Building Bridges in Brownsville

Brownsville is the southernmost city in Texas. Its city limits are marked by a winding barrier wall, interrupted only by a guarded border crossing to Mexico and part of the local university campus. Breezes from the Gulf of Mexico blow through the small downtown most afternoons. More than a third of the 180,000 residents live below the poverty line and Mexican drug cartels pose a regular challenge to the stability of the economy. Historically, living-wage jobs have been scarce and almost always out of reach for young people without postsecondary credentials. In the last several years, however, America’s poorest city has been cultivating partnerships between educational institutions, employers, and community leaders—all intended to raise the standard of living through investment in youth and local industries. One education to employment partnership called All In—catalyzed in 2010 by a $1.4 million investment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—formed just as Brownsville headed into a time of major institutional and economic change, including a resurgence of the manufacturing and aeronautics industries.

In 2008, less than half of Brownsville high school seniors applied to college. Those who attended the local university and community college were part of freshman classes where only 45 percent of students were considered college-ready. That year, however, the educational landscape began to change, prompted by a broad community conversation that demonstrated perseverance, flexibility, and ingenuity in a region of scarce resources. Community-wide visioning conversations that began in 2008 as Imagine Brownsville eventually led to the creation of the All In partnership. Since 2010, the United Way of Southern Cameron County has been the backbone of All In, convening education, community and industry leaders from more than 10 institutions. These include employers like Wells Fargo, educational institutions like the Brownsville Independent School District, and municipal organizations like the Brownsville Chamber of Commerce. One major task for the group—which leaders acknowledge took longer than expected—involved determining the data indicators that best represented Brownsville’s educational and economic health. The development of the 2013 Community Indicator Report required the United Way and the All In partnership coordinator to have frank conversations with institutional leaders about the importance of sharing educational and employment data that, in an economically disenfranchised area, frequently was not flattering. The successful release of this document solidified the shared leadership and commitment. In May 2015, a former student-leader took over the All In partnership coordinator role and will head up the updating of the Community Indicator Report for 2015.

One key component of All In is the corps of Student Ambassadors who return to their high school alma maters to promote a culture of college-going through direct support to students and their families. In this video, Janeth Rico, a lead Student Ambassador, explains the importance of access to information—both for and about young people.


Student Ambassadors intimately understand the barriers to postsecondary education that youth in a poor community face; the Ambassadors become a trusted source of potential solutions. Often through their own life examples, they are able to explain the intricacies of student aid, loans, scholarships, and work study, as well as equip students to speak with their parents about the importance of a postsecondary education. They have grown from a corps of six Ambassadors in 2013 to almost 20 in 2015 and reached more than 2,600 students in 15 Brownsville public schools in the 2014-2015 academic year. Pre-and post-assessment data show that “students know and understand the college process more after experiencing Student Ambassadors’ presentations.” Qualitative data of Student Ambassadors experience suggest that after participating in the program, youth “feel more comfortable with public speaking, have gained confidence in themselves…and take on leadership roles on [what is now] the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley campus and in the community.”   The Student Ambassadors have emerged as leaders within the All In partnership, actively participating in task force meetings and co-designing program evaluations. One example of this increased community involvement is the recent hiring of Blanca Davila, a long-time Student Ambassador (now with a master’s degree) as All In Partnership Coordinator, on staff with the United Way.

With new partnerships and programs like Student Ambassadors, the educational landscape has been changing in Brownsville. In 2014, every one of Brownsville’s seniors from six high schools applied for college—a  remarkable 100 percent application rate—and 94 percent completed an application for federal or state student aid, a critical step in accessing postsecondary education for a community consistently ranked as one of the poorest in America. (These figures do not include students who are entering the military or students with special needs who have satisfied graduation requirements and will continue receiving services from the Brownsville Independent School District.)    

Today, this city long plagued by poverty and low educational attainment is on its way to becoming a model of open dialogue and shared measurement, fueled by the destruction of institutional barriers that historically fostered a culture of blame. Leaders today are choosing to focus instead on the shared challenge of equipping students for a changing economy, and it’s working. Reba Cardenas McNair, a community leader and local business owner says simply, “We know that we’re among the poorest cities in the country. But we’re changing, and we’re already rich in so many ways.”

For more information on how Brownsville is working to build an infrastructure of opportunity for young people, read our State of the South profile.

Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity and Innovation

This post originally appeared on the NC Policy Watch blog. To learn more about building an innovation economy in North Carolina, check out a new report from the Budget and Tax Center: Choosing What Works – Let’s Build an Innovation Economy for All.

What’s one thing that all places in North Carolina have in common? From our booming metros to our small towns, from Roanoke Rapids to Cullowhee, income mobility for low-income young people in this state, and in the South in general, is far worse than in other U.S. regions. It’s surprising to learn that even in our most economically dynamic places like Charlotte and the Triangle, people who grow up in families at the low end of the income distribution are likely to stay there as adults, and only small numbers make it to the middle or top. According to data from the Equality of Opportunity Project, for young people born in the bottom quintile of the income distribution in the Triangle, 37 percent will stay there as adults, another 29 percent will only move up one quintile, and a mere 5 percent will make it to the highest quintile.

Over the past two decades, Durham has moved from a low-skilled, tobacco-reliant community to become the “City of Medicine” and a Southern center of culture and creativity. Its dynamic, knowledge-based economy is a magnet for the health, pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and IT industries. Its universities and Research Triangle Park, both created and sustained through a history of public and private investment, are rich in employers and in the middle-skill jobs that pay living wages for new recruits, boasting an employment rate projected to outstrip the state and the U.S. by 2021. Yet, despite this thriving market, too few youth and young adults who grow up in Durham, particularly youth of color, are getting these good jobs, and too few have the academic and workplace skills to compete with more qualified candidates from other cities and states. Many struggle to find their way through a fragmented collection of institutions and organizations that are working to support young people but are not always well-resourced or working together. Much of this reflects Durham’s history as a tobacco and textile manufacturing center, where employment was not conditioned on education or credentialing, along with a legacy of race-based inequity in educational investment and expectations.

As David Dodson wrote in MDC’s State of the South report, “The result today is ‘two Durhams’—one prosperous and positioned to capitalize on abundant, emerging economic opportunities, and another increasingly disconnected and lacking the education, experience, and social connections needed to connect to prosperity that is close at hand geographically but painfully out of reach.” In that report, we proposed that places like Durham must build an infrastructure of opportunity, or a clear and deliberate set of pathways and supports that connect youth and young adults to postsecondary credentials and economic opportunity regardless of background. The infrastructure of opportunity is about more than just lifting up young people who are growing up in poverty—it’s about investing in opportunity for all young people so the community has a strong foundation for long-term success. The places that have better outcomes for low- and middle-income young people tend to have better outcomes for high-income young people, too (see Equality of Opportunity Project), indicating that the types of resources, systems, and investments that matter for the economic and educational success of young people are beneficial across the board.

A new partnership of private-sector, education, government, and civic leaders in Durham believes in that kind of investment. The goal of Made in Durham’s high-level, cross-sector leadership is to equip Durham youth with the credentials and experience required to gain entry-level, living wage employment in the sectors that are driving the local economy. Made in Durham seeks to support and enable an education-to-career system that addresses historic disparities. Central to its work is a deliberate strategy to advocate for the alignment of demand and supply—a strategy that will satisfy the needs of employers and young people. That requires engaging major employers as strategists, advocates, funders, and lead participants in creating career pathways and work-based learning opportunities while simultaneously investing deeply in youth engagement to give young people, especially those poorly served by existing systems, a strong voice in strategy-setting and design.

The work began in 2013 when the Made in Durham Task Force was convened to examine what it would take to ensure that young people succeed in the labor market and that employers benefit from more home-grown talent. In Durham, a health-care innovator and then CEO of the region’s largest employer, Duke University Health System, Dr. Victor Dzau, recruited change-oriented peers to populate the task force. He was attracted to join the effort not only because of the hospital’s role as a major employer, but also because of the growing recognition in the public health field of “the social determinants of health”— the concept that weak health and social outcomes are directly related to levels of economic inequality present in a society. Addressing youth employment by connecting young people to living-wage jobs offered Durham a lever to narrow income inequality and raise health outcomes.

During 18 months of research and planning, the Task Force was staffed by MDC and supported by a Policy Working Group composed of senior executives from each of the public partners and additional representatives from the nonprofit, academic, and employment sectors to provide operational expertise and perspective to the Task Force. Both groups wrestled with how to gather data, track progress, and  organize and align resources—existing and new—most effectively.  At the end of the design phase, Made in Durham Task Force members incorporated a nonprofit organization with a small staff to serve as a backbone organization and convener for the partners.  Members of the Policy Working Group continue to advise, and a youth network has been carefully recruited to reflect the diversity of Durham’s youth population. This network includes young people in high school, college, and alternative education programs. Two representatives will be voting members of Made in Durham’s board, and the group is planning youth-led action research projects for the coming year.

Many Task Force members have transitioned to board service, thus maintaining a leadership group composed of top business CEOs; education and public sector leaders, including the Superintendent of Durham Public Schools, President of Durham Technical Community College, Chancellor of North Carolina Central University, the Durham City Manager and Durham County Manager; and community advocates. This board is distinctive in that it is employer-led, and every member— private, public and nonprofit—is a CEO or the highest ranking member of their organization, able to make decisions and commit resources. The board’s primary objective is to foster alignment between the talent development system (education and workforce) and major employers in growth sectors of the economy. In the near term, their task is to support frontline education and workforce institutions—Durham Public Schools, Durham Technical Community College, North Carolina Central University and the Workforce Development Board—as they construct career pathways that lead to post-secondary credentials and good jobs. (The first pathway, in health and life sciences, will serve as a prototype for subsequent ones.) This year, Made in Durham partners also supported the City’s Youth Works Internship program with additional recruitment efforts for summer jobs, an important step in marshaling private sector leadership to provide substantive work-based learning for youth in sectors that are driving the Durham economy. In the longer term, the role of Made in Durham board, staff, and partners is to help shift the culture so that employers see youth investment as a part of doing business—and doing smart business, not just charitable business—in the Research Triangle.

This post includes contributions from MDC’s Abby Parcell, David Dodson, and Richard Hart.