During the recent Spotlight On Cities Conference, produced by the highly-respected news organization NJ Spotlight, panelists and participants alike affirmed that creativity and creative thinking are critical if we are going to solve the problems that plague our cities.
We heard this message not only during the opening plenary with former Governor Thomas H. Kean and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, but throughout the day as breakout sessions tackled issues of gentrification, urban education, immigration, integrated health, affordable housing, and transportation.
The conversations during the conference are similar to those we hear when we are working at the local level in small and large cities throughout the state, and our Creative New Jersey battle-cry of encouraging all our citizens to exercise our creative muscles so that we can design pathways that allow for innovation, and collaborate to use limited resources wisely and fairly was echoed throughout the halls of NJPAC during the conference.
And while the conference’s list of expert speakers was noteworthy, we were pleased that the NJ Spotlight team was willing to hold a breakout session where conference participants could contribute their expertise and knowledge, and we were happy to facilitate this group discussion.
Our session was titled, “Building an Urban Agenda,” and although we only had an hour, we asked attendees to pose topics for discussion under that theme; a tactic we use at Creative New Jersey.
Our blog readers know that our CNJ engagement process is, on average, 8 to 12 months in length and culminates in a two-day 16-hour conference — so a one-hour session was a bit of an experiment! But the power of individuals to assemble around the issues they care most about never ceases to amaze us.
Within the first five minutes, topics proposed from participants included:
- Creating healthy cities and communities, including environmental and natural solutions
- Racism and creating community among diverse peoples
- Economic democracy
- Addressing crumbling infrastructure and green solutions
In a span of 30 minutes, these four robust conversations allowed people to connect with each other, lend their knowledge and expertise to inform their peers, build consensus around issues, and formulate questions that were raised with the gubernatorial candidates at a session later that afternoon.
A sampling of key points raised in the conversations included:
- Public health policies need to be integrated into broader government policies, and state/municipal departments and divisions because improved public health benefits us all;
- Need to address toxic stress with trauma informed care;
- Available and reliable transportation is intricately tied to healthy outcomes for individuals and families;
- Culturally competent care will continue to be necessary as our population continues to grow more racially and ethnically diverse.
- Need to minimize the impact of “culture wars” by providing opportunities for parents and children to experience more diversity; this will build deeper understanding across cultures;
- Need to create opportunities for open and honest conversations about implicit bias;
- Racism is a complex issues and it’s helpful to speak in a small group about racism (like the small group discussion during this session); we need to create opportunities for people to speak in small groups in city neighborhoods and schools;
- Need to create those “safe spaces for dialogue” with intention and respect as part of an urban agenda.
- Look at successful programs in other states, such as New York City’s “participatory budgeting” process in which citizens are involved in state budgeting conversations, or civic cooperatives, such as those outlined in Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice by Jessica Gordon Nembhard;
- Consider progressive taxes based on income instead of property;
- Consider forming a separate Education fund that is funded independently from property taxes;
- Help citizens and government understand that there is a tangible payoff for being engaged with each other.
- It is vitally important to develop the strategy for infrastructure improvements with clear prioritization of projects and goals, and how this supports job creation;
- Mass transit infrastructure upgrade must be a priority;
- Can local monitoring, rather that state monitoring of things like air and water quality be implemented to motivate change in communities?;
- Public state banking may be a way to help with funding, as could cap and trade models that would collect fees to help fund green solutions.
As we find in all of our Creative New Jersey work: when given the opportunity (even only an hour!), people will bring their best creative thinking, bold insight, and courage to sit shoulder-to-shoulder and participate in difficult conversations.
It’s been a long time since our state has had an Urban Agenda and we’re hopeful that a collaborative and inclusive strategy can bring about a creative process that will lift up our struggling urban centers so they can take their rightful place alongside other great American cities.
We are going to need all the creativity we can muster to make this happen—and the full support and engagement of our next Governor. Thankfully, the citizens of New Jersey can rely upon NJ Spotlight to continue to serve as our steady beacon.
Learn more about the Spotlight on Cities event here.
Elizabeth A. Murphy is the part-time Director of Creative New Jersey. She also regularly consults with other nonprofit and philanthropic organizations through her consulting firm, The Murphy Group, Inc. Kacy O’Brien is Creative New Jersey’s Program Manager and a Lead New Jersey 2015 Fellow.
Creative New Jersey is dedicated to fostering creativity, innovation, and sustainability by empowering cross-sector partnerships in commerce, education, philanthropy, government, and culture in order to ensure dynamic communities and a thriving economy.
Creative New Jersey’s leaders and partners are regular contributors to the Dodge blog.