A Personal & Community Commitment: Improving Upward Economic Mobility in the South

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.

Connecting Education and Work in Greenville, SC

Walking along the wide, tree-lined Main Street of downtown Greenville, S.C., it is hard to imagine that just 40 years ago the same path was deserted. Dozens of locally owned restaurants, luxury condos and hotels, and bustling shops belie the city’s history. The city is now a hub of advanced manufacturing, engineering, information technology, and other high-growth industries.

Like many other former mill towns across the South, Greenville’s economy centered on textile manufacturing for much of the 20th century. But unlike many others, Greenville successfully diversified its economy before globalization and technological innovation sent many jobs overseas. In the early 1970s, Michelin invested in the Upstate region, followed by several other automotive manufacturers, and by the mid-1990s, BMW had established a major auto assembly plant in the area. But despite Greenville’s strong economy and national recognition, not all of the city’s residents have benefitted from its prosperity. “A young person’s economic prospects should not be determined by his or her zip code,” says John Concklin, program investment manager at United Way of Greenville County. “Unfortunately, in the area known as the ‘White Horse Corridor,’ prospects for a successful future are tough—32 percent of households live in poverty; 66 percent have only a high school diploma or less; unemployment is greater than 25 percent in some sections; and the city’s lowest performing high schools are found here.” In many of these neighborhoods, students lack the work experiences and information they need to make decisions about how to prepare and compete for family-sustaining jobs. For some students, particularly those living in neighborhoods with high unemployment, there is mistrust of manufacturing jobs, since their parents were laid off when textile jobs were outsourced.

While some young people are skeptical of the labor market, some employers are skeptical of the labor force. In 2007, a study found that two-thirds of Greenville-area companies could not find enough qualified entry-level workers, skilled-production workers, as well as engineering and IT professionals. To solve this problem in the short term, many businesses are relying on young transplants, who are attracted by the density of well-paying jobs and a vibrant downtown. But civic leaders know that talent recruitment isn’t a viable long-term solution for businesses or the community, though that is sometimes a hard case to make. Traci Wickett, president and CEO of the United Way of Southern Cameron County in Brownsville, TX, believes that helping employers understand the potential in the local labor force is always worth the effort. She explains here:


Like Wickett’s efforts in Brownsville, organizations in Greenville are taking the lead on infusing work exposure and experience that is beneficial for both young people and employers. In 2012, the Chamber of Commerce created an Education & Workforce Committee to facilitate integration between business and the school system. By 2014, the Chamber was a part of the schools’ strategic planning process and participated in the search process for the current superintendent. The Chamber’s approach to educational involvement is wide-ranging, supporting efforts from early childhood to higher education. The Greenville business community has been supportive of the development of a successful STEM elementary school as well as a STEAM middle school. To complete the K-12 educational preparation for these types of careers, the Chamber has been very supportive of the NEXT High School, slated to open in the fall of 2016. Integral to all of these educational efforts are strong business involvement and project-based learning. The Chamber is committed to providing business linkages that give students exposure and the skills needed to succeed in the area’s technical, high-growth industries. Hank Hyatt, vice president for economic development at the Greenville Chamber says “You can’t wait until high school to expose kids to career opportunities, so we are helping foster partnerships with middle schools to bring business leaders into seventh grade classrooms.” Hyatt acknowledges that providing the number of internships or other work experiences that Greenville students need is a challenge, but he affirmed the Chamber and the business community’s commitment to building a strong educational and work pipeline for students, particularly those who are coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. As John Concklin says, “The key to our success hinges on engaging the right people, giving people the space to say what isn’t working, and developing coherent strategies. To solve these problems, we have to work together.”

This post is adapted from a profile written by Beth Caldwell. You can read the full profile and to learn more about Greenville is working to build an infrastructure of opportunity for young people here.

Data Dig: Economic Mobility in Greenville, SC

In Greenville, South Carolina, economic resurgence and downtown redevelopment are celebrated, but underlying equity and mobility issues remain. Of the 100 largest U.S. cities, Greenville is in the bottom ten for economic mobility of young people—sitting precariously above only a handful of other Southern metros, including Raleigh, Charlotte, and Atlanta. We profiled Greenville and how leaders there are working to connect the city’s young people with economic prosperity in the State of the South report. (You read and download the full profile here.)

“A young person’s economic prospects should not be determined by his or her zip code,” says John Concklin, program investment manager at United Way of Greenville County. “Unfortunately, in the area known as the ‘White Horse Corridor,’ prospects for a successful future are tough—32 percent of households live in poverty; 66 percent have only a high school diploma or less; unemployment is greater than 25 percent in some sections; and the city’s lowest performing high schools are found here.”

To improve youth mobility, Greenville, like many Southern metros, needs to eliminate disparities in social and economic outcomes, which appear along geographic and racial lines. Let’s take a look at some data on growth and inequality in Greenville. (Some of the data below is from the National Equity Atlas—check it out for a trove of data on equity in all 50 states and the largest 150 metro areas).


Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity in Greenville, SC

Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity in Greenville, SC

Last week we took State of the South on the road to one of the cities profiled in the report: Greenville, South Carolina. Greenville is a quintessential Southern city—full of friendly people, great food, and beautiful sights. All of this Southern charm was on display during our short visit.

We met with nearly 40 education, nonprofit, and business leaders in an early morning meeting at the West End Community Development Center. After a presentation of the findings and data from State of the South, we led the group through an activity that we’ve used with other community partnerships and two-year colleges, the Loss-Momentum Framework. This framework is MDC’s adaptation of a tool created by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; it helps institutions and communities visualize the structure of connections and gaps along the path from K-12 to two-year and four-year degrees. The Loss-Momentum Framework guides a deeper analysis of strengths and weaknesses, and identifies which transition points in the continuum need reinforcement or incentives to move more students toward the goals of credential completion and economically rewarding employment.

In Greenville, we mapped programs and activities that are part of the city’s infrastructure of opportunity, increasing the odds that students with limited access will make it through the education-to-career pipeline. After only fifteen minutes of brainstorming, the group was able to list nearly 100 programs in place throughout their community.

Participants eagerly started analyzing the framework, noting areas where there’s a lot of energy (school readiness) and areas that need more attention (completion to employment). During the conversation, several themes rose to the top:

  1. Greenville has a lot going on, but these activities typically operate in isolation. The city should find ways to dismantle silos and connect complementary organizations and programs in meaningful ways. A recent United Way of Greenville County study found between 30-40 different community visions across organizations in Greenville. Participants concluded that there should be one shared vision with common measures and goals, created through a collaborative effort that can unite and energize the community.
  2. Participants recognized the importance of good data to drive decision making. They want to drill deeper into State of the South data to get a better understanding of what’s happening in their community, and use these data to build more effective programs and systems with positive outcomes for young people.
  3. The group felt the need to expand the meeting table. Parents and students should be a part of these conversations, offering their thoughts on how to strengthen the education-to-career pipeline. One participant said, “Let’s stop talking about people without inviting them to be a part of the solution.”

This is the beginning of a larger conversation in Greenville. We know that systems change does not happen overnight, but it has to start somewhere. Greenville has taken the first step in changing their systems and building an infrastructure of opportunity that supports everyone.

Ed. Note: This post originally appeared on MDC’s blog, The North Star.

In Greenville, SC, Dirt and Entrepreneurship Go Hand in Hand

At Mill Village Farms, they are growing food and jobs. We visited the farm on a recent State of the South road trip. In a community that has gone through so much after numerous textile mill closings, Mill Village Farms is a ray of light—community members have come together to restore hope for their future by investing in their youth. Each summer the farm employs students, ages 13 to 18. Participants learn how to garden and then sell the produce in their communities and surrounding Upstate South Carolina counties.

On the surface it looks like just another neighborhood garden, but it’s more. The farm provides valuable learning opportunities for youth in a community where there’s not much going on in the summers. Sean Dogan, pastor of Long Branch Baptist Church, is one of the farm’s supporters. “The youth of Greenville are great, innovative, smart, spontaneous, and energetic,” Dogan says. “In the right atmosphere and with the right opportunity, they blossom.”

Here’s Tisha Barnes and Will Fallaw discussing the Youth Partners program and the Good to Go Mobile Market.


In addition to gardening, students in the Youth Partners program learn about leadership, teamwork, and sustainable agriculture in a 10-week partnership with Clemson University. Students learn the concepts of entrepreneurship and write a business plan. Their summer includes a trip to Charleston, S.C., to visit the historic Charleston City Market. They meet with vendors, gather ideas, and develop a vision for a business they want to start.

Once proposals are developed, students pitch their ideas for $1,000 in seed funding. These creative students have come up with really interesting ideas, from bike repair to youth development. By stamping out food deserts and providing at-risk youth with job experience and entrepreneurial skills, Mill Village Farms is changing Greenville communities—one vegetable at a time.

You can follow us on Instagram for dispatches from upcoming visits to other Southern destinations.

Ed. Note: This post originally appeared on MDC’s blog, The North Star.