By DARREN L. JAMES
Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce
As the economy restarts, we must not be comfortable with the status quo or “the way things were.” We must not let the “New Now” or the past be the “New Future” or “New Normal.” As COVID-19 and the ensuing economic crisis have painfully illustrated, historical policies and actions or, more specifically, planned inaction have caused devastating impacts in certain communities. These areas are defined by traditional redlining practices, lack of infrastructure investment, a dearth of quality health care options, lack of healthy grocery stores, and, more recently, a growing digital divide. COVID-19 exacerbated the underlying disinvestment and underinvestment in these communities. Centuries of policy decisions are being laid bare, and a significant portion of the country is suffering from intended and unintended consequences.
Now is the time to seek new paths forward. No longer should any residents, regardless of race or ethnicity, have to endure pre-COVID conditions today. We can no longer afford to ignore sizable swaths of regions and the value they have added to our economy and society. The disconnect will continue to grow if we continue to ignore what has been clearly identified, articulated, and illustrated by this crisis. We have the collective power to change the trajectory and transform our communities. We know better, and now is the time to do better.
As our entire planet is the process of pivoting to the digital realm to meet our everyday needs, dealing with the “digital divide” in the city of Dallas is a top priority of the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce. The “digital divide” appeared to be an ugly truth, swept under the rug prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. When 40% of public-school children lack high-speed internet or even connectivity, the educational and skills gap will have long-ranging implications. Imagine missing entire lessons or work assignments because internet service is spotty or unavailable. Affordability is not the primary barrier. We can all agree that children are the key to our future. They need nurturing, sustenance, shelter, stability, and healthy living environments. Their principal barrier is network infrastructure. These communities have dealt with slow to non-existent service for years. It is beyond time for this issue to be addressed. Without connectivity, distance learning, remote work from home and online commerce are impossible. Cities across the country have dealt with this disparity via fiber network investment so that businesses can access similar internet speeds as their counterparts have in other parts of their respective cities. Other areas and overlay districts have been created, providing public access wi-fi addressing affordability concerns. We are pushing our partners to help us assist our communities with these kinds of solutions.
We also know that diets influenced by convenience store offerings, instead of full-service grocery stores with fresh produce and meat, is impacting the health outcomes of surrounding residents. Fast food meals and piecemeal shopping is much more expensive than weekly visits to a top-line grocery store. The lack of access to fresh fruits and veggies inhibits healthy cooking and eating habits, which affects the health of residents. Higher incidences of hypertension, heart diseases, and other preventable conditions are directly attributable to one’s diet. With the daily data illustrating higher COVID-19 infection rates from these areas due to underlying health conditions, we must push to address the shortage of full-service grocery stores throughout our underserved communities. Affordable healthy food options provide exponential benefits to these neighborhoods. Decent paying jobs, healthy children, healthy adults and neighborhood stabilization are just a few of the visible signs.
Preventive health starts with nutritional eating. Instead of reactive health care, preventative community health becomes part of a holistic approach to a vibrant, healthy public. Our community values our health as much as any community in the United States – but they lack access to the clinics and health care they need. Health care desserts are just as real as food desserts. The lack of high-quality preventive health care increases the likelihood of adverse outcomes. Preventive health care options, more clinics, better health education, paired with full-service grocery stores in target communities, can change and improve the lives of our residents.
We are in the moment to accelerate these conversations and hasten the call to action. The iron is hot now. We must leverage this time, focus, and collective spirit working with our neighbors as they have invested in their respective communities. Let us not wake up 5 years, 10 years or 20 years from now and regret that we did not invest in our neighbors when the time was right, and the data supported concerted efforts to make a tangible difference.
The COVID-19 pandemic created an inflection point. We have already emerged changed from our shared experiences. Continue that change by avoiding the rush to get back to a semblance of normalcy that you knew before. Your talents, capabilities, knowledge, and your voice should be felt and heard now. In this COVID-19 era, as we go through stages of restarting the economy, attention should be paid to previously underinvested areas. It is incumbent on policymakers, civic leaders, elected and appointed officials to recognize the critical importance for utilizing this transition for community-focused investment.
Darren L. James, FAIA, is the chair of the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce and president of KAI Enterprises