Racial Equity Sketches: #1, Mobility & Access
Racial Equity Sketches
(Original Content by the Commission on Economic Inclusion)
About the Series: The Commission is launching a year-long storytelling project called Racial Equity Sketches, in which we demonstrate how racial equity is interconnected with issues affecting both the business community and our larger community. These fictional stories are meant to imagine what making “an equitable decision” could look like. Through them, we hope to reveal that equity is not always a major comprehensive strategy, but rather the compilation of many small, informed & thoughtful decisions. Each story is also followed by data and resources for further reading.
#1: Mobility & Access
It was a sunny morning in Cleveland. Through a crack in the curtains, a ray of light made its way through the bedroom window of a historic suburban home. Inside, Daniel had been awake for nearly an hour, trying to contain his excitement and contemplate what the next few hours would bring.
Today was the day. For months, Daniel had been in negotiations with real estate developers and city leaders to finalize the plan for what was sure to be one of the biggest wins for his company in years: a relocation.
When Daniel founded his company, Illustra Inc., nearly 20 years ago, it was only him and a couple college friends. Picking a “headquarters” wasn’t difficult — all three lived near downtown at the time, and Daniel was able to find office space that met their modest needs. Back then, Daniel could have never expected the predicament he found himself in now.
What was once a small enterprise burgeoned over the years into a successful and profitable professional services firm with more than 200 employees. They went from a one-room suite to renting the entire office building. But this year, several departments within the organization were ready to expand. And that meant Illustra Inc., would need a new home.
Luckily, Daniel found the perfect place. It was closer to where his family lived now, which meant he would have time in the mornings with his 3-year-old daughter before leaving for work. His executive team agreed it was the ideal business decision. Costs would go down, their employees would pay less for parking, the building was beautiful—and not to mention, the deal came with a fairly attractive tax incentive. Unlike most deliberations Illustra’s C-suite experienced in the past, the relocation decision reached an effortless consensus.
Nothing about this day could possibly go wrong, and Daniel’s fingers were itching to finally sign the official papers. When he walked into the office that morning, the excitement on his face was apparent.
“Looks like somebody just got a new client today!”
The chirpy voice came from the front desk where Irene, always the first person at work, was sitting. Irene was Illustra’s fourth hire and stayed with the company through the rocky times. Though he didn’t say it aloud enough, Daniel was deeply grateful for Irene. Her lively greetings and loving nature brightened everyone’s day and set the foundation for Illustra’s friendly workplace environment.
“Even better than that, Irene!” Daniel responded. “Very soon, you won’t have to be working in this dark, gray room anymore!”
“Are we finally painting?” Irene laughed.
“No, we’re moving! Not too far at all and the new offices are so much nicer. The lobby is all glass—on a day like this, oh Irene, you will absolutely love it!”
“That’s, uh, wonderful news!” Irene exclaimed.
Daniel could notice a hint of hesitation in her voice. A few moments later, she asked, “So, is this final?”
“Not yet, the agreement will be finalized this afternoon. But I’m not expecting any roadblocks. It’s been in the works for a while. Is something wrong, Irene?”
“Well, actually Mr. Daniel …,” Irene’s face became clouded with a look of concern. Daniel couldn’t remember ever seeing Irene like this before.
“The problem is, well, you see, right now our office is right on the Red Line. I’ll have to agree with you, it isn’t the prettiest office, but my commute is only 30 minutes each way. I’m not even sure if there’s a bus that’ll get me to …”
Daniel interrupted. “Wait a second. I didn’t realize you didn’t drive to work. Do you have a car?”
Irene looked down and fidgeted with the beads of her bracelet. “My son would usually drive me around, but he recently moved to Chicago, so …”
Daniel was taken aback. He never considered that, for some of his employees, the new location wasn’t just a matter of a few added minutes of drive time. His executive team was so certain this decision was purely good news, they hadn’t thought to get feedback from employees at all levels. The possibility of Irene, especially, being hurt by the potential move devastated Daniel. He was moved by the way she positively affected the lives of everyone at Illustra. Even as the CEO, Daniel sometimes felt like he didn’t have that kind of daily impact.
“I’m really sorry, Irene, I had no idea …”
“It’s okay, Mr. Daniel,” Irene quickly comforted him. “I know you will do what is best for your company.” She smiled, with the same sense of calm and ease that everyone loved about her.
Unable to say much else, Daniel shuffled in the direction of his office. The confidence and conviction that enveloped him this morning seemed to be fraying at the edges. How could he have moved forward so quickly on a deal without having considered the full extent of consequences for his employees?
Suddenly, he remembered the words of his father the day he established his new company. “Business isn’t about profit, son. It’s about creating opportunities for people that weren’t there before. Create opportunities for other people first and that will create opportunities for you.”
He thought of Irene and everyone else that depended on Illustra for their livelihood. Had he taken all their perspectives into account in this decision? In every decision?
Before walking into his office, Daniel pulled out his cell phone and made a call. After two rings, the man on the other line picked up.
Daniel could feel his heart beating fast, but his voice was firm, confident.
“Hey Mark, it’s me, Daniel. I know we’ve got that meeting at 2 p.m. today to finalize the deal, but unfortunately we’ll have to cancel. Illustra has got a little bit more research to do. Hope you understand.”
In this story, Daniel, a successful CEO, experiences a personal interaction that shifts his approach to making a business decision. In this case, his company is about to finalize a relocation — a choice that, on paper, is purely positive. It cuts costs, increases convenience, and is personally significant for Daniel. It would mean more time with his daughter in the mornings.
What Daniel had not fully considered is how this decision interacts with larger social realities — of mobility, job access, and geographic inequity. For Irene, who takes public transportation, Illustra’s relocation might mean she is no longer able to work there. When Daniel learns this, he comes face to face with an important realization: challenges in his community are not wholly separate from challenges for his business.
Daniel prides himself on treating his employees well with good wages and benefits. However, relocating might make these employment opportunities available only to those that are able to access them. If Daniel were to move forward with the relocation, he would do so with the knowledge that this decision has the potential to contribute to inequalities that currently exist in our region.
A 2015 report produced by the Fund for our Economic Future studied the geography of jobs in Northeast Ohio, revealing that, from 1998 to 2013, only suburbs experienced a net increase in jobs, while jobs in the cities decreased by 28%. This outward job growth places added pressure on workers relying on a limited regional transit system. According to the same report, average commute time to the nearest job hub is 20 minutes by car and 75 minutes by public transit. In 2012, less than 25% of Northeast Ohio jobs were reachable by public transit in 90 minutes or less.
In response to the research, PolicyBridge studied how these spatial disconnects disproportionately affect residents in the urban core in their 2016 Roads Less Traveled report. Being further away from good jobs that have the potential to open pathways for upward mobility, residents in economically distressed neighborhoods have more difficulty finding and getting to steady, full-time positions. This contributes to a larger national trend of spatial inequality in which class and racial divides become enhanced by the polarization of thriving, high-income neighborhoods (where good jobs are located), and distressed, low-income neighborhoods (where good jobs are scarce).
Making the connection between race and income is critical. Last year, Ideastream produced the Divided by Design series, which explored racial segregation in Cleveland through a historical and community lens. The series revealed how the white-black geographic divide contributes to racial inequalities in education, health, and economic opportunity. Understanding how economically distressed neighborhoods also tend to be neighborhoods of color in Cleveland means that, in our discussion about the geography of jobs, we must understand how job sprawl has serious implications for racial exclusion. National research by the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project and Harvard’s Opportunity Insights research group also draws important links between geography, economic mobility, and race.
So what does all of this mean for Daniel, and for his company? Surely, Illustra on its own would be unable to solve these challenges that have been decades in the making. Nevertheless, knowing the ways in which his sphere of influence interacts with issues in his community, and how his daily business activity is not wholly removed from what occurs outside his company walls, is important. As a person with influence, Daniel can become a powerful advocate for change and a more conscientious, socially engaged leader.
 Toner, A. (2012). “Where the Jobs Are: Employer Access to Labor by Transit.” The Brookings Institution.
 Florida, R. (2018). “The economic gap between have and have-not places continues to widen.” CityLab.