One of the reasons some neighborhoods never seem to climb out of an underperforming economic rut is that they have a hard time retaining the talent they produce.  It’s common to disregard these communities on the basis of their high poverty rates, low educational attainment, poor health stats, property values and home ownership rates.  This perception is often shared by people both inside and outside these communities.

Many well-meaning programs and projects aimed at educating those with potential follow a resource-extraction paradigm, a.k.a. “brain drain.”  It’s the Cinderella Story idea of making it out of the bad neighborhood.  For the individual, it can be great.

But in such a paradigm the investment in individuals does not result in a statistically significant benefit to the community.  Hard-working, talented young adults are taught from an early age to measure their success by how far they get away from their home communities. They are expected, even encouraged to leave before the community can benefit from their income-generating potential.

Community “Talent Retention”

Many companies realize that keeping talent is cost-effective.  Apart from salary, many of today’s successful companies use creative and compelling lifestyle-supporting benefits that keep people engaged.  When employers invest in new trainings, well-designed workspaces, flexible hours, and or free cafeteria food for employees, the employers benefit because they create an overall environment that people find appealing.  This incentivizes employees to want to stay, and builds mission buy-in, which is something money can’t always buy.

The same forces can be put to work on a community level.

Lifestyle assets such as parks and trees, walkability, and quality “third spaces” like cafés and restaurants are important factors when people determine their personal geography. Certain businesses and services broadcast “low status”—e.g., check-cashing shops, rent-a-centers, cruddy convenience stores, community centers, and a higher density of pharmacies dispensing medication meant to address the lifestyle-related illnesses that abound in this environment.  If we wait for the “market” to see the opportunity in investing in desirable alternatives to that scenario, it’s too late.

However, if we take risks in low-status communities to support the lifestyle pursuits of its most successful individuals, and not just the “needs” profile of the community, we can help change the trajectory for both, and for the better.  A Talent Retention strategy may be the key that unlocks new sets of solutions to address long-standing social challenges.

The current cost of doing nothing produces a reinvestment gap that manifests itself in numerous ways, none of them good.  As America’s reurbanization trend continues to pick up speed, those commercial and residential property owners who were able to purchase during the post-war era of “white flight” are not experiencing wealth creation in the face of increasing property values in previously overlooked areas. These property owners, and their heirs, most often liquidate the asset, with little to show for the windfall profit five years after the sale.  The new real estate developments and property values increases proceed without them.  Keeping local community members vested in the redevelopment trend can help turn around the yawning wealth creation gap that is only going to make things harder for those excluded from wealth, and the government agencies, charities, and subsidized housing that will be expected to solve growing social inequality.

My work focuses on keeping, and not just attracting, talent.  Record numbers of college-bound teens in low-status communities are resulting from the educational efforts of the past decade and a half.  Getting people to value something they have been trained to believe is valueless is not easy—in part, because a non-profit industrial complex has grown up around maintaining the misery that we know, instead of exploring the potential that requires us to be creative about supporting.

More successful real estate developments can happen, and more of them can have wider positive impact, in my opinion.  The tools are not new or all that complex, but changing our perspective is.  Our team will continue to explore how we make this happen so that everyone can honestly believe that they don’t have to move out of their neighborhood to live in a better one.

Majora Carter is an urban revitalization strategy consultant, real estate developer, and Peabody Award winning broadcaster.  She is responsible for the creation & successful implementation of numerous green-infrastructure projects, policies, and job training & placement systems.