Foundations of Socially Just and Sustainable Communities

By: Rex LaMore, Ph.D, Director

The Center for Community and Economic Development (CCED) is committed to helping advance MSU's land-grant mission by creating, applying, and disseminating valued knowledge through responsive engagement, strategic partnerships, and collaborative learning. We are dedicated to co-creating sustainable prosperity and equitable economies with communities. One of the challenges in achieving this mission is to identify a framework in which to target our limited resources. Communities are complex and their challenges are multi-faceted with social, environmental, economic and policy dimensions. In many situations part of the success in addressing a challenge is correctly identifying the “point of intervention”.

To guide us in our work, we adhere to a set of community development principles that reaffirm our commitment to a participatory problem-solving process that seeks to empower communities. Over the past two years we have focused much of our university/community partnerships on four “pillars” that represent key elements of socially just and equitable communities. These pillars which are briefly summarized in this article help us visualize and work towards a shared future where equitable communities survive and thrive.

Resiliency Planning Pillar

Resiliency planning is a multi-sector comprehensive planning process that incorporates social, environmental, and economic considerations to protect against shocks and stresses (both human-made and natural) that threaten to destabilize communities; identifying and implementing creative solutions that allow communities to thrive even under the most challenging conditions.

It requires a participatory process engaging a broad cross section of a community in predicting possible future disruptive events, enabling those actions that improve our survivability if an event happens and calls upon us to act responsibly (individually and collectively) in taking those actions that prevent or reduce the potential tragic consequences of an event. Creating human settlements that can weather global climate change, economic transformation in a low-carbon future and sustain a commitment to social justice and equity will require visionary leaders who can facilitate taking informed risks in a democratic system. Our collective fate as a species will be determined by our ability to strive for balance in an ever-changing environment.

Financial Resiliency Pillar

Another pillar essential to socially just and equitable communities is working to increase equity and expand the capacity of a community, its financial institutions, and individuals to invest in local businesses; supporting strategic initiatives to build capacity for community capital investing, mitigating the vicissitudes of other less accessible and viable capital markets for small businesses and main street.

Access to capital is a major impediment to new businesses forming and community revitalization in many distressed urban and rural communities in Michigan. Creating and supporting community investing in its varied forms is an important element of supporting critical technical and financial resources for housing and small business loans, financial management and business training, that supports those living at or below the poverty line and targeted minority small businesses access to capital and expertise ultimately supporting affordable housing development, job creation and comprehensive community revitalization. Growing financial resiliency by maximizing to the extent possible the reinvestment of community resources in local development helps builds community ownership and sustainability.

Circular Economies Pillar

An emerging aspect of sustainability is the concept of circularity. It includes working to develop supply chains that ‘close the loop’ on extractive and pollutive industries and move away from the ‘make, take, and throw away’ model of production and exploring strategies to create new industries, products and services that minimize waste, conserve energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and utilize outputs from one process as inputs in another.

The circular economy is a transformative framework for addressing the current disconnect between economic and environmental health and sustainability. Circular practices represent a systemic shift towards long-term environmental, social, and economic resilience locally and globally by embracing ecological truths, working to keep materials in use longer, providing end-of-useful-life solutions and enhancing collaboration throughout a product’s life cycle.

Circularity will be an essential component to address some of the most complex and wicked issues of the 21st century. This fundamental paradigm shift from a linear “take-make-waste” material throughout has the potential to combat economic instability while also providing economic opportunity and growth for communities seeking to address social inequalities.

We live on a finite planet and wastefully depleting our natural resources endangers future generations who will also rely on these resources. Those living today borrow the planet’s finite resources and vulnerable ecosystems from their progeny. This is the inherent stewardship contract of one generation to the next. Circularity in our material utilization stream is essential to sustainability and justice for future generations yet to be born.

21st Century Communications Pillar

This pillar focuses on working with communities to ensure all persons have access to the tools and technologies needed to create more connected and equitable communities. This gives individuals the capacity to live and work productively in an ever developing world. Access to broadband and other necessary technologies is not a commodity, but a fundamental necessity of a democratic society.

The Covid pandemic helped us see the sharp differences between those people and places that had access to the 21st Century communications infrastructure and those who did not. Economic progress and affordable, reliable access to the internet and all of its benefits is an essential pillar to creating socially just, economically vibrant and sustainable places. There is much work ahead to planning and building the infrastructure that is accessible to rural and urban America and providing the training and technical assistance to the businesses and residents of our state and nation such that they can participate in this new 21st Century communications revolution.

The Path Ahead

In this edition of our CCED newsletter you will have the opportunity to read about some of the innovative co-learning initiatives we are engaged in across the state to advance these four pillars which may serve as a foundation for supporting fair and just communities in Michigan. We welcome your support and engagement in this process and are grateful to our many partners who provide guidance and support to these efforts. Please join us as we move forward. To paraphrase the words of Frank Lloyd Wright, to build our communities such that they help build us.

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