“We Are City” Summit – Are We?

“It is virtually impossible to pass a day in the United States without making use of race. Race is the main characteristic most Americans use to classify each other. It is the first or second thing we notice about a stranger we pass on the street or a new acquaintance approaching to shake our hand. Race determines which church most Americans attend, where they buy a house, the persons they choose to marry, whom they vote for, and the music they listen to. Race is evident in the color of inner-city and suburban schools, prison populations, the U.S. Senate, and Fortune 500 boardrooms…” Dorothy Roberts, Fatal Invention: How science, politics and big business re-create race in the twenty-first century, September 2011.

Last month in my two-part blog titled: An Olympic reality in the wake of a legacy, one of my central points was inclusion  and parity of under-represented people of color and minorities in the public service sector, economic and community development, nonprofits and philanthropic industries. Working from a premise of “Nothing about us, without us” I attempted to highlight in part, how the lack of diversity in leadership (central and key positions) plays a role in communities of color being and remaining on the margins.

Last month I attended the “We are City” Summit and much like Erika Smith, Metro Columnist for the Indianapolis Star, “I didn’t fully know what to expect when I walked into the Harrison Center for the Arts on Friday (9-21-2012) for the five-hour-long We Are City Summit.” (Indy Star: 9-22-2012). 

We are City – Summit

What I was not hoping for, was an experience and audience similar to the likes of the Urbanized Summit. Held last year at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), the attendance was limited in diversity and was comprised of the usual suspects. “We are City” displayed a focus of “Advancing ideas that make a better city”. However, like the Urbanized Summit, the company was sparse on diversity; so much that I could count the number of people of color in the room (including the several the presenters) on one hand.  Yet this was “We Are City” Summit“.  Not even a quarter of the persons in the room, let alone the majority) looked like me, nor many others like me, engaged and invested in Indianapolis. I proceeded to transcend this reality to focus on the day’s presentations, opportunities to fellowship with colleagues and peers and engage in “real talk”; a main ingredient in advancing neighborhoods, communities and cities.

Scanning the program, I immediately noticed the list of presenters was more diverse than the make-up of the audience. In addition, 50% of them were from other mature city’s such as: Boston, New York City, Cleveland & Pittsburgh. What a contrast, that the presenters at a summit entitled “We are City”, should be more diverse than the audience in the room.  What does this say about the planning process, the event organizers and sponsor perception of “We are City?” Why was there such a sparse representation in the audience of  people color? Was I the only one who noticed this glaring reality of lack of representation? Or is this  audience the true representation of the citizenry “We are City” envision’s for Indianapolis’ growth and development?

None-the-less, the presenters were awesome, diverse and unique in their respective fields and producing ideas impacting and propelling their respective City’s forward. Let me first apologize to the last presenters  Medrick Addison, Brad Beaubien and Michael Huber for missing their presentations. I was obligated to another appointment. I worked with Brad, a fine educator and urban planner, on the Mid-North Quality of Life Plan and Michael and I served on a panel together: The Lasting Legacy, discussing the lasting legacy of the Super Bowl.  http://www.wfyi.org/TheLastingLegacy.asp.  More importantly, Michael is an avid EPL (English Premier League) follower, making for good football talk.

The Summit was divided into three sections, Measure, Interpret and Connect. The work these presenters are engaged in and suggesting is impactful in making Cities inclusive, collective, livable, artistic, practical and a base of learning and critical inquiry, all the while being relevant.

Nigel Jacob (Measure), Senior Advisor for Emerging Technologies to the Mayor of Boston, in part focused on emerging technologies inclusive of citizens; describing specifically designed phone applications allowing citizens to interface with City Hall in real-time. For example, one particular application enables residents to capture and upload photographs of infrastructure needs for their community.  Another application allows a city worker to upload images upon completion of a repair, building or infrastructure project. My favorite was the  app that tracts bumps in the road as one drives; sending real-time information back to the City to determine and report the stress level of that street or thoroughfare. (http://www.cityofboston.gov/mayor)

Oliver “Olly” Blank (Interpret) a composer, born in Manchester,  lived in London and now resides in both New Orleans and Helsinki. His music is the environment; created by his ability to build “sound toys” that can transform city noise into a symphony. His compositions can  be found in various piazza’s in parts of Europe, adding calmness to the hustling, fast paced and sometimes scary places (especially to those getting used to city living). During break, we were able to engage in some “real talk” with Valeria Magilevich. We shared various experiences about living in a city, especially being individuals of color. We talked about Indianapolis and its current phase as a developing city. We compared and contrasted New York City, London and Indianapolis and of course we talked football (soccer). Actually, it was my second question to Oliver, “So Manchester City or Manchester United?” His answer, “United man!” Music to my ears, from there we cracked on. mroliverblank.com/

Oliver Blank

Oliver Blank

Javier Barrera, founding board member of Latino Youth Collective,  shared an insightful presentation as to why increasing Transit Oriented Development (TOD) can be both user-friendly, essential, relative and lucrative. His opening remarks drove home a cultural difference. Drawing  on his experience growing up in Veracruz, Mexico where all youth use public transport to get to and from school; elementary school through college. Unlike the U.S. (Indianapolis included), school busing has become a necessary evil. Busing provides some sense of safety for the children but also decreases their ability to learn, explore and connect to other  parts of the City through experiences. His presentation was simple: turn bus stops and buses into wi-fi hot spots. While waiting for the bus, students of all ages would be able to complete homework, prepare presentations or do coursework from GED to SAT to GRE/GMAT.

In addition, since in most cases students will have at least a one hour trip (given current transit patterns), the buses could be equipped with the same wi-fi, allowing connectivity to continue during the ride.  User-friendly and essential, these options allow students to make use of their waiting time, then carrying their work onto the bus when it arrives. Lucrative, this system would increase ridership for Indygo; supporting the need for increased routes and current discussion around developing a light rail system.  The Latino Collective is a program that provides opportunities for youth to engage in community development through critical pedagogy, grassroots organizing and collective action. http://www.latinoyouthcollective.com/

Valeria Magilevich, Program Director at Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) (Measure), was by far my favorite presenter, sorry Olly! In reviewing the summit with my colleagues, it was determined that she presented material that was most connected to “the work on the ground”; developing a  base of learning and critical inquiry, civic engagement and action. CUP creates projects that demystify the city’s complex system in an effort to increase meaningful civic engagement. Their project-based learning and community engagement works with youth and adults throughout the city, on everything from What happens after one flushes the toilet? to What is affordable housing? And what does it mean for you? Using physical objects as tools of education, learning, decision-making and actions, CUP empowers youth, adults and low-communities on current issues which impact their well-being.  As Valeria said, “We are making policy public” and addressing economic and community development – “nothing about us, without us.” http://welcometocup.org/

“Nothing about us, without us!” captures my earlier point of “We are City Summit” being grounded on a premise “to advance ideas that make a better city” yet lacking important representation from other ethnicity’s and cultural groups. These groups make up the social and economic fabric of Indianapolis. As we know, there is a strong East Indian contingency in this city, an equally strong Caribbean cohort and likewise, a strong African and Latino base, which adds daily to the growth and development of Indianapolis

“Nothing about us, without us!”  Sitting there I wondered why various resident and organizational stakeholders were not present in the audience (or participating as presenters). Anthony Beverly, Executive Director of Stop the Violence, works to decrease gun violence in the city. Working tirelessly with his own resources, offering workshops in working with gangs in an effort to turn in guns. Stop the Violence presents alternatives to youth in communities fallen victim to the science of social deprivation, a place “We are City” has yet to visit. (http://www.stoptheviolenceindy.com/).

Imhotep Adisa, Executive Director of Kheprw Institute participates in the Mid-North Quality of Life Plan. Kheprw’s organization mantra is “Community Empowerment through Self Mastery”. This simply means, the things we ourselves can do and improve upon, can lead to community empowerment. Kheprw Institute includes Ki NuMedia, an entrepreneurial youth engagement medium, providing local website building and printing services. KI’s “Real Talk” focuses on current social issues and Friday night at 317 Cafe: Omni-mic allows young and old  artists to come together and share vision, experiences, pain and dreams through spoken word or whatever medium one chooses. KI places specific focus on documenting and discussing the complexities of  issues facing our time. The Institute has ventured into Aquaponics; connecting education to entrepreneurship.  In addition, KI Community School and The Ki EcoCenter, houses the majority of the Kheprw Institute’s initiatives.(http://kiecocenterorg.ipage.com/kheprwhome/)

Imhotep Adisa

Imhotep Adisa

“Nothing about us, without us!”Brightwood Entertainment, Tyrone Davis editor and publisher of, Twenty4Seven magazine in Martindale-Brightwood. This local entrepreneur, holds a full-time job, hosts a local radio show “The Cut” and manages a hip-hop magazine of local artists and events in his spare time. Tyrone, has a passion for Indianapolis and understands the challenges of developing a big cities uses of creative and safe spaces.  (http://www.brightwoodentertainment.com/). My list could go on as I am sure the list for the sponsors and organizers must have been exhaustive.

“’We Are City’ is an effort to build consensus around a variety of topics, to form a shared narrative of our values and vision for Indianapolis,” said Michael Kaufmann, director of special projects and civic investment at Health and Hospital Corporation, one of the co-founders and organizers of the event. “The goal is to propel us forward through both an analysis of our past, an acknowledgment of our present, and a hope for our future.” (IBJ News Release – August 30, 2012)

The “We are City” Summit may have started the process of building consensus around these topics. As for creating  a shared narrative of our values and vision for Indianapolis, it will surely have to include a broader, more inclusive and reflective audience in a City that is moving toward a majority minority. If the hope for this City’s future is centered around truly shared values of all stakeholders, cultures and ethnicity’s  propelling Indianapolis forward, “We are City” will require an even more thorough  analysis and acknowledgement of the present, with a willingness to move outside of its traditional relationships and comfort zones.

I think William Sloan Coffin Jr. activist and clergyman, captured the challenge facing Indianapolis’ organizers and sponsors of “We are City” as it advances ideas that make a city better:  

“Diversity may be the hardest thing for a society to live with and perhaps the most dangerous thing for a society to be without”



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