Drew: My first question ties your work and the Foundation together. In some ways I think the Foundation exists to help us be better community members and to make good collective decisions about the future of our community. So, let's talk about the value of looking back to understand our past. Tell us what you've learned from other communities.
Heather: I want to say first that I'm not a historian. I'm a lawyer and economist, somebody who is really focused mostly on the future, how to fix problems, how to move us forward. I sort of reluctantly came to study and then tell the story of the steps we took to get here so that we really understand where we are. Because there are so many things in society that don't make sense unless and until you know the history.
"There are so many things in society that don't make sense unless and until you know the history."
I want to tell a story about a woman I met last summer. Her name is Rachel and she's a white suburban mom in her early 40s from Tulsa, Oklahoma. She grew up there and was educated in Oklahoma public schools all the way through her law degree. And yet, she never learned about the 1921 Tulsa race massacre of Black Wall Street until she saw the HBO series Watchmen. When she found out, she was enraged and embarrassed. She recalled a memory of riding in her dad's station wagon as a kid. They were driving through Tulsa's historically Black Greenwood neighborhood and she asked her dad why the neighborhood looked so run down. Her dad shrugged, and her lesson that day was, there's just something wrong with Black people. She didn't learn until much later that this area used to be called Black Wall Street—that there was a conspiracy to destroy it, to murder people, to firebomb it, and deny the insurance claims. Then the good people of Greenwood rebuilt it, and it was a thriving middle-class community until the 1950s, when the city ran a highway through it.
In the absence of history, the disparities that we see in every community don't have a why, except there must be something wrong with those people. Today, a Black college graduate has less wealth on average than a white high school dropout. I'm talking about wealth here—your home equity, your savings, your retirement stocks and bonds. It makes no sense. The Black college graduate has a degree, a great job, a higher income. They've done everything they need to do except go back in time and make sure their grandparents weren't redlined out of owning an asset, because wealth is where history shows up in your wallet.
In the absence of history, the disparities that we see in every community don't have a why, except there must be something wrong with those people.
That's just one example of how the past is not in the past. Knowing our history, including our recent history, is so important because examples like redlining and the events in Tulsa didn't take place 400 years ago. My great grandparents were alive when they happened. It's not just Black history or American history—it's all our history. And it's an asset to know our shared history.
"It's not just Black history or American history—it's all our history."
Drew: Let's talk about the Solidarity Dividend from your book and how it plays out in local economies. A strategic priority of the Foundation is to build an inclusive economy, an economy that provides everyone opportunities for upward mobility. What can we learn from other communities where people are not just coexisting but thriving through their differences?
Heather: In private enterprise, we've been able to see a huge benefit when diverse teams of people are looking at the same problem from different vantage points based on their lived experience. We know from the Harvard Business Review and from cognitive science that diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams every single time. This is our untapped superpower.
For so much of my career, industrial policy was something this country did not have—for example the government saying we should make things in the U.S. instead of giving companies tax breaks to send our jobs to other places. Today, we have an industrial policy focused on solving the existential threat and economic opportunity of our lifetime, which is global climate change and the need to transition to clean energy. We've got an incredible amount of private money and public money trying to seed all these new industries, with manufacturing at the highest level it's been since the 1970s.
I've visited a lot of communities across the country, many like Winston-Salem, where there was a history of textile manufacturing and industries like tobacco that eventually plummeted, and then everybody felt the pain. Now the question is, are we going to recognize that we have to rebuild in a way that brings everybody in? Because we need to use all of our collective effort and ingenuity.
I remember talking to somebody who worked for an oil company, and he said he hated breaking his back for something he knew was making it harder for his son to breathe. Today we have an opportunity to give our lives in service of something bigger than us, to help save the planet and make it easier for our children to breathe. And we've got to do it in ways where there is a real solidarity dividend, so that communities who have been polluted first and worst have ownership and an equity stake in the solutions for the clean economy. That's the kind of thing that can be decided and done at the local level.
The kinds of networks that exist in this room and through the Foundation are vital. You need every stakeholder here today to join in, including business leaders, local leaders, universities and community colleges, and grassroots organizations. Your job is to make sure that this work happens equitably and that it becomes a multiplier for that solidarity dividend to help remake this economy for everyone.
"Your job is to make sure that this work happens equitably and that it becomes a multiplier for that solidarity dividend to help remake this economy for everyone."
RESOURCES FOR CONTINUED LEARNING:
- Read Heather’s book, The Sum of Us, and check out her discussion guide (she also has a Young Reader’s Edition of the book)
- Listen to The Sum of Us Companion Podcast and learn how to take action locally
- Watch Heather's Ted Talk about how racism has a cost for everyone
- Learn more about our past exhibit, Undesign the Redline, which highlights federal discriminatory redlining practices starting in the 1930’s
- Explore our local history of school integration through the interactive website, Rooted in Race, curated by Triad Cultural Arts