North@Work: An innovative workforce strategy for African-American men

By February 11, 2016Foundation Blog

Setting the Scene

The Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Minnesota recently awarded a grant to the Northside Funders Group (NFG), chiefly to support its new North@Work Initiative. Joel Luedtke, Senior Program Officer at the foundation, and Kevin Murray, Program Officer at NFG, discuss the history, purpose and hopes of this new initiative.

North@Work, a pilot program developed and implemented by the Northside Funders Group, is designed to disrupt the current way that workforce agencies operate by building intentional collaborative efforts among service providers to fully support the needs of African-American men seeking employment. North@Work’s goal is to connect 2,000 African-American ages 25 and older that live in North Minneapolis to meaningful, living-wage employment by 2020. This model weaves together four distinct components to help participants succeed: Outreach and Recruitment, Individual Assessment and Coaching, Cohort Support, and Employer Management.

Joel:      Congrats on the launch of North@Work, Kevin!  I know it’s been a long process getting to this point.  How do you feel about the organizations the Northside Funders Group is bringing together on this project?

Kevin:   We are excited and eager to begin this work. After many hours of reviewing proposals and conducting site visits we’ve selected four partner organizations to implement our North@Work model: Minneapolis Urban League will lead outreach and recruitment, EMERGE will conduct assessments and coaching, Twin Cities Rise! will provide cohort support, and CommonSense Consulting@Work will manage our employer relationships. Because communication among partners is key, we expect to have regular open discussions to talk about some of the wins and challenges as we bring the program to scale.North_at_Work-2497

Joel:       As one of the proposal reviewers, I appreciated the thorough process you led to get us to this point. It was exciting to see so many organizations present so many ideas about closing the employment gap for African-American men. As you know, the foundation where I work has invested in workforce development programs for many years, and I can say from experience that it is surprisingly common to see job training and placement services that help lots of low income folks secure better jobs – without ever reaching many African American men. While I don’t attribute this to intentional bias, N@W reminds us that status quo strategies are not working with this segment of the community, and I’m excited to see what a more targeted approach can achieve.

Kevin:  I completely agree. Research confirms that the current system hasn’t been a very successful model for African American men, particularly those who live in low-income neighborhoods. We are working to strengthen relationships with multiple workforce agencies by encouraging the sharing of community and organizational resources.

Joel:       Now that you’re at this stage of the process what are some next steps?

Kevin:    This year we will launch 4-5 cohorts of 20-30 men (150 men total) resulting in 100-150 meaningful and sustainable employment opportunities. We’re confident that the right partners are in place to meet or exceed this goal. We will have a strong and consistent support system in place to keep the men encouraged, engaged and equipped throughout the training and employment process.

Joel:      You are wise to focus on motivation and support for N@W participants. Individual coaching and a supportive cohort should help African American men overcome obstacles as they strive towards a good job, and these services are well beyond what government and private philanthropy usually support. So, when we see persistent success gaps between African American men and other kinds of participants, it just makes sense to me that we need to try out different methods. Many may agree with that simple argument, but we both know that it will be a huge challenge to raise the funding needed to fully implement N@W’s model. I’m pleased that our foundation is able to support the start-up of this work, but much deeper pockets need to step up as well for N@W – or any similar effort – to really change the story about black men in our local job market.

North_at_Work-2584Kevin:   Agreed. Considering the deep racial inequities that continue to be pervasive and persistent across the country, North@Work comes at a very critical time. The racially charged events taking place in our communities have highlighted a serious divide amongst African-Americans and other communities. A program like North@Work can help breakdown some of the barriers to equity, and begin to bring a sense of balance by providing opportunities to obtain living-wage jobs. Our program will cause a disruption to the current way workforce development has operated by forging deep collaborations and engaging men holistically. These approaches haven’t been tried much before. Our community, non-profit leadership, and employer partners are committed to this work that will contribute to a revitalized North Minneapolis.

Joel:      As a longtime funder in North Minneapolis, and a member of the Northside Funders Group, I’m truly grateful for the leadership you are showing. This is not work that one funder could have pulled together by itself. NFG’s focus, wisdom, and strong community knowledge enabled you to weave together something that is both grounded and exciting. N@W will certainly face its challenges in the months and years ahead, but I’m excited to see what this custom-made option for African American men can teach us about how to make equity real in workforce development.

Kevin:   I certainly appreciate the time you’ve taken to have this conversation. I too am excited to see the support our North@Work initiative has received from your organization as well as other foundations. Although it will be an adjustment in typical workforce development strategies, we’re confident that with the collaborative efforts of our partners, this model will prove to be successful and begin to reshape the economic vitality of North Minneapolis and our region.

To learn more about North@Work – or to refer a prospective participant – contact Kevin Murray at kmurray@northsidefunders.org