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Creating Equitable Access to Opportunities

by Larra Clark, PLA Deputy Director and Carlos E. Delgado, Senior Associate with the Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use at the National League of Cities on August 29, 2017

Economic development was the most talked-about issue in 2017 State of the City speeches, according to recent analysis conducted by the National League of Cities. Further, “there is a sustained push for growth in entrepreneurship and small business development, particularly for enterprises led by minority and women business owners.” Economic mobility, income inequality, and racial inequity are critical concerns for mayors across the country. This problem must be matched with strategies that address inequality not only as a deeply concerning social problem, but an economic one, as well.

To help address this need, the National League of Cities, together with PolicyLink and the Urban Land Institute, launched the Equitable Economic Development (EED) Fellowship last year to leverage local economic development strategies to create more equitable access to opportunities for all of their communities. Historically, traditional economic development policies and programs have not always benefited all populations. For example, states and localities spend $50 billion to $80 billion on tax breaks and incentives each year in the name of economic development that, in many cases, shortchange people of color, immigrants, and low-income communities. For these reasons, some cities are looking for a new path forward by developing creative strategies to jumpstart their economies and intentionally connect underserved communities to economic opportunity.

This Fellowship aims to influence economic development policy and practice so that equity, transparency, sustainability, and community engagement become driving forces on any project. The Fellowship convenes economic development leaders from six U.S. cities for an annual program of leadership development, technical assistance, peer learning, and team reflection.

Key learnings from the first cohort are being shared via blog posts and compiled together in a forthcoming report. In Boston, for instance, the EED Fellowship focused on worker cooperatives and supporting other types of employee-owned businesses. The city is promoting worker co-ops as a tool to allow low- and middle-income Bostonians to access the wealth-building potential of a business together (where they would find it much more difficult to access that potential alone), gaining business and financial skills in the process.This work builds on Mayor Martin Walsh’s Small Business Plan and development of Small Business Centers, like the one located in the Mattapan branch of the Boston Public Library.

Houston concentrated its economic development activities in traditionally underserved communities that have the highest levels of unemployment, lowest levels of income and educational attainment, and represent the highest needs for job- and workforce- related programs. The city convened a wide range of community stakeholders to identify ways to boost job access and advance the EED project. One of these, Workforce Solutions, partners with Houston Public Library to assist jobseekers.

In all cases, the Fellowship program provides leadership development, technical assistance, peer learning and sharing best practices to provide city leaders with tools to make equity a driving force for economic development.

Connecting the Dots

Building economic opportunities, equity, and inclusion for all also are core values for librarians. Public libraries are particularly well situated to advance equitable economic development as they are a trusted and familiar resource for information and learning of all kinds. Too often, though, local, state and national decision makers don’t think of libraries as part of their community assets for supporting entrepreneurs and economic growth. The American Library Association (ALA) is working to change that.

The ALA Office for Information Technology Policy developed a new brief late last year outlining many of the ways that libraries support entrepreneurship and small business development. Services and programs include market research and business planning, co-working spaces, prototyping and digital media lab opportunities, and partnerships that can boost access to capital or provided specialized training or counseling. Dallas’ Office of Economic Development, for instance, worked with the Dallas Public Library to launch the Business Resource and Information Network (B.R.A.I.N.) to delivery entrepreneurship literacy and business development services.

And the Public Library Association is a hub for sharing best practices and resources to make the library field stronger, which in turn builds stronger communities. A recent Public Libraries Online podcast featured librarians in the Business Resource & Innovation Center at the Free Library of Philadelphia sharing how the library revamped its services to support entrepreneurs.

PLA and OITP are building relationships with organizations that range from the Small Business Administration to the National League of Cities to develop mutually beneficial collaborations that positively position libraries and advance entrepreneurship and economic opportunity in local communities.

And we need your help. We’re building our “library” of examples and library patron/entrepreneur success stories so that we can use these in future communications, congressional testimony, and presentations. Please tell us how you and your library are advancing economic opportunity, particularly as it relates to supporting entrepreneurs and small businesses. Are you partnering with SBA or SCORE or a local economic development agency? How has your library helped to enable a new startup or expand a small business? What else are you accomplishing, and how are you measuring it? Let me know at lclark@ala.org. We’ll also keep sharing back resources and stories as we uncover them.


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