How Three Cities Are Building Stronger Economies by Investing in Black Men

Summer jobs orientation in Omaha, Nebraska.

Black men have experienced the biggest declines in labor force participation in recent years. Reconnecting them, and boys and men of color more generally, to career paths and good jobs is critical for building a strong workforce and strengthening the economy as the baby boomer generation reaches retirement age.

That reality inspired the White House My Brother's Keeper initiative. But long before President Obama brought national attention to this, grassroots activists, business executives, and civic and government leaders across the country have worked to reverse decades of racial inequities and expand access to opportunity. Like the President, these partnerships recognize that equity and inclusion are important not only for those who have been left behind, but also for the growth and prosperity of communities and cities.

Today, America's Tomorrow profiles inspiring initiatives in Milwaukee, Omaha, and Los Angeles that are leading the way in creating policies and programs to connect Black men to employment training, good jobs, and opportunities to contribute and succeed. The efforts show what's possible when leaders have the courage to talk frankly about structural racism and do something about it, by aligning investments and resources with the needs of the most vulnerable populations.

Milwaukee: Creating hope and a pipeline of workers

The recent groundbreaking for the $450 million 32-story Northwest Mutual Life Tower and Commons Project was a signature moment for Milwaukee's downtown. The development will create or retain thousands of permanent jobs and generate millions of dollars in increased tax revenues. Meanwhile, construction will create more than 1,000 jobs through 2017. At least 40 percent of those jobs are reserved for local residents, and dozens of chronically unemployed men are well positioned to fill them, thanks to a program called Milwaukee Builds.

Administered by the city in collaboration with several nonprofits, the program provides on-the-job training and apprenticeships in the building trades to people returning from prison. It serves about 125 people annually, 90 percent of them Black men, city officials say. Divided into crews, participants build and rehabilitate houses and community centers while earning the certification employers demand and developing the skills employers need.

Milwaukee Builds is one part of a multipronged effort to tackle inequities that have saddled the city's Black men with some of the highest unemployment rates and lowest school completion rates in the nation. Over half of young Black men in Milwaukee are unemployed, and one in four have less than a high school diploma or equivalent. Yet Black men make up over 30 percent of the male population in the city, making their success an imperative for the city's economic future.

Propelling the work are city leaders willing to study social and economic data by race to understand what's holding back significant numbers of people of color — and to use that information to guide policies and investments to achieve equitable results.

Mayor Tom Barrett and the city council took the first step by establishing an advisory board on Black male achievement. What's more, they did so by statute, to signal "it's not for the season, it's for the long haul," said Steve Mahan, the city's director of community grants administration.

The board's mission is "to create hope and opportunities for Black men and boys who are significantly marginalized from economic, social, education, and political life." The language has changed the conversation about the most effective way to target resources among communities in greatest need.

"Being more free to have that discussion — to say "Black males" — was a huge policy change," Mahan said. "To say, we're not talking about census tracts, we're not talking about special districts, we're talking about a set population and we're deliberately aligning our resources and our attention with the needs of that population — that's really huge."

The city has aligned a host of programs in family support, education, health, youth development, and workforce training. "What we're doing is creating a pipeline of workers," said Clifton Crump, special assistant to the mayor.

Omaha: Empowering and hiring young adults

Eight years ago a group called the Empowerment Network launched a summer jobs program in North Omaha, the historic heart of the city's Black community, in hopes of reducing gun violence. Thirty young people participated. Since then, the program has grown to serve as many as 850 youth in a summer, and summertime gun violence in the area has declined by 65 percent, said Empowerment Network President Willie Barney. Youth earn up to $1,500 for the season and participate in career exploration, work experience, on-the-job training, and academic enrichment. Over 3,000 have been hired through Step-Up Omaha and other employment initiatives.

Robust partnerships have helped the Empowerment Network leverage the summer job experience to create opportunities for vocational training, and the collaboration is now incorporating high-growth sectors such as health care, information technology, entrepreneurship, and finance.

"We have some employers that wouldn't have given that person a chance previously, but now the 90-day intern has proven himself," said Barney. "We have individuals working in banks, at hotels, and at other corporations. Hundreds have graduated and many have secured longer term employment. That's having a direct impact on diversifying the employment base, and it's putting income in their pockets."

The community invested first. Now, the city, along with corporate partners and philanthropists, have made significant investments in expanding the summer program, based on commitments to building a competitive workforce in a region quickly becoming more multiracial and multicultural. At 12 percent, the Black unemployment rate in the region was more than double the rate for any other demographic during the 2008 to 2012 period (the most recent timeframe for regional employment data by race). Black households represent a smaller share of the middle class than they did in 1979, and one in three live in poverty. An analysis by PolicyLink and PERE found that the region's GDP would be $3.9 billion higher if racial disparities in income were erased.

The summer program, along with policy changes, and a long list of other initiatives to improve opportunities in communities of color — including the Black population and the growing Latino population — emerged out of an extraordinary public engagement process spearheaded by the Empowerment Network in 2006. Through surveys, polling, and neighborhood meetings, the Network has engaged 5,000 residents, including 2,000 youth and young adults, to articulate their greatest needs, their assets, and their vision for their communities and their city.

That process enabled the Network to identify seven priority areas for action — with employment and entrepreneurship as number one — and develop goals, benchmarks, and measures to track results. The Network has engaged more than 500 community partners from just about every field — schools, police, churches, health care, transportation, the arts, and more. The collective goal is to create a strong, unified city by closing longstanding gaps in education, employment, business ownership, and quality of life based on race and zip code.

Los Angeles: Black workers build power, reshape the construction industry

The $2.4 billion Crenshaw/LAX light rail line under construction in Los Angeles is designed to connect neighborhoods — including the disinvested communities of color of South LA — to the airport, a major job center. But the project employed almost no Black workers until a determined group of Black trade unionists, activists, residents, scholars, and faith leaders campaigned to change that.

Now, nearly 20 percent of the 125 workers, including three women, are Black.

Much of the success is due to advocacy and monitoring by the four-year-old Black Worker Center. In a city where 54 percent of Black men ages 16-21 are jobless, and 30 percent of Black workers are in low-wage industries, the Center brings together workers and advocates to fight for increased access to high-quality employment.

"We work to contest the myth that Black men don't want to work, to resist the Black jobs crisis that is ravaging the social fabric of our community, and to create from the bottom up intentional strategies to deal with this crisis," said Lola Smallwood Cuevas, chair, Los Angeles Black Worker Center Coordinating Committee. "Workforce development alone is not the solution to the Black job crisis. We must build the leadership of Black workers and the power to move our vision forward."

The Center focuses on the construction industry, a source of well-paying union jobs that has largely shut out Blacks in Los Angeles, as in many other communities nationwide. The Center pushes for enforcement of civil rights laws, and its leaders are unafraid to call out racial barriers and biases that exclude people of color from pipelines to career-path employment.

"When we lift up the most vulnerable, which in our community is Black men and young Black men in particular, we will improve Los Angeles overall," said Smallwood Cuevas. "Jobs matter. When Black workers have done well, our communities have done well."

The Black Worker Center was part of a coalition that negotiated a historic project labor agreement with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 2012. The five-year agreement requires that 40 percent of an estimated 23,000 transit construction jobs go to local residents from very low- to moderate-income neighborhoods, with 10 percent of those jobs targeted at "disadvantaged workers" such as veterans, the long-term unemployed, and formerly incarcerated people. It is the nation's first master project labor agreement approved by a regional transportation agency.

The Black Worker Center quickly went to work to bring the early phase of the Crenshaw light rail project into compliance. The Center has developed a robust community monitoring tool, training volunteers in observational field work, data collection, site safety, and deploying teams to construction sites to systematically count workers by race and gender and monitor safety. The Center reports its findings to the public, quarterly.

The progress on Crenshaw is just the beginning. The Center has helped establish similar centers in the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, and Baltimore, and others are being planned through the National Black Worker Center Network. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, some $60 billion has been allocated for major infrastructure investments, said Loretta Stevens, co-Executive Director of the Center.

"That's a lot of jobs, that's a lot of public money, so how do we get to the table and be included? We're trying to make sure that we're not absent and that we're changing the structures, the institutionalized racism, and really challenging policymakers and politicians to speak up for diversity, stand up for fairness and equity for all."

The efforts profiled above, as well as many others, have been supported by national initiatives such as Communities Collaborating to Reconnect Youth and the Campaign for Black Male Achievement. To learn more, contact the Campaign.