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Network for Southern Economic Mobility helps community leaders align systems to position low-income young people for success

Leaders from six Southern cities reflect on and discuss their experiences and what they’ve learned about mobilizing communities to challenge racism and build more equitable systems.

NSEM members in Savannah

When the Network for Southern Economic Mobility held its Spring Convening in Savannah, Ga., in May 2019, community leaders from six Southern cities were able to take a step back , reflect upon what they had learned, and look ahead.

“I saw huge value because we were able to tell our story, hear the stories of other communities, and see the common trends in economic mobility—the benchmarking, the common narratives, and common historical perspectives,” says Mitch Kennedy, assistant city manager in Spartanburg, S.C. “I’m much more strategic in my approach now, and I am so much more inclusive in my thinking about who needs to be involved in this, who needs to be at the table.”

“People from the business community are taking a vested interest in youth and their economic opportunities so our city will continue to grow, and more young people will stay here,” says Kara Wilkins, a community engagement strategist who is on the Little Rock, Ark., NSEM team. “I think NSEM has really moved us down that path of changing the way we think about doing our work, about thinking about the bigger picture and the collective impact.”

That’s what the Network is designed to do—help communities deepen, accelerate, and align strategies for systemic change that position low-income youth and young adults for economic success. It was created by MDC in 2016 with a cohort of four cities—Athens, GA, Chattanooga, TN, Greenville, SC, and Jacksonville, FL, and grew in 2017 with a second cohort that included Little Rock, AR., Savannah, GA, and Spartanburg, S.C. Each participating city has created a leadership group that includes individuals who can leverage policy and operational changes in the critical systems that directly affect youth mobility within their community.

They are examining how well their existing systems are reaching young people; analyzing the policies, systems, and culture that impede their progression; and adapting or building the pathways that connect institutions and social supports, from school to rewarding, family-sustaining employment. And communities are learning how others are implementing structural reforms in the Southern economic and political context.

At the May convening, community leaders heard former Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson talk about the power of asking “Why?” to challenge racist and inequitable systems.

“‘Why’ is one of the most powerful questions imaginable,” Johnson said. “We must ask ‘why’ of our authority figures. My ‘whys’ got deeper the more I saw inequity.”

They discussed community empowerment and influencing the local agenda. And they heard Gladys Washington, Deputy Director of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, talk about the importance of building a power base to support the work of changing the powerful systems in our communities.

“Understanding equity is about understanding inequity first and being able to be uncomfortable and to talk about that discomfort,” she said. “It took a long time for things to get jacked up; it’s going to take a long time to get straightened up.”

We are grateful to the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and the NSEM communities for support of the Network. And we are grateful to our participating cities for the contributions of time and hard work of their civic, grassroots, and government leaders.

NSEM communities will continue working together to support a mobility and Southern equity agenda. NSEM Network advisors are exploring a structure for future Network engagement that will begin in the Fall of 2019.

To hear more about what community leaders say about the Network, we asked Mitch Kennedy and Kara Williams to give us their reflections.

Mitch Kennedy, Spartanburg, S.C.

Mitch Kennedy photo

Mitch Kennedy is the Assistant City Manager in Spartanburg, S.C., and a member of the city’s Network for Southern Economic Mobility team. He was born and raised in Spartanburg, is a graduate of Spartanburg High School, and earned a B.A. in communications from Wake Forest University. He previously worked as a professional with the Palmetto Council Boy Scouts of America, with the Spartanburg Housing Authority, and with Spartanburg School District 7. He is a member of a number of boards and committees in Spartanburg, including the Urban League of the Upstate and the Spartanburg Development Corporation.

What did you get out of working with a network like NSEM?

Being an administrator with the city and looking at the work I do and the areas of responsibility, it was really a connection that I needed to benchmark where the city was. Prior to this MDC work, our focus was a general one on poverty. We are a majority-minority community, and we have a 27 percent poverty rate. So poverty is critical. When I was presented the opportunity to participate on our local leadership team, when they talked about a process dedicated to moving the needle on workforce development and enhancing individuals in poverty’s ability to get good jobs, I jumped all over it without knowing the other benefits of it. In the earlier stages, it added a great deal of context to this challenge and what is required to address it.

From the very beginning of the first convening almost two years year ago, and sitting at the table with the three other communities, I saw huge value because we were able to tell our story, hear the stories of other communities, and see the common trends in economic mobility—the benchmarking, the common narratives, and common historical perspectives. I found great value in that from the other communities sitting at the table. Doing this work can be overwhelming when you see the challenge. But at the same time, when you realize you’re not trying to address it by yourself, it gives you hope.

Our city has been dealing with poverty since the 1950s. For us, the leadership team that was put in place five years ago, we saw the impact of poor policy, but didn’t have a pathway to address it. So when our colleagues at the Spartanburg County Foundation, whom we’ve been working with for years, brought NSEM to our attention, we said that’s a tool in our toolbox. When I was invited to sit at the table and went back to my colleagues, my city manager and others, I said we have to participate.

Once we got involved, we said we need to get this in front of city council. We had already identified poverty as an issue, but with NSEM we got excited about it because it was a strategy. If you have an organization that doesn’t understand the value of NSEM, it would have been difficult for me to take time out to participate, but our city sees the value of this work, and it has given me the freedom to participate as needed. What the city council heard was a diversity of people at the table discussing this—not just the education sector or business sector or nonprofits—talking about how do we address this issue and change it. And the City Council said this is great.

You have leaders who want to see results tomorrow, so you have to temper their expectations to understand that this is a strategic process. I’ve seen great value in this in that they now see the bigger picture. Just this past Tuesday night, we had a City Council person suggest a policy change involving a living wage and city employees.

How has it changed how you do your job?

I’ve been with the city for 14 years, and one facet of my role has been community relations, making sure that the city was engaged with its community partners and that we were effectively engaged in their efforts. In my job as assistant city manager, I still have a huge responsibility on the community relations beat. Before, a lot of my time was often spent listening and just being visible, and what this has done for me personally is that it has given me a strong voice at the table, allowing me to speak up about the alignment of these efforts.

When you start peeling back the onion and listening to what happens, you’ll find that a lot of people are doing this work. It’s about aligning these efforts so we’re all singing from the same sheet of music. My part and my vast associations have allowed me to provide input at those various tables. I co-chair the Health Equity Task Force for our community, which was the leader in the racial equity institute we have going on. I co-chair the Financial Stability Initiative for the United Way. And participating with NSEM has brought great value to those two processes. I was the staff leader on our homelessness task force, which brought a lot of people to the table and has recently been instrumental in ensuring that there was a workforce development aspect related to our work with the homeless.

Yesterday we held a housing summit and had speakers from Charlotte, Charleston, and Atlanta. Their message was that the big issue with housing is income. So there was a panel discussion, and one of the panelists who was speaking from the lens of education said you can’t talk about housing without talking about economic mobility. It is becoming a very common term, and it has a lot to do with the work we’ve done in NSEM. Economic mobility is becoming the term that we use locally for moving the needle on poverty.

There are a lot of impediments to a lot of this stuff. But the equalizer in all of those things, the calming piece, is income. So I look, personally, at my personal story and my family. What distinguished me from other members of my family was my ability to get a decent education, which allowed me to get a decent job, which is how I was able to make a good living. Housing, education, income—all of these things have associations with economic mobility. We’ve talked on our leadership team about the importance of not allowing these conversations to take place in isolation, meaning you can’t just have a conversation about housing and not the other influences. Workforce is a huge part of it, but so are health care and education, so you have to make sure these discussions are aligned. That goes back to the whole systems change strategy. I remember being at the first MDC convening and there was a visual and it noted leadership, systems, and culture. You can’t just address one of those things and have impact. All three must be addressed, and for me the whole approach to economic mobility applies to so many other initiatives as well.

What has been the biggest challenge?

The most challenging part for me is defining success. What does success look like? Understanding that this is a strategic process, you can’t say that in three years this is where we’re going to be. For people to feel like they’re accomplishing something, it’s been difficult to define success at the various stages. Being in the midst of it, I can define success for the people already at the table, but we all drink the Kool-Aid. But for the people you’re trying to impact or influence, it’s hard for you to define success for this type of work when you’re putting together a strategic plan.

The first step was acknowledging that. At our last convening there was a discussion about that, about how you really need to have a narrative. Everybody that’s been a part of this from the beginning can easily acknowledge things that have been successful. But for people outside of this work, they don’t speak the same language because they don’t sit at the table. You have to define that narrative for the people you want to affect—grassroots and grasstops. You have to show it has value or they’re not going to support it. I think being more intentional about our messaging and our narrative is the first step.

We’re moving in the right direction toward establishing some benchmarks that can qualify success at the various stages. Like, we had a poverty summit—that’s a success. But we didn’t package it from a documentary and narrative standpoint and associate it with the economic mobility work. It was a missed opportunity. Our focus has been on getting to the end of this. It would have been nice to say this is an accomplishment—we had an influential, white, Presbyterian church host a poverty summit. So our website will capture that.

A lot of these initiatives that are doing similar work are also led by foundations—organizations that have donors and special interests behind them. Often it is just the nature of the beast, and you’re so driven by meeting the needs of those donors or special interests you miss the opportunity to leverage and align working with other organizations. I have the benefit of working for local government, and my motivation is the people of this community, not the funders. I’ve been at the table for so long, I have a lived experience and also a leadership role, so I can speak more directly to those things when I see them happen.

How has this changed the way you do your job?

I’m much more strategic in my approach now, and I am so much more inclusive in my thinking about who needs to be involved in this, who needs to be at the table. First and foremost, I can’t think of an initiative in our community that is addressing a disparity that doesn’t require community engagement, yet the definition of community engagement is so varied across those initiatives. Having a common, comprehensive approach to community engagement is something I emphasize often when I’m sitting at the table. As an African American who grew up in this community, I would have been classified as poor, so when I came back to this community, and when I was on my first board at 25 years old, I didn’t know what I was doing at the table. I was asked, “What do black people think.” That’s not community engagement. They have people at the table and they think that’s community engagement. I emphasize the importance of being more inclusive. The same is true of those grasstops. We need to make sure to educate those people who bring their resources and power to the table so that they understand the why of this work.

Kara Wilkins, Little Rock, Ark.

Kara Wilkins photoKara Wilkins, a member of the Little Rock, Ark., NSEM team, is a solutions-focused communications and community engagement strategist with an extensive background in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. She has over a decade of experience working with diverse communities to create innovative solutions to improve health and human equity. Prior to her role as Principal at K. Wilkins Consulting Group, Kara worked at the Delta Dental of Arkansas Foundation, Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake, and Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, where she honed her skills in communications, outreach, public policy, development, and advocacy/government relations.

What did you get out of working with a network like NSEM?

NSEM helped open my eyes to see that collectively across the South, we are all dealing with the lack of access to jobs and livable wages for low- to moderate-income families, particularly our youth.

Most of the cohorts in the NSEM network are comprised of city officials, nonprofit leaders, employers, and other community leaders. NSEM was able to bring all of us together, from across different states and backgrounds, and put us all in a room and say, “Let’s develop a solution.” Internally, NSEM has also allowed us to network here on the local level. For example, I previously worked with the Little Rock Regional Chamber on other projects, but NSEM allowed us to work on a platform that connected members of the nonprofit and the business community and helped us break out of our silos.

What have you learned that’s been most valuable?

Perhaps the most valuable lesson learned when starting an NSEM group is to learn how to avoid duplication of work by identifying what resources each community partner can bring to the table.

In the beginning, we did a city-wide assessment process in which we identified the resources and the partners who modeled best practices. But then came the challenge of discovering how do we take all of these partners and create a cohesive system where youth can tap into and start on a linear pathway to success. We were able to harness great energy and collective enthusiasm around the idea of upward mobility for youth, but when we got to the action plan part, that’s where we really needed a comprehensive and cohesive vehicle to help put our ideas into action.

What we’ve learned from NSEM is that it is key to identify existing programs and existing resources that can be reinvigorated. The director of the City of Little Rock’s Department of Community Programs joined our local NSEM cohort and jumped in head first. When she saw that we were working on mobility pathways for youth, she was able to connect NSEM to many of the city youth programs that were already working, like our summer youth employment program. NSEM has helped add additional exposure and worked to help highlight our city youth programs instead of recreating the wheel.

You have a new mayor with Frank Scott Jr. and have started working with him. How has that made a difference?

One of the exciting things about Mayor Scott is that he is one of the youngest mayors in the U.S. and also grew up in the targeted zip code that we’ve been working on with NSEM. I think that allows him to uniquely understand some of the challenges surrounding young people who have not had access or exposure to various types of employment. It really does underscore the work that we’re doing. He’s only been in office since January, and since then he’s brought together individuals from across the city—government officials, heads of organizations, community advocates and grassroots leaders in our neighborhoods—to form task force committees that focused on several issue areas. A few of our NSEM members were invited to serve on subcommittees that were used to draft the mayor’s priority issue areas over the next three years and were able to help these committees focus on the development of youth programs and what creating an economically viable pathway to success might look like for individuals. Working alongside other community partners and government officials allowed us to reinforce the ideas of NSEM and ensure that our youth aren’t forgotten when we’re talking about brining job opportunities to Little Rock.

What has been the biggest challenge?

The most challenging thing is keeping the momentum going. It’s a journey, not a quick fix. One of the suggestions I’d make is to identify easy wins early on. A quick win for us is that we were able to be on the mayor’s task force committees and bring the message of NSEM to the larger table.

I believe that our participation in NSEM has made us think about the bigger picture when we’re making economic decisions for the city and how our choices now will affect generations to come. So, when we’re bringing jobs into Little Rock, we’re now intentionally saying, “Are these jobs going to be viable for our youth in five to 10 years?”and, “Are they going to be jobs that youth are going to be trained for and actually want to do?” City leaders are seemingly more mindful that the work that is being performed participating in NSEM is a marathon, not a sprint, and it will take all of us to move the needle on ensuring upward economic mobility for youth.

How has this changed the way you do your job?

I think it’s making everybody sit back and think about the collective impact. For example, the Little Rock Regional Chamber is now working with the Ford Foundation’s Next Generation Leaders youth program in high schools [for students] to think about their vocation and trade in the school setting. The chamber is spearheading that effort and people from the business community are taking a vested interest in youth and their economic opportunities so our city will continue to grow, and more young people will stay here. I think NSEM has really moved us down that path of changing the way we think about doing our work and thinking about the collective impact.