From the Contra Costa Times
Guest commentary: How Richmond could become Baltimore or not
By Alice Huffman, guest commentary © 2015 Bay Area News Group
POSTED: 05/17/2015 09:00:00 AM PDT0 COMMENTS
The protests that recently engulfed Baltimore have sparked a much needed debate about the systemic problems that plague too many American cities.
As many commentators have rightly noted, the tragic death of Freddie Gray was not the sole cause of this civil unrest. While it was undeniably the spark, it was the conditions of hopelessness and powerlessness that have plagued West Baltimore (and too many other American cities) for decades that provided the fuel.
These conditions were brought about by the loss of a once-thriving manufacturing sector, by failing schools, a lack of economic opportunity, a deeply flawed criminal justice system, unemployment and poverty that far exceed state and national averages and the failure of political leaders to do anything about it.
It’s not as if they did not have an opportunity to do so.
Some parts of Baltimore — particularly on the north and east sides of town — have been the beneficiaries of billions of dollars in public and private investment: expanding Johns Hopkins University, redeveloping the waterfront area, Camden Yards, and the list goes on.
When this happened, few protections were in place to keep low-income local residents from being displaced from their homes and replaced by more affluent new arrivals willing to pay higher prices. Workers were brought in from out of town to work on the projects. Critical investments in public education and workforce development — to prepare local for the jobs that new development would present — were woefully inadequate at best.
And as a result, poverty in West Baltimore became even more concentrated — increasing by 30 percent since 1970. It was and remains a virtual powder keg just waiting to explode. It ruptured in 1968, and again late last month.
Sadly, many of the same underlying dynamics exist today a little closer to home — in Richmond.
Though considerably smaller, Richmond is like Baltimore in many ways. It is a majority-minority city. It has an industrial past that has left economic and environmental consequences that persist to this day. And like too many parts of Baltimore, Richmond is plagued by high poverty, high crime, high unemployment and underperforming schools.
But perhaps most important, Richmond is on the precipice of its own multibillion-dollar development project — an expansion of UC Berkeley — that could either help address these underlying conditions or perpetuate them.
To their credit, the people of Richmond clearly recognize this. Everyone from the City Council and faith leaders, to community, labor and student groups have come together to demand that UC Berkeley sign a legally binding Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) that would ensure this project addresses the very same community needs that continue to afflict Baltimore.
This kind of agreement would guarantee the new project offers living wage jobs for local residents, procurement policies that support local businesses, protections against mass displacement, and expanded educational and mentoring opportunities for local youth.
In short, it would guarantee a win-win — both for UC Berkeley, and for Richmond.
But despite more than a year of pleas by community members, UC Berkeley has thus far refused to sit down and negotiate such an agreement. Instead, it has asked for $100 million in investment from local taxpayers, and hand picked a so called “working group” to pay lip service to the community’s demands, without offering any concrete commitments.
This is not good enough.
By signing a legally binding CBA with Richmond, UC Berkeley has the power to heed the lessons of Baltimore and to set a new national standard for urban renewal.
This simple step would also be an important demonstration of good faith at a time when UC is asking for more public investment and facing mounting criticism over its commitment to communities of color.
To be clear, I am not questioning this commitment — I am counting on it.
Alice A. Huffman is president of the California NAACP and an alumna of UC Berkeley.