Author Archive: Johnny Magdaleno

Fresno’s Poorest Neighborhoods Give City a Plan for $35 Million in State Funds

Fresno, California, is the most fertile farming region in the U.S. It is also engulfed by some of the nation’s dirtiest air. (AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian)

Francisco Moreno says little has changed on his block since he moved into a single-story house in Southwest Fresno 20 years ago. From his sidewalk-less street he can still see the Foster Farms chicken factory, and smell exhaust from the processing plant where a food company turns cows into dog food.

He’s one of 40,000 majority working-class residents living in the 93706 ZIP code — the most polluted postal address in California. He’s also just less than a mile southwest of downtown Fresno, California, which has seen more than $100 million in private investment in recent years for commercial housing and a local tech company’s new campus.

In his neighborhood, however, Moreno says, “No one [in the city] has made it a priority to serve us.”

“There aren’t sidewalks, there aren’t lamp posts,” he says, in Spanish. “There aren’t trails our kids can use to get to school on their bikes.”

That may soon change. On Oct. 4, residents like Moreno wrapped up a planning session for how to spend more than $37 million in state funds to improve environmental conditions and job prospects in Southwest Fresno. About 125 Southwest Fresno residents voted that the money, which was allocated to the city as part of California’s Transformative Climate Communities (TCC) program, should go toward 25 local projects that would create (pending City Council approval) community gardens, new parks, better sidewalks and a community college — the first higher education space to call 93706 home.

Overall, Fresno will get about $70 million through TCC. Most of those dollars were originally intended for downtown, where a station is planned for California’s high-speed train.

Activists argued the reason Fresno received the funds was because of 93706’s harrowing pollution issues. So Moreno traveled on a bus to Sacramento, California’s capital, with his neighbors and local community groups like the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability to make sure state legislators heard their case.

At a meeting in front of the Strategic Growth Council on April 27, dozens of Southwest Fresno residents ticked off the societal and physical ills that hamper their day-to-day lives. The deficit of high-quality jobs. Lack of pedestrian and park spaces. An asthma epidemic, delivered by factory smokestacks and the three freeways that rope 93706 off from the rest of Fresno.

Months later, the state announced it would expand its original funding limit from a 1-mile radius surrounding downtown, to a 5-mile radius.

“When you’re talking about ‘transforming communities’ and the stated purpose of the TCC, which is to reduce pollution, improve health and move economies forward, there’s no better place than southwest Fresno to kick off this program,” says Sandra Celedon-Castro, executive director of Fresno Building Healthy Communities.

Alongside the $37 million for Southwest Fresno, $20 million will go to downtown. Los Angeles, the other pilot city in the TCC’s first funding round, will get $35 million. Another $35 million will go to an as-of-yet undesignated city.

Veronica Garibay, director of the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, helped get the TCC enacted. She and other community leaders in the California Environmental Justice Alliance were involved in the legislation that led to its creation in September 2016, after arguing for a new tool to help struggling communities access $2.2 billion collected through a state cap-and-trade program designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

When first promised the state funds, the city argued that investing it in downtown would raise property taxes in the long term, which would over time supplement a new series of investments in other neighborhoods. But the TCC program was designed to “create immediate benefits in communities,” says Garibay.

While the state’s greenhouse gas funds go to projects that lower a city’s carbon footprint, like solar panels for low-income households, TCC differs in that its funds need to “provide local economic, environmental and health benefits” for areas like 93706.

Bringing a college into the area would lay the foundation for an unprecedented neighborhood economy, says Moreno.

“Computer sciences, electrical engineering, health care,” he says, highlighting the types of skills he wants his neighbors to have access to. Then there’s the act of building the campus, which Southwest Fresno community groups say will include a percentage of local tradesmen.

Parks and trails and more bus lines to the area — all with the intent of balancing the postal code’s industrial polluters — would complement Moreno’s hopes across the board.

“When the neighborhood improves, the jobs are going to improve,” he says.

San Diego Hopes Two New Tools Will Curb Homelessness Crisis

Some homeless people live in tents and makeshift housing in San Diego. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

On Monday, San Diego’s City Council dealt a blow to Mayor Kevin Faulconer after voting 5-4 against bringing a higher hotel tax to a public vote. The move, supported by Faulconer, would have brought in an additional $10 million annually toward reducing the city’s deepening homelessness crisis. The defeat hasn’t shaken all advocates, amid reports that Faulconer’s office didn’t have a concrete spending plan for that total.

Instead, people working on homelessness in the city are betting high on two new developments: a little help from a national private firm, and new rules for accessing grant money that the city hopes will — finally — unify its many but fragmented homelessness champions.

That private firm, Focus Strategies, has worked with governments in 45 communities across the United States, including San Francisco, Seattle and cities in Silicon Valley, to tackle homelessness. In San Diego, a city that ranked fourth among U.S. metro areas with the highest homeless populations in 2015, the firm will interview nonprofit reps and city leaders across the region to build out a major plan set for debut in 2018.

It won’t be San Diego’s first framework — in 1997 the county offered up just over three pages of a homelessness policy — but it’ll be bigger than any previous pursuit. And following stark numbers from a federally mandated homelessness count at the start of 2017, city officials and nonprofits alike are recognizing that they can’t keep doing what they’ve always done before.

This year San Diego County cited a 68 percent increase in the number of people living on the street since 2007, amounting to a total of 5,621. Unsheltered chronically homeless individuals, or those living outdoors for more than a year who also have mental or physical disabilities, numbered 1,750 — a 148 percent spike from a decade ago.

At the city level, Downtown San Diego alone saw a homeless population jump of 27 percent just between 2016 and 2017. The entire city saw a spike of 10 percent from 2016, although the current number of people living on the streets was 2 percent less than what it was in 2012. Seventy-seven percent of those interviewed in 2017 became homeless while living in San Diego.

Christopher Ward, a city council member who’s part of the Regional Task Force on Homelessness and a city-funded homelessness committee created last month, says one recent success has been a 9 percent drop in the number of homeless veterans since 2016, and a 29 percent total drop in that population since 2012. That’s largely because of efforts like the Housing Our Heroes Initiative, which put $12.5 million in city, federal and San Diego Housing Commission funds toward getting landlords to offer city center apartments to veterans at below-market rates.

But getting all the organizations on the same page to address the other facets of homelessness hasn’t been as easy. “It’s like trying to turn an aircraft carrier,” says Ward. He estimates there are upward of 80 local nonprofits working on the issue throughout the region.

“Twelve months ago we had no political leadership or concerted effort to really take the reins of this or start calling the shots,” he says. Now — and for the first time ever — San Diego is seeing “an unprecedented coordination between all government, regional and nonprofit organizations.”

Part of that has to do with the growth of a major tool called the Homelessness Management Information System, and a new requirement that essentially makes its use mandatory for organizations in San Diego. When homeless individuals walk through the door at a housing facility or service provider, managers can now access their history in the county to see what services they’ve taken advantage of in the past, or who their case worker is. (As of last year, the San Diego Police Department was also given access to this database.)

The system’s been in development in San Diego over the past decade, but going forward, service providers will be required to communicate and coordinate through the it if they want to qualify for grants or funding. “For those that don’t, or kind of want to do their own model — they’re going to become more and more the minority, and realize they’re going to have to change their model,” says Ward.

Michael McConnell, a homelessness advocate in the city, is optimistic about the new changes. He says what grabs most of the attention are the tarps and camping tents that line sidewalks in areas like the East Village, where a portion of the 5,621 unsheltered individuals registered throughout the county live.

Yet their homelessness management system is tracking over 17,000 people.

“They’re not all substance abusers or people with mental health issues,” says McConnell. “They’re living in their cars, or really just in need of a job or affordable housing to get out of homelessness.”

Focus Strategies will also be fundraising to help the city embrace more permanent housing solutions over short-term stays. According to Voice of San Diego, the city has a greater quantity of transitional housing units than the 20 most populated metro areas in the U.S., even as that model continues to fall out of favor with homelessness experts, and cities that embrace permanent housing as the first step to escape homelessness, like Washington, D.C., and Salt Lake City, are seeing results.

San Diego’s initial embrace of this model, called Housing First, was a three-year campaign that ran between 2014 and 2017. It put $30 million in front of the nonprofits responsible for housing successes in the veteran community, and led to the creation of 407 permanent supportive housing units throughout the county.

But McConnell and other San Diego residents want cash injections like that to be more impactful; those 407 units would help just over 7 percent of the region’s current homeless. They’re hoping outside help and a new approach to the homelessness management system can bring on a plan that assists everyone.

“It does seem like [Focus Strategies] is trying a more holistic approach,” he says. “But as anyone knows, it’s implementation. Anyone can write a plan, but that plan isn’t worth anything unless it implements a change.”

What Autonomous Cars Mean to People Who Drive for a Living

(AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

Tech giants Google, Apple and Intel are in a race with automakers like BMW and Tesla to perfect an autonomous driver system that’s reliable and replicable within the next few years. Yet as the world watches on with visions of a Jetsons-like future and city policymakers consider regulations, people who drive for a living in U.S. cities are trying to figure out what it all means for them.

Technical advances have always come with negative impacts like job losses for some, but driving careers in particular are worth watching because they’re economic multipliers at the city level. Ninety-three percent of the 4.1 million employed drivers in the U.S. don’t have bachelor’s degrees, yet drivers on the whole average a poverty rate that’s lower than workers who aren’t in the driving field, at 7.32 percent compared to 8.08 percent. And while nearly two-thirds of drivers identify as white, D.C.-based think tank Center for Global Policy Solutions reports that minorities in driving careers have a “premium” in this field, meaning they’re getting paid better than what they’d likely get paid in other non-driving careers without a college degree, according to U.S. Census data.

That’s something that Jose Garcia, a construction waste driver in New York City, can attest to. In 2016 he made $90,000 working 10 months out of the year. The 32-year-old dropped out of high school and picked up a career in driving because it was something he grew up around. His oldest cousin, driving now for nearly two decades, delivers heating oil to houses. His grandfather used to deliver boilers to sites throughout New York.

He says he’s not too concerned about autonomous vehicles disrupting his paycheck anytime soon because his job requires a lot of on-the-ball thinking. He recently had to operate a crane to unload a construction dumpster off the back of his truck and settle it between two parked cars.

“The city changes by the second. The construction sites can change within a minute,” he says. In New York, there are “too many cars, too many people — it’s a different world. It’s not like where they’re trying [autonomous cars] out.”

Ryan Janota, a 32-year-old freight driver in Aurora, Illinois, isn’t as confident. He works for XPO Logistics. That company’s CEO, Bradley Jacobs, told a trucking publication in February of this year that he was ready to embrace the autonomous future, adding that “computers don’t drive while drunk” and “they don’t suffer from sleep apnea and fall asleep at the wheel.”

“We deliver everything to everyone,” says Janota. “From the tables at home to the clothes they wear on their backs, it all comes from a semi. If one company’s going to [go driverless], then it progresses and every company’s going to do it.”

“That’s a lot of jobs,” he adds. A McKinsey report from 2013 says long-haul trucking companies stand to save $100 billion to $500 billion by the year 2025 simply by cutting out truck driver wages. Janota makes about $60,000 a year, without a college degree, and spends a couple grand each month to pay for rent and support his wife and 3-year-old son.

In the Center for Global Policy Solutions report, called “Stick Shift: Autonomous Vehicles, Driving Jobs, and the Future of Work,” researchers were able to identify which states will probably face the greatest economic impact thanks to driverless vehicles in the short term, based on the number of people employed in driving careers as a fraction of total employment. Those include Mississippi, Wyoming, West Virginia, Idaho and North Dakota. (In another take on U.S. Census data, NPR found that in 2014 there were 29 states where “truck driver” was the state’s most common job.)

Maya Rockeymoore, a lead researcher on the report and director of the Center for Global Policy Solutions, says she’s also worried about what a sudden influx of unemployed drivers would do at the municipal level.

“What this could mean for those areas where there’s disproportionate impact, is that we see more unemployment, and people scrambling to get jobs but when they do get jobs they’re earning less,” she says. “That means human need will increase, and the burden will fall on public programs in cities to meet that need.”

It’s worth remembering that autonomous vehicle technology is gaining momentum in the first place because it’s predicted to provide a better, more cost-efficient form of road transportation. The National League of Cities estimates that, when they hit the consumer market, AVs will save us anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 a year, thanks to smarter safety measures and less time wasted at the wheel.

But cities that find themselves caught off guard by the speed of the technology may lose some consumer power from drivers like Garcia before they start seeing economic gains.

“If I didn’t have this, I don’t know what I’d be able to do,” he says. “I have no education. The only thing I got is my [commercial driver’s license], and my family depends on it.”

Chicago Programs Aim to Lead Minority Youth to City Planning

Millennium Park in Chicago (Photo by J. Crocker)

Growing up, Cosette Hampton experienced two different Chicagos. Until sixth grade, she lived in the Roseland neighborhood, but when her dad got a new job, the family moved to the wealthier Evergreen Park. They stayed until Hampton’s sophomore year of high school — when foreclosure on their home prompted the family to return to Roseland.

She’s now 22, and pursuing a degree in public policy and urban research at the University of Chicago. When she looks back at the two neighborhoods she called home, Hampton says it’s unlikely she’d be studying what she is now if she hadn’t done the 5-mile move away from Roseland.

In Evergreen Park, a predominantly white neighborhood, where the average household income is a little above $64,000 a year, Hampton joined a volunteer corps that ran community projects. She enrolled in a program led by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, Future Leaders in Planning, which teaches high school students how to see Chicago’s neighborhood development issues from an urban planning perspective. Roseland’s average household income is $40,100, and most of its population identifies as a racial minority.

“You can’t be interested in what you don’t know about,” Hampton says.

Throughout Chicago, a city known as much for its diversity as its segregation, there are a growing number of programs aimed at bringing more youth from poverty or minority backgrounds into the civic mindset that Hampton, who is African-American, encountered by the fate of her move. Educators and organizers behind the efforts are betting on the fact that if more minority youth in the region get involved in city planning or architecture — fields that are dominated throughout the U.S. by white men — they can start reversing the dramatic lack of racial equity.

A March 2017 report by the Metropolitan Planning Council and the Urban Institute, “The Cost of Segregation,” highlights the damage done. Researchers set out to verify what decades of government policy pushing racial communities to live separately from each other has done to Chicago’s quality of living. They found that black residents could earn $2,982 more a year, the region’s murder rate could be cut by 30 percent, and 83,000 more citizens would have bachelor’s degrees — if the city “reduced the level of segregation between African-Americans and whites to the national median.”

Meanwhile, 2016 marked the second year of Chicago’s population drain, which is being driven by African-Americans leaving the urban area for warmer climates, safer neighborhoods and better job opportunities.

But it’s also the year that a Chicago arts and educators collective started working with the Chicago Architecture Foundation on a graphic novel called “No Small Plans” that lays out the city’s planning past, present and future for local students. The book will start showing up in schools like the Chicago High School for the Arts and colleges like Columbia College Chicago this fall.

Then there’s MapsCorps, a community data-collecting program that teaches high school and college-age youth how to perform their own census in the areas they call home. Since starting in Chicago’s South Side in 2009 it’s helped more than 500 high school youth gain technology and job experience, with an emphasis on youth of color.

The Chicago Architecture Foundation’s teen fellowship program is another contender. Along with a youth summer program that the foundation claims brought building design into the lives of 35,000 Chicago public school students in 2016.

Yet even with these programs, Michael Harris, one of the founders of the Society of Black Urban Planners, a student group at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says Hampton’s story sounded familiar. “That [story] has happened so many times,” he says. He wants SBUP to bring more mentors into the communities where careers like “urban planner” may not sound familiar.

“You can’t effect change if things are always happening on campus,” he says. “I think it’s more about individuals — and professionals especially — taking ownership of the communities either where they reside or where they don’t reside.” His conversations with Chicago youth have led to a few unsolicited emails in his inbox, penned by those same kids he spoke with, asking where they can learn more about getting involved in their neighborhood.

Isobel Araujo’s in Washington, D.C., now, but the 21-year-old American University student first got turned on to the idea of focusing on city development issues as she watched Logan Square, her Chicago neighborhood, start to change. “It was a heavily gentrifying area,” she remembers. “As a child I didn’t really notice it, but it’s one thing I’ve noticed going back home over the summers, and [it sparked] my interest in urban issues.”

Like Hampton, Araujo, who identifies as biracial and Latina, was able to find the resources to turn that interest into a chosen career track. They both participated in the Future Leaders in Planning program, which was started in 2008 as a means to collect opinions from high-schoolers as CMAP put together its GO TO 2040 regional development plan. Now it runs once every summer. Last year, FLIP students were tasked with coming up with alternative developments for a 62-acre lot in the South Loop, and creating an affordable housing plan for areas in the Chicago region.

FLIP has involved about 300 Chicago youth, and according to leaders, many of them have gone on to pursue degrees in urban and public issues. They’re now reaching out to kids in elementary school, and asking them their opinion on what’s going on in their neighborhood, and what changes they’re noticing or anticipating in the future.

Hampton enjoyed the program, but the one critique she had of FLIP was that she wanted it to bring students to a greater diversity of neighborhoods. Her cohort worked predominantly in the Park Forest neighborhood, even though she says none of the FLIP participants were originally from that part of town.

“What I personally think, to get more people involved, is [show them] how innovation and urban planning and architecture can have an impact in their own communities, by letting them create in their own communities,” says Hampton, referring to minority youth.

It’s a critique that can be spread across the board, for public schools or nonprofit programs reaching for ways to reverse the bleak assessment laid out by that Metropolitan Planning Council report. She follows it up with what sounds like a slight reference to her own experience, recognizing what she may have missed out on if she never left Roseland. “If [FLIP] went to a neighborhood that’s predominantly black or brown or low income, then folks can see, ‘Wow, I can actually be part of this program in my own neighborhood.’”

For high school students in the Chicago area, applications for FLIP’s summer 2017 program are due Friday, June 9.

How 3 Cities Are Using an App Designed to Help Them Collaborate

An Anchorage, Alaska, official identified Portland, Maine, as a “peer city.” (Photo by Didier Moïse)

The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago released an innovative app in February that does some heavy data lifting for city officials across the U.S. The Peer Cities Identification Tool lets users group cities side by side to find out which urban areas share similar struggles in affordable housing and economic growth.

The goal is to get cities talking to each other to share best practices — helping that city in the Midwest with an unemployment dilemma find a demographic West Coast twin that’s starting to spur job growth, for example. Researchers chose 300 cities that had populations of 50,000 in 1960, and compiled census data according to four metrics: equity, resilience, outlook and housing.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago had success with an earlier platform, the Industrial Cities Initiative, which looked at similar issues but only across 10 Midwest cities. Praise for that and hundreds of interviews with city officials inspired the PCIT.

Susan Longworth, a senior economist at the reserve bank’s Community Development and Policy Studies division, says they’ve been getting a mix of love and suggestions from city leaders since this new tool’s debut. “This is version 1.0, and we’re already thinking about what 2.0 looks like,” she says. “We’ve had a fair amount of people interested in data for even smaller cities, so we’re looking into smaller data points.”

Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago researchers have also connected with three cities — one of which wasn’t included in PCIT — to get more feedback about the tool. I followed up with those cities to hear what they’ve learned, and ask whether they think it’s something they’d consider incorporating into any future plans of attack for economic growth.

Rockford, Illinois
Rockford is about 70 miles outside of Chicago, and has a population of 150,000. In 2013 the unemployment rate was over 10 percent. That year, the city formed a coalition of business, community and government organizations called Transform Rockford to build out a road map for a more prosperous, equitable city by 2025.

They’re working with about 300 volunteers to put together and continually update that 2025 strategy. Jake Wilson, Transform Rockford’s program manager, says they’ll be working with PCIT data as they undergo revisions this year. “We’re super excited to start to work with them to start to parse the data,” he says, referring to Rockford’s peer cities. One of those is Kenosha, Wisconsin, a match in the “outlook” section of the survey that looks at demographic growth.

The process taught Wilson and his colleagues to search for examples beyond the familiar. “Just because they’re in the upper Midwest doesn’t mean they’re a peer city,” he says. “There may be some community in Georgia that we never think about. Or maybe some in California.”

“For a community our size, having access to the data the Chicago Fed has — there would have been no way we could have done that by ourselves,” he adds.

Dallas, Texas
Dallas is brandishing some impressive job rates right now, with its total household employment count running higher than any year in the previous decade. But among major U.S. cities Dallas has the highest population percentage of people living 185 percent below the federal poverty line, and the median income of $46,902 is distinctly lower than the eight peer cities that show up alongside it in PCIT’s “resilience” category, which looks at the local economy and the strength of its workforce.

Despite its challenges, the Dallas Office of Economic Development isn’t entirely sure it’ll be adopting this new tool from the Chicago fed.

A spokesperson for the office noted that the “outlook” metric says it highlights demographics and economic potential, yet that theme relies primarily on population data. Longworth notes that, when the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago started interviewing city leaders about the future of their cities, demographics like birth rate and residential length consistently came up. “The outlook theme is not – nor are any of the themes – intended to be predictions or projections,” she says. “It is simply a combination of variables that we know to be relevant to a city’s future.”

Although Dallas didn’t express an interest in incorporating the tool into planning, the city rep did offer some praise, saying it’s “a good attempt of using some type of reasoning in defining what a peer city is.”

Anchorage, Alaska
Anchorage was one city that didn’t meet the Chicago Fed’s guidelines for inclusion in PCIT. But when Christopher Schutte, the city’s director of economic and community development, first heard about it, he picked up the phone.

“As per usual, Alaska was left off the map,” he says, with a quick laugh. But the researchers in Chicago were receptive to his feedback. They agreed to compile a bespoke peer cities report for Anchorage as if it were included in the first place.

“We’re so isolated up there that we are, for all intents and purposes, a standalone community,” he says. He identified Portland, Maine, as a peer city, after attending a HUD conference on the East Coast where a city rep from Portland spoke about affordable housing issues that sounded strikingly similar to the ones Anchorage is navigating in its own locale.

But that’s just one potential match, and one he came across by fate. If the reserve bank expands its data set in any forthcoming version, Anchorage would be an eager participant, especially as Alaska as a whole battles a recession that’s largely isolated from the rest of the country and will likely bring Anchorage’s economic development issues into sharp relief.

“It’s tough to find comparatives to [our] situation, but this is a really intriguing tool, which was using a new set of metrics,” he notes.

Until PCIT 2.0, Longworth and her staff will be keeping an eye out for more feedback. “It seems to be meeting a need of some kind, which is really fantastic to see,” she says. “But if we’re missing the mark in some way, we want to hear about it.”

“Made in Baltimore” Label Designed to Boost Local Economy

Made in Baltimore pop-up shop

Rasheed Aziz doesn’t see young drug dealers navigating the streets of Baltimore as people who are inherently lawless. In fact, he says they’re usually some of the top performers when he’s able to get them involved in his CityWide Youth Entrepreneurship Program.

“They were already involving themselves in entrepreneurship,” he says. “It just was entrepreneurship that wasn’t positive.”

This year he’ll have 35 young people between the ages of 16 and 24 learning how to design their own clothing brands with CityWide’s support. That program doesn’t pay, but he runs another program called Frozen Desert Sorbet that lets those students learn how to run their first business venture by selling snow cones in their neighborhood, pocketing the profit from each sale.

The budding clothing designers who make it through both programs will be just a few of the local talents qualifying for a new city-run program called Made in Baltimore. Taking a page from successful buy-local campaigns like SFMade in San Francisco, Andy Cook, the city staffer who founded the program, says it’s a marketing designation that can bring new types of opportunity to Baltimore’s economy.

“Seventy-five percent of the people in Baltimore don’t have a college degree, so there are a lot of issues and questions when we’re talking about ‘job creation’ here,” he says. “With entry-level ‘job creation’ what we’re often seeing is service sector employment, which is part time and doesn’t come with benefits.”

A 2014 study of more than 1,000 job seekers in Baltimore commissioned by the Opportunity Collaborative found that there are “practically no entry-level jobs” for those without a college degree that pay $22 an hour — enough to support a small family. It also noted that job seekers from low-income neighborhoods are kept out of traditional employment by the high dollar and time costs of traveling from said neighborhoods to booming job centers, and about a fifth of job seekers can’t qualify for traditional jobs because of criminal records.

Cook says giving small businesses the extra boost of being backed by a city-led marketing campaign can help them scale, and create jobs that are “good quality but also accessible to those without higher education.” They’ll be able to put the “Made in Baltimore” logo on their product label, or in their storefront window, but they’ll also benefit from technical support from the city on how to thrive as a business and how to recruit employees.

He started building the program after helping compile a piece of research for the city. Using census data collected between 2003 and 2012, he found that advanced manufacturing companies without employees grew in number by 57 — marking a nine-year increase of 257 percent. Other manufacturing establishments (again, without employees) rose by 67 percent in the same time period.

Alongside those jumps, employees in the manufacturing sector declined.

“We see big companies shedding jobs but see a lot of people starting up their own in light manufacturing,” he says. Manufacturing is traditionally thought of as big operations churning out thousands of high-tech items like cars or computers, but the mother of two making jams in her kitchen and selling them at local farmers markets falls within the industry too.

Made in Baltimore wants to help individuals like that jam producer turn her work into a full-time gig by giving entrepreneurs a network of other local producers through which they can lift each other up. Cook has coordinated four pop-up shops that highlight Baltimore businesses, with the most recent one last December featuring 45 makers. He says they’ve generated an average of $25,000 to $30,000 in sales per event.

“There’s lines out the door, a lot of press coverage,” he says. “It seems, anecdotally, that it’s something that people are craving.”

Keith Bradley, manager of the Made in Kansas City retail stores in Missouri’s largest city, says they work with about 120 local artists and makers who’ve seen similar success by associating their name with the brand.

“It’s exciting, because you watch these smaller companies go from doing something that’s their passion on the side to quitting their day jobs and getting to do that full time,” says Bradley.

Cook’s key influence, SFMade, is also reporting strong growth. It works with more than 640 local certified manufacturers with a payroll total of 5,000-plus employees. They’re getting ready to debut a 4-floor, 50,000-square-foot industrial workshop where small-scale producers can rent space starting in June 2018.

As small-scale manufacturers get pushed out of San Francisco’s pricier real estate and into poor neighborhoods like Bayview-Hunters Point, SFMade helps owners recruit local talent from the low-income communities. “A lot of the times, without SFMade, [manufacturers] just don’t know that the workforce resources are available in the area,” says Janet Lees, SFMade’s chief program officer. Transplanted manufacturers and workers from the traditionally black neighborhoods southeast of San Francisco are now working together to “access the very affluent consumer base that’s here,” she says.

Going forward, Made in Baltimore will work to paint a detailed picture of the local maker scene. They want to know just how many small-scale producers there are, crafting gems in their kitchens or backyards or garages that they then sell to neighbors. “We don’t think a lot of that is being captured by the broader economic studies going on in the city,” Cook says.

They’re also scanning for real estate in industrially zoned areas with the hope of creating a space similar to what SFMade is creating for rental spaces. Meanwhile, one of Baltimore’s newest makerspaces, Open Works, has offered to let Made in Baltimore run some of its workshops and presentations at their facility.

As for drivers of the local industry like Aziz, he says the new program will turn even more youth with great ideas off the street and into the local economy. “Maybe they haven’t scaled as of yet, but I’m out here. I see them,” he says. “They’re coming.”

Mass. Nonprofit Wants to Launch 1,000 Small Businesses in 30 Midsize Cities

Danaris Mazara is an entrepreneur in Lawrence, Massachusetts (Credit: Entrepreneurship for All)

Seeing opportunity for sustainable job creation, big cities from Boston to Los Angeles offer programs that support would-be small business owners with everything from accessing startup loans to navigating the legal maze that is launching a new company. They have uneven success, however, when it comes to making sure an entrepreneurial uptick improves economic opportunity for all, and many smaller cities struggle even more on that front due to fewer resources.

But Danaris Mazara, who left the Dominican Republic for the U.S. in 2002 and now lives 30 miles outside of Boston in Lawrence, Massachusetts, found support for her business idea. Thanks to Entrepreneurship for All (EforAll), she was able to access mentors, get funding and learn the ropes of running a bakery as if she were tuned into the entrepreneurial network of a bigger U.S. city.

Shortly after her family lost their home during the U.S. housing crisis, Mazara’s mom gave her $35 to go to the store and fill her empty fridge. Instead of stocking up on groceries she recruited her niece to teach her how to make flan, a sweet and smooth cheese-based custard that’s common throughout parts of Latin America.

Her coworkers at Walmart quickly bought up the small batch she brought to work the following week. Then again, with the next batch. Then again with the next. “After a month I realized I was getting enough money to pay my gas, electricity in the house, pay for some groceries, and I thought, ‘This is kind of a good business,’” says Mazara.

She partnered with another local baker whose house was nearing foreclosure to form Sweet Grace Heavenly Cakes. The business was accepted into a 12-week startup accelerator program run by EforAll where a local restaurateur helped them draw up a business plan. At the end, they were awarded $3,500 — enough money to buy a brand-new mixer, and add to the savings they then used to buy the building space where they operate today.

EforAll, a nonprofit headquartered in Lowell, Massachusetts, opens its doors to ideas of entrepreneurs from every background, though they aim their programs at minorities and immigrants like Mazara. Since forming in 2014 the organization has claimed some impressive results. It has graduated 174 entrepreneurs, the total of which make up a payroll of $3.4 million, 271 jobs and $5.2 million in revenue. On top of that, 70 percent of the 1,500 entrepreneurs it’s assisted over the years are women, 41 percent are immigrants, 55 percent are minorities and 60 percent were previously unemployed.

David Parker, chief executive officer, says their big ambition right now is to launch 1,000 startups in 30 midsize U.S. cities by 2023.

Former Mass. Governor Deval Patrick tries a Sweet Grace Heavenly Cakes treat. (Credit: Entrepreneurship for All)

The “midsize” is key. Looking at Massachusetts, EforAll estimates that the cities it operates in — Lowell, New Bedford, Lawrence, Fall River and Lynn — average three times the poverty rate that the Boston-Cambridge area has. Boston-Cambridge has 48 programs in place to support entrepreneurs, while those smaller cities only average about six.

“We call our people ‘undernetworked,’” says Parker. He’s helped scale a number of successful internet-based businesses, and realized through that process that one of the main reasons he was successful was because he had like-minded peers to help him build his influence.

For someone with a great idea in a city like Lawrence, that type of network once didn’t exist. “They just don’t have a culture of entrepreneurship that they can sort of fall back on,” says Parker. “Whereas in Boston and Cambridge and New York and Silicon Valley, the culture is so imbued that you can’t help but get excited about entrepreneurship” in those cities.

EforAll’s bringing that spirit to Massachusetts gateway cities helped Miriam Morgenstern and Debra Fowler, who scaled up History UnErased, a company that creates lesson plans on LGBTQ issues throughout American history for K-12 schools and community colleges, after one of EforAll’s 12-week accelerator programs in Lowell.

Of the many benefits the two celebrate, the mere access to a co-working office space has been enough to give them a newfound confidence. “Just having a place to meet somebody that isn’t a coffee shop often gives you credibility,” says Morgenstern. She says they’ve sold curricula to educators in six states since graduating from EforAll’s accelerator program in early 2016.

Mazara’s bakery is climbing the ladder as well. Sweet Grace Heavenly Cakes has nine employees, and they’re already talking about expanding into the space adjacent to their Lawrence retail space. “We’re growing so fast,” she says.

Compared to where she was a decade ago, that’s exactly how she’d like it. “We’re still learning, [but] I want to keep moving,” she says.

Seattle Hip-Hop Artist Pushes for 100 New Black Entrepreneurs

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Draze is a fixture on the Seattle hip-hop scene, his songs a lyrical history of the gentrification that’s driven friends, favorite shops — even his family — from the Central District. He talks about how his mom fled the neighborhood, where many black-owned businesses once thrived, after property taxes started rising on their old house in “The Hood Ain’t the Same.” The song that was archived in Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry by Mayor Ed Murray in 2015.

But now he’s going beyond the recording studio with a new game plan to stop gentrification’s push. He wants to get 100 black-owned businesses up and running in Seattle before the end of the year, with help from the city’s Office of Economic Development, black entrepreneurs who’ve already done well in Seattle and even members of the Seattle Seahawks.

The first successful entrepreneur to step up? Draze himself.

He says he’s working on rolling out an online music and culture magazine, “The Void,” that’ll feature black-owned businesses and showcase arts and music events around the city.

“We don’t have any media in the Northwest,” he says, referring to the black community. “So we’re not able to tell our stories, we’re not able to market our product.”

The program is moments away from debuting; Draze calls a recently published piece in a local newspaper his “soft announcement” that it’s incoming. The centerpiece will be a summer summit that includes a Shark Tank-inspired competition among minority entrepreneurs, and a career preparedness course with local pastor and activist Harvey Drake.

“He’s in the process of working on kind of an entrepreneurial school, which would train people with the different skills they would need but also help to plug people in with capital in different ways,” says Draze.

Details on the summit coming soon!!! #BuildingBlackWealth

— Draze (@DrazeExperience) March 15, 2017

The average hourly wage for black workers in Seattle dropped from $21 an hour in 2000 to $18 an hour in 2012. In that same time period, almost everyone else saw an average hourly wage increase by $2 to $3. And even though the city is hailed as one of the new global frontiers for entrepreneurship, black entrepreneurs, along with Hispanic entrepreneurs, only make up 5 percent of the minority entrepreneurial landscape.

The city’s Office of Economic Development says it’s trying to do more to bring in entrepreneurs from its large African diaspora population, and others from immigrant enclaves like Rainier Valley and the Central District around 23rd Street. Their Mobile Consulting Services dispatches staff out to these areas to interview small businesses and identify their pressing problems.

Yonas Seifu, a staffer at the OED, says entrepreneurs from these neighborhoods continue to vocalize what his office calls the three M’s. “Money, management and marketing,” he says.

To tackle a few of those, this week they’re debuting a program called the Individual Development Account. Participating small business owners offer to put $500 in city-backed IDAs in order to qualify for the program. They then take 12 hours of workshops on financial management, and if they finish everything, the OED adds an additional $3,500 to their account.

The city’s widening its reach to immigrant communities like Draze’s Zimbabwean family. Hiring Seifu at OED — he immigrated to the U.S. from Ethiopia when he was 8 — is a step in that direction.

“There was previously zero representation within city government [from the East African community],” says Joe Mirabella, a spokesperson for the ODE. The department recognizes that diversifying the staff is “important [to reach] refugees that had a negative experience with government in their own country,” he says.

But what about Draze’s ambitious plan? Is creating 100 new black-owned businesses before 2018 a viable dream? Mirabella says absolutely.

Every year, about 9,000 businesses apply for permits in the Seattle area. “There’s no shortage of opportunity in this city right now. Most folks are making fairly decent wages and there’s money to spend,” he says, citing the city’s 3.4 percent unemployment rate. For immigrants or minority communities who think they’re onto a good business idea, Mirabella urges them to give his office a call.

As for Draze, he’s not harboring any illusions. “It’s absolutely ambitious, but if you don’t pick something that’s too big for you, you’re picking up the wrong thing. If I aim for 100 and I got 50? Man, I’m ecstatic. We get 27? I’m excited.”

To Support Entrepreneurs, Charlotte’s Starting With Questions


To glimpse the hurdles keeping Charlotte, North Carolina, from becoming a hot spot for entrepreneurs, all you have to do is try a batch of one woman’s homemade cookies.

Her great-great-aunts used to bake them. And then her grandmother. They’d whip up a batch during times of hardship and rally the family around the oven. And now the recipe has landed in one Charlotte resident’s hands, rich with an intimate history.

It’s the perfect backdrop for a marketing campaign. But last year when the woman met with Holly Eskridge, who heads the city’s entrepreneurship and small business development program, she said she didn’t even know where to begin if she wanted to get more customers. There’s a circle of friends and neighbors who can already attest to their deliciousness, but what about beyond that?

The city had already funded a website,, which puts small businesses in touch with online resources. But after hearing the woman’s story, Eskridge realized the online portal wasn’t a fit for her needs.

“She really does need someone to sit down with her,” Eskridge says.

She’s leading the city’s push to make sure more minorities and women are included in Charlotte’s entrepreneurial fabric, and has been holding focus groups and conducting local surveys to determine what’s holding back nascent entrepreneurs like the baker. “There was data presented that said there are people who are not able to access the amount of opportunity that others are. We looked at that and said, OK, that has to be happening in the business community as well,” says Eskridge.

The data she’s referring to is from work by economist Raj Chetty and others examining how economic mobility relates to where you were born in the U.S. They determined Charlotte had the worst score among the 50 largest metros in the country: If you were born into a family whose annual income is less than that of 80 percent of the population, you only had a 5.4 percent chance to make it to the top 20 percent of that income spectrum later on in life.

“When somebody presents a report like that, it makes you think about reporting in a more specific way,” she says. Charlotte’s ranking in that 2014 study prompted city leaders to form a task force, and that group released a report this week on its findings about poverty in the region. Next steps include setting specific goals around creating opportunity and raising money to fund the efforts.

Meanwhile, Eskridge’s department is trying to create a completely revamped needs assessment among the entrepreneurship community. They’re sifting through the data, which they collected from interviews with 200 small businesses, to find ways they can direct resources so tech innovators and not-so-tech-savvy innovators alike can get the resources they need, delivered in the way they prefer.

The push isn’t only for the benefit of the business-minded. “If you don’t have a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem,” says Eskridge, “I don’t believe that your city is going to be financially healthy.”

The sentiment has been echoed in research by organizations like the Fund for Our Economic Future. In 2013, the Ohio-based think tank looked at economic performance among U.S. cities between 1980 and 2011, and found that cities with higher rates of self-employment and a well-rounded support ecosystem for entrepreneurs had the highest shared prosperity.

Eskridge says Charlotte is getting creative with its approaches to tapping into undiscovered entrepreneurs — including one method that involves engaging people entering the city’s new career training pipeline.

Last year, the city gave the Urban League and Goodwill Industries $1 million to build out an already up-and-running workforce development program. Eskridge and her crew helped spread the word throughout the city about the program, and 46 trainees became part of the first cohort in December.

But on top of preparing those workers from low-income neighborhoods for careers in booming industries like construction and fiber-optics installation, they’re also going to ask them about their interest in entrepreneurship, in a search for innovative ideas that otherwise would have remained in the realm of “What if?”

“According to Goodwill and the Urban League, this is an absolute need,” says Eskridge.

Her department is still in the startup phase when it comes to building these ideas into bona fide systems, and cities throughout the U.S. have yet to uncover one single, barrier-shattering approach to building equity alongside entrepreneurship. One test will be whether or not they can help an unknown voice with a marketable product — baked or otherwise — rise to the top.

“I personally don’t face tremendous equity issues, so I need to get out there and try and talk to the people we need to help,” says Eskridge. “Really what I think what we all want to do is to really, truly figure out a way to help each other. And that’s what [the local baker’s] business model has been built on.”

Indianapolis Disagrees With Trump’s CDBG Claims

(Photo by Daniel Schwen)

President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget plans kick a lot of federal programs to the curb. Among the many casualties in a proposal released two weeks ago: community development block grants. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development distributes the flexible funding, which cities use to help many low- and moderate-income families through projects ranging from affordable housing and job creation to neighborhood stabilization.

The Trump administration, however, says CDBGs have failed to fulfill that mandate. The budget plan describes the HUD program as “not well-targeted to the poorest populations,” and alleges that it “has not demonstrated results.” Cutting CDBGs, it continues, will take the onus for community development off the federal government’s back and hand it down to the state and local level.

Lindsey Richardt, a spokesperson for Indianapolis’ Department of Metropolitan Development, says her office hasn’t seen CDBG funds go to waste. “There’s a small part of it that goes towards some administrative costs,” she says, but most of the $8 million they receive on average each year “goes to help those living in distressed neighborhoods.”

“Whether that’s through economic development, affordable housing, employment training or job training,” she says, “it’s fair to say in Indianapolis that we would disagree” with the president’s negative assessment.

Indianapolis is one of 1,209 local governments and organizations in the U.S. that receive CDBGs. HUD started handing them out in 1974, and since 1975 the city has collected nearly half a billion dollars, although annual funding allotments have continually been on the decline, according to data provided by Richardt. (For more on how CDBGs have steadily decreased, see Next City’s “What Happened to Federal Funding for Community Development?”)

Richardt’s department has a system for making sure these funds follow the general HUD rule. Seventy percent of all CDBG money disbursed nationally has to demonstrably impact the lives of those living under 80 percent of the median income in their area.

In Indianapolis, they start by highlighting neighborhoods that demonstrate the greatest need for outside assistance, like the Near East Side, a high-poverty area where the John H. Boner Community Center will get $20,000 this summer.

Then, they make sure organizations receiving money establish a network of funders that aren’t government-bound. “CDBG is almost never used as the sole source of the project,” says Richardt. In 2016, Indianapolis’ CDBG award totaled $8,211,848, but the community centers and workplace development organizations that shared those funds were able to bring in $8,134,980 in additional investments from philanthropy groups and private funds, essentially doubling HUD’s impact.

Here’s how just a fraction of the money from those two streams goes to work in Indianapolis. In 2016, the John H. Boner Community Center provided 568 youth with afterschool services, taught 601 residents about financial planning (159 participants saw their incomes go up afterward), put 485 individuals within access to affordable housing, and set aside funding to create 100 new jobs, some of which will go to people with barriers to employment like prison records, for community redevelopment projects.

It’s also worth noting that instead of forcing struggling neighborhoods into a dependence on federal funds, CDBG support magnetizes investment and helps communities become more self-sufficient. The CDBG Coalition, a coalition of 20 nonprofit organizations across the U.S., says that each CDBG dollar invested in a community brings in an average of $3.65 in private and public investments to that community.

The Near East Side was one of 12 urban areas nationwide designated by HUD as a “Promise Zone” in 2015. By the end of the first year of that designation, it had received $9.6 million in grants through CDBG funds and seven other federal programs. James Taylor, CEO of the John H. Boner Community Center, said these investments have helped attract more support from new local businesses that want to set up shop in the area. Since 2004 it has collected $180 million in private and public funding to local projects.

The results of these investments — and the stories and numbers behind the lives they changed — are then collected, crunched and communicated back to the federal level. “The city reports to HUD on the progress to date of every project that’s CDBG funded. HUD also audits the city on an annual basis in person,” Richardt says. “In short, they have the data and fully understand where and how the funding is being used.”

It’s not quite clear what data the administration’s Office of Management and Budget is basing its CDBG downgrade on. But in Indianapolis, cutting out the program could mean cutting down the prospects of a neighborhood’s future.

Texas Border City Hopes Entrepreneurship Can Break Tide of Poverty

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

When Jorge Sanchez thinks about the entrepreneurial landscape in McAllen, Texas, the chamber of commerce vice president considers it largely untapped. The next great entrepreneur could be someone living in poverty and wondering if he’ll ever get to give his ideas a chance, like Lamar Jones did.

Jones moved to the McAllen area in 2013 and shared a two-bedroom apartment with a friend. They had no mattresses so they slept on the floor, and relied on cheap takeout food. With every ordered meal, Jones found himself underwhelmed by the barbecue sauces he was served. So he created his own.

Sanchez, who’s in charge of business development for the chamber, was impressed with Jones’ recipe to the point that he helped put him through an eight-week incubator called Idea Place. At the end, Jones got a $10,000 grant to bring his food product to market, through the McAllen Innovation Grant.

“He first started selling at local markets. Now he’s selling it at over 160 H-E-Bs,” says Sanchez, referring to the Texas chain grocery store.

Three years ago, the McAllen Chamber of Commerce spent $220,000 to rehabilitate a 60-year-old library and turn it into a new co-working space. It was around that time that the chamber also started offering up its McAllen Innovation grants and Idea Place incubation rounds.

Today TechPlace, the co-working space, is running at 88 percent occupancy, giving freelancers or individual entrepreneurs a desk and WiFi for only $25 a month, and small-size enterprises their own meeting space for between $200 and $400 a month. They’re hoping that investing in nascent businesses will shake the city free of the deep poverty that characterizes its neighborhoods.

“We understand poverty levels are top level here,” he says. “One of the main factors [pushing people] to want to be an entrepreneur is to leave that lifestyle.”

In a new study by Penn State researcher John Iceland that looks at concentrations of poverty across the U.S., McAllen, which presses up against the U.S.-Mexico border, has the greatest density of entire neighborhoods where 40 percent of the population is living below the federal poverty line. Whereas gauging poverty as a whole means looking at how many people are living below the federal poverty line across cities, states or countries, concentrated poverty measures the number of neighborhoods within those statistical areas that have big clusters of impoverished families and individuals.

McAllen took the top spot between 2010 and 2014, a designation Iceland put together by using data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. But it was also the first in the country in terms of percentages of neighborhoods living among concentrated poverty in 1980, 1990 and 2000, relying on traditional census info.

“The poor themselves are more likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods than a decade ago,” says Iceland. Even though the highest levels of concentrated poverty on average throughout the U.S. are in predominantly black neighborhoods, poor Hispanic and white populations are showing up in income-segregated communities at nearly the same rate that black populations are. The McAllen area was number one for concentrated poverty among all ethnicities, though 84.6 percent of the population is either Hispanic or Latino. Hidalgo County, where McAllen is the county seat, reported total poverty rates of 33.5 percent and child poverty rates of 45.5 percent of the entire population.

“We understand there’s a real struggle, a problem when you have an amazing idea but you don’t have the resources,” says Sanchez. “For some people it’s difficult for them to acquire an investor or an angel or a venture capitalist eventually so that’s why we created” these resources, he said.

And it seems to be generating excitement in the area. Even though the chamber of commerce doesn’t do any marketing, entrepreneurs “keep coming,” according to Sanchez. The hope is that they can bring another struggling innovator out of the drudges like they did with Jones. “That’s the whole idea,” he says.

Skid Row Artists Brace for Big Changes in Los Angeles

(Credit: Los Angeles Poverty Department)

Since the mid-1980s, artist John Malpede has watched nonprofits in Los Angeles’ Skid Row district aid small wins against tide after tide of downtown development.

The Los Angeles Community Action Network was instrumental in pausing a hotel construction boom in 2006 so that the city could figure out ways to renovate affordable housing. In 2012, the United Coalition East Prevention Project and other groups prevented the delivery of a liquor license to a ground-floor restaurant in a mixed-income housing development, citing concerns that some low-income residents living above may be recovering addicts.

Malpede’s Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD), which claims to be the first performance group whose actors are homeless or previously homeless, eventually turned that dispute into a play. And with a new zoning plan for the neighborhood that would pit social services providers against market storefronts by 2040, it doesn’t look like his troupe will come up short on sources of inspiration anytime soon.

More than 5,000 of Los Angeles County’s 47,000 homeless residents live in Skid Row. They line the streets in camping tents, shopping carts and cardboard boxes, and fill up the more than 60 temporary shelter hotels nearby. Malpede charges that the new zoning blueprint, called DTLA 2040, will hide this problem more than eradicate it.

“The zoning plan is going to shred [Skid Row] completely,” he says.

His LAPD is coordinating a series of performances and workshops that started this May and run the entire summer, called the Back 9. He wants L.A. residents and the millions of international visitors who flood through downtown every year to learn what’s going on just a few blocks away from the double-decker bus tours.

Their theater of choice? A temporary golfing green. In an ode to the sport of the upper class, LAPD is working with local artist and urbanist Rosten Woo to roll out a mini-golf game in the Skid Row History Museum & Archive that brings players, hole by hole, through the history of developers and zoning issues that have shaped downtown.

City planners described the 2040 plan as their push to make Los Angeles a more walkable city during a Back 9 workshop on March 18, according to Malpede. But the Skid Row residents who attended were more concerned about what that means for low-income residents, complaining to the planners that there’s already a need for more amenities for homeless families.

One man who lives in shelters pointed out that he and his wife have to live blocks away from each other. “So here’s a situation where poor people can’t have families with their apartments but people with more money can,” says Malpede.

The modern contour of Skid Row, which rests between the Arts District and the cusp of the Financial District, took shape after a 1975 community plan contained homeless and public services to the southeastern corner of downtown. Up until 1999 the entire downtown district had 8,371 affordable housing units and 2,426 market rentals.

But since then, market rentals have skyrocketed and now number at 20,211, according to a fourth-quarter report by the Downtown Center Business Improvement District. Affordable rentals increased in the same time period up to 12,255.

And when it comes to what’s already in the works, right now there are 71 affordable units under construction — a sliver of a fraction of the 8,883 market rentals being built.

The sight of tents and shopping carts belies a system of self-sufficiency that the neighborhood’s residents and service providers have built out of necessity, says Malpede. “It’s a dynamic neighborhood situation, where there are services but also a community ethos that understands what people’s problems are and how to deal with a range of people with more understanding and passion that’s available elsewhere,” he says.

How the city plans to transplant all that ethos — and the people who depend on it — by 2040 isn’t quite clear. And what’s to come of the vessel for these events, the Skid Row History Museum & Archive, which has been tracking the neighborhood in gallery form since 2008?

“As long as we can pay the rent,” says Malpede, with a laugh. “We’re pretty resilient I would say.”

In 2017, Track Corporate Welfare Like Never Before

A new bill in the Michigan Senate seeks to broaden tax incentives for businesses. (Photo by Brian Charles Watson)

Last Thursday, Michigan legislators backed by private sector leaders dropped a bill on the state senate floor that asked for a greater range of new tax incentives to reel in more businesses. If it passes, companies that enter or expand their imprint in Michigan cities and attract between 250 and 500 new jobs will see part of their paid state income tax refunded every year they keep those jobs. State Senator Jim Stamas and proponents say the bill is necessary because Michigan has a less robust incentives program when compared with neighboring states, according to Crain’s Detroit.

Critics of states using incentives like tax breaks to entice companies to relocate, an approach referred to as “corporate welfare,” charge that it’s not a smart way to put people to work or stimulate economies. For years, everyone from journalists to nonprofit policy center Good Jobs First has been examining the practice and assessing its efficacy.

Now, there’s another way to track how corporate subsidies connect to local economies. A new database by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research looks at the average state and local taxes of a given industry in a given state, and projects how different incentive types would factor out if a hypothetical company were to set up shop within the state over a 20-year period. Included in those calculations are the tax regimes from 47 cities in each of its 33 states.

The data, compiled by economist Tim Bartik, reveals that Michigan spent 49 percent more on incentives as a ratio of its total economy than Ohio, 27 percent more than Wisconsin and 35 percent more than Illinois on incentives in 2015 alone. Indiana was the only nearby state where that ratio was greater than in Michigan.

Cities like Lansing and Detroit have a storied past with incentives programs to keep automakers in the area, and the Michigan Economic Growth Authority (MEGA) tax credit program left taxpayers with a $9.4 billion bill to cover corporate subsidies in 2011. Bartik says if there’s one takeaway he wants policymakers to get from his database, it’s that investing in job seekers will deliver “more bang for your buck” than if you put that money toward property tax abatements or job creation tax credits like Michigan has in the past.

“Most states do not devote much in resources to customized training, which is not a tax incentive, it’s a service that’s provided,” he says. Customized job training, however, he adds, is “highly effective, and the dollar might have 10 times the effect of a dollar devoted to cash incentives and other tax incentives.”

Enrollment in vocational training in Michigan has been diving since 2006. At the same time the state was pushing to create more incentives nearly a decade ago through programs like MEGA, lawmakers placed college enrollment rates at the heart of a statewide education campaign, leaving students too stretched between college prep classes and regular curricula to enroll in vocational programs.

The total number of students enrolled in at least one vocational class in the 2015-2016 school year was 108,000. Go back nine years and enrollment was up at 136,000. Meanwhile, last month 47,000 new jobs were posted at the state’s employment portal,, that only require an associate’s degree. Governor Rick Snyder is currently pushing for more than $40 million in state investments in local job training programs to alleviate that.

Yet Michigan is not alone in thinking that a highly trained job pool is not enough to sweeten the deal to bring in more employers.

“What’s interesting is states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Tennessee, historically didn’t do much in the incentive game, but the last 10 years they’ve started getting into it fairly heavily,” says Bartik, citing his data.

He plans on updating the database once every two to three years and eventually bringing in states like Rhode Island, which has also relied heavily on incentives to woo corporations. When combined with another incentive database guided by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) that’s set to be released in 2017, the year ahead will be marked by unprecedented local disclosures of just who’s getting off the tax hook — and where taxpayers are paying for it.

Bartik’s work provides estimates on the long-term impact of incentive deals, so while the forthcoming GASB numbers will let us see how incentives are impacting local economies today, Bartik’s data let’s us see how they may impact local economies years from now.

Even though they’re projections, there’s a reason why trying to articulate these incentives that far ahead is valuable to policymakers and their constituents. “The reality is, given how short-term-oriented business decision makers are, it seems unlikely the tax abatement you’re offering in year 10 or 12 really affects decisions very much. What it does is gives away the next governor or mayor’s tax base,” Bartik says. “And it’s a little easier to give away a future tax base than your current tax base, politically speaking.”

Recent Solar Jobs Count Is More Than Just a Number

A worker installs solar panels. (Photo by Jon Callas)

In February, the U.S. Department of Energy released its second U.S. Energy and Employment Report to applause by businesses in the renewable industries. Clean energy, the department found, had passed the 3 million job mark in the U.S.

Zoom in on that number and you’ll likely find one story after another of how the sector has changed lives. That’s largely because of groups like GRID Alternatives, a solar nonprofit that provides systems to low- and moderate-income households, and targets its training initiatives at people with barriers to employment like incarceration records.

One of those lives is Jose Ramos’. He’s a solar installer in the Los Angeles region who was thrust into the South Central gang wars in the late ’80s. He got his first taste of juvenile detention just a year after getting jumped into his first gang at the age of 12.

From then on, it was one run-in with the law after another. But when the only organizations taking interest in your block are gangs, what you see in your front lawn is also what you see as the only way to make it in the world. “There were times when I wished, ‘Man, somebody come rescue me, somebody save me,’” Ramos remembers. “I was forced to do things that I didn’t want to do, and I was a scared little kid. It damaged me. Just talking about it right now makes me feel like throwing up.”

When he was 26, he was sentenced to 17 years in jail. He watched from the interior of a cell as his youth slipped away, and even though it wasn’t the type of savior he had in mind when he was younger, incarceration did make him decide to never return to the street.

On parole in his early 40s, he got out with a criminal record and no clear direction. But a friend told him to get in touch with Homeboy Industries. The paragon in the nonprofit job training space for ex-gang members in L.A. eventually put him through a volunteer and training program for a career in solar energy that was led by GRID Alternatives.

Daisy Meyer, the workforce development manager at GRID Alternative’s Bay Area hub in Oakland, makes it clear that they’re not a job program. “We’re a nonprofit solar installation organization that also offers job training,” she says.

That training is done through one of the myriad local organizations they partner with to do hands-on training in cities like San Diego, San Francisco, Oakland, New York and Denver. The benefit of working with an organization like Rising Sun Energy Center in Berkeley, for example, is that those institutions already have the capacity to act as full-fledged, independent job centers.

“One of the big ways we connect is we partner with job training organizations that are construction-minded, and also offer case management support in addition to training,” says Meyer.

But GRID prefers community organizations that align with the values laid out by some of their targeted initiatives, like RISE, which stands for Realizing an Inclusive Solar Economy. To build the core of that program, GRID Alternatives works with local stakeholders like community colleges and housing authorities to spread the word that solar can be a viable career no matter your criminal or education history. To date, they’ve trained 4,000 workers through RISE.

There’s also the National Women in Solar Initiative. “Women make up around 20 percent of the industry, which is way below 50 percent, and that’s including installers and staff in the office,” says Meyer. GRID Alternatives wants to attract more women to the industry and offer them the professional support they need to stay.

Ramos says because of an emphasis on bringing a more diverse roster into renewables, GRID Alternatives’ programs changed his life. He was trained at the East Los Angeles Skills Center. “That little school right there,” he says, “is a jewel.”

By going through the training process he was even able to get his parents, who he describes as retired but living in poverty, their own solar setup. All of his five siblings are still involved in the gang life, but he’s pushing the 16-year-old son of his brother to change his path, to save himself while he still can.

And maybe even get a job in the solar industry.

“It’s cutting edge, and it’s about giving our next generation a hopefully cleaner environment, to become less dependent upon the dirty fuels like coal and nuclear and all that,” he says.

It’s also given him immense confidence by letting him work alongside the types of professionals he never had in his life while growing up.

“Under different circumstances I would have never met or been in the same room as a UCLA student or engineer or someone who works for Tesla,” he says, describing some of his past work meetings with GRID Alternatives. “There’s a lot of hip people in the solar industry — people that are more open to people like myself.”

Connecticut Bets on Arts, Entrepreneurship for Equity

Downtown Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum (Photo by Edward J. Sweeney)

The arts are often seen as a pastime of elites. Indeed, in cities like Hartford, Connecticut, people with college degrees, or those who make more than $100,000 a year, are more likely to take advantage of their local museum or concert hall than those who make less or didn’t finish college.

Kristina Newman-Scott has long wanted to change that narrative. She started by doing what most creative types would never dream of doing: She got into government.

“I thought, I’m not ‘the man,’ I’m an artist,” she remembers. Up until joining the city of Hartford in 2012 to run its cultural affairs department, she was working in Boston, helping artists to revision their practices as if they were small businesses.

In government, however, she saw an opportunity to instill a deeper impact at the local level. “You need to start thinking about how you can shift your tool kit, using community development in a way that supports economic development,” she says she told herself. (Newman-Scott​ is a Next City Vanguard.)

That internal dialogue worked. Since 2015 she’s been the head of cultural programs at the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development — which last month debuted a new strategy to build the arts into the state’s greater push for equitable economies in Connecticut’s cities. While the plan doesn’t outline concrete programs, the goals include partnering artists from underserved areas with local industries.

It’s one approach to solving the ills of a Connecticut city like Hartford. It was recently ranked the 49th worst U.S. capital city, falling a place behind Jackson, Mississippi, in a 2017 analysis of census data by NerdWallet. The assessment dinged the city for low housing affordability, economic well-being and quality of life. Two years before that ranking, an estimated 37 percent of the city’s population was living below the poverty line.

But a look into Newman-Scott’s past work in that city suggests she’ll bring some of her strategy — a blend of artistic outreach, startup incubation and providing spaces for local entrepreneurship — to the equitable development conversation. Here’s how that connection plays out in a simple chronological summary: If you bring artists together from a diverse array of communities, and have them produce works that have potential to become cultural or economic emblems in neighborhoods, those areas may then attract more foot traffic and pull in additional investment from local businesses.

While the director of the marketing, events and cultural affairs division in Hartford, her team led a modest art installation series, titled “Outside the Box,” that brought local artists together to decorate utility boxes with cubed murals.

“It’s now a three-year-old program, all [the boxes] still look fantastic, no one has ruined them,” she says. “Business owners are still calling me: ‘What if we wanted to do this in this street?’” she says.

Kristina Newman-Scott

From there, she gradually stepped up the level and ambition of her neighborhood-based projects, bringing a series of pop-up entrepreneurial ventures to downtown Hartford in 2013. The city center bustles with activity during the work hours but “over 60 percent [of the workers] leave at 5 p.m. to go to their suburban homes,” according to Newman-Scott.

To try and slow some of that daily exodus, they worked with three local businesses: Hartford Prints, Hartford Denim Company, and Naturally Dogs and Cats. They’re all local producers, artisans in card printing and jean making and pet food (respectively), and with the assistance of Newman-Scott’s office they were allowed to set up in previously vacant storefronts along Pratt Street as part of the iConnect initiative.

“Two of [those businesses] went into long-term leases, incubated for nine months and got 10,000 unique visitors after 5 p.m.,” she says. “Which was unheard of for downtown at that time.”

Pushing for the arts to be a line item in the economic development budget isn’t a common government refrain, but maybe that’s because it needs to be test-driven more often. “Risk leads to innovation, and in government that’s not always easy,” she says. “But you’ve got to take risks when we’re talking about urban innovation, especially in small cities [like Hartford].”

There’s still room for more productivity in this space, according to Mark Abraham, executive director at Connecticut-based community data nonprofit DataHaven. He endorses Newman-Scott’s focus on how the arts can be a star player in Hartford’s economic development.

“Besides the ability to draw in people, there’s business retention because it’s also seen as a quality-of-life issue,” he says, referring to what would happen if more ventures like iConnect and “Outside the Box” were rolled out in other parts of the city. Bringing those investments over to Hartford’s poorest neighborhoods could “spill over into all sorts of communities” at the city level, he says.

Newman-Scott is overflowing with ideas on how to make that happen. Now it’s just about creating the right programs that aptly lift up the underserved while also vivifying the city’s lackluster spots for the entire population.

What Drives Social Impact Entrepreneurs?

Social good company ROAR’s jewelry line doubles as an alert system in the face of violence.

Yasmine Mustafa was plucked out of a bomb shelter in Kuwait by United States diplomats as Saddam Hussein’s forces advanced at the start of the Persian Gulf War. They gave her and her family two hours to pack before boarding a plane to Philadelphia.

She spent her adolescent years in the Pennsylvania city; her parents managed a 7-Eleven. Then, when she went to apply for college, a search for her social security number led to a startling realization: She was undocumented. She started working under the table for a few unscrupulous employers who paid her little and forced her to work long hours, well aware that her legal status would prevent her from complaining to local authorities about the violations.

“It sucked. It really sucked,” she says. “But I’d just look at them and say, ‘One day, I’m going to be a nicer version of you.’”

Those experiences made Mustafa want to be her own boss, but they also made her want to make a profit by giving power to the defenseless. During a six-month trip traveling throughout South America, she came up with ROAR, the social good company that makes discreet-yet-sleek jewelry items for women that double as alert systems in the face of violence or sexual assault.

Nearly every time she befriended other women travelers, she heard the stories. “It was either ‘my boyfriend used to beat me,’ or ‘my dad or my uncle whipped me as a child’ — horrific stories, one after the next.” She says ROAR now gets emails “every day” from women who’ve been abused. The first product, called Athena, is as big as a quarter, can be worn on a necklace or belt, and sends a signal to friends and family alerting them that you feel unsafe or are in a dangerous situation when you push it like a button.

Her product is three weeks away from its first shipment, but Mustafa is one in a long line of social entrepreneurs marrying positive impact and profit into startup ventures. The National Women’s Business Council (NWBC) published a report in February on social entrepreneurship across the U.S. to capture the dynamic behind this small but growing business sector.

They define “social entrepreneurs” based on criteria offered up by researcher Greg Dees in 2001. The ventures are formed to create and sustain social impact. Founders have a deep sense of commitment to the people they serve and the outcomes they produce — all while pursuing tenets typical of all strong, nimble businesses, with investments in product innovation, adaptation and a conscientious use of resources.

Currently, women make up 39 percent of traditional entrepreneurs in the U.S., but 49 percent of all social entrepreneurs. There are more men than women in the process of trying to start up a social enterprise, with 9.9 percent of men and 7.3 percent of women who define themselves as “entrepreneurs” interested in bringing social ideas to scale.

But what was most compelling to Whitney Keyes, a member of the NWBC, was that women seemed to see a significantly lower funding hurdle to get their ideas off the ground.

While men who were social entrepreneurs estimated they’d need anywhere from more than $50,000 to upward of $1 million to start, women on average said they thought they could tackle the initial phase of an enterprise with less than $1,000.

There’s no consensus on exactly why that is. “Are women more resourceful? Do women have greater networks?” asks Keyes. “We will probably be digging into that in the coming year.”

When the NWBC was hosting community meetings across the country with female entrepreneurs, comments of interest in social entrepreneurship are what pushed her organization to start putting this report together. That’s also where she learned that a lot of women start social enterprises on a small scale for the good of the community, but they don’t necessarily reach profitability.

Keyes has worked with women entrepreneurs in developing countries across the world, but she says there are a couple commonalities that she sees everywhere. “Women have often been pioneers when it comes to social justice, human rights, underserved communities, caring for children and so forth,” she says. “They may be involved or thinking about it at a very personal level.”

Mustafa agrees wholeheartedly — thinking of her trials as an immigrant in the U.S., and the trials of those women she met traveling through South America. “I believe women tend to be more nurturers, and are looking to make an impact within their communities and their networks,” she says.

Nashville Steps Up on Youth Jobs to Combat Violence

Downtown Nashville (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

In Nashville, youth under the age of 25 face some tough odds as they navigate schooling and try to lay the foundation for their futures. The city estimates that about 3,000 of its homeless population are 24 years old or younger. Youth poverty impacts around 30 percent of those ages 18 and under. And 74 percent of kids in the city’s public schools get their lunches for free because their families live below the federal poverty line.

Ronnie Steine, a consultant to Nashville Mayor Megan Barry on youth development, says these aren’t just the particulars of a Nashville story. He sees it as a replica of what’s going on among the school-aged in Boston, New York, Chicago — just a few cities Nashville has turned to recently to help figure out how to handle its youth issues.

“Unfortunately a large number of youth in the community might not have caring adults in their lives to help them make their choices,” he says. “I don’t think Nashville is unique in that way.”

Now they’re rolling out a new jobs program, called Opportunity Now, to give local students and their peers the hook-ups they need to become self-sufficient. Already over at the program’s job board there are around 8,000 opportunities, according to Steine, and they’re expecting that number to grow as more and more local businesses jump on board.

Listings are broken up into four categories. For the younger slice of that population there’s Experience Work, community service-style jobs. The High School Internship lasts six weeks during the summer, and places 17- and 18-year-olds at local companies or community organizations. Summer Plus offers entry-level positions for high school graduates, and Work Now has job listings for anyone out of high school.

“All are paid positions,” says Steine, and most are part-time. They’ll range from $8 an hour for the youngest workers to market rate for those with a little more experience. Of the 8,000 job listings up there, about 2,500 are internships for those ages 14 to 18 — a monumental leap up from the 150 paid youth internships that the city coordinated just a few years ago.

Barry’s original goal was to reach 10,000 job or internship spots in the first year. “We may not hit 10,000 but we’ll be in excess of 8,500,” says Steine. They’ll go beyond putting cash in the hands of young employees by linking them up with local nonprofits that can share lessons on financial education.

The program originated when Barry’s office held a series of five youth summits in 2015 and 2016 to gather public comment on the crippling issue of youth violence in Nashville. Twenty public agencies, ranging from the Juvenile Court to the Metro Arts Commission, and 400 high school students descended on at least one of each of the summits. These gave the administration a window into just how much the economic burden issue is connected with lapses in public and domestic safety in the area.

“Particularly for high school students, [providing jobs during] out of school time had been a relatively low priority for Nashville,” says Steine. “In the summer time in particular, the city has really been lagging behind what other communities have done for young people.”

Between 2011 and 2015 there were 16,955 “violent incidents” among people ages 25 years old or younger. Sixty-four percent of youth homicides in 2015 were black youth. One student who came to the summit commanded the city: If you want us to walk a tightrope, you’ve gotta provide us with a safety net.

So Barry’s office built out an agenda based on six pillars: meaningful youth engagement, health awareness and access, restorative justice and diversion, safe environment, education, and jobs and employment opportunities. Opportunity Now is the fruit of efforts to build out that last pillar, and it’s based on models like Boston’s SuccessLink program. That program started off employing 3,000 youth a year but is now up to 10,000.

A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston took a look at 800 youth who participated in SuccessLink, and found that minority youth — and particularly those on the younger end of the spectrum — saw the greatest benefits when it came to interest in enrolling in an academic institution after high school. Youth across the board benefited from the additional knowledge on how to prepare a resume and build interview skills.

In total, it looks like investing in summer job programs has been a consistent win for youth in Massachusetts’ largest urban area — and it may just be the safety net that Nashville’s younger citizens are asking for.

New Sacramento Accelerator Focuses on Women Entrepreneurs

(Photo by J. Smith)

Even amid the media’s best efforts to profile female entrepreneurs, Tracy Saville notices a marked fascination with the well-educated and ultra-driven.

And that’s all fine, but when lumped together as a representation of women working in startups, it doesn’t exactly paint an accurate picture of what’s going on in cities around the U.S.

“I’m 50, I’ve got a mother with onset dementia, I’ve got a 25-year-old son, I’ve got issues that a 50-year-old woman has — but I’m still expected to be a particular type of person,” she says. To her, fitting that “type” means “I shouldn’t have outside interests, my startup should be the only thing I do, I should be not sleeping for three days straight” while working on her project to show her commitment to success.

Saville is working on a new artificial intelligence product, and she’s also the co-founder of a new Sacramento startup incubator that was originally based out of Los Angeles, called Fourthwave. They’re looking for tech projects in big data, agriculture, civic/government, health services and other industries, with a company ownership that’s at least 50 percent women; there’s an emphasis on entrepreneurs of color too.

To her, the archetype of the woman who sacrifices everything for her prototype is actually a rare one. She wants to shift the startup zeitgeist into one where men don’t judge women who aren’t working ridiculous hours to get the job done. She remembers one of her advisers getting an email from her venture capitalist brother, suggesting she give a cold shoulder to Saville’s plan to only court female investors because they wouldn’t “get any points” for attracting what he described as “female money.”

Or, the time a 67-year-old venture capitalist took her out to dinner in San Francisco, and told her everything she needed to do to become successful. That included becoming “more demure” — and he offered to help her achieve that (and other more “successful” traits) if she paid him a small service fee of $15,000 a month.

“I know women who were trying to raise capital but [were] laughed out of business meetings because they were three months pregnant,” she says. “I wouldn’t want a 12-year-old girl today to have to go through what I went through.”

Countrywide, about 80 percent of active entrepreneurs are white, and 65 percent are men, according to a 2017 report by the Kauffman Foundation. But that’s changing, as business leaders age out and the U.S. shifts toward greater racial and ethnic diversity. In Sacramento, the change brought on by that trajectory is already evident; last year it was listed as the top city for minority entrepreneur growth in the country by Forbes.

But on top of having women and entrepreneurs of color in leadership positions, Fourthwave insists applicants have to commit to what Saville calls “conscious leadership.” It’s inspired by Whole Foods founder John Mackey, who wrote a book called “Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business” that extols a raising of the bar on business ethics that also purports to bring in more profit over time.

Fourthwave cites a multitude of research that backs this model, with a focus on women leaders. Companies with women in leadership roles produce higher returns on equity, more robust stocks and higher company valuations, according to an October 2016 report by Credit Suisse.

“We’re finding that those going out and pursuing conscious leadership values are outperforming on a ROI basis, employees stay longer, the value chain of vendors is happier — every metric of the company is better when we achieve that,” she says.

Fourthwave is taking the move to Sacramento from Los Angeles after one year as a chance to tweak the incubator in some ways. Nancy Perlman, Fourthwave’s original founder, says the L.A. program was just a pilot run, but they were able to provide pitch assistance to startups like Blue Fever, a Netflix-like service that streams media made by, or featuring, women in key roles. As they go forward, Perlman and Saville want to shift away from the traditional, high-speed boot camp model of most incubators, replacing pitch sessions with community dinners where investors take a seat at the table and converse without the sole goal of making profit.

Toward that end, it received a $25,000 grant from the Rapid Acceleration, Innovation and Leadership in Sacramento (RAILS) program to help get up and running, as part of Sacramento’s goal to become the U.S. “capital of entrepreneurship.”

Compared to Los Angeles, Sacramento is, to Saville, a smaller city with a higher prevalence of the old guard. “It’s the philanthropic, banking, capital sectors, housing construction sectors — a city for bigger business and employer sectors that have predominantly been controlled by white middle-aged men,” she says. “They’re at that point of aging out but still control quite a bit of the business community.”

That’s why for this first cohort, they’re aiming for quality over quantity when it comes to how they’ll determine whether or not they’ve made an impact. “If we could even help a fourth of our cohort to achieve positive capital outcomes, with capital that wasn’t readily available or wasn’t available at all … that’d be a success.”

Small Town, Big Success With Reentry Program

Lawrence County Courthouse in New Castle, Pennsylvania, about 50 miles outside Pittsburgh

Three years ago, in New Castle, Pennsylvania, District Attorney Joshua Lamancusa was at a hearing for a 29-year-old who’d been falling behind on his court bills. If he kept missing the payments he risked ending up in jail, so Lamancusa asked him what was going on.

“He said he couldn’t get a job. And I asked him, ‘Have you applied?’ And he said he’d applied to 28 different places and was denied employment from all 28 because he had a felony conviction,” Lamancusa remembers.

Doubting the man’s story, Lamancusa asked him to provide copies of all the applications he’d submitted to no avail. If he could do that, Lamancusa would try to persuade the judge to be lenient.

When the man returned with the 28 applications in a fat stack, Lamancusa was taken aback. “Every one had been denied because he had been convicted of a felony 10 years ago for a drug charge,” he says. “At that point, I realized we needed to do something about this.”

So in May 2014, Lamancusa stepped outside the sphere of typical DA duties and requested a grant from a local community foundation for a job program he named “Jail-to-Jobs.” The goal: Put 100 citizens returning from prison into the workforce by the following year.

The program is now nearing the end of its third year, and Lamancusa says it’s put a little over 260 people into full-time jobs with local employers, with nearly two-thirds of those finding work in New Castle. (About 50 miles outside of Pittsburgh, New Castle is the most populous city and seat of Lawrence County.)

“We drafted [the program] ourselves,” says Lamancusa. “District attorneys don’t usually engage in this, but it just was a need we had in our community.”

In 2013, Pennsylvania as a whole reported a three-year recidivism rate of 60 percent. But research like this 2016 study by Harvard law professor Crystal S. Yang suggests that counties with ample work opportunities for returning citizens produce the lowest rates of recidivism.

That’s what Lamancusa recognized when he saw that stack of rejected applications. “If someone had an opportunity to make a living, to put food on the table, then they wouldn’t have to turn back to the streets,” he says.

Jail-to-Jobs partners with regional businesses, running the gamut from pizza places to construction contractors to regional corporations, to build up these career pipelines. “Some of the people who come into our program, they’ve never worked. They’ll be 30 years old, and they’ll never have held a job,” he says. The approach there is to start them off in a minimum wage role — working a cash register or landscaping for the county — and then have them work for six or seven months until they build up just enough experience to compete for a higher-paying gig.

The district attorney’s office also works with local workforce development services, like Pennsylvania CareerLink, to pair job seekers with employers outside Jail-to-Jobs.

Its one annual grant of $50,000 just covers a salary for a head coordinator, the one and only employee, but Jail-to-Jobs plans to expand its employer base again this year. A bond policy for employers that hire ex-inmates helps to encourage more participants. In Pennsylvania, businesses can get up to $5,000 in insurance from the federal government if they hire an employee considered “high risk” or returning from prison. It’s a light guarantee that’s intended to “protect from loss of money or property due to employee dishonesty.”

That, plus the fact that workers are vouched for by the highest level of law enforcement in the county, have helped entice more than 40 employers into welcoming job seekers through the DA’s flagship (and only) jobs program.

Lamancusa says traditional job training programs and district attorneys nationwide could look to what they’ve done because it’s a sign of what can come when government offices step outside their bureaucratic comfort zones for the good of the community.

“It’s great because it’s putting people back [in society], helping the local tax base, helping our local community in that [ex-inmates aren’t] at risk to commit additional crimes,” he says. “We’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem. We have to make sure we’re allocating resources to the other end of the spectrum.”

Autism Jobs Program Wants to Cut Disabled Unemployment Number

Adrienne Walls has worked three internships through the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute.

Adrienne Walls is in the middle of her third internship thanks to the Project SEARCH program, a job training initiative in Philadelphia for people on the autism spectrum that’s being hosted by Drexel University.

The 20-year-old used to help out at the university’s student center. After that she went on to work with the transportation department, surveying campus to make sure parked cars had the right permits.

This current job’s her favorite, though. “I like doing job applications, doing emails, and going to Barnes & Noble every morning,” she says. She’ll do one more internship through the program before graduating and going out to hunt for work.

Project SEARCH is finishing up its pilot year at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, and Walls is one of seven students from local public schools who will finish at the end of spring. The program started at a Cincinnati hospital in 1996, and has since been replicated at the city level in every U.S. state and 11 countries.

But this one’s a flagship, as it’s the first time Project SEARCH has been incorporated by a higher ed institution. It’s backed by a lattice of regional and state support programs that’s partly funded by the 2014 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, a federal job training support program. Partners include the School District of Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation and Pennsylvania Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services.

Interns spend four three-month blocks assisting part-time at partner businesses or campus offices. They generally clock six hours of work each day.

Dianne Malley, a project director at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, says the first group has gone so smoothly — training in data entry, bookseller services, hospitality and more — they’re looking to speak with more local businesses to bring in a few more industries for the 2017-2018 school year.

“Unemployment rates for people with autism are staggering,” says Malley. With one in every 68 newborns in the U.S. classified on the autism spectrum, she says it’s time to start finding ways to integrate this population into the working class. “Many are underemployed, or they have far more skills than they’re using at their positions.”

About one-third of autistic youth in the U.S. don’t go on to get a postgraduate education or a job after high school, and nearly 20 percent of U.S. citizens with disabilities aren’t in the workforce. Nonprofits like Autism Speaks claim employment is so low only because employers haven’t researched how people with disabilities like autism can contribute to the workplace. (They started a jobs board for autistic workers, called, to try to reverse that culture.)

That’s why Project SEARCH is “huge for these individuals’ lives,” says Malley.

Clayton Walls, Adrienne’s father, agrees. He was reluctant to submit Adrienne to the program at first, knowing she’d have to navigate Philadelphia’s public transit system to get to and from work multiple times a week.

At first, he was shocked the Project SEARCH team would even suggest such a commute. “Anytime we went out [before], we took her, or someone we trusted took her to wherever she was going,” he says. In the first days of the program last fall, he’d get on the bus with Adrienne and tell the bus driver to make sure she got off at the right stop.

But Project SEARCH’s team shadows interns as they make their first attempts at a morning commute, keeping their distance in transit and stepping in if interns make a mistake. Adrienne’s on her own now.

“She leaves here at 7 in the morning, and I watch her go down the street, and then at 4 o’clock she comes right back,” says Walls.

A.J. Drexel Autism Institute interns

The program claims its approach to vocational training has an 80 percent job placement rate across its 300 sites in the English-speaking world. Placement in this case means a graduate finds a job that runs 16 hours or more a week, is year round, pays minimum wage or higher and has an integrated workforce, where those with mental impairments work side-by-side by those without.

But despite its reported success, there’s one alarming issue about the program. Students who go through its yearlong pipeline don’t get paid.

Its website sizes it up with the clinical rotations that medical students have to go through, calling them “unpaid student work experiences,” or unpaid internships.

In a 2010 fact sheet from the U.S. Bureau of Labor, the federal government offers some clarity on the “free work” issue in a description of whether or not interns qualify for pay. It says if interns are performing “productive work” like assisting customers or filing items, then whatever light skills training they leave the program with “will not exclude them from the [Fair Labor Standards Act’s] minimum wage and overtime requirements because the employer benefits from the interns’ work.”

Malley, however, says one of the particulars that keeps it outside the Bureau’s “employment” definition is that the employer engages with the internship to help train them, often costing managers and workers time when they weren’t in need of any store help. Those are two stipulations that could balance Project SEARCH further away from the Bureau’s exception.

Clayton Walls says he doesn’t take issue with his daughter not getting paid. “To me, this is a lot better than her going sitting in a classroom in an autism support class all day, just to finish out her last days of high school,” he says. “She feels like she’s a part of something, she feels connected — it’s an adventure. What she’s doing now opens the door for a lot of things to come.”

Adrienne, meanwhile, says she’s ready for whatever follows that adventure. “After I graduate Project SEARCH, I’d like to work at a store,” she says, noting that her favorite part of working at Barnes & Noble is getting to sell T-shirts.

Can “City of Design” Title Help All Detroiters?

(Photo by Derek Gauci)

When Chioke McRae drives by the massive Shepard Fairey mural on the Compuware Building in downtown Detroit, he sees a great piece of art.

He also sees a sign that he’s in one of the select neighborhoods that the city holds up as an example of its revitalization efforts. “It’s great, and he’s a popular graffiti artist,” says McRae. “But it does nothing.”

Detroit nabbed the only City of Design designation by UNESCO in the United States back in 2015, a nod to the Ford Motors home city and its $2.5 billion creative economy. Now, economic developers are partnering with creative leaders like McRae to spread some of Detroit’s design resources and opportunity to entrepreneurs in impoverished neighborhoods.

Olga Stella, executive director of the Detroit Creative Corridor Center (DC3), believes design can be a new economy in the neighborhoods miles outside of Detroit’s downtown where, McRae says, the people are still asking when they’ll be included in the “new Detroit.” (DC3 promotes the city’s creative businesses and applied for the UNESCO designation.)

“What would seem to be unlikely stakeholders would be drawn into this process — like returning citizens [from the criminal justice system],” Stella says. “A big part of what we’re hoping to achieve with all of this is to draw on Detroit’s diversity, and its authenticity, to help develop a strategy that leverages our innate creativity [for] an equitable and sustainable city.”

Indeed, there’s a robust spirit of entrepreneurship far outside the Downtown circles where the term “entrepreneurship” is a buzzword. Grace in Action, a nonprofit in Southwest Detroit, is the guiding hand behind a youth-owned company called Stitching up Detroit that screen prints, makes textiles and runs a graphic design arm. The operation provides youth with a window into how design can double as a business venture in a neighborhood where more than 50 percent of residents don’t have a high school diploma.

“I think that there’s a huge opportunity for Detroit’s young people to be the next user interface designers,” she says, referring to those developers who program what apps and computer programs look like on our screens. “It’s about creating those pipelines and connecting [with] a number of different training programs, teaching people how to code and reaching out into minority communities,” she adds.

Three years ago, with the help of $1 million from the New Economy Initiative, a philanthropy-driven economic development fund, DC3 was able to provide mentorship, a space to meet and office equipment to local minority entrepreneurs like McRae, who’s a partner at the marketing company Root 4 Creative. He’s a believer that the creative industry can break down its walls and go to Detroiters who would have to bus into Downtown to access a co-working space.

As a researcher keeping an eye on Detroit’s comeback from its 2013 bankruptcy, Jenny Lendrum has more questions than answers about DC3’s optimism. When asked if the creative economy can be a financial boon to poor residents, the PhD candidate in sociology at Wayne State University wonders how DC3’s program will ensure impact far beyond the classrooms of the educational facilities guiding much of its support.

“For example, in the neighborhood I study, one of the single mothers, living in subsidized housing without access to a vehicle, has a 20-year-old daughter who has been drawing since age 7 or 8. While she graduated from a charter high school in Detroit, she has no college or art school prospects in her future,” says Lendrum, referencing her research into Detroit’s informal economies. “How might DC3 reach out to someone like her, with natural talent, but very limited resources?”

Or the elderly man she knows who builds and sells doghouses from the garage a stone’s throw from the house he’s lived in most of his life. “He is older, I imagine with few formal computer or tech skills, but has managed to sustain a small business for himself in the neighborhood, with a reputation for his work. How will the initiative help transfer these types of skills?” she asks.

They’re incisive questions — exactly the type that could guide DC3 as it shapes a strategy for deploying a recent $1 million grant from the Knight Foundation. Stella says a team to write that blueprint will be announced later in March, and includes two firms — one that’s “working in inclusive economic development” and another with a background in “social impact projects in our community.”

DC3 is confident that the Detroit residents highlighted by Lendrum will be exactly the ones to benefit from a broader design community that’s no longer limited by ZIP code. “It’s not design for design’s sake or creativity for creativity’s sake,” she says. “There are real opportunities for our makers to scale, and we want to look at ways to increase those opportunities.”

Movement for Black Lives Pushes for Victories City by City

Last October, teachers, students and parents across Seattle public schools wore “Black Lives Matter” shirts to promote racial equity in schools. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Six months ago, social and economic justice groups with a stake in what’s largely known as the Black Lives Matter movement illuminated an exit path out of decades of systemic racism in the U.S.

Beneath the banner of the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), and arguing the disparities faced by black communities across the U.S. had to be broken down “not [by] reform but transformation” of a swath of contemporary laws, they proposed policies that took a page out of progressive theories on urban development that would reverberate across the spectrum of race and class at the city level. Tax incentives for local businesses that make their workforce more diverse. Shifting more federal funds out of police departments and into employment programs. Favoring community-based sustainable energy projects that employ neighbors.

Half a year in, organizers say, they’re still working out a way forward — and dealing with the November 2016 election of President Donald Trump.

“There were very few people who were not blindsided,” says Cathy Albisa, executive director of the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI). Her organization is one of those that helped to craft the M4BL platform.

Their approach thus far has been to act local but think national, by influencing policymakers in the cities where M4BL’s main players operate: New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., Sacramento, Portland, Ferguson and a handful of others. They’re unified by that city-scaled approach, but when asked about the organization’s national front, Albisa says she’s “not sure what anyone’s strategy is three weeks into the new administration.”

The uncertainty is understandable. Trump’s speeches thus far suggest his gaze on urban issues will lead us leaps away from the legacy laid out by former President Barack Obama. His appointment to run the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Ben Carson, has expressed inconsistent opinions about federal assistance programs for low-income and underserved communities.

Last week, members of both the House and the Senate served up two bills pleading for a permanent version of the New Markets Tax Credit program, which has helped create 750,000 jobs through $75 billion in investments in cities across the country, but it’s still too early to say how this administration will fare on urbanism.

For now, Thenjiwe McHarris, co-founder of movement builder Blackbird, says M4BL groups are turning anxiety into energy at the ground level while the federal government takes form.

“We recognize that, considering the violent political climate and the current administration, our focus must be on supporting visionary local reform,” she says. That means providing educational resources for small groups that want to bring the M4BL policies to their own cities, and creating spaces in cities and online where “organizations can dream, scheme and implement needed reforms.”

Those reforms, she says, will “mitigate the immediate threats against our people while allowing us to build the power and vision we need to actualize the [M4BL] platform.”

Part of that means linking up with national movements that were gathering momentum since before Trump took office. Through the M4BL, Albisa and NESRI have started collaborating with the Black Youth Project 100, an advocacy group focused on millennials that’s currently putting its weight behind the $15 minimum wage campaign in Chicago. Forty-six percent of black workers in that city work low-wage jobs.

Last fall, the National Black Worker Center Project (NBWCP) joined other workers’ rights groups at a meeting with the U.S. Department of Labor to push one of the biggest economic reforms on the M4BL list: They demanded an update to a 1965 anti-discrimination law, to ensure an increase in the percentage of black workers hired for federal projects, noting: “It is unconscionable that it has not been updated in 36 years, given the increased diversity of our nation’s population and the growing poverty in our communities.”

Since August, M4BL organizers say they’ve influenced a few successful divestment campaigns at the city level. Last week Alameda, California, removed millions of dollars of its shares in Wells Fargo because of that bank’s active role in financing private prisons and the Dakota Access Pipeline. At the end of January, racial and economic justice group Enlace, an affiliate of the Movement for Black Lives, helped a student group organize and push the University of California school system to divest $475 million from Wells Fargo for the same reason.

No matter their next effort, Albisa says, the vitriol of the presidential campaign only reinforced how necessary a guiding light the M4BL policies can be across the next four years. “That work of pushing forward at a moment like this is more valuable than we even realize,” she says.

New Model Could Help Cities Predict Gentrifying Neighborhoods

Redeveloping Shaw/U Street neighborhood in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Derek Hyra)

Run a Google search for “gentrification” and you’ll get thousands of news items and scholarly articles on how urban revitalization risks pushing low-income communities out of cities. Despite all that research, Ken Steif, director of the Urban Spatial Analytics grad program at the University of Pennsylvania, says it’s remarkable how cities are still struggling to stop displacement when investment starts to rise.

On Jan. 31, he debuted a model that may help. It provides policymakers with a rough glimpse into the future by relying heavily on U.S. Census data to predict gentrification. The initial framework, which was rolled out through his consulting firm Urban Spatial, was applied to 29 legacy cities mostly clustered around the Northeast, but also included urban areas like Chicago, Birmingham, New Orleans and St. Louis.

Along with researchers Alan Mallach, Michael Fichman and Simon Kasse, Steif blended datasets of median housing prices for 3,991 census tracts in these cities during 1990, 2000 and 2010. They also recorded the average housing prices for groups of census tracts surrounding each census tract, and looked at other variables like changes in resident income, to measure the incline of housing values in a given region.

If they could plug data from 1990 and 2000 into this model and get a prediction for 2010 that lined up with what housing prices actually looked like in 2010, the experiment would’ve proven successful. And that’s sort of what happened. The margins of error in Cincinnati, Baltimore and Pittsburgh, for example, rested between 14 percent and 12 percent. At the lowest end of the spectrum, South Bend, Indiana, and Erie, Pennsylvania, were both under 5 percent.

What researchers did find notable was that there weren’t any distinct patterns of error — for example, larger cities on average didn’t show different proportions of error than smaller cities. “The model is not biased toward smaller cities or larger ones or those with booming economies,” note the authors, concluding that “this is evidence that our final model is generalizable to a variety of urban contexts.”

It’s an exciting addition to the debate on how to slow gentrification’s negative influence, with an eye towards the power it could bring to community development financial institutions, nonprofits or policymakers who want to channel city growth into a more equitable, accessible future. “If developers can commonly access data like this, if these sorts of analytics can be democratized, it puts us all on the same page,” says Steif. To him, that could directly translate to outlining a game plan for transit improvements based on neighborhood fluctuations among low-income populations dependent on the bus. Or, organizers using the model to help frame their community benefit agreements with major developers looking to move into a neighborhood.

But it’s not the first time researchers have attempted to peer into future growth patterns. In a 2016 article published at Cityscape, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s research journal, authors Karen Chapple and Miriam Zuk from the University of California, Berkeley point out that policymakers have been consulting “early warning systems” to scope out neighborhood shifts since at least the 1980s.

Some of these systems were extra diligent in their approach, compiling data on everything from building permits to condominium conversions to mortgage lending characteristics within the region in question. That type of thoroughness can burden a prediction model, though, if its source information isn’t easily collectable on a year-to-year basis, and you’re a community group with barely enough resources to research local poverty in its present form.

Then there’s the issue of whether or not that data communicates a clear message to politicians or nonprofits who aren’t versed in statistics or the sciences. “I can develop stat models left and right, but if nobody can [read] them, it’s pointless,” says Steif, suggesting why past models rarely led to successful preventive action on the ground.

Efficiency also has its risks. James Jennings, a researcher at Tufts University who’s investigated gentrification trends in Boston for decades, says on top of relying on official sources — and presenting their implications in a way that’s understandable by all tiers of the community — researchers need to speak with the people in the neighborhoods they’re forecasting and collect their observations as another form of data.

“A lot of the literature on this completely leaves out the voices of people feeling the angst of gentrification — the ones actually being displaced,” says Jennings. “It’s those local voices that help to highlight nuances and subtleties and little pieces of information that give us a better sense of how our city enables changee.”

That piece of research by Chapple and Zuk buttresses Jennings’ observation. In the Cityscape article, they point out how an empty lot, or crippled building, can appear to outside observation as a sign of disinvestment. Sometimes it’s just the case that the landowner is sitting on that property and waiting for the value to increase before rehabbing it — the type of information you could get from residents next door if the data isn’t easily available from the city planning department.

The goal for Steif now is to partner up with funders or other think tanks to reformat this model to additional sets of data culled from the city level. He says there’s at least one local government that’s already reached out to him to talk about adopting his model, which he describes as “using data to make improvements in the lives of people.”

“That is the overall goal,” he adds.

Mobile Wants to Matriculate Its Way Out of the Wealth Gap

(Photo: Mobile Area Education Foundation)

An Indianapolis foundation has teamed up with 75 U.S. cities to accomplish a goal that could be the most direct path to getting Americans back to work: massively increasing the number of college graduates entering the workforce.

By 2025, the Lumina Foundation has set its sights — and 1.4 billion endowment— towards upping the number of college-educated Americans to 60 percent of the U.S. population, up from 40 percent, according to Lumina.

Mobile, Alabama is one of the foundation’s partners and for good reason. The Mobile region’s rates of upward economic mobility ranks in the bottom third among U.S. metropolitan regions and local leaders say lagging rates of educational attainment are a large part of why, particularly for people of color in the region. More than half of Mobile’s population is black, yet in 2015 only 28.5 percent of students leaving college with a bachelors degree were black. Meanwhile, about a third of the county’s black population lives in poverty. A degree would be be a game-changer for families; Mobile’s college graduates made an average of $43,539 in 2014 — $16,432 more than those who only had a high school diploma.

Chandra Scott is the director of strategic outputs for the Mobile Area Economic Foundation, a local partner recognized this month by Lumina for its work to achieve a local goal of doubling the number of college degree holders by 2030, jumping from 22 percent to 44 percent in 13 years. She says her group is helping people prepare and pay for the ACT and SAT, easing at least one burden for low-income students. The local foundation is looking beyond those of traditional school age to increase matriculation rates. Many older people haven’t been priced out of higher education but would benefit from a bridge back into the classroom, she says. “How do we get those who aren’t able to afford to get back into the education pipeline? That’s something we’re trying to get to the heart of,” says Scott. “We’ll get data [we need to] re-engage with those that have never been engaged, to make sure the financial barriers aren’t the only reason people aren’t participating in the pathway.”

In addition to helping people overcome SAT and ACT hurdles, MAEF is working with local employers to connect graduates to job opportunities in real time, partnering with Pre-K programs to help instill the benefits of degree attainment at the earliest age possible and working with other local agencies to create a system for tracking employment and educational gains. “Are students successful, are they completing training, getting jobs? There was no data system or data alignment that found that that was in store,” she says.

Meanwhile, more employers have already started to settle in Mobile and job growth in the region is projected to rise upwards of 30 percent over the next ten years. The city has already had some success attracting international businesses, such as steel manufacturer AM/NS, which bought out a plant run by ThyssenKrupp in 2014 for $1.55 billion. “If we [don’t] have the human capital to fill [employers’] needs, this would leave a huge void in our community,” says Scott.

Jobs for Homeless Program Gets Applause, So What’s Next?

(Credit: City of Albuquerque)

In 2015, Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry made national headlines when he debuted a no-frills effort to reduce panhandling and homelessness in the city. With one driver and one 10-seater van, the program, called There’s a Better Way, would transport the city’s jobless to six-hour gigs pulling weeds in parks, picking up trash or tidying up the grounds at the local dump.

What started off as a $50,000, six-month pilot is now an $181,000 annual program that has inspired spin-offs in Denver, Dallas and the state of Wisconsin. Anaheim, California, became the most recent municipality to get on the trend, with Mayor Tom Tait telling an audience of 800 at the State of the City address on Feb. 7 that jobs were the solution to homelessness.

Experts on equitable economies, however, say it’s not that simple. There’s a Better Way is catching the interest of U.S. politicians on both sides of the aisle because it’s low cost and easy to deploy, but researchers say it’s a short-term fix with short-term results if municipalities don’t link it with a robust system of local services like long-term career training and housing assistance.

“My impression is close to half of persons who are homeless have employment, regardless whether their city offers this type of program,” says Sandy Darity, a professor of public policy at Duke University. “They just have poorly paid employment.”

Even if an individual were to work these jobs full-time, Darity notes that it’s still not enough pay to bring someone out of the cycle of homelessness — regardless of any short-term cash injection. Earning $9 an hour at 40 hours a week comes out to about $17,000 a year. “That’s below the poverty line,” he notes.

But there is a silver lining to the uptick in interest in this program: With more municipalities putting their weight behind it, it could attract federal dollars and open up similar no-paperwork programs leading homeless or unemployed communities into other industries.

If you’re unemployed with barriers to employment, like a prison record or mental health issues, There’s a Better Way maintains your anonymity. There’s no form to fill out, no ID required, no background checks — living on the streets is enough to qualify. (Kellie Tillerson, the employment director of St. Martin’s Hospitality Center, which oversees the program in Albuquerque, says when approached for work “most people say yes, and those that say no are typically physically unable to do the work.”)

There’s enough demand in construction, hospice care and other public job needs across the U.S. to bring this approach to more cities and more, potentially better-paying projects.

“What we’d want to do is take an inventory at the municipal level and identify what the most pressing local needs are,” Darity says. “Then structure a jobs program so we could match those needs with the skills, interests and talents of folks who seek public sector employment.”

In its current form, the impact There’s a Better Way yields isn’t going to change neighborhoods over night, but it could very well lay the seed for homeless or jobless individuals to want to seek out more gainful employment. Lack of education, no access to transportation, an empty CV and mental health issues are just some of the reasons homeless populations are reluctant to seek out work. So work that goes straight to a homeless person is also bound to bring unprecedented personal benefits.

“There’s a lot of research that links unemployment with virtually every socioeconomic problem you can think of,” says Pavlina Tcherneva, an economics professor at Bard College. She notes that the program’s quick employment opens the door for “these positive multiplier effects on homelessness, mental health issues, school retention, on crime” in the cities in question.

Tcherneva says even six hours of work is enough to get residents interested in maintaining their community long-term.

“If you put people just to sweep the streets, it already confers so many benefits. Imagine if you put them to do some basic conservation stuff,” she says, referencing the vast natural landscapes where she lives in Upstate New York, and the need for everything from river maintenance to forest conservation projects. “Then it’s not just sweeping the streets, but you kind of start building a skill set, but you’re filling these gaps in the public service sector.”

Since September 2015, the program has given 1,689 day jobs to 488 Albuquerque residents, putting about $90,000 total into the pockets of people living far below the poverty line. It’s now trying to forge partnerships with the local private sector to create similarly lean jobs programs in other industries — a long-term approach that future cities should note when trying to bring the model into their own long-term homelessness goals.

Driver-Friendly Ride App Sets Its Sights on U.S. Expansion

(Photo by Karlis Dambrans)

Maly Paul had been a driver for Uber for more than a year when another job opportunity literally stepped into his back seat. He was ferrying passengers around Boston when he got a pickup request in the Leather District from a young Russian techy named Vlad Christoff who would soon be one of the co-founders of an on-demand ride service app that claims it’s revolutionizing the gig economy.

The nascent company, Christoff told Paul, was called Fasten. It was built on the premise that a ride service could profit without pocketing 25 to 30 percent of a driver’s cut per ride, like Lyft and Uber do. Drivers with his company, Christoff said, would keep the entire ride fare save just a buck, which would go to headquarters.

Paul was convinced. He started working for Fasten in June 2015, lending a hand in the startup’s effort to recruit new drivers. Nearly half of the administrative team running Fasten is ex-Uber and Lyft drivers, and Paul says it’s easy to see why employees of those other companies would want to jump ship.

“With Uber, the end user is the customer,” says Paul. “But with us we treat the driver as our customer. And the person that uses the service is the driver’s customer.”

Since it debuted in Boston in September 2015, Fasten has set up shop in Austin, Texas, taking advantage of a service gap left in that city when Uber and Lyft fled because voters said they needed to fingerprint their drivers for background checks. Now Fasten, which has 89 administrative employees, is planning to expand into at least one additional market this year, though CEO Kirill Evdakov declined to disclose which markets it was considering.

Part of its pro-driver model is that wherever Fasten operates, it sets up lounges where drivers can hang out, meet with the faces behind the company and attend local get-togethers. Paul says they plan to replicate that model in every future city as they expand.

“The drivers know us by first name,” says Paul. “When I was driving with Uber, it was like ‘here’s this app, just drive.’ They don’t have that personal part.”

Evdakov says those who drive “full time” and exclusively for Fasten make upward of $2,000 a week, though he didn’t say what Fasten’s definition of “full time” was. Like Uber, they also cover liability claims for upward of $1 million when drivers have the app on.

“Even though it appears as though platforms pay drivers, we actually charge them for our services,” says Evdakov. “We see ourselves as an ATM — a platform to transfer the money drivers have earned directly to them.”

When asked for evidence from the drivers’ side that vets the company’s driver-friendly claims, he points to a 2015 study by Uber that shows nearly 50 percent of its drivers quit within a year after they downloaded the app. Fasten, says Evdakov, is running hot with a retention rate of more than 80 percent.

“It’s not the only evidence we have, but it’s the boldest and the most blunt,” says Evdakov.

Last October, Uber drivers in the United Kingdom forced a national ruling that drivers in the U.S. have been prodding at for years when a court in London said the company had to treat its drivers, which traditionally register with the app as independent contractors, like full-time employees. That means the 40,000 Uber drivers in England and Wales are now guaranteed paid holidays, paid rest breaks and minimum wage.

Fasten will continue on with the independent contractor model in the U.S., but its dollar-per-ride model means drivers will be making anywhere from 20 to 30 percent more per ride than they would with some alternative services. It faces steep competition as multibillion-dollar companies like Uber have more than enough capital to wield sign-up and loyalty incentives full steam at new customers and drivers. But Paul is optimistic that they’re healing the wound between gig economy companies and labor that Uber isn’t equipped to stitch.

“This is our business plan. We want to be seen as different,” he says. “And the thing that makes us different is the connection we have with our drivers. We’re definitely planning on keeping that.”

In New Orleans, Jobs and Housing Take Priority Over Emergency Savings

Participants in a Foundation for Louisiana program that promotes community empowerment and includes a focus on economy opportunity (Credit: Foundation for Louisiana)

If you’re looking for success stories that demonstrate just how impactful the Foundation for Louisiana and its partners have been throughout the New Orleans area, just talk to the man in charge. Flozell Daniels Jr., president and CEO, swears by the work his organization does because it gave one of his family members a second chance.

In 2015, his brother came to him after a string of bad luck, asking for a way out of the life that’d groomed him. “He’s seven years younger than me, but for a number of reasons we ended up taking very different paths,” Daniels says. “He ended up not finishing high school and having some legal challenges, and really reached out one day and said ‘I need some help.’”

Daniels referred his brother, who was 36 at the time, to one of the economic revitalization programs his foundation supported, the Network for Economic Opportunity. From there he connected with Strive, a four-week soft skills training program that started in Baltimore, and went on to get a certificate in welding. “He said ‘I really loved it. I feel like I’ve been changed,’” remembers Daniels. They not only helped him learn how to interview, write a resume and adapt to work life, but also helped him manage his pressing expenses, like rent and court costs.

Strive in New Orleans reports a 78 percent job retention rate for graduates up to six months after they leave the program. Nearly two years after Daniels’ brother ended his participation, he is still gainfully employed as a welder, owns a car and provides for his kids. “It’s part of the reason I’m a believer,” says Daniels.

Foundation for Louisiana works across the state, partnering with community organizations and nonprofits to build up political and economic agency among minorities and in impoverished neighborhoods. In 2015, it expanded its role in economic revitalization by linking up with the Rockefeller Foundation as part of the 100 Resilient Cities project in New Orleans. That program helped the city employ its first chief resilience officer, and develop a framework of ideals around environment, equity and city services to be achieved by 2050. Those were put to paper in the Resilient New Orleans policy agenda, which was released 10 years after Hurricane Katrina hit the city.

One part of the equity component: Reduce barriers to employment for the city’s minority communities — an urgent need placed in the spotlight by a 2013 study by Loyola University that found that 52 percent of the city’s working-age black men were unemployed in 2011. Daniels says they’re making good progress in that realm.

But when it comes to the goal of helping these communities become more financially prepared for not-so-easy-to-prepare-for moments? Not so much.

“We haven’t made the progress we hoped we would make,” says Daniels, of the idea to create emergency savings accounts for low- to moderate-income residents so that they could better maneuver financial or environmental crises. “The original plan was to work with the private sector to create these accounts, and the pilot program would work with some private sectors around the city. But we just haven’t had the bandwidth to get there.

There’s also the fact that affordable housing and job creation are just more pressing issues. “While we were talking about ‘Let’s set up these savings accounts,’ we heard from the people themselves and some of the employers that, ‘Yeah, we have some more fundamental work to do,’” Daniels says.

In 2013 nearly 55 percent of New Orleans residents were renters, as compared to 36 percent nationally, according to a report by the Center for Community Progress. But the majority of renters in the city are living below the federal poverty line while rents have steadily increased by upward of 25 percent between 2012 and 2015. Meanwhile, HUD Housing Choice Vouchers — federal housing support for very low-income families — haven’t shifted in quantity during about the same time frame, leading the report’s author to conclude that fluctuations in the city’s housing market are “placing even greater pressure on the city’s housing stock and its low-income renters.”

The unemployment for working-age black men, meanwhile, has slightly dipped, down from 52 percent to 44 percent in 2015. But while economic progress has been buttressed for city residents on that end, through multipartner and multigovernment efforts like Strive, Daniels is hoping that the emergency savings accounts will come to fruition after they make more dents curbing some of the city’s more alarming issues.

“We started this work six years ago, and we still have a lot of work to do. But those numbers mean something,” says Daniel, referring to the unemployment drop. “Those are real people’s lives.”

ACA Repeal Would Mean Higher Unemployment in D.C.

When the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) was enacted in the United States in 2010, it started a historic overhaul to the country’s medical insurance system, built on a belief that more people from more backgrounds should face fewer barriers and lower costs to getting insured.

Reports on the law’s impact have generally labeled it a success, as the number of uninsured has dropped from 41.3 million in 2013 to 28 million in 2016. But with the Republican-controlled Senate moving forward with a repeal of the act, states that have expanded coverage and seen greater reimbursements by federal dollars under ACA could face steep cuts and trouble for local economies.

A recent report by the Economic Policy Institute argues that repealing the ACA could leave U.S. taxpayers with a hefty check, and in 2019 alone, reduce job growth by 1.2 million and federal spending by about $103 billion. Researcher Josh Bivens says the move will disproportionately affect low- and middle-income Americans and reduce spending power for the majority of earners in a given state.

If as a result of a repeal, consumers spend less on everything from groceries to cars, then workers in generally low-entry jobs, like cashiers and line manufacturers, would be at risk for getting dropped from the workplace due to lower company profits.

“Even when [ACA] was fully implemented in 2014, there was this sense at that point that the economy was going to be completely healed [in a few years],” says Bivens, referring to recovery from last decade’s recession. Democratic lawmakers, who passed the act when they held a majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, hoped that their country would be at peak consumer spending and stable employment levels near the middle of the decade.

“That was obviously wrong,” he says. A jobs report from January confirms that U.S. employment numbers grew steadily the last six years President Barack Obama was in the White House, but growth has still been below the bar of economists’ expectations. In the EPI report, Bivens notes that “households, businesses, and governments […] are still spending less than what the economy could produce if all resources (including workers) were fully employed.”

“We’re a little closer to full health, but it’s still the case that there’s a fragile enough economy that this sudden contraction is probably going to slow the economy down and notch jobs,” he says. States that opted to expand the state and federally funded health insurance program Medicaid to cover anyone making less than 138 percent of the federal poverty line are likely to suffer the most, he says, because they saw the biggest uptick in federal dollars with ACA.

According to the EPI report, the biggest losers would be: Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico and North Carolina.

Bivens’ research doesn’t zoom in past the state level, but to get an image of how this could trickle down to America’s cities, it’s worth taking a look at data he crunched for Washington, D.C. The district’s employment rate, according to his research on ACA repeal, would drop by about 0.2 percent, which, when aligned with today’s numbers, would bring it up to 6.0 percent unemployment.

That means 1,466 jobs, or about 1.9 out of every 1,000 jobs in the district.

(Credit: Economic Policy Institute)

The number of people without health coverage would also jump up significantly. With 32,000 at risk of losing their insurance, the district’s uninsured population would increase by about 103 percent.

According to analysis released by UC Berkeley Labor Center in January, Los Angeles County would lose 63,000 jobs and San Diego County would lose about 15,000.

While it’s possible that economic losses would be mitigated by whatever might replace the ACA, a co-author of the Berkeley report told the East Bay Express recently, “We couldn’t model for a replacement plan, because there isn’t a consensus on what that would have looked like.”

Bivens says if states want to mitigate the impact, their first option is to get political and start lobbying state representatives against the repeal. If that doesn’t work, he says they can start looking into bolstering their own Medicare and Medicaid provisions.

“Even without the ACA expansion into Medicaid, states can unilaterally make state Medicaid programs more generous and that will bring in more federal dollars to them,” he says. Vermont and Hawaii, for example, enacted some of the fastest Medicaid expansions in the country between 1992 and 2002, and their insurance enrollment numbers among impoverished communities spiked at a remarkable pace. The federal government pays a dollar for every dollar states spend on the program.

“It’s not as good of a deal as the 100 percent matching funds that were part of the ACA expansion,” says Bivens. “But it’s still a sharper trade-off than before.”

In late January, several U.S. mayors, including NYC’s Bill de Blasio and L.A.’s Eric Garcetti, wrote a letter to congressional leaders urging them to consider carefully the impact of ACA repeal, stating, “It is our cities and counties that will see increases in indigent care costs for our hospitals, in uninsured rates and uncompensated care costs; and it is our low and moderate income residents who will return to a time of having to choose between health care and everyday living expenses, like groceries.”

Boston’s Office of Financial Empowerment Wants to Spread the Wealth

Graduates of Bridges to Careers, which is run by Boston’s Office of Financial Empowerment, are prepared to train in specific fields like culinary arts and hospitality. (Credit: Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s Office of Financial Empowerment)

Since Boston’s Office of Financial Empowerment started in 2014, it has expanded its services pretty significantly. It started out as a tax resource center, providing discounted tax prep services for low-income families, and now it’s a workforce development program and running financial empowerment campaigns for the city’s youth.

Constance Martin, deputy director, says there’s no shortage of success stories. Last year alone the office helped 13,000 Boston residents get their taxes ready ahead of April 18, saving each family an estimated $200 and logging a total of $24.5 million worth of refunds.

But one story that sticks out to her from recent memory came from Bridge to Hospitality, a jobs program at their newest financial empowerment center in the Roxbury neighborhood. Started in 2016, the initiative offered Martin a ground-level view on the impact her work was having.

A young man showed up for orientation with an interest in attending one of the culinary training sessions offered by the program. He was reluctant to talk in depth about his criminal background, only telling Martin that he didn’t know if he could make the program work out in his favor or secure a job once it was finished.

There was also the issue of his commute. He’d need to travel for about an hour south to get to the center from his home in Charlestown, a historic district on the north side of the Charles River. That meant long mornings cut up by numerous bus transfers.

“That’s the kind of thing that could really derail somebody with good intentions,” says Martin. Indeed, a recent report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research on a survey of 168 administrators of job programs like Bridge to Hospitality found 41 percent said difficulties with transportation were the main issue preventing trainees from graduating.

“But he was the only one with perfect attendance in the culinary class,” Martin says. It was a touching moment for her — a connection between what gets signed off on at City Hall and improving the fabric of the city at a personal level. He was awarded a certificate, a small prize for his attendance and the applause of his classmates. Now he’s in the next stage of training, an 18-week intensive culinary program at the New England Center for Arts and Technology.

Like the 21 other students who graduated with him, he’s also going to get two years of free financial coaching at the Office of Financial Empowerment, to help him sustain and grow his income with the help of savings accounts and interest.

He and his peers are pushing to find quality jobs in a city that’s at its greatest income equality divide in the past 50 years. The Boston Globe reports that while only 8 percent of Boston families lived in the city’s poorest regions in 1970, today that percentage hovers around 20 percent. And a look at students on subsidized lunch programs — a federal program that gives free school meals to kids from families living below the poverty line — shows that upward of 78 percent of public school kids in the Boston district were using the program in 2014.

Giving youth from these families the chance to gain financial prowess will be a big component of the OFE’s ongoing expansion. In November it rolled out a new savings campaign, called Boston Saves, to teach kids in the kindergarten-to-eighth-grade range and their parents about the importance of stashing away a few bucks anytime they come upon extra funds. The goal there is to lay the foundation for a life-long interest in managing money.

“Research shows that families with [children’s savings accounts] are more likely to see college as a goal for their children,” notes a post on the OFE site. “In fact, low-income children with $500 or less in a savings account dedicated to higher education are shown to be three times more likely to enroll and four times more likely to graduate from college.” The Boston Saves program provides families with a $50 deposit in any Children’s Savings Account they open to bring their children into that statistic of success.

But when it comes to Boston residents outside that age group, Martin says one of OFE’s main hurdles has been outreach. They’ve gone to other nonprofit organizations throughout the city to see how they can bring their new cache of services to more people like the young man who, despite his initial reservations, ended up finding his niche in the culinary program.

What they found? No one has a magic solution. Part of the reason is that there’s a slight irony that’s surfaced in their pursuit of providing both financial training and employment services to residents. “Once you get someone a job they’re less available to get financial coaching,” says Martin. “But then when you’re doing it with someone who doesn’t have a job, their lack of resources limits them.”

The extra investment of time, she understands, “can be draining.” After a full day of work, these are “young families who want to come home and collapse just like the rest of us.” They’re currently looking into new ways to tackle this divide — even considering lasagna potlucks in neighborhoods where their services are most in demand to get people to spread the word.

But the office is motivated going forward, and hopes to report some successes on this challenge within the year. “Boston has 650,000 residents, and we reach just a fraction of those in need,” says Martin. “They may not be able to take advantage of them right away due to family situations or logistics [like child care], but maybe we can plant a seed to help them participate in a program in the future.”

Boston Comes Together to Help Immigrants Find Jobs

People in Boston protest President Donald Trump’s travel restriction ban on seven Muslim-majority nations. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

When two Iraqi sisters, displaced by conflict in their home country, were resettled in Boston after years of being out of school, JVS Boston, a community organization that helps refugees and immigrants achieve financial independence, guided them through their Adult Diploma Program and secured them acceptance into Bunker Hill Community College. They’re still taking classes there today.

Yoldie Feona, now a pharmacy technician at Walgreens, landed in Boston in 2010 with her daughter after fleeing an abusive relationship in Haiti. At first, they were homeless. But JVS linked Feona with its Pharmacy Technician Training program, which she completed in 2015, and also enrolled her in a program called MassLEAP, which monitored and assisted her and her family with support services for five years. She’s been promoted twice, and JVS is providing her with a financial coach to help her build her savings with her new income.

“It was intense, but I’m very proud and very satisfied that I did it,” she says, referring to the pharmacy program in an interview with JVS Boston. “To get my life where I am today, it was well worth it.”

JVS Boston is just one of several programs, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), that braid federal and local resources into an effective salve for people in need. From Cincinnati to Seattle, these efforts provide “key unmet needs” to job seekers like Feona, according to IWPR researchers.

In December, the institute released findings from a survey of 168 workforce development administrators across the U.S. that quantified the types of personal and family issues threatening to derail trainees, most of which were women, from finishing career programs. Sixty-five percent said child care was the biggest need for women in their programs. Fifty-two percent said schedule conflicts — with other responsibilities like part-time work needed to sustain a living — were another key factor. And about one-third pointed to domestic violence as a common, untended trauma.

But the report also noted that support service organizations that formed a mosaic with other local providers advancing the same causes are every effective: These types of partnerships had an 80 percent success rate of helping individuals complete job training programs from the very first day.

Julie Anderson, a senior research associate for IWPR who has traveled to work sites across the U.S., says that different organizations face different problems, depending on the community they serve.

“In places that are more urban, one of the needs they all identified as struggling with was housing,” says Anderson. People were partly entering workforce programs to find better-paying jobs so that they could keep up with the rise of rent in cities like Seattle. For example, the Seattle Jobs Initiative has been providing career services and connecting low-income individuals with affordable housing for nearly two decades.

Job seekers in rural areas are more likely to be hampered by transportation issues. “If there’s no public transit system, people have to have cars,” Anderson says. “That’s a different need to be filled than working with local transport systems to provide [discount] bus passes.”

Eight organizations that IWPR highlighted in a January report, however, were all unified in one aspect, though: an ability to maneuver dwindling resources and increasing demand by shifting federal funds for programs like SNAP among projects, and create tight networks with other service providers in areas like food assistance and domestic violence so that they can give trainees and their families a lifeline just by picking up the phone and calling a nearby partner.

“These groups often have limited staff capacity, limited funding, and their focus is often on providing the training,” says Anderson. “But it’s acknowledged that providing those supportive services really makes the difference.”

Karin Blum, the chief development officer at JVS Boston, says her organization serves an average of 500 refugees every year. For the nearly 2,000 refugees, immigrants and locals they helped get jobs in 2015, 85 percent stuck with their new careers. The others come to JVS for English language classes and refugee resettlement services.

On top of relationships with the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership to help trainees find stable places to live, JVS also works closely with organizations that tend to the immigrant and refugee populations that pass through their nursing assistant and pharmacy technician training.

They’re organizations rooted in cultures from Ethiopia, Iraq, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, but in the U.S. they’re weaved into the social fabric just like the Boston-born. They’re also giving back to the urban community that saved their lives — a direct challenge to the narratives surfacing in today’s political climate.

Giving back, for them, might also quite literally mean saving a life, according to Blum: Nearly all of the CNA training slots currently go to immigrants.

Entrepreneur Hub Hopes to Spur South Dallas Economy

(AP Photo/Brandon Wade, File)

In January, city leaders in Dallas presented a new plan for economic revitalization in Fair Park, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. But what they unveiled during a press conference wasn’t from the traditional playbook of city-sanctioned job platforms, like a new workforce training center, or a new facilities contract with a major employer.

Instead, they announced a new entrepreneurship hub — the type of place that conjures up images of middle-class college grads toiling away on computer code behind a laptop screen.

The 5,000-square-foot building at Malcolm X Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard will start operating under the name of the Fair Park District Entrepreneur Center. It’ll have all the same amenities as its five other partner centers in wealthier parts of the city, like a co-working area, mentorship programs and info on how to access capital.

But this sixth center, the newest in a series overseen by The Dallas Entrepreneur Center, is partly seen as a wildcard effort to reverse the tide of poverty that’s since overcome economic push after economic push by the government. (Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said it himself in an op-ed for the Dallas Morning News: Despite economic growth in industries throughout the city, his administration had failed Fair Park.)

The thread between poverty and entrepreneurship might seem long and thin. How can people struggling to raise families on a part-time minimum wage salary also prep pitches for seed funding rounds?

But Doric Earle, who will act as the director of the new Fair Park District Entrepreneur Center, says giving low-income communities access to entrepreneurship support could be the key to helping Fair Park area residents build their own path out of poverty — and to passing that path on to later generations. That observation is backed with research by groups like the Center for an Urban Future, which has documented how sometimes poor and poorly educated immigrants help revitalize entire neighborhoods in U.S. cities because of their entrepreneurial gusto.

“I realized after working in South Dallas for years that we needed some other way to create wealth or opportunity,” he says. “People there were working three to four jobs just to stay alive, so we knew the entrepreneur piece would resonate.”

While the city is a leader among U.S. urban areas in terms of business expansions and employment growth, Dallas is also nationally recognized as having the highest child poverty rate in the country. Poverty on the whole rose by 42 percent between 2001 and 2016, even as the city’s total population only rose by 4.4 percent in that same time frame.

When zoomed down to the neighborhood level, the 75215 ZIP code that houses Fair Park is the poorest part of Dallas County. Nearly one-third of adults 26 and older never graduated high school, and more than half of the ZIP code’s families don’t meet the federal poverty line of $23,550 a year.

But even before the city’s announcement, Fair Park was showing signs of an entrepreneurial tide. There’s Phyllicia’s Accessories, a small clothing store run by Phyllicia Tate-Locour. Our Door to Yours, run by Ty Frazier and Denise Harper, is a small catering company that’s filled plates at local events like the African American Museum’s Annual Blues & Jazz Festival.

And then there’s Miles of Freedom, the organization that Earle looks to as prime evidence of the nascent potential in residents who have been held back by frayed and sparse investment in their community. Founder Richard Miles was imprisoned for 15 years on the back of murder charges he didn’t commit. When he got out, he decided to devote himself to helping Dallas inmates secure housing and employment once they get out jail.

“No job would give me a chance, because I had been locked up. No apartment would shelter me because I had been in prison and had no job,” he writes on his website. “The perfect mixture for recidivism.”

The Fair Park District Entrepreneur Center will start buttressing groups like these as early as the spring, with the intent of creating a circle of mentors that’ll build entrepreneurship into a keystone of the Fair Park economy. Earle says it’s about time.

“What you’d consider the normal makeup of your neighborhood commerce, none of that’s here,” he says. There’s no coffee shop, no local business squares, no nothing. “So we’re basically infilling that with entrepreneurs.”

Virginia Minority Business Hub Just Got More Diverse

(Credit: Fairfax County Economic Development Authority)

Every year, the U.S. federal government directs 23 percent of its business needs to small companies across the country. Five percent of the contracts go to woman-owned businesses, and another 5 percent go to firms run by minorities.

And with nearly $300 million in major contracts from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, one minority-owned IT company is seeing just how much cash those seemingly small percentages amount to.

Favor TechConsulting fits the parameters in myriad ways: Its CEO is an African-American woman, and leadership board members either come from a veteran background, are service-disabled or, like their CEO, are minorities and women.

The company just announced a major expansion into Virginia’s Fairfax County, where it will build a new headquarters and roll out 1,200 new job hires in about five years’ time.

“You can imagine how many bodies comes with that [$300 million] contract value,” says Benjamin Lin, chief operating officer at Favor TechConsulting, estimating the economic impact the move will have in the area. While he says there’s no “perfect science” to guaranteeing that those 1,200 jobs will get created within that five-year period, “it’s based on what we’ve won already and the work we have in the pipeline.”

The new hires won’t solely come from Fairfax County, which is often roped in with the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria metropolitan area when census time rolls around. But Lin says they’re speaking with the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority and other organizations with workforce ties to see how they can best pull in locals.

Right now, for example, they’re about to roll out a veteran hiring program that’ll help fill part of the 1,200 jobs with recruits from area veteran centers.

They’re also already partnering with companies that satisfy the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) HUBZone program, which stands for Historically Underserved Business Zone. Those are small enterprises that run shop in areas with low median incomes or high rates of unemployment, and have at least 35 percent of their employees from within the “HUB.”

The SBA describes disadvantaged businesses as those run by ethnicities that haven’t traditionally had the same access to economic opportunities as their white counterparts. That includes African-Americans and Hispanics, but people with a physical disability can also qualify, as can those who live and work in an area that’s isolated from economic and cultural hubs.

Only about 5 percent of Favor TechConsulting’s outgoing contracts impact businesses that meet those definitions, but Lin says they’re always interested in exploring ways to expand that number.

Their arrival in Fairfax County adds to the region’s clout as a minority- and women-owned small business hub. Countrywide, it has one of the greatest densities of minority or disadvantaged small business certified tech entrepreneurs, and leads the state of Virginia by far. When it comes to numbers, that amounts to about 48,000 firms, with a whopping 41,905 of those run by women.

While about 29 percent of all businesses in the U.S. were run by minorities in 2012, in Fairfax County that percentage amounted to about 41 percent. And the economic impact these entrepreneurs have is massive. They employ about 80,000 people, and tally up a sales and receipts total of $14.4 billion each year.

That’s all part of the reason why Lin says Favor TechConsulting knew relocating to the region was a solid bet. “There’s a ton of talent here,” he says. “We know D.C. is kind of the contractor hub in the country, so you know there’s a lot of talent around this county.”

Their presence will only add to the reputation that minority entrepreneurs have helped build into the DNA of Fairfax County through technology and other business ventures. Suzanne Clark, a spokesperson for the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, paints their entry as significant because they’re “one of the fastest-growing companies in America.”

“It’s evidence of the infrastructure and business environment in Fairfax County […] that promotes the growth of all business sizes,” she says. A look at the county’s entrepreneurship numbers show just how far that claim is from hyperbole.

Can a Community Garden Outgrow Poverty in Southern Phoenix?

Community engagement is a critical part of the development of an urban farming project in South Phoenix. (Credit: DSGN AGNC)

In South Phoenix, among suburban-style neighborhoods where liquor stores outnumber grocery stores, there’s a massive, untended plot of dirt as big as two and a half New York City blocks. Until recently, it was a void space among the housing tracts, collecting trash where it runs up against the streets. Residents really didn’t know what to make of it.

“Kids were mostly using it to dirt bike in,” says Quilian Riano, an architect with DSGN AGNC who’s been visiting the site on and off since August 2015. Nic de la Fuente, a Phoenix resident, says some knew it as the stomping grounds for gangs in the neighborhood.

But with nearly $600,000 from art project supporters the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and ArtSpace, Riano is about to help turn the swath into a centerpiece of the neighborhood. And he’s hoping that the minority communities that make up the majority of South Phoenix will get an economic shot in the arm in the process.

He’ll work with two local nonprofits, Cultivate South Phoenix and Desert Botanical Garden, to build a massive garden out of the dirt, developing every inch of its 18 acres for an array of crops that’ll be planted and maintained by nearby residents. The project is called Spaces of Opportunity, and the end goal is to turn it into a sort of industrial co-op, where community members can sell their produce to restaurants and grocery stores throughout the city, on top of the new farmers market they’ll start up in the area, to make a profit revitalizing this land.

For those who aren’t tending the crops, the site will include a series of murals, a center square for hosting assemblies and performances, and classrooms where students from the Rosewood Elementary schools — another key partner in the project — can learn side-by-side with residents about science, technology, engineering and, of course, agriculture.

“We want to create high yield on a small piece of land,” says Riano, comparing it to major farming operations that produce on a behemoth scale. “We’re committed to making farming part of the resident’s work life — enough that it becomes something that’s sustainable for them.”

Rendering of community farm for South Phoenix (Credit: DSGN AGNC)

Phoenix as a whole has consistently struggled with severe poverty, and in 2013 ranked as the third most impoverished metro area in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau. Back then the city’s poverty rate was 17.2 percent, and its current rate of 16.2 percent still puts it near the top.

Nearly 40 percent of the population in Phoenix is Latino, and in South Phoenix an estimated 70 percent of families identified as Latino in 2010. Rosewood Elementary reported that 36 percent of the families it served were struggling with poverty.

Gangs are also a temptation for the neighborhood’s impoverished youth. But de la Fuente, who works for Desert Botanical Garden and is the project’s director, says they’ve already managed to break through that barrier with the garden project.

“One of the kids was telling me how [the lot] used to be the spot where gangs would meet up,” he says. “Since then we’ve engaged him and gotten him involved in the mural process. It’s really cool to see that, because the gangs would be tearing all this up otherwise.”

Riano started learning about some of South Phoenix’s issues when he and his partners began to host community meetings about the project in October 2015. Leaders from Cultivate South Phoenix and Desert Botanical Garden sat down with residents at that time to survey what types of crops they’d like to produce if they could make the vacant plot their own.

“There were Mexican immigrants bringing in practices from Mexico, talking about what types of vegetables they’ve learned on different landscapes, how to grow them, how to cook them,” he remembers. “There were also South Asian groups that wanted to farm and bring some of the practices that were more traditional to their communities into this space.”

They’re still figuring out what the crop layout will look like; Phoenix is in the northeast end of the Sonoran Desert, so to produce some crops they’ll need to align rows of shade trees to keep the ground cool. Cactus, agave and mesquite are just some of the crops attracting excitement from the residents. 

But first they’ll need to start figuring out how they’ll break the big plot into smaller plots for appropriate produce. The long-term process, says Riano, is to “start with a quarter acre, move them to a half acre, then to a full acre,” so that the residents can grow greater amounts of crops in greater spaces as they learn more about farming.

Right now, they’re developing about 3,000 square feet of the total project. That will include small community gardens for the residents, and a shaded barn area where they can store their tools, wash their harvest and participate in group lessons on farming. On a given work day, de la Fuente says you can expect anywhere from 30 to 100 residents showing up and lending a hand.

In a process that he calls “quick but slow,” Riano and the group of nonprofits will host community meetings at every point in the process. The only concrete part of the current blueprint is to constantly incorporate feedback and opinion from residents as they roll it out.

This participatory model, he says, is already laying the foundation for a deep impact in the area. And he doesn’t think that momentum will slow down. “We’re hoping for people to start coming here and learn that this is a community, where you can grow your own vegetables, and we can give them the skills to create their own agency through farming.”

Creating Good-Paying, Fulfilling Jobs for NYC Youth

Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Taleesha Bowrin first saw a little light at the end of the tunnel in 2014. She was out of work, without a college degree, struggling to find a permanent home and trying to raise a young son outside her relationship with his abusive father. Living in New York, one of the most expensive cities in the world, didn’t help.

“You don’t know what you’re capable of until someone else’s life is on the line,” she says. “Skating by with earning the bare minimum for bills and rent isn’t enough when you’re raising a toddler.”

She found opportunity through a new youth employment program that was rolled out by JobsFirstNYC, a nonprofit started in 2006 with city funds. The Young Adult Sectoral Employment Program (YASEP) pairs community development organizations with employers to give good-paying, career-worthy jobs to young people between 18 and 24 years old.

The program itself was started up in 2013 as a three-year pilot that gave $50,000 grants to five workforce partnerships. Those five partnerships built their strategies around specific industries that were thriving in the city, and could offer underemployed youth the chance to climb up a career ladder with jobs that provide a fulfilling kind of challenge.

But potential industry growth wasn’t the only prerequisite, says Keri A. Faulhaber, of JobsFirstNYC. “We needed sectors or jobs that were friendly for that population of 18- to 24-year-olds coming out of underserved areas,” she says.

They convened local community organizations, employers and jobs service providers in New York to get a read on the job market prior to YASEP’s first push. They also asked researchers to do a deep dive into city data and compile a report on the current job market for 18- to 24-year-olds, and the challenges they faced accessing steady-paying work.

With those findings, they opened the door to proposals for grants and received 15. The five grantees selected focused on the IT sector, healthcare, transportation and logistics.

Taleesha Bowrin benefited from a partnership between the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation and the Total Transportation Corporation, among other employers. Through that cooperation, she was able to get her commercial driver’s license and work as a driver for the city’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The great thing about the JobsFirstNYC programs, though, is that they also help young participants outside the workplace when a paycheck isn’t enough. “A lot of times employers will support a person until they get the job, but in what’s called the sectoral strategy” — this specific approach to workforce development that builds bridges between industries, employers and non-profits — “they keep supporting the worker to help them stay on the job,” says Faulhaber.

For Bowrin, that meant conquering her next major hurdle: finding her and her son an affordable, permanent place to live. “My son and I couch surfed between my mother’s home and my sister’s, and we didn’t have stable housing,” she remembers. “I reached out to an apartment management company who helped me out, only to find out later on that it had an affiliation with” the jobs program that helped her get a job.

In New York, people under the age of 35 are three times more likely to be unemployed than people over that age. And even as the city’s housing prices rise and affluence is increasingly the norm, the rate of low-income youth is remarkably high. Central Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, for example, are neighbors to some of the wealthiest real estate locales in the city, yet 33 percent of youth are out of work and unemployed in those areas.

But Faulhaber says the first phase of her program was met with resounding support from those involved. As of year end 2016, the YASEP program has put 819 unemployed youth through one of its five partnership programs — 554 of which have gone on to secure jobs in the careers they trained for.

And while they’re still crunching numbers to paint the full picture of how the program impacted both employers and the lives of young people, Faulhaber says that overall it was so successful that it just got approved to run for another three years.

To her, the key has been helping industry connect with the city and nonprofits in a way that also helps them see that investing in long-term careers is a solid return on investment — for everyone involved.

“They’re all changing the way they work, while launching these new programs and seeing what it means to connect young people to meaningful employment,” she says. “Because improving job quality for these youth has been the ultimate goal.”

And with those improved jobs comes more improved lives for Bowrin and her peers.

“I have my own apartment now and a full-time job located five minutes from my son’s daycare. I can afford to give him a lot. The two of us go on vacations. I’m building the home and the sense of normalcy that I always wanted for him,” she says.

Training Program Seeks to Help Underemployed Take Control

Participants in the New Millennium Institute in Peoria, Illinois

In most major U.S. cities, you’ll find at least two kinds of career programs: municipal ones that are funded in part by the U.S. Department of Labor, and those that are backed by a web of organizations and community colleges that swap resources and money.

But in Peoria, Illinois, there’s one bare-bones nonprofit that’s trying to get the city’s underemployed ready for the career world with only a handful of donations, a small classroom at a community center and a couple of sponsorships from local employers. It’s called the New Millennium Institute, and its founder, Agbara Bryson, started it after a long career mentoring students of color at the Illinois Community College.

Bryson, who has a master’s degree in social sciences, says it all sprung from a conversation he was having with the college’s now-retired president John Erwin.

“He said that he could only count on his one hand the amount of African American males that worked at the college,” remembers Bryson. “He wanted more black male employees, but when you started looking at students, the dropout rates were highest among African-American males.”

Bryson created the Harvesting Dreams program as a response. It’s a series of after-school and lunch-hour classes that were free to attend for youth of color. They’d discuss the history of slavery, perspectives on masculinity and the struggles that African-American males face in U.S. society today.

The program was a push to help young black men understand their path so they could better navigate their future. “We’re talking about socially, emotionally and academically preparing them [for life after college],” he says. “And we had great success, and provided tutoring to individuals who came in, individuals who were on work release, needed community service hours.”

He ran Harvesting Dreams for 15 years. But although it’s still up and running at Illinois Community College and has since been adopted by Carl Sandburg College, a community college in Galesburg, Illinois, Bryson says he got to a point where he wanted to spread its impact to the communities around the campus.

Even before kids got to college, “there were homicides, high school dropouts, high school murders. I knew that the bulk of that had to do with the lack of economic opportunities,” he says.

Last year, Peoria was named the worst metropolitan area in the United States for black populations by financial news site 24/7 Wall Street. The reasoning: No other city has a greater prosperity divide between white and black communities, based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and incarceration data from The Sentencing Project.

The key points from that article: The percentage of black citizens in poverty is quadruple that of white citizens in poverty; black citizens are about nine times more likely to end up in jail; the median income among black communities is just below half of the median income among white communities.

None of that’s news to Bryson, who grew up in the Taft public housing buildings at the north end of downtown Peoria. They became embroiled in race-related riots in the late 1960s after police were accused of forcefully arresting a 16-year-old pregnant black woman from one of the buildings for allegedly throwing rocks at cars.

But despite the unsolved history of racial tensions in the region that have bled into the present, Bryson’s New Millennium Program, which he says has placed about 35 of its 40 participants into jobs or education programs, is all about making students take control of their personal lives.

“The 30 employers I work with basically have the same message: There’s not a shortage of jobs, we just can’t find job applicants,” says Bryson. “That means teaching them soft skills, how to interview, how to communicate, but more importantly how to show up every day and show up on time.”

His push is to help individuals “challenge their self-handicapping behaviors.” Once they pass through his two-and-a-half-week boot camp, he then refers them to construction unions, retail employers or the city jobs program, Career Link. Or, if the trade they’re interested in requires a bit more training, he sends them to vocational or technical institutions like the Illinois Community College.

The biggest impact he has, he says, is through building trust with his students. That opens up new doorways to reach new people who may have never reached out for help in the first place.

He just started working with his most recent cohort on Jan. 17. After the first class, one of his participants started bringing in his niece, who had a black eye from a domestic violence dispute, so that Bryson could help her prepare for a new life away from her partner.

“Most of the comfort zones [for students] involve poverty, crime, drugs, alcohol, a history of being unsuccessful,” he says. “But instead of feeling hopeless, they now feel hopeful. They realize they have the power, because they now feel competent, and are able to come out of those comfort zones.”

San Bernardino Maneuvers to Save Jobs Programs

(Photo by Amerique)

When it comes to U.S. cities struggling to get to steady footing after last decade’s recession, Detroit took the national spotlight after filing for bankruptcy in 2013. And rightfully so — it was the biggest municipal bankruptcy in the country’s history.

But a year before, San Bernardino, California, filed for its own Chapter 9 protection, with $45 million in debt that crippled its economic outlook. Four years later, the city of 200,000 is now embroiled in the longest Chapter 9 process in recent U.S. history, and last year it gutted its Employment and Training Agency partially to help it climb further out of the hole.

San Bernardino County announced in December it would step in to take on the workforce development roll. Reg Javier, the county’s deputy executive officer for workforce and economic development, says he thinks this will actually make his work — and the efforts of the region’s job programs — a lot more impactful.

Prior to this, the city and the county ran two different workforce programs, reaching two different parts of the city’s population, and backed by two different funding streams from the federal government. “It created a sort of donut hole in the middle of the county,” he says, referring to their lack of reach in the city.

The county has one of its federally funded American Jobs Centers in Valley View, at the southern cusp of the city. But the city’s is located right in the heart of San Bernardino, meaning the county found it was taking in a lot of job-hunting residents from south of downtown.

“Now we’ll be able to really look for a new site that serves the city but is also tasked with serving the outer areas,” says Javier. “And throw real resources at it, in a city that really, really needs more services than we can currently deliver.”

He says they still haven’t pinned down where a new site will be, but in the meantime, city residents can now seek services at both locales. And since the transition started last summer, after the city agency closed, Javier’s office reports it has already given jobs to 99 San Bernardino residents.

As part of the transition, the San Bernardino County’s Workforce Investment Board will now expand its youth services program into the city, build a new career training series with local public schools, host a job fair, and start building up relationships with local businesses — some of the main employers that have benefited from the county’s workforce efforts in the past.

The San Bernardino metropolitan area had a 5.2 percent unemployment rate as of December 2016, according to state of California data that also looked at unemployment in nearby cities Ontario and Riverside. That’s just slightly above California’s unemployment rate of 5 percent, and the country’s 4.5 percent.

But the city has been reported as one of the poorest cities in the state of California — if not the poorest in Southern California. And minorities suffer unemployment and poverty rates at higher rates than their white counterparts.

While he can’t speak to the performance of San Bernardino’s now-defunct employment agency, Javier does know that the county was recognized by the state for having one of the most effective programs in California. Branching out to cover the entire county, instead of just the fringe areas of its biggest city, means they’ll be able to coordinate without worrying about the services overlap they saw between the south job center and the downtown one.

“It just makes complete sense to have a contiguous system that has a unified strategy on how it’s going to serve its job,” he says.

The transition process, given its freshness, will still need some time before it fully wraps up. But the county is about to debut a series of requests-for-proposals, aimed at local community groups and organizers, to contract out its city-based youth services programs.

Javier remembers the glimpses of success he saw prior to this merger, and going forward is eager to bring it down to the city level. There was the drug user who came into a workforce program one day to take the place of his absent friend, and ended up sticking with the program for months before landing a job.

Then there was the small business owner who petitioned the county’s workforce investment board to start rolling out job-training services like those she’d heard about from local fliers and employers — only to learn that the county was the very one rolling out the services that impressed her. She then took advantage of those programs, and says the workforce development board helped her save $10,000 by handling all the training and recruitment work as she tried to fill staff jobs at her fastening company in Chino, California.

“These types of stories come to us every board meeting, and they really help all of us understand the meaning and value of our work,” says Javier. “It tells us we’re doing the right thing.”

St. Louis Aims Big With Jobs Pipeline

(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

St. Louis and six Midwest cities got a grant from the federal government in January to build up their workforce development programs. And while cities getting funds from D.C. to make more jobs is common throughout the U.S., what’s fascinating about the Missouri city is the types of jobs they’re trying to put low-income and disadvantaged workers into.

Traditionally, workforce development programs have aimed at blue-collar or lower-skill jobs that don’t require a traditional four-year degree: construction, manufacturing and some medical careers. But on top of those industries, St. Louis wants to use the $1 million in federal funds to put 250 workers into financial analyst, software developer and medical records coding jobs.

“People come in and want to become a registered nurse, others want to be truck drivers, but that’s because that’s traditional, that’s all they know,” says Stacey Fowler, the office of innovation and industry engagement manager at the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment (SLATE). She says interested students think of workforce programs as only having the option to connect with a set pool of employers.

“Yeah, you can become a registered nurse, and everyone knows what that is — but what about cybersecurity?” she says. “We have to expand the vision of our job seekers, and haven’t thought about being a lab tech or working for a bioscience company or a software developer.”

Her city is in a paradox of a position. Unemployment has dropped dramatically since the throes of last decade’s recession, from 9.7 percent in 2009 to 3.5 percent in November 2016. That means there were about 104,000 job seekers in the city as recently as 2013, but that number cut down to 68,000 in 2016.

Factories say they’re struggling to find qualified workers to run their machines. Industry owners across the board seem to share a similar gripe; a recent survey of 478 employers in the region found that about half saw the struggle to find skilled workers as their biggest battle.

But there’s still a pool of people in the city that can get into shape for these industries with a little help from programs like SLATE, and the dropping unemployment rates have affected different communities in different ways. Black unemployment, for example, was at 8 percent in November 2016, and in 2014, black unemployment in St. Louis remained a couple percentage points higher than Missouri’s average for black unemployment.

Yet nearly 47 percent of the entire population of St. Louis is black, indicating there’s a disparity between the population makeup and which communities in the city are benefiting from the unemployment drop.

Fowler wants this new grant announcement to change that. Her organization will be blending this money with past funds through federal job programs, like American Apprentice and TechHire — both of which have just started up within the past year.

American Apprentice encourages workforce development organizations to take the apprenticeship model seen in construction and apply that to other industries too, giving workers hands-on experience while in training. TechHire focuses on putting people from disadvantaged communities into tech-related jobs.

Like the most recent grant round, which will push cities closer toward fulfilling new job training changes that came with the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act in 2014, St. Louis applied for those grants with partner cities across the Midwest region.

What do those cities all have in common? The need to build a stronger connection with local employers so that job trainees go straight to careers, and industry leaders aren’t left with unmanned machines or biomedical labs when the year comes to an end, says Fowler.

“Some employers [tell us they] want people with experience, but if you can’t get a job,” she says, pausing before laughing at the classic chicken-or-egg scenario. With the three federal grant opportunities lumped together, she hopes they’ll be able to build a better pipeline where employers help train the very workers they’ll later employ.

“We’re trying to get away from that ‘train and pray’ model, where you train people and pray they get to work,” she says. Last week she was meeting with a cybersecurity firm and hopes to get an apprenticeship program set up for that industry soon.

“It’s just a win-win for everyone if we can make this model work,” says Fowler.

South L.A. Starts Job Program for Controversial Mixed-Use Development

(Photo by Adrian Miles)

On Jan. 10, a new job training program started up in the South Los Angeles area that anticipates getting 900 unemployed or underemployed residents ready to work on a $1.2 billion mixed-use high-rise called The Reef.

The project itself has been a flashpoint for controversy over claims it will force up the cost of living — and therefore the risk of displacement — for poorer neighborhoods nearby. But even though local advocates like United Neighbors in Defense Against Displacement (UNIDAD) have been pushing for developers and the city to look at its negative costs, Noreen McClendon thinks the benefits far outweigh the bad.

“We haven’t had anything like this since L.A. Live,” says McClendon, executive director of one of the new job program’s backing organizations Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles. She’s referring to an entertainment complex that came with a pioneering community benefits agreement that at least one researcher found has yielded mixed results for the neighborhood.

“It’s an opportunity for us to lift a lot of people out of poverty, with all this concentration of projects in the Ninth District in the next few years,” she says. Unemployment in the South Los Angeles region is around 12 percent, and nearly half of the population lives beneath the federal poverty line.

Los Angeles, like all major U.S. cities, already has a slate of job employment programs. The city’s Economic Development & Workforce Department says its efforts have put 120,000 Angelenos into jobs, and that it works with nearly 1,000 L.A. businesses to make those connections happen.

But according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the Los Angeles metropolitan area has the highest concentration of poverty among other major U.S. metropolitan areas, and South Los Angeles residents tell McClendon they feel like they’ve gotten the short end of the stick of the city’s pushback on unemployment numbers.

“The tragedy is that our community has been conditioned to believe that there are no opportunities,” says McClendon. “We have a lot of people who have criminal backgrounds, and they’re told over and over again that once you have a felony, you can’t get employment.”

So when a new jobs program like this starts up and the residents she works with get word, they may initially be reluctant. She sees her job as trying to shift that attitude. “We’re trying to change the mentality from a ‘victim’ mentality to a ‘victors’ mentality.’”

That means doing what other workforce development training programs in the area have yet to incorporate, and providing a five-week boot camp for individuals interested in snagging a job at The Reef that trains them in job etiquette, financial accountability and other personal skills. Once they pass through that, they can sit with LA Trade-Tech, the workforce program building the pipeline between the city and The Reef’s developers, and figure out a job training schedule.

McClendon claims the opportunity to train nearly a thousand low-income workers from the Ninth District, which stretches from Downtown to just past the South Park neighborhood, in construction may never come again in the heavily urbanized area. “Just because there’s not going to be enough land to develop” after the project. In total, developers say it will create 2,700 construction jobs and 592 permanent jobs.

So she’s working with the city, developers and another local organization, the Coalition for Responsible Development, on an outreach campaign that she says will reach 1,600 people in South L.A. to let them know that this new program is up and running. They’re speaking with civic groups with deep connections to neighborhoods and unions, and even visiting events that are a staple of the community like the Taste of Soul food fest.

Right now, they’ve only got seven participants in the initial boot camp phase that started up last week. But McClendon says this current run is like a barometer reading for things to come. “It’s going wonderfully,” she says. “There were people there who actually had part-time work already, but they scheduled to come in on their off days.”

She hopes this new model will make developers and employers look to L.A.’s Ninth District in the future when it comes to filling jobs.

“This is not a philanthropic endeavor here. It’s a business proposition,” she says. “When they get to you as an employer, they’ll get something. And now I’ll actually be going to meetings with contractors and subcontractors so that as they come on board, they’re aware: These people are ready.”

Giving Building Materials and Ex-Inmates a Second Chance in Baltimore

A Brick + Board crew at a salvage job (Credit: Brick + Board)

After a five-year stint in prison, Kevin King stepped back into Baltimore with one goal: starting his life anew. The 52-year-old got linked up with the Living Classrooms Foundation, which helps put ex-offenders in touch with job opportunities, and he was eager to take on any work that came his way.

One of his first gigs came through the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore. He was assigned to sweep the pedestrian paths and docks at the heart of the Inner Harbor district. “I’d walk around there with a trash can with wheels on it, a broom and a dust pan,” he says.

But a few months into his work, he got a call from his counselor, who asked him if he wanted to join a totally different industry — one a bit more mentally engaging, and one that could lead to better job opportunities down the line. A small manufacturer in east Baltimore called Brick + Board was hiring workers to help reprocess old building materials for use in new construction and design projects.

“I said ‘I’d love to.’ Then they sent a couple of guys up to do an interview, and I never looked back,” he says.

Brick + Board works in tandem with another local nonprofit, Details Deconstruction, in a partnership that Director Max Pollock says is tackling Baltimore’s unemployment and housing vacancy issues in tandem. It goes like this: Details sends crews into abandoned houses and other properties to yank out brick, wood and other sturdy pieces of material that are just intact enough to reprocess and use again in future building projects.

Then workers like King at Brick + Board’s facility prep the material for another life in the construction industry. That could be in the form of a wood or brick structure that’s added to the post-industrial decor of someone’s new home, or even major LEED-certified projects like the $160 million Exelon business and apartment building that’s getting built in downtown.

To date, working on providing the building materials for the Exelon tower has been Brick + Board’s biggest project. But with every new contract the work’s impact spreads across the Baltimore community. Since February 2016 the organization has hired 100 employees from across the city who’ve either had past drug addictions, no college education or a history of incarceration. “And lot of times, it’s all three,” says Pollock.

An estimated 10,000 people are released from prison and return to their homes in Baltimore every year, according to the Episcopal Community Services of Maryland. But an estimated 4,000 of those will return to prison just three years after their release.

Those who get the re-entry training and job opportunities like King, however, are significantly less likely to end up back in jail. And while the state spends an estimated $38,000 per person every year for those incarcerated, re-entry programs that help ex-inmates step back into society only spend an average of $5,000 per individual.

Those numbers don’t factor in the new spending power ex-inmates get once they secure long-term employment outside the prison walls. Even though Brick + Board can only offer work — which starts at $12 an hour and provides full benefits — as long as there are buildings to deconstruct, Pollock says the relationships his workers forge on the job site help them move on past the company and up into better-paying positions.

“In addition to learning the ropes, learning how to use tools, and learning the vocabulary, a lot of our guys end up meeting other tradesmen,” he says. One worker was with Brick + Board for two years before moving on to become an apprentice bricklayer for a contractor he met working for Brick + Board.

“That example is like the gold standard, that’s what we shoot for,” says Pollock.

In a 2014 study of the Baltimore region by the Opportunity Collaborative, about 21 percent of the 1,000 job seekers they interviewed said their criminal records had stifled the hunt for work. Three out of five job seekers were struggling to find jobs that paid decent enough wages for them to support their families, and 49 percent said the costs required to get more training to qualify for better-paying jobs was out of their budget.

That’s why King says he’s grateful for the work Brick + Board lets him do. He walks around his city with a new appreciation of the buildings, and a new perspective on the histories within their material.

“It amazes me that the stuff we see on a daily basis, like when going by dilapidated houses, stuff like that, the material we get from that can get refurbished and reused in so many different ways,” he says. “You know how they say another man’s junk is another man’s treasure? That’s how I look at my job.”

And according to him, his job is high in demand because Brick + Board’s business is “booming.”

“I truly value my job right now, because I have job security,” he says. “I feel good getting up to go to work every other day.”

10 Ideas, $1 Million Aim to Help Millions in Poverty

Food vendors in the Jackson Heights section of Queens in New York (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Jukay Hsu and Coalition for Queens are part of the new wave of incubators searching for antidotes to tech’s diversity problem. He started his organization to loop voices from the New York City borough’s immigrant communities in with a massively wealthy industry that’s run predominantly by white men.

And he’s making big gains: Sponsorships from the likes of Google, LinkedIn and Capital One have helped him give the necessary backing to entrepreneurs like Moawia Eldeeb, whose family were farmers in Egypt, and who arrived in New York with hardly enough money to support him as he went through grade school.

Or Madelyn Tavarez, whose mom raised her and her two sisters alone, and who worked as a waitress while commuting 3.5 hours to her college classes every week.

Eldeeb went on to raise $1.85 million in venture capital for his app idea, SmartSpot, and Tavarez is now a full-time developer for Pinterest. This week, the Rockefeller Foundation announced Coalition for Queens is one of 10 young organizations that will get $100,000 each to expand on their ideas for addressing problems faced by poor or marginalized people.

“There are so many more talented people out there and we can expose them to more skills,” says Hsu, a Queens native. Coalition for Queens is currently assisting 100 students — half are women, 70 percent are either black or Latino — as they bring their tech ideas or engineering interests to scale. Using that funding to develop more students like Tavarez and Eldeeb, he says, would be “transformative not only here in New York but also across America.”

The Rockefeller money is from a new initiative, Future Cities Accelerator, which the foundation developed with Unreasonable Institute, an international accelerator for socially or environmentally aware entrepreneurs that has helped get projects off the ground in more than 50 countries.

Teju Ravilochan, founder of the Unreasonable Institute, says Coalition for Queens and the nine other projects were selected from a crop of 314 applicants. The grading criteria: a demonstrated impact on disadvantaged populations, the potential for each idea to help millions of people, a solid team behind the wheel that can make decisions quickly and efficiently, and a fit for the program’s environmental and social interests.

Diversity was also key. “One of the complaints you hear in the investment space is that it’s very hard to find people of color or women who are working in business or working social impact,” says Josh Murphy, an associate director at the Rockefeller Foundation.

Haven Connect, from the Bay Area in California, and its self-described “TurboTax for affordable housing,” is another grantee this first round. The program condenses the entire affordable housing application process into a 15-minute affair to cut down on bureaucracy that can thwart homeless or housing-challenged populations.

Then there’s Thread, an organization out of Baltimore that links up ninth-grade students who come from families struggling with poverty or housing issues with a team of five volunteer mentors. Those five mentors work closely with that student, and are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. So far the organization has paired mentors with 250 students who were performing at the bottom 25 percent of their high school class. Ninety-two percent of those students went on to graduate high school, and another 90 percent went on to enroll in college.

Future Cities Accelerator’s next step is to try to bring all these ideas up to a national level. To get there, the 10 winners will go through a nine-month accelerator program. Six of the 10 have women as co-founders, and three have co-founders from minority backgrounds, according to Murphy. But if there’s one thing they all have in common, it’s that they all have a clear vision on how to solve what Ravilochan calls “hair-on-fire problems.”

“If your hair is on fire, nothing else matters to you in that moment except getting that fire out,” he says. Identifying and solving that problem at the local level requires not just a slick financial plan and entrepreneurial gusto — it requires a heartful attachment to the community.

“Among the most successful programs, we’ve found that they’re really getting enmeshed with the community unit or population that they want to serve, and really understand the sweeping, urgent pain point that that population also wants to address,” says Ravilochan.