The secret to building economic mobility is strong local partnerships

We have a strong economy in Texas, but not everyone has access to it. Across the state, people are struggling for the education and jobs they need to grow their incomes, build financial security, and make the American dream come true. More than 20% of Texan children live in poverty. And poverty creates barriers to economic mobility that can last for generations.

How can churches change these dynamics? Strong local partnerships that bring the community together are key to improving economic mobility. You can turn barriers into opportunities for the entire community to thrive.

This is a lesson we at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas learned from our work promoting economic inclusion. And it’s something we’ve put into practice to help build a strong economy that creates opportunities for all.

When everyone can participate fully in the economy and thrive, our economy as a whole is stronger. However, the barriers to economic mobility are complex and structural. In addition to income, wealth and education, factors such as access to affordable housing, transport, childcare and health care can also play a role. Racial justice issues are often at play as discriminatory policies of the past perpetuate racial economic inequalities today.

No single organization or industry – government, private or non-profit – can solve these challenges on its own. All sectors need to work together to create powerful and lasting change.

And solutions have to be local. South Texas is not South Dallas. Different communities face different challenges. It is important to seek input from affected residents of the local community, especially those who may have been excluded from the decision-making process in the past. Involving their voices leads to a better understanding of the problems to be solved and solutions that suit the people for whom they are intended.

Exterior view of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas in Dallas on Thursday, August 13, 2020. (Smiley N. Pool / The Dallas Morning News)(Smiley N. Pool / Employee Photographer)

All of these considerations led the Dallas Fed to call an initiative Moving forward together two years ago. Our goal is to transform our collective economic future by promoting effective, collaborative leadership in communities across the state.

Advance Together is about connection and collaboration at all levels. It is led by a steering committee made up of state and national executives representing business, education, nonprofits, philanthropy, and the public sector. It supports local community partnerships in Texas that connect people to education and jobs so they can reach their full economic potential.

What do these partnerships do? In Austin, young parents have access to housing and childcare so they can attend community college and lift themselves and their children out of the cycle of poverty. In rural East Texas and West Texas, high school students find career paths to well-paying jobs in technology or manufacturing rather than, as one partner put it, “studying on the couch” because they can’t find a job. And with the promise of a skilled workforce, more and more companies are ready to invest in these regions.

Advance Together supports these local efforts with training, technical assistance and funding from philanthropic sources. Nine community partnerships took part in the first phase of the program from March to August 2020. They learned long term goal setting, racial justice, and community engagement, and developed plans to move their work forward. They have also campaigned to help their communities deal with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. This provided unplanned, expanded opportunities to see how powerful it can be to build a strong local partnership.

This year, four of the teams were selected by the Advance Together external selection committee for a more in-depth second phase. Together they serve communities in 25 Texas counties, representing both urban and rural areas. For three years they will receive additional training and support in implementing their plans to improve economic mobility. All acknowledge the progress they have made in strengthening their collaboration.

In Midland and Odessa, Educate Midland and the Education Partnership of the Permian Basin have partnered to help children from low-income families in the area, who are predominantly Latinos, succeed in school and prepare for well-paying careers. The team credits Advance Together for helping the two rival cities see the need to work more closely together to maximize their impact.

In Austin, Family Pathways 2-Gen Coalition is helping students with children complete degrees in professions that pay a living wage. The partnership incorporated the voices of the community into their planning by working with a group of young parents to understand their needs and find solutions that will help them stay in school. One participant has now been recruited as part of the Family Pathways team.

The Jasper-based Deep East Texas College and Career Alliance recognizes that small communities cannot achieve the same impact on their own. Local school districts put their rivalries aside on the sports field to create a vocational training center for the area. Young people from rural communities, many of whom are absent from both work and school, are now training in welding, nursing, trucking, and cybertech careers.

In Abilene and West Central Texas, the Big Country Manufacturing Alliance connects residents with high-paying manufacturing jobs. Manufacturers are putting their business competition aside to work with educators to create training programs and develop local workforces with the skills they need. Through Advance Together, they expanded their partnership to provide employment opportunities to more people by engaging nonprofits and community organizations and engaging the area’s immigrants.

These examples are just the beginning. As communities build their collaborative skills, they are better prepared for other economic challenges that arise.

The COVID-19 crisis and the winter storm emergency of February have made it clear that communities with strong networks and long-term cooperation are able to react to crises in an agile manner. Several Advance Together teams were able to set up relief funds or childcare assistance for key employees in less than 48 hours because key community leaders already knew and trusted each other – and had each other on speed dial.

These types of transformational relationships are no accident. Building collaborative leadership requires conscious investment and support.

At Dallas Fed, our ultimate goal with Advance Together is to provide a model for effective community governance and to help build a network of collaborative leaders across Texas and beyond. We are already using what we have learned to address another important topic for economic inclusion and to close the digital divide. Again, cross-sectoral work to understand local challenges is essential for communities to Expand broadband access.

Communities thrive when everyone can move forward. Whatever the challenge, local leadership and effective collaboration are key. At home in Dallas, we must continue to support community efforts to help all residents reach their full potential. When we bring different partners together to work on a common vision, there are no limits to what we can achieve.

Alfreda B. Norman is Senior Vice President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. She wrote this column for the Dallas Morning News.

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