A new compact for the Fourth of July

A new compact for the Fourth of July
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Rarely on a Fourth of July has America’s future felt so insecure. Our sitting president was elected with a minority of the popular vote, in an election with meddling by a foreign power to influence U.S. voters. He shows virtually no respect for constitutional principles, or often, basic human decency.

Although President TrumpDonald TrumpIran convicts American businessman on spying charge: report DC, state capitals see few issues, heavy security amid protest worries Pardon-seekers have paid Trump allies tens of thousands to lobby president: NYT MORE presents a serious problem, of greater concern is that he is a lagging indicator. He has snatched political success from the jaws of America’s fears: eroding confidence in democratic institutions; accelerating economic inequality and instability; and recharging the once tamped-down currents of nativism and racial bias.

Adequately responding to these foundational challenges demands nothing less than a new approach to democratic governance. We call that approach “community wealth building.”


Community wealth building seeks to address root causes of our most fundamental inequities, while engaging us all in a process of change that appeals not just to an activist minority but to the aspirations of the majority. Community wealth building sees social change not as trickling down from Washington, but built boldly from the ground up through concerted action to tackle the common challenges that American communities, and the nation as a whole, might face.

Our vision of community wealth building sees economic and social policymaking rooted more firmly in the foundational tenets of American civilization: tolerance, pluralism and equality of opportunity. The first step in doing this work is telling the truth about our severe structural flaws, evident in both our founding and in our recent past.

The American story is both devastating and hopeful over the arc of over 400 years, and an honest look reveals an obvious truth: that “America,” land of opportunity for everyone, has never existed. Oprah Winfrey, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden-Harris team unveils inauguration playlist Can the GOP break its addiction to show biz? The challenge of Biden's first days: staying focused and on message MORE and Sonia Sotomayor are exceptions, not the rule. Millions are locked in institutional disparities as old as our republic.

Our willingness to confront our imperfections in search of a more perfect union is, and remains, a hopeful story. But we are lulled into dangerous complacency if we assume that because rights and opportunities have expanded over time, growth is inevitable and irreversible. Those expansions happened — haltingly — because of the mighty, often deadly, struggles of Americans determined to close the gap between our founding flaws and our democratic aspirations.

Today, our task is to build an inclusive, multicultural democracy that provides opportunity, community and security for all. That’s what community wealth building is about.

Community wealth building efforts are defined by four key features: inclusive community participation, on the front end; the establishment of bold equity goals; the use of holistic strategies encompassing physical, financial and human capital to build wealth for individuals and communities; and the use of inclusive economic tools and strategies that build on existing assets and bring more capital and resources into communities.

We are encouraged by numerous community efforts underway nationally to deliberately redress poverty and expand opportunity that reflect this paradigm. Shared Prosperity Philadelphia is one example. It was launched in 2013 with a focus on key poverty-reduction pillars, including workforce development, early learning for children and strengthening economic security and asset building.

Because Philadelphia’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity is tracking metrics, stakeholders know they’re making progress against many of their goals — creating jobs, including jobs for low-skilled Philadelphians; improving individuals’ credit scores; increasing the number of financial institutions offering safe and affordable banking products and more. The community is an active participant alongside service providers, policymakers, the private sector, philanthropy and advocates, which deepens relationships and strengthens the fabric of the city.   

While there are many projects and promising examples, what has been missing in virtually all cases is sufficient resources and policy support to take these efforts to scale. Imaginative state and national policymaking, aimed not just at ameliorating the consequences of community problems such as underemployment but also tackling those problems at their source, can make a difference.

All Americans want to live in communities that provide employment opportunities, education, healthy public amenities, vibrant civic and social networks, and safety and security. A successful governing paradigm must demonstrate how democratic engagement and the political process can help communities achieve those goals, as directly and as tangibly as possible. Any alternative to President Trump — and more importantly, any effort to build an enduring and workable democracy — must comprehend the nature of this challenge.

This is a challenge we eagerly embrace. Indeed, we are hopeful because, as numerous communities have shown, we don’t need to wait for the next federal election to start bringing about real change. Our challenge this Independence Day is not the president’s latest tweet, but how to make inclusive democracy work — not again, but for the first time.

Melody Barnes is the Compton Visiting Professor in World Politics at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and chair of the Forum for Community Solutions at the Aspen Institute. She served as director of the Domestic Policy Council under President Obama.

Thad Williamson is associate professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond and former director of the Office of Community Wealth Building for the City of Richmond, Virginia.