By Erin Duffy
There’s a social theory called the “curb cut effect.”
During the nascent disability rights movement in the 1970s, activists in Berkeley, California, poured concrete under the cover of darkness to create their own makeshift wheelchair ramp on a public sidewalk. They pushed for curb cuts in sidewalks so wheelchair users could get around the city easier.
Berkeley officials installed a curb cut at one intersection, and soon more followed suit across the country as people with disabilities demanded more access and accommodations to navigate everyday life.
As outlined by policy and equity expert Angela Glover Blackwell in a 2017 article, the successful curb cut campaign wasn’t just a win for people with disabilities. Cyclists used the curb cuts. So did joggers, pedestrians crossing the street, and parents pushing strollers.
As it turns out, addressing the needs of one group actually benefited everyone.
Researcher Bina Patel Shrimali, the closing keynote speaker at this year’s Thriving Children, Families, and Communities Conference on Sept. 27, likes to apply the curb cut framework to the economy and rebuilding systems like child care.
It can be daunting to consider the cost, the effort, the energy needed to fix what’s broken.
But Shrimali, the research manager for the community development team at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, looks at it from a different angle: what do we win when systems are functioning properly, when inequities are erased?
Bina Patel Shrimali
“Investing in communities takes resources, but people don’t often think about what we stand to gain,” she said. “How much larger would each state’s economy be if we didn’t have gender and racial gaps?”
A lack of available, affordable child care is similarly hobbling the state—a report released by First Five Nebraska estimated that Nebraska loses out on nearly $745 million each year in missed family income, state tax revenue, and business losses due to worker turnover and decreased productivity. And since the pandemic began, nearly 2 million women nationwide have dropped out of the workforce, many to take care of children.
“We need to articulate the importance of these issues as front and center to our economy,” Shrimali said. “Over the course of the pandemic I think we’ve seen much more realization from the business community and employers of the need for child care for a thriving labor force.”
Shrimali will bring her deep background in economics, community development, and public health to the Thriving Children, Families, and Communities Conference. The opening keynote speaker is early childhood education veteran Rosemarie Allen.
The free and online Thriving Children event focuses on the connections between early childhood education and community and economic vitality. The conference attracts community leaders in fields like business, education, and economic development from across Nebraska and the country who want to build a better early childhood system, with built-in opportunities to network, connect, and share ideas.
Last year’s conference attracted 700 registrants from 99 Nebraska communities and 20 states. Learn more about the conference and register here.
At the Federal Reserve, Shrimali’s job involves conducting research, nurturing strategic partnerships, and “helping people understand what’s on the table and what we lose when we don’t address these issues,” she said. One of the Federal Reserve’s main goals is full employment for working-age adults.
“At the San Francisco Federal Reserve, we envision a healthy and inclusive economy in which all people participate, and no people are left behind,” she said.
Shrimali’s research has looked at the impact of COVID-19 on the child care field, racial health disparities at birth, and student loan debt. She previously worked at the Alameda County Public Health Department in California and helped launch projects that connected economic development and family well-being, including an East Oakland-based project called the Best Babies Zone that recognized the role neighborhood conditions and structural barriers played in poor birth outcomes, like higher rates of infant mortality and premature births.
She is driven to challenge the status quo and grapple with larger, systemic issues—like those she discovered in her own backyard.
As she grew up and started working in public health, she realized there were two Bay Areas—the affluent area with highly rated schools and safe neighborhoods where her family lived, and areas like Oakland that had long struggled with the effects of historic redlining, crime, industrial decline, and rising housing prices.
“The situation in Oakland was just really different. You could see the neighborhood disinvestment,” she said. “It was visible. There was nothing different about the values or the work ethic of the people who lived there. Everybody wanted what was best for their family. But they were constrained by the places where they lived.”
She wants attendees at this year’s Thriving Children conference to leave her talk feeling motivated, ready to challenge their assumptions and the status quo, and equipped to identify and tackle the challenges in their own backyards, too.
Erin Duffy, the digital communications specialist at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, writes about early childhood issues that affect children, families, educators, and communities. As a journalist, she spent more than five years covering education stories for daily newspapers.
Have a comment, a question, or a story idea? Reach Erin at firstname.lastname@example.org.