Twin goals: 'One Region,' and without the racial gaps

by Tom Grubisich

Two major business groups have taken the lead in an ambitious effort to forge one cohesive place out of the jumble of jurisdictions of metro Charleston and market this "One Region" to an insatiable consumer world beyond the U.S. that spends close to $9 trillion annually on imported goods and services.

The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Charleston Regional Development Alliance are the basic catalysts of One Region, but, significantly, they’re reaching out to leaders and groups far beyond the business community to help put together key elements of the strategy.

What this means – if everything goes according to plan – is that racial disparities in metro Charleston, especially as they exist in workforce development, will get close attention as the One Region strategy comes together over the next six months. Make that very close attention, based on what happened last November when the Charleston Metro Chamber and the CRDA convened three broadly representative preliminary meetings about One Region. “I can assure you that equity and social justice were among the top issues,” Stephen C. Warner, the Alliance's Vice President of Global Marketing and Regional Competitiveness, told me.

I went to Warner about this issue because the survey that the Chamber and Alliance's consultants conducted among the metro business population in November – before those three meetings – didn’t include racial equality among the region's 15 top priorities. I found this surprising because a 2010 CRDA survey of the general public on on the same subject of global competitiveness – and by the same consultants – clearly showed importance of race in metro Charleston. Respondents, who were white and black, ranked race relations ninth lowest among 10 quality-of-life topics. But this finding wasn't reflected in the 2015 survey’s questions. Under "Education and Workforce Development," the survey did not cite the region’s big gap in minority achievement – a system of K-12 public education that, more than half a century after desegregation, continues to deliver racially unequal results, where the state's most academically successful high school is predominantly white and the least successful one is mostly black.   

Warner did say the issue of racial disparities was “not as prominent” in the 2015 survey. He emphasized, though, that the survey was only one piece of all the information and feedback that was being gathered to craft the One Region strategy, and that equity and social justice will be part of the “continuing conversation.”

As One Region unfolds, this should mean that economic development and community development will be more closely integrated into what is called “community economic development.” “CED” has been around since the days of the War on Poverty 50 years ago, but it’s existed more in theory than in results-driven practices. In metro Charleston, for example, thousands of blacks continue to receive K-12 educations that leave them inadequately prepared for the workforce, especially one that has to be retooled to produce goods and services for export.

Charleston-North Charleston ranks a lackluster 118th among 381 U.S. regions in exports as a percentage of GDP (12.8%). (See chart at left for all the export stats.) To substantially improve its export performance, metro Charleston must recruit more blacks to work alongside white employees in jobs producing goods and services that are both in high demand and competitively priced. Under community economic development, the racial disparities in the metro region’s K-12 schools will have to get attention above and beyond the Tricounty school systems’ present minority-achievement programs. As the Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative said in its 2015 Regional Education Report: “Current approaches to closing these gaps are not sufficient; therefore, strengthening our approaches must become a high community priority.” (See "Black Students Gains, but Not as Fast as Their White Counterparts" post above.)

‘Economic and community development go hand in hand.’

Metro Charleston’s educational disparities are not the only ones that will have to be confronted under the community economic development approach. They will have to include those in housing, health, transportation and law enforcement and criminal justice, as well as hiring practices, where decisions on who get the job are sometimes made by "mental maps" based on ZIP Codes that are on one side of the color line -- the white side.

CRDA’s Director of Marketing and Communications, Claire A. Gibbons, told me that the One Region strategy will be owned not by CRDA and the Charleston Metro Chamber but the entire metro Charleston community. “Economic and community development go hand in hand,” she affirmed. 

This bodes well for One Region that’s not only united but also equal.

Race gets new emphasis at Brookings Metro Policy Program as minorities see earnings decline

Race is also getting more emphasis in Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program, recently appointed VP Amy Liu wrote in a letter to leaders and other officials in Charleston and at other municipal and regional levels around the U.S.  "We are sharpening our focus on race, inclusion and the well-being of workers and their families," Liu said.

She also pointed to the new mission of the Metro Policy Program, which also gives race a new emphasis. The recalibrated mission "aims to help city and metro leaders...narrow gaps in access to opportunity by place, race and income within metro areas."

Behind this new race-conscious move at Brookings are sobering trends negatively affecting blacks and Latinos like this one: