In recognition of Black History Month, LISC Phoenix program officer Dominic Braham reflects on the African-American history of his city, and how the influence of a historic “dividing line” between downtown and the redlined neighborhoods of South Phoenix still shapes its communities. Developing local leadership of color, connecting people with the region’s prosperity, and committing to racial equity as the city develops, he explains, are keys to authentic civic engagement and a more inclusive Phoenix.
Photo courtesy of InSite Consultants
In Phoenix today, you can still find residents who remember when African Americans rarely ventured north of Van Buren Avenue, a boulevard that divides the northern and downtown areas of the city from South Phoenix. Above that line, employment other than service jobs was all but off-limits to people of color, only Whites could purchase property, and after dusk, Blacks were prohibited from being out on the street—that part of Phoenix was a “sundown town.” Below Van Buren, Blacks and Latinos could buy homes and businesses, but banks had redlined the neighborhoods of South Phoenix, making it nearly impossible for would-be home- and business owners to get mortgages.
When I came to Phoenix 18 years ago as a college student, I didn’t know all the details of this history. But I did know that when I volunteered with youth as part of my major in non-profit management, I was the only Black male who was serving people who looked like me. To this day, in downtown Phoenix, where most of the economic development and wealth of the city is becoming concentrated, I still rarely see people who look like me in positions of leadership.
Of course, Phoenix has a deep history of African American resistance to the status quo and of Black leaders who have worked to dismantle racist policies and influence the city to embrace the diversity of its citizens. Take Calvin Coolidge Goode, the second African American ever to be elected to the City Council (on which he served for 22 years), who pushed through an ordinance that prohibited workplace discrimination against minorities, including gays and lesbians. He also steered Phoenix to adopt the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, paving the way for the state of Arizona to adopt it, too.
Today, at 92, Goode is a founder of the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center, which celebrates the city’s African American history and provides a communal space where residents can come together to forge the valley's future. The Center is housed in the former Carver High School building, built in 1927 as the only Black high school in the city’s segregated school system. (Goode graduated from Carver in 1945, and later worked there.)
As in cities and towns all across the country, the economic and social repercussions of the discriminatory policies that Goode and others have helped overturn still shape our communities today. South Phoenix, for one, has a majority of low-income renters and unconscionably high rates of eviction, and few residents have been able to accumulate wealth in the way that Whites in other sectors of the city have achieved through homeownership.
One of our partners, InSite Consultants, is facilitating the work among people of color to alter the generational effects of racism and power imbalance in South Phoenix through community engagement and design. This is especially crucial as Phoenix extends the city’s light rail system into the area. Development along the railway, which has been very successful in attracting commerce and people to areas it currently reaches, could potentially displace many longtime residents from their neighborhoods—and in fact, it’s already happening in some places.
InSite has rallied a broad range of community stakeholders to define—and create—the kind of local empowerment and ownership that South Phoenix residents want. Together, they are establishing a shared understanding of ideas like “safety” and “community” and are educating policy makers about the area’s past—and about what should never be repeated. These conversations are essential to elevating voices that have not been heard. They are also imperative to developing leaders who can get out in front of transit-oriented development and ensure that growth is inclusive and aligns with residents’ hopes and aspirations.
In fact, a new group of young leaders is emerging in Phoenix. Initiatives like the Young Black Organizer Project (YBOP) are training Black leaders around social justice and advocacy, and supporting young people to push for policy change and engage in the legislative process. To my eyes, this group is doing the work our communities need: empowering and organizing Black and Brown people to create a more equitable society. As a Black male (to be more specific, a Panamanian-American male) working in the nonprofit field dominated by white leadership serving majority Black and Brown populations, the key component of YBOP is mentoring and building leadership in our communities of color.
Another critical way we work to upend the legacy of disparity and segregation in our communities is through our local Financial Opportunity Centers. Minorities and disenfranchised residents are born in the dugout and have not even reached home plate when it comes to wealth building—they’re playing catch-up while people with resources have already hit a home run. We need to open up our economy to everyone, and part of that is getting people to think about having long-term success and financial freedom. That’s hard to do when you’re in crisis mode, and many of the clients we serve—borderline homeless people, women coming out of prison, refugees—are in crisis mode. With the right strategies, support and determination, though, it’s possible.
There’s still much work to be done, but system change is within our power. Our CEO, Maurice Jones, recently visited Phoenix and met with a number of our community partners. Some of the local leaders asked him what advice he had to offer: “Be aggressive,” he replied. Don’t let up the effort to create equity. Take risks.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dominic Braham, Program Officer, LISC Phoenix
Dominic Braham leads family income and wealth building, equity and anti-displacement strategies for LISC Phoenix. Dominic served as a Peace Corps advisor in the Dominican Republic for over two years, leading sustainable projects. Currently, he is a member of Real Engagement through Active Philanthropy (REAP), a group of African American males who give financial support with active involvement in the distribution of funds. He is also a faculty associate at Arizona State University's School of Public Services and Community Solutions where he teaching classes on subjects including cross sector leadership and design thinking.