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National leaders discuss dismantling structural racism in higher education, human services and workforce development systems

Education, Human Services

As part of a virtual convening that brought grantees from Kresge’s Boosting Opportunities for Social and Economic Mobility (BOOST) initiative together in November 2020, Majorie Sims, managing director of Ascend at the Aspen Institute, spoke with Michael Collins, vice president at Jobs for the Future, and Clair Minson, founder and principal consultant, Sandra Grace, LLC, about how to bring higher education, workforce development and human services together to drive social and economic mobility for families using a two-generation approach focused on racial equity.

BOOST, an initiative of Kresge’s Education and Human Services programs, aims to strengthen partnerships between community colleges and human services nonprofits that connect people with low incomes in cities to critical human service supports and educational pathways that lead to increased socioeconomic mobility and security.

Here are a few excerpts from their conversation, lightly edited for clarity:

What are some practical strategies for making certain that we are driving toward racial equity?

Clair: The first step is that we have to acknowledge that brazen racism is real. And that it manifests in our systems too. It impacts economic outcomes for communities of color. If we are not acknowledging that reality, we are not doing this work. That’s step one.

We cannot get to change unless we understand how it’s showing up in our systems and how policies and practices are reproducing or upholding the inequities that we see in the communities in which we serve, specifically for communities of color. And then after doing that examination, I would encourage you to ask, where do we begin? We understand that we see it manifesting in our program design, in our curriculum, in our leadership structure, so which one of these do we want to tackle? How do we prioritize and then get to action?

Michael: It’s an issue that most low-income students and people of color, when they are in higher education, are typically more likely to be enrolled in a program that leads to low wages. There’s considerable work we have to do to one ensure that our post-secondary system is acknowledging the kind of challenges and barriers people face based on demographics.

Helping students navigate the barriers will help them be smart about the potential payoffs of different types of credentials and the types of relationships they need to build inside and outside the institution to help them capture that information.

Where do you see bright spots or specific practices that could fuel social and economic mobility?

Clair: It’s momentum. There’s awareness and willingness. I think with a combination of momentum, openness and willingness, there is an opportunity to capitalize on that.

For example, how do we seize this moment to talk about living wages? How do we seize on statements that lots of employers made that Black lives matter and hold those employers accountable?

Michael: There are amazing examples out there of work that we are connecting people with. While we want to identify successful practices, we are at a time of invention.

When you look at the systems that are supporting families, they have developed incredible innovations, as well as reinvented themselves to support more families and in a more strategic way.

How do we structure systems in a way in which we’re getting the perspective of individuals and families?

Michael: We have to talk with communities about what they need and how they are experiencing our education and training systems. It centers on us having a conversation.

Clair: This is where the narrative of the broken people versus broken systems manifests. Because we come from a place where people are broken, and they need to be fixed, we don’t recognize their inherent value, their humanity and their resilience.

The system is designed to do exactly what we exactly what it has done. What our job is then to support the individual, honor them and see our shared humanity while we’re working on dismantling and disrupting systems.

To hear more of their discussion, watch the full video here.