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Greenville, S.C., team investigates policy levers for youth economic mobility through MDC network

Greenville, S.C., is one of seven Southern cities working to promote upward economic mobility for low-income young people with help from MDC’s Network for Southern Economic Mobility initiative.


Greenville, S.C., is one of seven Southern cities working to promote upward economic mobility for low-income young people with help from MDC’s Network for Southern Economic Mobility.For the seven cities in MDC’s Network for Southern Economic Mobility (NSEM), one of the hardest jobs is pinpointing the policies that sometimes overtly, but often subtly, create barriers that make it harder for young people to climb the economic ladder.

To elevate these policy issues, the NSEM team from Greenville, S.C., said they decided to create a David Letterman-like Top 10 List of the policy levers that are inhibiting upward economic mobility for young people in the city of 67,000 people.

“We had the skill, will, and capacity to take on the task of determining a policy Top 10, so we took a crack at it,” says Dr. Ansel Sanders, director of Public Education Partners in Greenville and a member of the community’s NSEM team. “It felt tangible, and it’s something we are proud of.”

The Greenville Top 10 list is:

  • Expungement of criminal records
  • Support of education for DACA students
  • Affordable housing
  • K-12 mastery-based learning
  • Public transportation
  • Making the most of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act
  • Childcare
  • Postsecondary education affordability
  • The Earned Income Tax Credit and SNAP
  • Employment training

While the policies themselves light the path towards systems interventions, the process of identifying key policy areas, identifying and interviewing subject-matter experts, and developing a methodology are at the core of the NSEM approach.

Mobilizing Southern communities

MDC’s Network for Southern Economic Mobility is a group of Southern communities committed to increasing upward economic mobility for youth and young adults in the lowest income brackets.

NSEM is an MDC initiative designed to help communities improve economic mobility for youth and young adults. By convening cross-sector teams in each city, MDC supports teams as they analyze their talent development system and implement strategic priorities to improve it through an integrated action planning process.

MDC provides an array of supports—on-site coaching, expert programmatic technical
assistance, and facilitated peer learning—to build new relationships and increase individual and institutional capacity to design and implement systems-change efforts and achieve measurable outcomes.

Leadership teams examine how well their existing education and employment systems are reaching young people who need to get on the path to postsecondary credentials and rewarding employment. By analyzing the intersection of community leadership, systems, and culture, teams are positioned to develop strategies that deliver:

  • A strong educational foundation that is integrated with experiential learning
  • A postsecondary credential with economic value in the labor market
  • Caring adults to guide life decisions and support the transition from education into work
  • An economic and talent development strategy that produces rewarding jobs for low-income youth and young adults

Changing the Conversation

MDC convenes NSEM partners to examine how local history, culture, narratives, and leadership composition shape power structures and decision-making, then equips leaders to advance an economic mobility agenda for young people.

Network cities have begun to change the conversation about economic mobility in their communities: who’s making progress, who’s not, and why? By assessing these questions through a data and equity lens, Network cities have begun shifting the behavior of institutional actors to address structural pinch points in their talent development systems.

They have done so by coming together to confront data that highlight the structural inequities and racial segre-gation that exist in their cities.

Organizations are working together in new ways and widening the circle of community actors subscribing to an economic mobility agenda. Network teams are developing leaders with influence in key systems and cultivating strategies that value and incorporate the voices of community members who are trying to access and navigate those systems. Network teams also are learning from their peers, removing feelings of isolation as they tackle difficult work.

With the support of MDC coaches Bonnie Wright and Scott Edmonds, along with technical support from OpenFields, a consulting firm in Greenville, the Greenville team progressed through the process of creating an integrated action plan. In a smaller work group formed to bring a policy lens to the work, the group utilized the partnership with Dr. Sanders to investigate the policies, regulations, ordinances, laws, and programs that aid or impede economic mobility for youth in Greenville. Sanders highlighted the excitement around tackling the “grasstops” issue of policy and the impact it could potentially have for the youth of Greenville.

“Economic mobility is a large topic, and eventually you have to do something,” he said. “You get out of the 30,000-foot view and find policy as an area where action can be taken.”

If they weren’t already aware, the NSEM teams quickly realized the systems affecting economic mobility for youth and young adults are complex and complicated to understand. As a result, defining the system and determining key leverage points is a crucial step towards understanding where the team can strategically intervene to increase upward economic mobility.

Dr. Sanders and his Public Education Partners colleagues Craig Stein and Steve Hairston used their experience and expertise to research the policies that impede or have the potential to aid upward economic mobility for youth and ranked them based on a matrix they developed. It included consideration of timeframe/immediacy, non-legislative support for the lever, the degree of achievability, the potential impact on economic mobility, and how the policy affected MDC–identified core issues related to mobility.

Moving Forward

In the coming months, Cohort 1 teams from Greenville, Athens, Ga., Chattanooga, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla., will set priorities for action based on their team’s capacity and expertise, and the potential for impact. Action areas include addressing racial disparities in school discipline, strengthening career pathways, and applying an economic mobility lens to existing community visioning efforts.

Cohort 2 sites—Little Rock, Ark., Savannah, Ga., and Spartanburg, S.C.—will continue the discovery and engagement already underway, combining an analysis of community history and data on the strengths and challenges in the existing talent development system—the foundation for their own priority setting to come.

We look forward to seeing which strategic priorities Greenville and the other three Cohort 1 cities settle on as they seek to improve upward economic mobility for their communities.