A new breed of urban mayors appears to be bringing a new attitude and approach to revitalizing ailing inner cities and making the African American community a bigger player in that process.
They"re building upon the foundations laid to help minorities gain educational, economic and political power " via affirmative action, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act " and pushing the envelope with innovative ideas and assertiveness.
The National Urban League"s 2006 conference last month featured a panel discussion regarding revitalization of the nation"s inner cities. The session featured Los Angeles Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa, Baton Rouge, La. Mayor Melvin "Kip" Holden and Buffalo, N.Y. Mayor Byron Brown " three mayors from very different cities in very different regions of the country. Regardless, they"ve all got one mission in mind " to resurrect our ailing inner cities.
"We vote. We pay taxes. We are part of the economy " of the economic, political and social fabric of the cities. As such, we expect to be a part of the building and rebuilding process from beginning to end " from the planning boards to completion," said moderator John W. Mack, former president and CEO of the Los Angeles Urban League and current president of the Los Angeles Police Commission.
Essential to the urban renewal process must be a commitment to collaboration or as Villaraigosa phrased it " pooling our strengths and not dividing our power.
"I"m here to say that we need to get together. I"m here to say we need to stay together. We need to lead together. We need to engage the fight on behalf of all disadvantaged families struggling in America today," said Villaraigosa, who rode a wave of multicultural support " a broad coalition of Blacks, Latinos, Asians and Whites " to become the city"s first Latino mayor in 133 years.
"Some people would say I snuck into UCLA through the back door," Villaraigosa said. "But one thing"s for sure: I got out through the front door. And I"m here today because the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act opened up our country. I"m here today because there was a labor movement to protect and sustain my community. I"m here because I had access to a good public education."
Getting a strong public education these days is a serious challenge for inner city minorities in Los Angeles, where nearly 60 percent of African Americans drop out of school. That is why reforming the Los Angeles Unified School District is his administration"s top priority.
"There may not a governor blocking the schoolhouse door. We may not see the ranks of the National Guard lining the streets in riot gear. But the barriers to opportunity today are every bit as insidious as they were in Birmingham or Montgomery or Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957," Villaraigosa said. "We can"t widen the circle or increase minority participation in the economic life of our cities or deliver the promise of opportunity, if we don"t stand up and address the failure of our public schools in cities across the country."
This new breed of urban mayor is also trying to increase minority participation in economic development by lending more transparency to the city contracting process.
For years, the city of Baton Rouge, La., relied on the good-ole-boy network to get things done. That was until 2005, when Mayor Melvin "Kip" Holden took office.
Holden immediately assessed the city"s contracting practices and found minority representation to be seriously lacking.
Holden made fixes to the way contracts are granted, requiring many more to be approved by the city council than in the past. The state"s Association of General Contractors, which had been long opposed to efforts to send more business to minority firms, finally conceded.
Under the leadership of Mayor Byron Brown, the city of Buffalo has substantially increased its permit activity and has $3 billion in projects in the pipeline. Brown has reached out to local business through local CEO roundtables and to state lawmakers to find ways to break down traditional barriers to minority firms.
It makes sense that African Americans should play a major role in taking back our inner cities. We must, as St. Louis businessman Michael V. Roberts said, get out of the suburbs and mine economic opportunities under our own noses. We must make our neighborhoods symbols of pride and commerce not despair and poverty.
We must give our inner city youth hope that there"s more out there for them than rapping and selling drugs. When they see successful Black businesses in their neighborhoods, they feel compelled to aspire to greater things.
And we cannot depend on government and business alone to help take back our cities " we must trust each other and refrain from self-sabotage. Or as Holden described it " "the crawfish syndrome " where if they see you moving up to the top, they"ll pull you back down in the bucket."
Marc H. Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.