Questions about Diversity and Inclusion

Mike Holler

Hello there, long time reader, first time writer, etc.

I live in Chicago, and do volunteering for a number of community organizations here. In many of the neighborhoods I am involved in, black and Latino Chicagoans are the majority. I have read the Strong Towns book, several articles, seen the fantastic NotJustBikes series on YouTube, listened to podcast episodes, and watched some of the Strong Towns Academy free course. From what I have humbly observed in the communities I'm involved with, I feel that the Strong Towns approach of building communities with local stakeholders and interests can have great benefit in these neighborhoods.

Before I continue, I want to take a moment to express my gratitude to Chuck Malone and the Strong Towns team for opening my eyes to these issues and effective solutions. I believe, deeply, in the mission of the organization, and its ability to improve public welfare and create truly sustainable communities. One of the things that brought me to Strong Towns is the commitment to political diversity -- right, left, and center, I feel the message is well crafted to appeal to people regardless of their political identity. That said, I think a declared commitment to other forms of diversity within Strong Towns is critical for scaling the movement.

At current, I am reserved about sharing Strong Towns with the communities I work with because, to be direct, in all of the research I've found, I have not knowingly consumed Strong Towns material written, produced, or presented by people of racial and ethnic minorities. From my perspective, Strong Towns staff and members, collectively, are far from reflecting the diversity present in the United States. I have also looked for, but have been unable to find, resources from Strong Towns stating and measuring the effectiveness of multidimensional diversity and inclusion efforts within the organization, or seen a commitment to making this available. Citizens' Climate Lobby is an example of an organization that, I think, is doing a good job with with transparency and commitment to diversity. That said, I acknowledge that they are an older organization and have substantially more funding than the Strong Towns movement.

Many of the people in communities I work in within Chicago are understandably skeptical of organizations that claim to offer help when that help comes from outside communities, due to a history of extraction and inequity that has so often led to the current state of their neighborhood. With Strong Towns in particular, the language of building profitable communities that are mindful of the economic realities does share some commonality with other political philosophies claiming to support "market and economic solutions" (even if those other philosophies aren't really market/economic solutions).

Let's talk about a concrete example: in Englewood, a majority low-income black neighborhood in Chicago, the opening of Whole Foods in 2016 was hailed as a community, business, and market solution to one of the city's most notorious food deserts. Earlier in 2022, Whole Foods announced they were closing the location after having received over $10 million in tax breaks. In Strong Towns, we know that this isn't a sustainable development practice for improving a community, and that this outcome was more-or-less inevitable. However, for citizens who aren't familiar with Strong Towns, to many this seemed like a great idea in 2016. An outside group presenting another solution that "sounds good right now" -- like Strong Towns -- comes with challenges, especially when that group originates from outside the community.

I've laid out a lot here, but I've not yet posed any questions, or made any requests. Now that I've built the context above, I'm comfortable doing so:

  1. What is Strong Towns' current diversity data, and/or commitment to improving multi-dimensional diversity within the organization? Are there any pages, articles, or resources I missed? Having access to these would help me feel more comfortable sharing Strong Towns with these communities, as entry points.
  2. What are your recommendations for me for how to advocate for Strong Towns concepts and principals within communities like those I've described? Does Strong Towns have any existing educational materials or guidance for this kind of outreach, or plans to create them?
  3. It strikes me that creating change in neighborhoods within cities, rather than changing (relatively) smaller towns might come with additional (and/or different) challenges. Do Strong Towns chapters in other large cities have success stories or advice to share?

Thank you for taking the time to read and consider my questions. It is my goal to be direct, honest, constructive, and respectful while showing gratitude for the great work Strong Towns has already accomplished. I acknowledge that limited time and resources are always a challenge, and wish that readers of this post do not take my questions personally. I write out of a desire to create a stronger movement and empower as many people as possible to create meaningful change in their communities.



  • Comment author
    Norm Van Eeden Petersman

    Mike Holler: Thank you for writing such a thorough and thoughtful post. Your questions and the examples you offered are really important and I'll be asking our team to provide a more detailed answer on this front. The Strong Towns movement, as a whole, is made up of a wide array of members and local advocates and it's heartening for me, as the Member Advocate, to see the increasingly diverse makeup of our membership. The trends are moving in the right direction but we have a long ways to go until we fully express the broad experience of residents in all communities. One area I want to highlight is the steps my colleague Rachel Quednau has taken to bring a lot of new voices to the Strong Towns community through the Bottom-Up Revolution podcast. Our contributors come from a growing number of backgrounds and lived experiences - which is a key part of expanding the reach and impact of the organization's efforts. As you point out, we must find ways to have as many people as possible labouring together to create meaningful change for lasting prosperity. 

  • Comment author
    Charles Marohn

    There was one sentence in Mike's original question I wanted to highlight, because it does allow me to point out something important about what we're doing at Strong Towns. Mike wrote:

    An outside group presenting another solution that "sounds good right now" -- like Strong Towns -- comes with challenges, especially when that group originates from outside the community.

    We experience a growing number of people from traditionally disadvantaged communities finding value in our message because we are -- first and foremost -- bottom-up in any strategy we offer. Note that we don't typically talk about our approach in terms of being a "solution" but in terms of a way of responding to stress and opportunity. 

    We don't have a set of grand solutions or top-down approaches that we are calling to be imposed on people. In fact, we are the exact opposite. We demand that all decisionmakers seek to understand communities, their challenges, and their solutions, starting at the block level and working from there. Always bottom-up. Always starting with an attempt to humbly understand where people struggle.

    So, if you're looking for ways to introduce our ideas to the types of communities you describe, the only advice I have is that you do it with humility, consistent with our four-step approach


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