The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

The Promise Zones Initiative

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“A child’s zip code should never determine her destiny.” So reads the webpage for President Obama’s “Promise Zones” initiative, which concentrates financial and community-based resources in five select cities and regions around the country in hopes that it will dramatically invigorate their economies and transform the lives of children who grow up in them. Announced in January of this year (and slated to grow over the next ten years), the initiative targets such varying regions as the Choctaw nation of Oklahoma, several neighborhoods in Los Angeles and the Kentucky highlands. This diversity, combined with its place-based focus, is reason to pay attention to the Promise Zones Initiative, but there are also concerns about its leadership model and the different community entities it aims to unite. I’m going to outline a bit of the history of the “Zones” concept and talk about why it’s such a promising project (forgive the pun).

Promise Zones are modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, which was originated in the 1990s by Geoffrey Canada, an activist from the Bronx. As Amanda Erickson at CityLab explains, “Now spread over 90 blocks in Harlem, it takes an intensive and comprehensive approach to child development. At its most basic, the idea is to support children in the neighborhood from the minute they’re born until they leave for college. […] In Harlem, it’s been a wild success.” (Fun fact, I ride through the Harlem Children’s Zone on the bus all the time.) The problem, Erickson argues, is that, “For this model to work in other cities, it would need a similarly passionate, visionary leader.” I think most people can agree President Obama is pretty passionate, but he is not the one leading this initiative on the grassroots level. That will fall to individuals in each of the regions, and time will tell whether their charisma and vision are able to propel their cities toward similar success.


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Now, it’s important to note that similar anti-poverty initiatives have also been created by past presidents. However, Obama’s is different in a couple significant ways. First, and most intriguing in my opinion, is that it concentrates on a handful of significant, yet diverse areas. This is such an important direction to be moving in; it acknowledges that our nation has a long way to go before we can eliminate inequality and economic injustice, yet it makes a concerted effort to determine how we can achieve that goal on a small scale. If it works (and even if it doesn’t), we can learn from the model and figure out how to apply it in other places based on their needs.

That leads me to another fascinating aspect of the Initiative: it is “place-based,” meaning that it’s not attempting to insert a one-size-fits-all solution into every region but rather, targeting resources and allowing each community to direct them. Place-based actions are cropping up in all sorts of arenas, from education to urban development, and that angle makes perfect sense in the context of the Promise Zones, which will require strategies tailored to each location. For instance, Los Angeles, a major metropolis, wants to focus on developing more affordable housing and improving access to transit. On the other hand, rural Kentucky hopes to diversify its economy and build job training skills through local colleges. All of the Promise Zones incorporate education and economic advancement, but they approach these tasks in different, place-based ways that draw on their diverse needs and resources.

Part of what’s exciting about the Initiative is that it intends to draw on the faculties of businesses, housing authorities, schools, nonprofits and developers in order to collaboratively move an area out of poverty. But some people are skeptical about the effectiveness of these entities in tackling the issues. On the one hand, Susan Greenbaum, a professor emerita of Anthropology at the University of South Florida, questions whether private partners could ever be as accountable as public servants are. And on the other hand, Harvard sociologist, Robert Sampson states, “Nonprofits are important but we know from past research that sometimes local organizations get wrapped up in their own agendas and simply surviving as an organization. If so, the public good can fall to the wayside.” How will all these diverse entities work together with their potentially competing priorities? Will profit-driven businesses, funding-driven nonprofits, and process-driven local governments all be able to prioritize the wellbeing of a community over their own struggles? Aiming high is usually better than aiming low, so I applaud Obama’s effort into putting together a holistic, forward-thinking initiative, but we should be realistic about the challenges it might encounter when uniting so many different organizations.


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The final piece in the Promise Zones initiative is, of course, money. The Federal Government plans to support the initiative through tax breaks for local businesses, designated AmeriCorps positions and Federal government staff, and priority in accessing federal resources “where necessary to achieve […] goals.” Critics have argued that this isn’t enough funding to empower the Zones toward success. For one thing, investment per city is only 4% of what went into the wildly successful Harlem Children’s Zone. For another, the Initiative’s combination of tax breaks, staffing and Federal line-jumping, while no doubt innovative, is not the same as cold, hard cash. We’re talking about new housing developments, new education programs, and new public transportation plans in large regions. And none of those are cheap. A reliance on public interest and private investment may not be enough to lift these regions out of poverty.

Nonetheless, I hope it is. The Promise Zones initiative isn’t perfect, but it could help develop future models and it will undoubtedly have a positive impact on the communities it serves in some manner. I’ll be keeping an eye on these diverse areas and following their place-based strategies with an optimistic attitude. They’re a step in the right direction.


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