We are living in a “double pandemic economy,” said Clair Minson, assistant vice president of talent development at the New Orleans Business Alliance, referring to both the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic and to systemic racial injustice. “We are not only continuing to deal with the impacts of COVID-19 on our economy and our lives personally and those that we are connected to, but we’re also dealing with the lingering and very current impacts of racism on communities of color, specifically Black workers.”
As businesses work towards reopening safely, heightened public awareness of the devastating impacts of systemic racism, particularly for the Black community, has pushed employers to assess and adapt their own workplace practices. How can workforce development professionals seize this opportunity to engage businesses in conversations about job quality and race equity?
On June 30, the Economic Opportunities Program joined a webinar convened by the New Orleans Business Alliance to discuss practical strategies to advance job quality and race equity as we navigate COVID-19 and rebuild the economy. The event was facilitated by Clair Minson and brought together Zuri Stone, director of student life at YouthBuild Philly, Robin Walker, learning exchange director at YouthBuild Philly, and Jenny Weissbourd, senior project manager at the Economic Opportunities Program.
Structural racism has led to an over-representation of workers of color in low-wage jobs. In New Orleans, the data is staggering—median household income for Black families is $24,813, half of the necessary wage to support one adult and one child in New Orleans, according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator.
The pandemic has had devastating impacts on occupations where there are a disproportionate number of workers of color. Workers in major employment sectors including hospitality, retail, and food service have experienced massive layoffs. Many essential workers are still going to work, where they risk exposure to the virus – and most still aren’t earning a living wage. Weissbourd presented this data to illustrate the importance of supporting strategies that improve job quality for low-wage occupations as we shape the economic recovery.
“We know what was normal before the pandemic – and we can’t just go back to normal. Normal wasn’t working for too many workers in New Orleans. As we rebuild the economy, we need to focus on strategies that improve the quality of low-wage work and center racial equity,” Weissbourd said. She shared resources from the Economic Opportunities Program’s Job Quality Tools Library that workforce organization can use to begin operationalizing job quality and race equity in their work.
Putting Job Quality and Race Equity into Practice
The webinar provided an opportunity for workforce professionals to learn from Stone and Walker, who have long prioritized job quality and race equity in their work with young adults previously disconnected from school and work. YouthBuild Philly fosters an internal culture of respect and belonging for their young adult students as they support them in finding and retaining employment. They also work with their business partners to ensure employment opportunities are the right fit for a young adult’s needs. The Economic Opportunities Program recently profiled these practices in The Benefits of Bridging Divides: How YouthBuild Philly Shares its Supportive Practices to Build Business Value and Better Jobs.
Organizational culture is a critical component in fostering equitable practices. The school culture at YouthBuild Philly centers student voice. “What pieces of a culture become the rules of a space should be determined by the people that will be existing in that space,” Stone said. YouthBuild Philly’s space allows for difficult conversations and supports healing relationships.
“We are very intentional about building relationships,” Walker explained. Every staff member is a mentor to students. Stone stressed the significance of these relationships, as well as the complexity given that some staff have different racial and ethnic backgrounds than students. “A lot of our facilitating staff are white. So, if we have 90-something percent Black students in a given year, and white staff mostly in the facilitating role, what does that mean for our student experience?”
YouthBuild Philly works to ensure that staff are equipped to create an inclusive space. Staff participate in trainings and conversations to address implicit biases and reflect on how their cultural attitudes influence interactions with students. Although these discussions are not easy, it’s important to normalize the discomfort required to move toward a racially equitable society. “Race is not a conversation that you ever finish – there’s always going to be a level of uncomfortability. And so, we have to keep pushing that,” Walker explained.
The event concluded with a retelling of a difficult experience for Walker that involved interacting with a biased employer. She initially resisted surfacing the problem because she knew it was an important partnership. But over time, she explained, “finding out that young people were having that same experience made me pivot to ‘I need to be responsible for the young people that are coming in behind me.’” She spoke up, and leadership supported her in ending the partnership. In other cases, YouthBuild Philly has been able to work with employers to make incremental practice changes that create a more equitable, inclusive culture.
Organizational commitment and action on race equity can help promote higher job quality, which can boost retention and increase productivity, both good for business. As Walker explained, at the end of the day employers are looking at their bottom line and how they can make an impact. YouthBuild Philly helps them address both by connecting them with engaged young people who are likely to stay longer than other hires. Having candid conversations with employers can help support a safe and rewarding work experience for young adults, ensuring that the workplace is welcoming them to bring their full selves to work.
 The Data Center analysis of data from 2018 American Community Survey. Living wage calculated by MIT (1 working adult, 1 child).
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