Making Workforce Development Systems More Racially Equitable and Inclusive

The massive nationwide demonstrations for racial justice in summer 2020 highlighted the need to develop concrete strategies to advance racial equity across all sectors of society. Many organizations serving young adults began looking inward and reflecting on how their practices could contribute to this goal. However, many of these organizations have struggled to make tangible changes to their practices. The experiences of organizations that have been part of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Generation Work initiative can offer valuable insights on how to advance racial equity and inclusion.

In 2016, the Annie E. Casey Foundation launched the Generation Work initiative to explore new ways of connecting young people ages 18 to 29 years—particularly those of color from low-income families—with the knowledge and experience necessary to succeed in today’s job market. Partnerships in five cities—Cleveland, Hartford, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, and Seattle—are implementing the initiative. The partnerships comprise organizations serving young adults in the workforce development system that share a vision and are working together to achieve it. The initiative seeks to address structural inequities in local workforce development systems and asks the partnership organizations to examine their practices with a view to changing them to better serve young people and advance racial equity and inclusion (REI) as described in the Casey Foundation’s Race Equity and Inclusion Action Guide.

This Issue Focus highlights a few promising strategies that the Generation Work partnerships have pursued to foster awareness of REI among the organizations and their staff and to translate this awareness into changes to organizational practices. It presents the main findings concerning these strategies from an MDRC study of the Generation Work initiative. Most were successful in effecting incremental change rather than a sweeping transformation. These early successes can offer important insights and lessons learned for partnerships and organizations seeking to advance racial equity within their organizations about how to plan for change and set realistic expectations, as well as to value, celebrate, and build on “small wins.”

Offering staff members REI training or other professional development activities can raise their awareness of the need for racial equity and inclusion. To move from awareness to practice, though, leadership must be committed to organizational change and willing to invest resources to operationalize practices that advance REI.

Early in the initiative, the Casey Foundation organized REI training and other professional development activities for the five Generation Work partnerships. Later, some of the partnership organizations participated in additional REI training sessions set up by the partnerships or the organizations themselves. The effects of these trainings on the partnerships and their organizations varied. Staff members of some organizations said that participating in REI training made them more aware of racial inequalities, helped them develop a common language to discuss these issues, and provided evidence of inequitable outcomes in their local workforce development system. At the same time, these staff members said that they struggled to translate this awareness into concrete action, namely changes to organizational practices that would advance REI. One staff member said that it was “grandiose to think that [a few training sessions] . . . would change the way [staff members] work every day.” In other words, the staff trainings alone were not sufficient to change established organizational practices.

In one Generation Work partnership, a leader observed that, after having “personal epiphanies” about REI during the training, some staff members felt “trapped” in a stage of awareness, unable to translate this newfound awareness into specific changes to organizational practices. In response, leaders in the partnership brought in a consultant to develop and conduct sessions for organizational leaders on how to move from awareness to action and another consultant to hold similar sessions for frontline staff. According to the leaders, these sessions successfully helped staff members identify specific organizational practices to change. To date, two partner organizations have changed their hiring, onboarding, and procurement practices. Without these training sessions, staff members who were  broadly aware of and interested in advancing REI might have felt that they lacked support from their organizational leaders in their efforts to apply REI in their day-to-day work.

The inclusion of younger staff members of color in learning communities invigorated conversations—bringing lived experiences of racial inequities to light—and, in some cases, led to changes in practices. But these younger staff could find the discussions burdensome, and, as with the REI training, the changes resulting from these forums were incremental rather than sweeping.

Four of the five Generation Work partnerships implemented learning communities, or “communities of practice,” forums designed to regularly bring together practitioners to share information, learn about best practices, brainstorm ideas, and build relationships. Broadly, the goal was to build capacity, initially to improve how the workforce development system serves young people of color and later to advance racial equity more explicitly. The composition of the partnerships’ learning communities differed. At two of the partnerships, the learning communities were primarily for mid-level managers and program directors. At another, the learning community consisted of two different groups: one for higher-level managerial staff and one for frontline workers. At the fourth partnership, it was specifically for staff members who directly engaged with employers. These learning communities helped staff develop new connections across organizations, often led to new referrals, and generated new ideas, all of which could have benefited the young jobseekers and workers they served. 

Some of these learning communities did not at first explicitly address racial equity issues. But as time passed and they met more often, they increasingly tackled these issues. At that point, it became clear to leaders in the partnerships that the participants’ exposure to racial equity concepts and their experiences with racial inequity varied widely. As a result, to a certain extent, some of the conversations about how to address racial inequity—especially those among the managers, who tended to be middle aged and white—were limited.

Including frontline staff in the learning communities really made the difference for one of the partnerships. The frontline staff tended to be younger and were more often people of color; their lived experiences of racial injustice energized the conversations. As one manager said, “they come to these [regular] partnership meetings and they bring a different perspective, and they can really speak to what young people are going through.”

While including frontline staff in this way is potentially valuable for the learning communities and their respective organizations, it is worth considering whether it places an undue burden on younger staff, who are lower in their organizational hierarchies, by calling on them to share their personal experiences of racism with their managers. Moreover, while senior leaders and managers may have come to understand the experience of young people of color better through these learning communities, they could not always translate that understanding into broader organizational change to advance racial equity—similar to the staff who participated in the REI training described above.

One possible way to make learning communities more productive vehicles for concrete change that addresses racial inequity is for leaders to invest in REI training for themselves and their staff. Participants in the learning communities would then possess at least a common baseline level of familiarity with REI concepts and issues from the outset, and conversations could focus on innovative strategies and tangible solutions. Younger staff and staff of color could still meaningfully contribute to these forums and be authentically involved in organizational decision making.

Examining data disaggregated by race helped identify racial inequalities, which resulted in some partnerships taking critical steps to improve policies and practices.

The Generation Work initiative encouraged partnerships to disaggregate data across organizations by race and examine them to identify inequalities. If organizations found any disparities, partnerships could adjust or change policies or practices to reduce or eliminate racial inequities. By using data in this way, the partnerships could also more accurately monitor effectiveness and equity in the workforce development system.

Disaggregating data in this way was eye-opening for many of the partner organizations and resulted in some partnerships and organizations taking concrete steps to improve racial equity in their workforce development systems. The new information was particularly transformational for the leaders of several partner organizations, who subsequently redoubled their commitment to REI. Leaders from two of these organizations decided to undertake initiatives to address the identified disparities, including funding staff training on REI and investigating further why these disparities were occurring. As a result, one organization uncovered issues related to a local employer’s hiring practices that adversely affected young adults of color. In response, the organization explored tax abatements and other incentives to entice employers to hire young adults of color and encouraged employers to work with neighborhood partners to mitigate some of the barriers to employment that young adults of color faced, such as those related to housing, transportation, and child care.

Successfully incorporating REI into organizational practices is no easy feat and requires an ongoing and intentional commitment from organizations, particularly from their leadership. Generation Work partner organizations tested different strategies to apply an REI lens to their work with varying levels of success. The lessons learned from these initiatives may be useful for other organizations looking to do the same. MDRC’s forthcoming research report from its study of Generation Work, to be published in late May 2023, will provide a detailed discussion of the five Generation Work partnerships’ efforts to change their workforce development systems to advance REI.

Tessler, Betsy L. and M. Victoria Quiroz Becerra. 2023. “Making Workforce Development Systems More Racially Equitable and Inclusive.” New York: MDRC.