An invitation to a conversation

Face and Change

In the introduction, we named the following as forces that shifted attitudes and initiated progress in the 1960s:

  • Beneficial social and economic change at the national level
  • Federal regulations that forced compliance
  • Federal investments in infrastructure and economic development
  • Grassroots activism, unconventional leaders, and courageous action

Now is the time to adapt to the challenges of our time by:

  • acknowledging the shifting demographics of increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the region
  • imagining and enacting civic engagement and economic development that address local needs and encourage cooperation of urban and rural areas
  • creating a strong, dual-customer talent development system that enables both workers and employers to compete
  • actively investing for the future, building an infrastructure of opportunity that secures prosperity for generations to come
  • enlisting and engaging Southerners to bridge the fault line of fear and suspicion to become co-creators of an equitable future

In order to increase public investment across all communities equitably, we need the support of local leaders, alignment of systems and institutions in the talent development system, and inclusive community narratives about who belongs. This combination of investment and support across more communities in the South will be necessary to transform us from a region characterized by low mobility, limited access to opportunity, racially and economically segregated communities, and vulnerability to economic and environmental shocks, to one that is more broadly inclusive, prosperous, and prepared to compete. As we commit to becoming a more broadly inclusive region, we will see fewer disparities, a more prepared workforce ready to welcome emerging industries and businesses, and be equipped to weather literal and figurative storms. A more broadly inclusive economy will make us all more resilient.

When you don’t know what the challenge will be, how do you prepare? How can we recognize who’s being left behind before inequities are entrenched? The key capabilities lie at the intersection of systems, leadership, and culture. Improved outcomes now and more resilience in the future require changing systems that are inequitable and inefficient. Systems-change requires leaders who act to close the gap between the current reality and the desired future. Action requires creating community habits, attitudes, and values—a community culture—that can influence the appetite for working differently and shape the behavior of both individuals and institutions (and the systems they comprise).


Let’s Talk

We offer three aspirations for Southern communities that envision a region where more of our neighbors feel connected, secure, and able to invest—together—in a more inclusive present and future. With each one, we suggest some questions to spark discussion and action that can move communities toward realizing these aspirations. We encourage communities to think about their own “woodpiles”:

  • What are you investing in now locally that could inform state-level action and influence regional improvement?
  • What needs to be restocked? What support from state and federal action or advocacy could help you gain traction locally?

Aspiration 1: Our community narrative about aspirations and priorities for success is grounded in equity and inclusion, affirming that where you start in life should not limit opportunities for educational attainment and economic security.

A first step toward a more inclusive community is changing how community members think and talk about who “deserves” to be successful. The goal is to get to common values about shared well-being and supportive systems—and undoing myths about boot-straps. The path to possibility for an individual depends on the circumstances of birth, the dynamism of the economy, the quality of the education and workforce systems, and public and private commitments to equity. An inclusive community narrative is one that acknowledges how all of these factors can be addressed for everyone, regardless of where they start.

Questions for Your Community to Consider

  1. What is the community narrative today about who deserves to be successful? What do you want that narrative to be?
  1. Consider events from your community’s history that illuminate how your community and economy have developed over time: events that describe shifts in demographics, development or loss of major industry sectors, or critical junctures in local governance, politics, or civil rights:
    • What patterns do you see about equity and inclusion and the systems that advance or impede them?
    • Whose interests have been served well? Whose interests haven’t?
    • What conclusions do you draw about the ways in which your community’s culture does and does not support equity and inclusion?
    • How will a region that never mastered bi-racial inclusion and equity learn to thrive as a multi-racial society?
  1. Has your community ever undertaken a systems-change effort to improve equity and inclusion or increase access to resources, particularly for historically disadvantaged groups? What happened?
    • What did you learn about the systems and how they respond to change efforts?
    • What would you do differently next time?
  1. In your view, what significant change in how systems work or how funds are spent would be required to improve equity and inclusion in your community?

Aspiration 2: The institutions in the talent development system have a shared agenda that is demonstrated by logical links between all their goals, reflected in the interventions and policies they support and promote, and uses agreed-upon measures to track progress so everyone in the community can gain access, make progress, and find the support they need along the pathway to upward economic mobility.

The talent development system is made up of institutions in the education and employment sectors and surrounded by an “ecosystem” of interrelated forces, influencers, and even other systems (e.g., transportation, criminal justice). Aligning these sectors around a common agenda and goals will require modifying the structures, policies, processes, and the allocation of resources within the institutions. Similar to changing the community narrative, improving this system will likely mean evaluating and changing the values, power dynamics, and mindsets of the people who carry out the work of these institutions and the people who are trying to participate in them—especially since the region cannot continue to rely on imported talent. Our talent development systems need to prepare the South’s people for the South’s jobs—and the South’s future. Improved alignment in these systems is evident when resources—human and financial—are committed to monitoring progress, data sharing, accountability, and a shared agenda that is supported by formal and informal relationships across institutions.

Questions for Your Community to Consider

  1. Consider the make-up of the talent development system in your community:
    • What institutions and sectors are present?
    • What are the gaps in education? Training? Employment or career advancement opportunities?
    • Is the talent development system aligned with the needs of employers (or desired employers)?
  1. Consider who is participating in your community’s formal talent development system:
    • Who is connected to this system?
    • Who is not progressing in this system?
    • Who is disconnected from the system?
    • What are the economic outcomes of people in each of these groups: connected, not progressing, disconnected?
  1. What occupations in growing industries offer the best potential employment and economic security in your community or region? What are the educational needs for these jobs?
  1. What role do local employers play in efforts to improve the local talent development system, from education to training to career advancement?
  1. From an employer’s perspective
    • What are the most important business drivers for recruiting talent in your community: to fill critical skill gaps? Reduce costs? Reduce turnover? Increase diversity for greater customer connection?
    • What skills and attributes are most important for a new employee to have?

Aspiration 3: Leadership across the community—grassroots to grasstops—has a multi-generational vision of shared well-being, co-creating communities that are adaptable and resilient in the face of unpredictable political, economic, and environmental conditions.

In the equitable and inclusive communities we envision, there are habits and civic structures in place for a variety of individuals to provide input into community strategy and planning—whether it’s the school system, recreation, or preparing for natural disasters. People problem-solve together, considering unintended consequences and trade-offs, investing in the long-term health and well-being of the whole community, not just short-term gains. Leadership reflects credibility within varied communities, networks, and institutions and includes people with a variety of lived experiences so analyses and priorities are grounded in current reality. Community conversations should include people who have a perspective from which to critique the current system and those with positional authority to move ideas onto official agendas, execute implementation, and secure support—financial and otherwise—within key institutions.

Questions for Your Community to Consider

  1. Consider your community’s experience in working across sectors or political differences:
    • Where does your community perform well when it comes to ambitious efforts to change existing policy, practice, and systems?
    • Where have you been bold? Where have you struggled?
  1. How does your community seek authentic input from residents? What has been challenging about this? What has worked?
  1. How well-prepared are your residents to weather natural disasters or economic downtowns? How does preparation compare by neighborhood or demographics?

The Way Forward

When individuals are confident in their standing in a community and when they have the time and resources to participate, they are able to invest in actionable, future-oriented ways that affect their own families and the broader society for generations. With the enabling power of an inclusive economy, more people are able, in effect, to “add to the wood pile.” It’s not just about money, or financial capital, because everyone has other kinds of “capital”—the social capital we gain through our friends, neighbors, and religious institutions; the moral capital that comes from our most deeply held beliefs; the intellectual capital that comes from our knowledge and lived experience; and the reputational capital that comes from the respect we gain through the other three. These all can be brought to bear when working to strengthen our communities and civic structures.

“Our destiny, our wellbeing as a people, are now tied together,” wrote Ambassador Jim Joseph, “and if we do not act now, generations of youth will be under-prepared, our capacity to thrive in a national and international economy will suffer, the progress we have made will be unraveled, and the values we have affirmed will be eroded.” We call on Southerners to reaffirm the values that have supported our progress, to weave again what has unraveled, and commit to realizing—together—a South where we all belong, where we all thrive, and where we all contribute to the place we call home.