By Dean Whittaker

Earlier this month I attended and presented at the International Economic Development Annual Conference. Originally set to be held in Dallas, it was transformed into a four-day, virtual event. Among the benefits of this transformation was a record attendance of over 1,800 participants. Reduction in travel costs and registration enabled broad international participation—attendees and speakers—as well as people from both large and small organizations. As a speaker I was challenged and rewarded in learning how to create, produce, direct, record and edit a “simple” 17-minute video on the Future of Work after COVID-19. I am grateful to the IEDC staff, in my case research associate Hannah Burke in particular, for helping all of us learn how to go virtual.

Of particulate note for this attendee/speaker is a shift in conversation. In years past, the conversations at the annual conference focused on funding, business recruitment, and federal policies impacting economic development.  While these traditional topics were happening, I was excited to hear new ones; specifically, on economic inequality, systemic racism, and a heartfelt desire to begin to address these issues. The pandemic has shone a light on our country’s (and economy’s) unresolved social issues.

From IEDC Chair Kenny McDonald’s departing remarks through the transition to incoming Chair Tom Kucharski’s address, recorded at the newly dedicated African American Museum in Pennsylvania, economic development issues are being viewed through a new lens.  It is refreshing to see and hear the current and future leadership address the “elephant in the room.” Throughout the conference it was acknowledged that we economic development professionals have a responsibility to lead in addressing long-standing social justice issues through our organizations, as well as through our boards, regions, cities, and states they serve. 

We are at the very beginning of the conversation that has changed my heart that I can hopefully translate into change in my community and the world.  COVID-19 has catalyzed a long-overdue conversation. The social unrest we feel is just the symptom.  The cause goes back to the founding of our country and the principles on which it is based.  A young man of color who attended the virtual IEDC conference said to me, “the conversation has just begun.”  Hats off to the IEDC staff and Leadership for taking on this important transition as we work towards becoming a more inclusive and equitable society.         

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