We can be so focused on our work with clients, partners, and funders that we may let ourselves off the hook once we leave work. Or we just don’t have the bandwidth to address equity in our own neighborhood, city, school district, or county.
But advancing equity in our communities must include our voices, too.
I recently spent a few days in Detroit, MI with community activists, designers, elected officials, and government staffers. We gathered for “Public x Design: From Inclusion to Equity,” an annual conference organized by Gehl Institute that examines the role of design in shaping more equitable public spaces.
I was part of a panel proposing that resident inclusion in the design of public spaces—parks, streets, sidewalks, plazas, public buildings, and even retail areas—advances health because people who are most often left out of the planning process can co-design spaces that are more welcoming, feel as if they were built for them, and can be sustained alongside an engaged community. My co-panelists and I oriented our discussion around Gehl Institute’s Inclusive Healthy Places Framework, an evidence-based planning guide for designers, researchers, and advocates.
One of the most compelling ideas discussed during this meeting was that inclusion is not only a process of resident engagement, but also a state of being that we should aspire to.
Inclusion doesn’t have to be limited to designing physical spaces. As we work to advance health equity, practitioners increasingly recognize that engaging people who are most impacted by disparities in health, income, privilege, and power is critical to knowing which strategies are necessary to reduce inequity and how those strategies should work in communities. This is not just about inclusive spaces, but inclusive, compassionate societies.
Compassion feels especially needed now. The divisive and even hostile tone set at the highest levels of state and federal government is an intentional campaign to stoke fear—and that fear has been mostly directed toward people who have endured a lifetime of discrimination and injustice. But because we have a unique perspective about where we live, we have the power to change that social dynamic and its harmful outcomes.
That’s why the work we do where we live is so urgently needed.
We are all gatekeepers in some way. You may be on the board of a local organization, volunteer as a PTA member, or serve in a faith community. If you are not part of an organization, you can still influence your community every day simply by being a member of it; you can also connect with others through coalitions and existing community-based organizations whose missions advance equity. In the short term, use your cell phone to urge people to register to vote, or even help take people to the polls on Election Day (November 6th). And if you are already working for health and social justice close to home, then please stay with it.
Your “homework” matters now more than ever, and it might just make you better at your day job.