Arizona Institute for Public Life

Tucson Community Summit:
Inequality and Opportunity in the New Economy

On February 23, 2007, 150 people gathered at Temple Emanu-El in Tucson to begin a community-wide dialogue about the economic pressures that families face in the region today. They participated as representatives of over 75 key institutions in order to forge a new collaboration for reducing poverty and inequality in the Tucson region.

Tucson's poverty rate has risen dramatically in recent years, from 15% in 2000 to 20% in 2005. One out of every four Tucson families with children lives below the poverty line. Costs for childcare, housing, health care, and education have increased, leading many families deep into debt to meet their basic needs. Keynote speaker, Ernesto Cortés, Jr., Southwest Director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, linked these local trends to nationwide patterns of growing inequality and diminishing social supports. Citing Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, he argued that unless we, as a nation, limit the risks individuals face, we will lose the notion of shared prosperity that has sustained our democracy since its inception.

Responding to Cortes' comments, Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas acknowledged the “Goliath” of challenges we face in creating a community of truly shared prosperity. Nonetheless, a new space of political opportunity may be opening at the city, state, and national level, argued U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords. As other speakers explained, the passage of initiatives such as the Joint Technological Education District and Proposition 203 (First Things First for Arizona's Children), and the work of collaborations such as the Meth-Free Alliance and the Metropolitan Education Commission, have set the stage for community-wide commitment to expanding economic opportunities.

Metropolitan Tucson recently passed the one million resident mark, generating much fanfare about the region's increased attractiveness to national retailers and entertainers. Neal Cash, CEO of the Community Partnership of Southern Arizona, argued that the community leaders assembled at the summit must spearhead economic development efforts that acknowledge the increased needs of our growing region around affordable housing and health care.

Each participant in the Tucson Community Summit brought expertise in and concern for particular issues of inequality in Tucson. The goal of the summit itself, however, was not for participants to decide on a particular issue campaign but to consider a proposal for alliance-building and community dialogue. The plan, titled “Dialogue as Action: A Proposal for Community Engagement on Economic Issues,” proposed that the participants meet soon after the summit to establish a leadership team to guide the work of this alliance of community-based institutions. This group will engage in several immediate activities:

  • research current and proposed programs and plans for addressing inequality
  • develop workshops and training curricula for discussing economic pressures on families
  • within our institutions, begin to do individual meetings, small group meetings, public forums, and workshops on these economic pressures

In small groups over lunch, participants responded with excitement to the possibility of building what could serve as a strengthened state and federal lobby for the interests of families in Southern Arizona. State Representatives Pete Hershberger and Phil Lopes provided pointers for effective lobbying, highlighting the importance of advocating for issues early in the legislative process, before budgets are submitted and bills are up for a vote.

The importance of community engagement also resonated with many participants. The goal of this strategy of community dialogue is not only to help the group develop an issues agenda that is based in real concerns of families but also to develop an agenda that is owned by the entire community. As Ernesto Cortes pointed out in a training session the following day, “No one washes a rented car;” people do not invest time and energy in a campaign unless they own it.

One participant pointed out that the proposal lacked a key element: a funding stream. This is one of the central challenges that the emerging leadership team will address, by capitalizing on the resources represented at the summit table and by considering additional sources of funding to staff and support this initiative.

At a leadership training the following day, participants agreed on a timeline for the actions described above. By June, leaders will reconvene to share the results of the focused conversations among the members of their institutions. The group will at that time plan a series of research actions to gather the information needed to develop an agenda around issues such as childcare, predatory lending, affordable housing, or job training. Over the summer, leaders will test the emerging agenda through institutional forums and continued small group meetings, refining it and honing the goals and strategies. Finally, in October 2007, the group will convene a large assembly to ratify the agenda.

The following documents from the Summit are available by clicking on the item:


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