On this episode of Ready Set Gov, Amara Enyia walks us through the difference between equality and equity and what public policy changes we need to make in Illinois to correct decades of unfair practices in everything from housing to education. 


Q&A with Amara Enyia

Solomon Lieberman: I’m joined today by Dr. Amara Enyia a public policy expert on city and state policy as well as international affairs, foreign policy with expertise in Central Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East and of course your home in Chicago. She writes extensively on issues of education economic development fiscal policy and systems thinking. Doctor Enyia ran for mayor of Chicago in 2014 and has since become a thought leader and top public policy consultant. Welcome, Dr. Amara Enyia.

Amara Enyia: Thank you for having me.

Solomon Lieberman: Thanks for joining us on Ready Set Gov. So as you know we are looking at this flight out migration from the state. What’s causing it? What are the big reasons? We wanted to look today at what could we do to keep people here. What does it mean to have an equitable Chicago where people are happy to stay and aren’t thinking about all the places they may need to go to raise their family or continue their lives. So we know this out-migration is a thing, we know kind of thing, what do we need to do to make Chicago a place where it isn’t a thing; where people stay

Amara Enyia: Well I think first and foremost we have to understand that the reasons why people seek a place to live and how do we unpack what that looks like. So most families and individuals need a few key things. They want quality schools for their children or for themselves. They want access to a job and a career. They want to be able to live, work and play in their neighborhoods. They want access to parks. They want access to recreation to the arts. So when we’re talking about why people leave a neighborhood or a city or a state we have to think about the reasons why people choose to live in certain neighborhoods or cities or states and how have we as a matter of public policy created an environment where people are living where they want to live and have the kind of quality of life that they are looking for.

Solomon Lieberman: When you think about Chicago, where are those key failures where there aren’t equitable experiences for life, for a profession, for amusement and for enjoyment of those things you get to do because you have a job?

Amara Enyia: I think the city of Chicago has created one of the most starkly inequitable cities. If you compare us to cities across the country and I think that that inequity is driven by the fact that we don’t treat our population as though we all pretty much want the same things. We actually assign value to populations and then based upon that value we allocate resources. And so if you look at some of the neighborhoods that have those things that we want very attractive neighborhoods so you look at some of our North Side neighborhoods whether it’s Lincoln Park or Jefferson Park and then you look at some of the Southside neighborhoods where they’ve got those quality experiences in your Beverleys your Hyde Parks. What do those neighborhoods have? They have many of the things that we talked about excellent schools, career opportunities and jobs. They have access to green space and parks. But when you look in some of the neighborhoods that are more challenged we don’t see the level of investments in those things. You see schools that are instead closed. You see the lack of economic development. You see vacant storefronts, vacant homes, and vacant buildings. And so The idea is that there is nothing intrinsically different about the residents who live on the west side in Garfield Park from the residents who live in Beverly or in Lincoln Park. But our public policy would say otherwise because if you compare the amount of economic investment–even financial investment–from the city in those areas it is drastically different from the level of investment that we see in some of the areas that are doing well.

Solomon Lieberman: So that investment I mean step back just look at the difference in those communities you describe. It’s stark. Yes. You don’t have to be steeped in public policy or city planning to observe that and be like, that there “there’s something different going on here.” The distance between that starkness and a functional level of policy and investment is Chicago’s mythology and history which is stronger and more institutionalized than maybe any city in the country. How does that play a role in the distance between the stark reality and the functional policy an investment that would be equitable.

Amara Enyia: The notion that this is the reality and that we’re stuck with it. It’s a very Chicago and Chicago has this phrase, “the Chicago way.” And I think that phrase holds us back from being able to innovate and to address the problems head on as opposed to just accepting that this is the way things are. And so I always push back. I reject the premise that we a city that is actually equitable where you don’t have to have neighborhoods that are begging for crumbs while other neighborhoods are are swimming in surplus. And that’s the reality that we have. But our leadership has to believe that they can use their imagination and be creative about how policy is enacted to address the inequity that’s a matter of public policy so none of this happens by intention. You can talk about redlining and how that kept African-Americans from having access to loans.

Solomon Lieberman: Can you explain redlining?

Amara Enyia: Redlining was a method used by banks. When you wanted to get a loan, especially African-Americans who wanted to get loans, they were kept from getting loans. So it’s a barrier that’s put up that they were denied by loans. But their white counterparts would not have those barriers. They would have access to that capital but it was necessary to buy a home, to open a business and other wealth generating things that families would like to do. But African-Americans and other groups are marginalized and were barred from receiving that kind of capital. When you look at homeownership you’ll notice that the distance between the level of homeownership for black residents versus white residents is very stark. And a lot of it was because of that redlining that was really predominant in the 50s and 60s and 70s and still exists today to a certain extent. And so that feeds directly into who can buy a home. It feeds directly into who can open up a business and those are two mechanisms for creating the kind of generational wealth that can help you increase your standard of living in the city. And so that’s one intentional policy that existed that has to be dismantled. And so we can’t have this sort of “laissez-faire” approach as a city. “Well we’re so segregated that’s just how Chicago is–that’s just the Chicago way.” We have to be intentional about enacting public policies that reverse the ones that created the inequity that we see.

Solomon Lieberman: It feels like we are in an era of reckoning right now. If you look at the #MeToo movement, these practices that were also institutionalized are just falling down one after another and people of significance are falling down with it. Is this an opportunity for Chicago to reinvent itself and raise the bar on the equity issue as well?

Amara Enyia: Yes! I am so excited about what’s happening at all levels. There’s an anti-establishment sentiment that is prevailing I think we see that in our politics at the national level but also at the local level but there’s also the mythology I think there’s been a chink in the armor of what’s possible and that I think is our greatest power. If we can show people that there are alternatives, if we can tap into our creative and what I call our “civic imagination” about what Chicago can be for everyone, that’s how we start to get the kinds of ideas that can reverse and undo a lot of the things that have really not been great for this city. So the ceiling is being lifted which means that there is now the space to imagine what an inclusive, equitable economic growth plan will look like for Chicago.

Solomon Lieberman: Let’s talk about what equity means. “Equality” was the term of art and a buzzword used for decades applied to many issues in public policy but there has been a subtle shift of a couple of letters. “Equity” is a much more common term now. Can you describe what equity means and about how it’s different from equality?

Amara Enyia: Equity is about justice equity is about recognizing that there was a system or policies that were unfair. And so the remedy for equity is not the premise that everyone starts at the same place or should get the same things equity actually mandates that you put more where there was intentionality about putting less. So if we see in the city for example that there are some neighborhoods that have not seen large-scale economic investment for decades. So we cannot say well every neighborhood should get the same amount of funding or economic investment. We simply can’t say that because our history and our policies show that there are some neighborhoods that have been left behind. And so equity mandates that we actually put more resources in those areas more resources for economic growth for business development for homeownership etc. in those areas because we recognize that our policies actually created a scenario where they were getting less for so long. And so when people talk about equality like we should have for example equality of experience meaning everyone should have a high level quality of life. But equity mandates that those people who have not been able to have access to that high quality of life should get the resources that they are entitled to by virtue of being residents of this city. It’s about valuing everyone the same. Saying that the residents who live in Roseland and Inglewood are just as valuable as the residents who live in Bridgeport and Archer Heights. And because we see those residents as equally valuable, we’re going to make sure that we allocate our resources in a way that brings up the ones that we’ve neglected. And that’s something that as a matter of policy it’s not the go to because people get uncomfortable when we talk about essentially righting the ship and addressing this from a justice perspective which recognizes that everyone should be entitled to a high quality of life and that we recognize the value of every person regardless of their race, regardless of their ethnicity, regardless of which neighborhood they live in the city. And if we value people the same and so if we value people equally, then our resource allocation will be equitable and we put more in those areas where we have either disinvested or neglected for so long.

Solomon Lieberman: One of the major challenges in shifting thinking from equality to equity is getting buy-in from people from different walks of life. It sounds like your argument is make the value case not the dollar case which is that you’re just as valuable as I am. Is that correct?

Amara Enyia: Yes it recognizes that people have different starting points and those starting points are largely because of some of it could be attributed to home life some of it could be attributed to actual public policies that disadvantage certain groups. And so we have to acknowledge that those things exist. Equity is an acknowledgment that we live in a society that has some pretty deep flaws. We live in a society that as a matter of intention actually put up barriers that will prevent certain groups from having access to the things that other groups have access to. So it’s just acknowledging that. We can look at the way that schools are funded in Illinois through property taxes. It is a fundamentally flawed model because it’s saying that by virtue of where a child was born and grew up that determines the quality of the educational experience that they get. So if I have a child who was born in Harvey and we know that they can have the highest property tax assessment and bring in the lowest revenue because of how economically depressed that area is so now they’re going to go to schools that are underfunded and that’s not fair because you can go to wealthier communities who can have a lower property tax rate but bring in so much more revenue and their children will get access to schools that have vocational programs schools that have counselors and social workers their children will have a fundamentally different experience by virtue of where they were born. And so if we see education as a public good, our question should be: how do we make sure that every child has an opportunity to get access to that kind of high-quality educational experience regardless of where they were born? And that’s where the State comes in and a new equitable funding formula becomes necessary because it recognizes that everyone doesn’t have the same starting point. And it’s not all just because of personal choices that people made for children they’re born into their situation. And so from a government perspective and from a lens of policy-making how do we make sure that they’re not disadvantaged just by virtue of where they were born or who they were born to?

Solomon Lieberman: So if we’re breaking the ceiling of “the Chicago way” and thinking innovatively about policies that would create an equitable Chicago, are there any easy wins that we could approach and consider?

Amara Enyia: I do I think one is just to reimagine what economic investment looks like across neighborhoods. And we have so many situations in the city of Chicago where the tools that we have have to evolve. So the city relies heavily on TIFs or Tax Increment Financing districts. A TIF district is an area that’s created it’s created and what happens is all of the tax dollars in that area are captured in this TIF district. So the idea was to spur economic development in blighted communities that is actually the spirit of the TIFs that’s the law of the TIFs. And so the idea is that you create a TIF district and all of the additional tax revenue is captured, that additional tax revenue can then be used to support economic development projects whether it’s a new business, a new shopping center or any of those things that will create economic value in that area. And it’s an incentive to attract business development and attract development to that area. What happens is for all of the TIFs that are created in the city of Chicago, we’re finding that it’s not actually going necessarily to blighted communities. You’ve got a TIF $55 million that was used to build a stadium for DePaul University. You have another $55 million that was used to do some renovations for Navy Pier this past year. You’ve got big grocery stores like Mariano’s using TIF funds for their grocery store projects. Arguably, they don’t necessarily need it. But then you have communities who have TIF districts but it’s not being used to spur any kind of economic development. And so the spirit of TIFs and the purpose of TIFs has been lost in the city of Chicago. And it hasn’t benefited the communities who need it most. But that’s one of the tools that we use.

The other tool that the city uses this called a “Special Service Area.” It’s essentially like a TIF but in a business corridor. They assess an additional tax on the businesses in that corridor and you can use that money to do security, clean up streets and sanitation sort of work, and beautification. The problem is that tool looks very different when you see how it operates in West Loop versus in Austin. The West Side Austin has two Special Service Areas–there are 57 across the city just about 57 I think, give or take. They only have two. Now there is a special service area in West Loop that can bring in millions of dollars on the assessment because of the vibrancy of those corridors. If you go a few miles west in Austin, the TIF that is on Chicago Avenue between Cicero and Austin Boulevard brings in about 139 thousand dollars. Yet this is a tool that the city of Chicago will say is to support economic development. It doesn’t work quite the same way in an area that has many vacancies because of the lack of investment over years so they’re not able to generate the additional revenue to do the beautification and to do the security or all the things that we see they can do in West Loop. And so for the city it’s how do we think beyond these couple of tools that we’ve used that we say are supposed to support economic development.

Solomon Lieberman: Does that mean new tools? Does it mean fixing the old tools?

Amara Enyia: It means new tools. It means recognizing that the SSA works great in West Loop but that’s not going to be enough on Chicago Avenue in the Austin community. So how do we make sure that Chicago Avenue and the Austin community gets the additional revenue or the additional supports to create a vibrant corridor a vibrant commercial corridor.  And I don’t see that level of thinking happening it’s sort of well these are the tools that we have. We’re doing the best we can. But if the outcomes are so starkly different, then it means that we have to create different tools and that’s something that the city could do tomorrow if they just had that sort of equity lens and the tools that we use for economic growth. There are other things that we don’t consider that I think are opportunities to diversify the economic ecosystem. Chicago should be ground zero for worker-owned cooperatives and we’re not. It’s hardly on the radar in this city which I find interesting.

 Solomon Lieberman: Can you explain worker-owned cooperatives?

Amara Enyia: Cooperative models are businesses where the workers are also the owners so they exist in Europe: in Germany they’re huge, in Spain and Italy. It’s actually one of the reasons why Germany’s economy is one of the strongest in the world. And so it’s a diversion from the traditional business model where you’ve got a CEO and you’ve got employees the ratio in earnings between CEO and employees is about 350 to 1 in this country. So you’ve got your CEO who makes millions of dollars than your employees who are probably making eight dollars nine dollars an hour. In a worker cooperative, the employees are actually the owners so they democratically determine what their pay rate will be, what their working conditions so vacation days what their benefits would be what the guidelines for how they work would be. So it’s democratically developed and there there’s no CEO to ownership to employee ratio. They all have a higher standard of living and make more money. So one of the best examples is in New York in home healthcare. It’s one of the largest cooperatives in the country. Twenty-fine hundred home health care workers in that industry they typically would make about $8.25 an hour in that traditional business model. These are people who are going into doing hospice care with patients, etc. In the cooperative, they’re making 25 dollars an hour. And that is their base pay. They get their vacation days. They decided how many days that they wanted for vacation days. So it’s not just the pay it’s adjusting the whole quality of work and their owners so they have a stake in that business’s survival. So they’re much more vested in making sure that the business is a success. And so they exist elsewhere around the country. 

In Chicago I think would be a great place for this model to proliferate because now we’re addressing this issue of ownership which is a pathway to building wealth. And it’s not just traditional small business ownership. It could be co-operative ownership. It also addresses some of the Democratic issues and how does your work experience look like especially in communities that are struggling where they cannot get access to a loan or have access to capital to start their business. This is a way of that collective ownership where people collectively feel vested in that business’s success. And it starts to rebuild the fabric of communities. So this is the model that’s very viable and should be much more prominent here. But it’s not and I think it’s not because of this notion that this is the way things are. This is how we do it in Chicago. And so we’re sort of stuck in that instead of imagining beyond what the current landscape looks like.

Solomon Lieberman: So I’ve got one more question for you. Obviously, you ran for mayor in 2014 the BGA is a nonpartisan nonprofit 503(c)3 that does not endorse candidates. But we’ve broken the ceiling, we’re here. Let’s play with some more hypotheticals: so it’s your first day in office you get to do one thing. What would it be? What new tool would you create? What old tool would you change? What would you do?

Amara Enyia: The first thing I would do is completely reorganize the Department of Planning and establish a completely new vision that’s through an equity lens. I’d actually do a reassessment of all of our economic development tools and we would modify them through this equity lens of how we allocate resources. That’s probably the first thing that I would do.

Solomon Lieberman: Thank you so much for joining us today and thinking big and having a conversation about a Chicago that we’re all proud of and can’t ever imagine leaving.

Amara Enyia: Yes. Yes indeed. Thanks for having me.

Solomon Lieberman: You’re welcome. Talk to you again soon.