In November, the Taubman Center invited Jason Smith, Miami-Dade County’s first-ever Director of Equity & Inclusion, to campus to speak with HKS students about leading with equity in economic development as part of the Center’s Economic Development Seminar. Jason sat down with the Taubman Center for a short Q&A to discuss his career, the economic challenges and opportunities he’s tackling in Miami-Dade, and how he infuses equity and inclusion values into the county’s economic development work. Below is an edited version of the conversation.
Q: How did you start your career in economic development?
Jason: I started my career as a journalist covering housing, issues around displacement, and politics. I wanted to tell the story of the Black community in Miami-Dade. But after one too many stories about poor housing, mistreatment by police, and neighborhood blight, I realized I was more interested in creating solutions to the problems I was writing about as a reporter. I took a job as a media aide for local government with a goal to learn the system and build a knowledge base about how to use the levers of government to transform the Black community.
From there, I joined now-Mayor Daniella Levine Cava’s office when she was county commissioner. Together, we were able to champion community-oriented policies such as the first prosperity plan for the county, which included policies to build wealth for families, launch children’s savings accounts, introduce community benefits agreements, and more. Now, under Mayor Levine Cava’s leadership, my job is to infuse equity and inclusion into everything the county does – including budgeting and economic development.
Q: Every city, county, and state has its own unique economic challenges. What are the big economic development challenges Miami-Dade needs to tackle in the year ahead?
Jason: Mayor Levine Cava has laid out four key values for her administration: environment, equity, economy, and engagement. These are the pillars of our economic development plan and how we’re going to address longstanding issues like housing, transportation, closing the digital divide, and climate resiliency.
One of our biggest economic development challenges in the coming years will be climate change. Miami-Dade is very vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and one of our major projects, though it may not be the most exciting, is converting from septic systems to a sewer system. Water is life in Miami-Dade and with more and more storms and flooding from climate change, septic systems are increasingly polluting the water systems. We’re starting the conversion process first in Black and Brown communities that have historically experienced underinvestment.
Q: Using procurement to advance equity is a big area of focus at the Taubman Center, particularly with our Government Performance Lab. Do you have an example of how Miami-Dade is leveraging its buying power to invest in historically marginalized communities?
Jason: Reforming a procurement program for a county that spends $2 billion every year is challenging, but we know that using the county’s power as an anchor institution to invest in small, local businesses will lift up those enterprises and bring our economy back.
Our team meets on a weekly basis to review new and expiring contracts, analyze the effectiveness of our contracts, and look for ways to build in small business participation. We ask ourselves questions like: Can contracts be unbundled so that local and small businesses can participate? Does the contract require things like employee benefits, worker safety, and local hiring? This process has allowed us to identify several contracts that we can shelter just for small and local businesses, and it’s helping us move the needle on equity.
Q: There’s been a lot of talk about ensuring people of color and low-income residents are not left behind in COVID recovery efforts. As a practitioner, and someone keenly focused on equity and inclusion, what are the most important steps state and local governments can be taking to achieve that goal?
Jason: It’s clear that we can’t return to normal—we must build a more equitable society. We need to look at supporting new businesses, especially those that have not traditionally won contracts from local governments. COVID has presented us with a huge opportunity: we have a lot of new, urgent needs, and we also have a lot of new federal dollars to help us meet those needs.
Miami-Dade has seized this opportunity and partnered with new vendors that haven’t normally done business with the county. For example, we partnered with a minority-led vendor to help us stand up our emergency rental assistance program. We’d never done business with the vendor, but they were just as qualified as any other contractor, they’d just never had the opportunity before. By breaking down a large contract into smaller, more manageable pieces, this vendor was more willing to submit a bid—and the result was a huge success. Through the work of this vendor and our traditional contracting partners, Miami-Dade County was able to expend 100% of the rental assistance funds and did so efficiently.
There is going to be a lot more money coming from the federal level and state and local governments should jump on this opportunity to direct those funds towards longstanding issues. We need to be thoughtful about how and where to invest those dollars. When you lead with values of equity and inclusion, the outcomes will be better, the quality of life for residents will improve, and you’ll finally begin to turn the tide on disinvestment in marginalized communities.