I work in urban development because I believe that by improving cities we can improve people’s lives. At its core this is an interdisciplinary effort requiring political activism, creativity, citizenship, design-thinking, hard work and above all, a passion for justice. Today I’ll briefly discuss the different urban entities that I see striving for justice. I hope it is a jumping point for you to consider the many modes of activism available within cities.
Government— Without getting too political, we can all recognize the importance of government as a vehicle for improvement of our cities. It is our city and county governments that lay new roads, fund redevelopment of crumbling infrastructure, police our streets and sanction our zoning codes. Of course, these are immense responsibilities that can take a wrong turn (and often do). However, such mistakes are sometimes a sign that we should further invest ourselves in working with our governments to ensure that they do what is best for the cities in which we live.
Nonprofit— A major contributor to the improvement of cities, the nonprofit sector encompasses a wide range of organizations from small groups focusing on the preservation of a single historic landmark to vast agencies connecting underserved residents with food, clothing, housing and jobs. Almost every nonprofit provides opportunities for volunteering, donating or more long-term engagement
Education— Although it overlaps with the above two sectors, the education sector plays a vital role in urban development. For example, afterschool programs ensure that children can be safe and productive when their parents are still at work. Urban universities educate the young and old, in addition to conducting valuable research to better the world. Over all, our schools raise up activists, thinkers and artists who will lead our future cities.
Business— Businesses define the landscape of a city. They are the lifeblood of its residents, connecting them with resources, employment and recreation. Some activists mislabel businesses as only “big” or “greedy,” but I know business to be an immense force for good within our cities, particularly in the area of community-building.
Art— Beautifying our cities with architecture, murals, concerts, art museums and theatrical performances, the artistic sector provides a core livelihood in many cities. We see it in celebrations of the varied cultures represented in our metropolises, educational classes for promising young performers and creators, as well as in more formal settings like opera houses and concert venues.
Faith Communities— You may disagree with the tenets of the Catholic church or the Orthodox synagogue down the street, but I would bet that every one of those communities is running a meal program to feed the hungry, collecting donations of warm clothes in the winter, and probably sponsoring other causes throughout the city (and the world). Houses of worship are the hub of community for many people and they are often a catalyst for activism if they are rooted in a religious call to service.
You— Never forget that large-scale movements toward things like equal rights, ending homelessness and improving inner-city education usually begin at the grassroots, community-organizing level. You yourself can the take the initiative to gather support and creatively address issues you witness in your city. Twin Cities blog, Streets.MN, recently ran an article critiquing the paradoxical manner in which some cities choose to assess their communities and solve their problems: through outside consultants. Ultimately, cities are best served by their own people.
This is not an exhaustive list, nor is it meant to condone the efforts of every nonprofit, business, religious groups, etc. (Unfortunately, we can all supply examples of organizations who do more harm than good.) But right now, I hope you’ll take some time to recognize the many urban entries to social justice and consider where you might fit within these movements. Please comment on this post. I’d love to hear about what you’re doing to improve your city.