At the end of October, teams from four Southern cities–Athens, Ga., Chattanooga, Tenn., Greenville, S.C., and Jacksonville, Fla.–came to Durham to form the Network for Southern Economic Mobility. As individuals and in community teams, they will help their cities take on the challenge of improving the economic mobility of youth and young adults who are furthest from educational opportunity and economic security. The focus is young people in the lowest income brackets, a vulnerable population often stuck in inter-generational poverty. These youth and young adults are our present and future students, parents, workers, voters, and leaders. Improving prospects for them improves prospects for our prosperity as a region and nation.

“We can’t have a society where only exceptions succeed or where so much is left to the luck of the draw—especially when the deck is so often stacked against those who need the uplift of mobility the most,” said David Dodson, president of MDC. “We must be about changing the odds, not expecting people to beat the odds.”

The cities were chosen for nsem_rgb_300ppi_lthe Network, Dodson said, because they have shown a commitment to helping marginalized young people, a foundation of promising programs on which to build, the presence of industries with career potential for young people, and top leaders who see the connection between economic mobility and the long-term health of their economy.

The four cities have committed to participate for at least two years, and a second cohort is expected to be selected in 2017. Participants are leaders from each community in business, government, education, nonprofits, and philanthropy. They are examining how well their existing systems are reaching those young people facing the most difficult barriers to advancement; analyzing the policies, systems, and culture that impede their progression; and then adapting or building the pathways that connect institutions and social supports, from school to rewarding employment. Communities also will learn how others are implementing structural reforms in the Southern economic and political context.

As part of the network, cities will receive customized coaching and technical assistance, hear from experts in institutional and governmental systems change, and have the opportunity to work together and share their insights into what works—and what doesn’t—as they strive to eliminate the barriers that keep a high percentage of low-income young people from rising into the middle class.

At the end of two years, Network members will be expected to have:

  • detailed systems and data analyses of those youth in the lowest income brackets and a clear understanding of the principal barriers to their economic mobility
  • a leadership group equipped to challenge institutional inequities and implement an action plan that fosters a system that serves the needs of both young people and employers that accelerates youth mobility efforts
  • a set of priorities to build stronger organizations with the culture, skills, and management capacity to refine existing programs, aggregate and realign resources, and spur innovation
  • a cross-region peer group of leaders working together on a cutting edge issue of national significance

Core support for the Network is provided by The Kresge Foundation, the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, and other philanthropic investors. Communities are contributing a participation fee to support a portion of on-site technical assistance, coaching visits, and annual conferences. The network also is drawing on the expertise of senior staff at The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.

Participants realize there are no silver bullets, and the challenges and opportunities are different in every city:

  • In Athens and the surrounding counties, the poverty rate is 38 percent, more than double the state average. To address that, the city schools and Athens Technical College have created a partnership with a community career academy to develop dual-enrollment courses and encourage more low-income students to go to college.
  • In Chattanooga, only 7 percent of students who graduate from two high schools with large, low-income populations, go on to complete any college program within six years. The Benwood Foundation is working with the school system and the Public Education Foundation to increase graduation rates by improving teaching and offering intensive literacy support in those and other predominantly low-income high schools.
  • In Greenville, a significant problem is its limited bus system, making it hard for low-income residents to get to school and work. On the plus side, Greenville Technical College works closely with major employers to provide services through industry meetings, sales meetings with business and industry, and partnerships within the community.
  • In Jacksonville, only 38 percent of working-age adults have a two- or four-year degree. The city has responded with programs to focus on identifying and responding to the needs of potential high school drop-outs, and has raised the graduation rate from 60 percent to 77percent in the last eight years.

Their leaders recognize there is much work to be done to create a comprehensive infrastructure of opportunity so that the success of isolated efforts leads to integrated ones that produce pervasive, positive outcomes for all young people. Improved outcomes depend on affirming leadership, culture, and systems. As leaders act to close the gap between current reality and the desired future, they can shape culture, the community habits, attitudes, and values that influence the appetite for improvement and shape individual and system behavior. Since every system is perfectly designed to get the results it produces, that intersection of individual and organizational behavior is key—organizations are made up of individuals, after all.

Since systems are perfectly designed, we have to think outside those systems and apply a new logic to build systems that work differently and, therefore, get different results. In his piece, Divided No More (required reading for the Network!), Parker Palmer explores what individuals can do to make new structures and ways of working that create new organizations and systems. It begins with internal commitments to a new approach that leads people to “discover each other and enter into relations of mutual encouragement and support.” As a learning network, the aim of the Network for Southern Economic Mobility is to facilitate these connections within the participating communities and across all four cities. A central principle of learning together is providing a place where individuals can share troubling data, process frustrating experiences, and air grievances—not simply for reflection or validation, but to, as Palmer says, “enter one’s convictions into the mix of communal discourse…. to project one’s ideas so that others can hear them, respond to them, and be influenced by them … so that one’s ideas can be tested and refined in the public crucible.”

During last month’s Network convening, two Durham practitioners attested to the importance of this kind of refinement. In a panel discussion about approaching systems change, Andrea Harris, founder and former executive director of the Institute and Tom Jaynes, Senior Vice President for Institutional Advancement and Support at Durham Technical Community College, shared their hard-won insights on working inside and outside of systems and institutions to improve educational access and economic security for those furthest from opportunity.

Harris emphasized the importance of personal conviction and collaborative effort: “Be true to yourself and also know that you don’t change anything alone.” Jaynes shared a lesson from the community college: the importance of evaluating a system from a student’s perspective because “what you think is happening, isn’t happening… and until you know how the system performs, you can’t know what needs to change.”

To find out what’s actually happening, communities that want to improve upward economic mobility for young people must examine how well existing systems are reaching those young people who face the most difficult barriers to advancement; analyze the policies, systems, and culture that impede their progression; and adapt or build the pathways that connect institutions and social supports, from school to rewarding employment. Cities in the Network for Southern Economic Mobility are set to take on this challenge, in the region where economic mobility is most constrained. As Lemuel LaRoche, a member of the Athens team and executive director of Chess and Community, said, “We have all the pieces we need to fix ourselves, but do we have the will? Is that old system going to move out of the way?” It’s a question the entire region must answer.