Surdna Foundation 2013 Annual Report
Q&A with Shawn Escoffery

Q&A with Shawn Escoffery

Strong Local Economies
Program Director

Helen Chin, program officer, Sustainable Environments, speaks with Shawn about his reflections from the past year and Surdna’s vision of quality jobs, equity, and social justice.

What does a new economy—a strong local economy—look like?
I don’t think you can truly create a new economy—but you can make the economy we have work better for everybody. It’s got to work so that people of color, women, immigrants, and low-income populations can truly participate. As it is, the economy typically happens to these groups. A strong local economy is one that all groups, especially those historically marginalized, participate in and benefit from. Equity is a critical part of it, and sustainability and profit are valued equally.

Why is Surdna focusing on ownership?
Too much economic development work deals with poor people and people of color only as workers, not as owners. Surdna is working to create conditions in which businesses owned by people of color and low-income communities can thrive. I fear that as we’re becoming a “majority-minority” country, people of color still do not have a true ownership stake, so do not fully participate in the economy. This has the potential to create something very much like a slave state where whites will control the majority of the wealth, despite being a minority of the population, and the rest will be workers and have little or no stake in the economy. We have to place sustainability and equity front and center in our work—and I believe business ownership and inclusion are key.

What does the bottom rung of the ladder look like?
I acknowledge that there will always be a “bottom” to an economy. There will always be service sector jobs, and those jobs will always need to be filled. That being said, we do not have to accept the current working conditions in many low-wage work sectors. These are often jobs filled by women, people of color and immigrants. It is not OK to be relegated to the bottom. America has devalued its workers for far too long. It’s time we reassess how we think about these jobs—how they impact the growth and future prosperity of the country. In the philanthropy and community development sectors in which we work, we have to be especially careful that the economic and community development strategies we pursue don’t perpetuate the very cycles of poverty we’re fighting.

What does and doesn’t excite you about the minimum wage effort that’s going on?
The conversation has exposed a lot of Americans, for the first time, to the types of jobs millions of people work at each day. These are jobs with wages that make it nearly impossible for mothers and fathers to take care of their families. The minimum wage debate has also raised the question of how working people can survive on these wages. The federal push for $10.10 an hour is great. It’s nearly $3 more than the current rate and can make a significant difference for many families. It won’t be enough to move most of these families truly out of poverty, but it’s an important start.

Few people, however, have coupled this debate with the subsidy conversation. We should place the debate in the context of how much we as taxpayers are subsidizing many of the country’s biggest corporations. It would add an important nuance to the conversation.

Also, when talking about minimum wage we have got to address how we are going to lift people off of the bottom rung and create avenues for upward mobility—so that they don’t ever touch the bottom rung again. Enough talking about dropouts and low-wage jobs—let’s turn the conversation to how we’re going to graduate more kids from high school, send them to college, and let them know that the sky is their limit.

How do race, gender, and economic inequality play out in Surdna’s Strong Local Economies work?
Race is the elephant in the room. Heck, it’s the whole safari in the room. The country is not comfortable talking about race. People use coded language so we can talk around the issues of race and gender, or ignore them altogether. It is central to our work, and we will never shy away from it or ignore its importance as we address economic issues.