Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Lessons in Economic Development During my Vacation

By Ranada Robinson, Senior Project Associate. 

For my birthday, I traveled to Buenos Aires, Argentina, with my mom and three dear friends for a week of relaxation and adventure. Not too long after I got there, however, I experienced firsthand what we see in many surveys and hear in many focus groups about why it’s important to feel welcome in a community. In the first restaurant we tried after arriving, our waiter ignored us. Luckily, we were with a tour guide, who wasn’t a black woman (like each of us are), who was able to get a little more attention and he ordered for us all. The waiter wouldn’t split our checks, even though the party at the table beside us did. It wasn’t until after we gave him a $5 tip (over 20 pesos) that he actually was attentive, but of course, by then we were leaving. We still hadn’t attributed that experience to our color, however. It was obvious that we weren’t the norm there—rarely did we see anyone our shade over the week, but still, no worries! Then we hopped on the subway, and I’ve never been so stared at in my life. I thought I was paranoid so I didn’t say anything. On day 3, we were walking through our neighborhood San Telmo and a guy started screaming at us in Spanish and laughing the way dirty old men laugh after telling inappropriate jokes. That’s when we all fully realized that we were not being paranoid. We pulled out the trusty iPads and electronic devices and started googling some history—and sure enough, there’s some murky stories having to do with black people in Buenos Aires. 

Once we knew that, we felt better prepared, and the rest of the trip was a cinch. The stares didn’t bother us so much; we weren’t so surprised if we got a below par waiter (and for the record—we have a couple of really awesome waiters and almost all of our taxi drivers were the nicest people ever!); and thankfully, no one else screamed at us. It all points back to the ongoing difficult conversation that many communities must have about diversity and ensuring a welcoming environment for people of all kinds of backgrounds. As Mac loves to say—every visitor is a potential new resident, employer, or employee so each visit is very important. Sure, overall, we had an awesome time, and I celebrated another birthday with an incredible bang, but I did wonder a couple of times if we should have taken our money to some other country’s economy. 

Another thing to remember here is that the diversity conversation cannot just be a high-level conversation between a few people in an office—changing the perception of community takes the entire community. It takes listening to community members, educating the masses, and really communicating what the goal is and why that goal is so important. We’ve had clients who have done much to tackle negative perception issues dealing with all types of issues, from race to religion to gender to class. Being a welcoming community isn’t just slapping up a sign up that says “All are welcome.” It’s ensuring that there are opportunities for all that want them. It’s having community roundtables that foster focused dialogue between various stakeholder groups. It’s hosting diversity summits to bring people together and let them know what the community, especially its business community, has to share. It’s thinking ofinnovative ways to expose children in underrepresented groups to future career options. It’s bringing everyone to the decision-making table. There are great examples from communities all over, some of which were featured in a Chamber Executive article.

Developing cooperative, inclusive communities isn’t an easy task, but it isn’t an impossible one. The first step is acknowledging the issues and not allowing people to think that they’re simply paranoid when they look around and feel unwelcomed. The second step is remembering that people are every community’s greatest asset and without them, it’s pretty hard to employ effective economic development initiatives.