScaleUp Partners to visit each member city and meet with local leaders, economic stakeholders and community activists. The goal is to discover the ground-level mechanisms used to connect minority communities to entrepreneurial resources needed to start new businesses and grow existing ones.

Christopher Gergen, co-founder of Forward Cities, is coordinating the effort, and he sees encouraging signs of early progress. "Beneath the turmoil of contentious politics and finger-pointing, people are rolling up their sleeves and getting to work to start developing inclusive ecosystems at the local level," says Gergen. "They cross racial, ethnic, political and socioeconomic divides. They all want the same thing, what's best for their communities to improve quality of life for all."

Serving as strategic adviser is Johnathan Holifield, co-founder of ScaleUp Partners. The former NFL player is an attorney, civil rights advocate and author of the new book, "The Future Economy and Inclusive Competitiveness." Too often, Holifield says, local economic-development strategies have failed to connect to communities of color. "In the past, our nation could get away with growing the economy and competing with the world while one hand was tied behind our back; in other words, without top contributions from all Americans," he says. "In today's knowledge-based, tech-driven global innovation economy, we need all hands on deck to sustain our global competitiveness."

Today, with racial demographic shifts -- all four cities are now minority majority -- and technology disrupting industries and changing consumer behavior, cities must learn to tap their local resources, cultivate local talent and develop a system of economic gardening that will produce a sustainable yield in their own backyards. This is a sign of a mature metro that has shed the shackles of a segregated past and embraced a future multicultural society wherein all Americans are empowered with access to opportunity and shared prosperity.

Efforts to develop an inclusive local economy in each of the metros participating in the learning collaborative are nascent, some still in embryonic stages. Yet 50 years ago, none of this was possible. Today, case studies are being produced by Forward Cities, along with a new policy toolkit. These assets can assist cities in applying lessons learned to develop their own inclusive innovation ecosystems. The benefit is more productivity from more contributors to the local economy, which bolsters regional competitiveness.

Co-founder of ScaleUp Partners LLC
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