As I reflect on my time here at Milano, there are a few things that I think about. One is that I’m going to miss many of the people here after we go our different ways. I’ve met some brilliant, kind, passionate people here. Another thing is that the policy analysis framework is something that I anticipate will be useful far down the road.
But there’s another thought that I have, a thought that I didn’t expect to have when I came into the program. Certain policy issues and neighborhoods tend to be invisible at Milano. In other words, we just don’t see them.
I came to Milano because I have a burning desire to serve my community of Harlem in particular and urban black neighborhoods in general. I thought that at Milano, I would find a community of aspiring policy makers and scholars actively engaged in urban policy matters that directly impact urban communities of color. Sadly, this is not the case. This is not to say that Milano is completely devoid of any discussion of urban communities of color, but there is not the level of emphasis I would like to see in a program that is supposed to offer an alternative to Columbia’s SIPA and NYU’s Wagner. We only have a couple of courses that directly address issues of race, and both of them, to my knowledge, are taught by one professor – Darrick Hamilton. I think Leigh Graham’s classes may also address issues of race, but her Economic Development course wasn’t offered this semester and she’s off to another university next fall. Karen Merson has led the Making a Difference course, but my understanding is that the course is more of a general question-your-assumptions survey of oppression.
I think an urban policy program rooted in social justice should have greater emphasis on the plight and assets of urban communities of color and the potential policy options to improve the lives of people living in these communities.
Now, I should note that the Laboratory in Issue Analysis and Community Development Finance Lab has featured neighborhoods of color including Harlem, the South Bronx, and Brownsville. Political Economy of City definitely includes discussions of race and class but its only a piece. The course helps students understand how ghettoes came to be but doesn’t take the next step in examining possible policy solutions.
I think that a large reason why urban policy impacting communities of color is noticeably absent at Milano is because urban policy aimed at the improvement of communities of color is noticeably absent from government at all levels (notwithstanding Bloomberg’s Young Men’s Initiative). Ironically, we learn about neoliberalism and the devolution of government over the past 30 – 40 years, but we do not examine potential policy alternatives to compensate. Just because the Federal Government isn’t funding community action programs and community development corporations like it was in the 1960′s doesn’t mean that problems that gave rise to such programs have been solved. It seems that once the Empowerment Zones money ran out, once Boyz N the Hood became cliché, and once hip-hop became the best-selling music genre, the problems facing urban communities of color weren’t “sexy” policy issues anymore. At best, we look at pieces – urban education (charter schools vs. district schools), affordable housing, and food deserts. But what about the whole picture?
How can we send policy makers out into the world without ensuring that they have a full understanding of how urban policy has impacted urban communities of color? How can we do this and claim to be a social justice institution? The Obama Administration was supposed to shine a new light on urban policy in America, but the President’s urban policy efforts seem to be going nowhere fast. As a heterodox and social justice-oriented institution and program, we should not be constrained by what’s hot right now. Of course there is the reality of offering programs and courses based on demand. I’m not challenging that, but what I am saying is that Milano should not just be driven by consumer demand, it should encourage students to engage issues that are overlooked in the popular policy discourse. Milano needs to have a greater emphasis on race, class, and what’s going on in communities of color across the city.
EDITED TO ADD: I also have to give a shout out to Robert Zdenek’s Community Development course. Unfortunately it’s not being offered next year. Supply and demand.
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