A few months ago, instead of taking the morning bus to LISC’s office in downtown DC, I headed to the White House for South By South Lawn (SXSL), a day-long festival hosted by President Obama that brought together people from across the world who work for social change. Inspired by the format and vibe of SXSW, the Austin, TX music and culture festival, SXSL was filled with panel discussions about technology, sustainability, and social justice, as well as musical and artistic performances. There was even a conversation between President Obama and Leonardo DiCaprio on climate change.
One of the most powerful moments of the day came just after the funk band Dap-Kings finished their set and Common, the rapper and author, grabbed the mic and spoke from his heart about racial injustice and mass incarceration. He ended his speech with five simple but potent words: “Use your platform for change.”
Common’s call to action reminded me of why, six years ago, I started teaching in the DC public school system. At the time, the city was facing a yawning achievement gap, and I wanted to do my part to help level the playing field. When I first started teaching, I didn’t know much about the neighborhoods where my students were growing up. But by the time I left, I could see how racial and economic segregation, together with the lopsided distribution of resources flowing into the city, was at the root of many students’ academic struggles.
This realization led me to LISC. We work to bring more balance to the changes many cities like DC are grappling with – soaring housing prices coupled with rising income inequality. DC’s recent economic growth has led to a 21% increase in median income since 2007. Yet the poverty rate remains unchanged, and nearly one in five DC residents—110,500 people—still live in poverty.
I was invited to SXSL because of my work on Elevating Equity, our $50 million effort to help shift the way development has been unfolding in DC. Elevating Equity targets the neighborhoods surrounding the proposed 11th Street Bridge Park, to help low-income residents keep a foothold in the area, and benefit from the resources that will come with new developments and economic growth around the world-class park.
As I mingled on the White House lawn with people from as far away as South Sudan and Israel, and from as close by as Richmond and Boston, we agreed that we need all hands on deck to tackle the social and environmental crises facing our world. So much needs to be done, and without a coordinated strategy among non-profits, the private sector, philanthropy and government, we will fall short of our goals.
The same applies to the work we are doing right here in DC. Elevating Equity alone will not stymie displacement or prevent gentrification. We’re trying to help as many people as we can, but we are only one piece of the puzzle. Changing the normal course of development and dislocation will take collective and focused action—from minimum wage and paid family leave policies, to workforce training and enforced local hiring requirements, to a strong and unwavering commitment to affordable housing. This truly is an all-hands-on-deck situation.
Which brings me back to SXSL. That day, techies, environmental geeks, social justice advocates, artists, and government officials united around the same fundamental idea: the time to act, to use our platforms for change, is NOW. It reminded me of why I became a teacher, and why I now work at LISC. Of course, a handshake from the President of the United States didn’t hurt.