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How We Are Building a Culture of Learning to Advance Equity-Centered and Inclusive Practices

April 5, 2023

At a Glance

JFF is piloting a learning and practice framework to center equity and inclusion in our work to drive more equitable economic growth across California.

Mara Lockowandt Director
Vanessa Vela Lovelace Senior Director, Solutions Design & Delivery
Cesilia Acevedo Program Manager
Practices & Centers

Jobs for the Future (JFF) is piloting a learning and practice framework to improve how we are centering equity and inclusion in our work to drive more equitable economic growth across California.

Economic and racial inequities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, a volatile economy, and the pervasiveness of systemic racial disparities increased our urgency in rapidly evaluating and improving our own approaches to supporting individuals’ and communities’ efforts to close regional equity gaps.

In California, there are enormous economic and racial divides across regions. Such gaps underscore the burden on overstretched service providers and community members who are faced with navigating long-siloed systems and persistent intersectional challenges while attempting to recover from a global crisis. For nearly a decade, our California team has worked to catalyze an increase in inclusive regional economic development across the state by supporting policies, investments, and partnerships that put the needs of historically excluded populations at the center of program design and decision-making. It is critical that intermediaries like JFF continually examine our roles as we navigate a range of perspectives, power dynamics, and contexts in support of building more equitable and inclusive regional economies.

We felt that we needed a framework to make these lessons actionable and to evolve as an organization.

Although JFF has had the opportunity to support and learn from partners across California through earlier initiatives, we felt that we needed a framework to make these lessons actionable and to evolve as an organization. Over the past year, with support from The James Irvine Foundation, JFF’s Inclusive Regional Economic Development team established an internal equity learning agenda to assess how we have been centering the voices of historically excluded populations in design, decision-making, and implementation to build more inclusive and resilient economies. We aimed to be more specific about what changes we sought to achieve, how we wanted systems to change, and which practices would lead to improvements in inclusion across our projects through our strategies.

Our work is gaining momentum and transitioning from a California pilot to an organization-wide learning and practice framework in 2023. Below, we outline lessons learned over the past year through three case studies and describe how we intend to evolve our work to broaden our learning and collaborate with partners in co-designing strategies and solutions for advancing inclusive regional economic development.

Launch of the Equity Learning Agenda

We began our equity learning agenda by exploring one of the key levers to inclusive growth identified through our research and work in the field: including “historically excluded groups in the design, decision-making, and implementation of economic development initiatives.” (Read more in our report on inclusive regional economic development.)

Our methodology and practices were inspired by international peacemaking practices and racial equity tools.

Economic development policies and investments are often influenced most strongly by individuals and groups with high levels of power and wealth. When the participation of the people who will be most affected by decisions is unequal or tokenized, disparities across race, income, education level, ability, or immigration status are often replicated.

Our methodology and practices were inspired by international peacemaking practices and racial equity tools, which grounded our approach to navigating the distributed and localized power structures in California.

Our action research methodology comprises the following steps:

  • Discovery and data collection: Intensive research and data gathering to catalog the impact of current and historic projects.
  • Identifying trends: Structured interviews with project teams to explore key themes related to equity and inclusion.
  • Collaborative learning with stakeholders: A series of discussions that centers on inclusion practices and project insights.
  • Applied practice: The development of inclusion practices, guiding principles, and toolkits intended to strengthen our equity-centered and inclusive approaches.

A definition of inclusion that brings together our intent to consider the role that race, power, and privilege play in decision-making emerged from our discussions: a collaborative, multidimensional process that co-creates the conditions whereby the communities that have been historically marginalized have full agency to actively drive economic development in their community, benefit from social mobility, and experience resilient economic, social, and personal well-being.

In the next phase of scaling our equity learning, we will assess examples from our projects and from partners to catalog innovative approaches and strategies that work to close equity gaps. Our assessment will emphasize the inclusion of community partners that are key to supporting and reaching underserved workers in California.

Understanding Inclusive Processes Through Three Case Studies

Equitable growth requires inclusion at every step of design and decision-making. We need to better understand how we are practicing inclusion to close equity gaps across a multitude of regional contexts, histories, and perspectives. Case studies are part of our ongoing efforts to capture how we are testing our concepts and strategies, grounding our learning in real examples, and understanding unmet needs across a number of different regional and programmatic contexts. Access the complete case studies here.

Here, we explore how worker voice was incorporated into project design components by the Fresno-Merced Future of Food (F3) Innovation coalition to create an agriculture certificate program that is responsive to the lived realities of learners and workers in California’s Fresno region. The F3 project recently received a U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) Build Back Better Regional Challenge award, bringing a historic $65.1 million to the Fresno region. With the agricultural industry evolving faster every day and the use of automation expanding in the Central Valley, it is important to JFF and regional leaders that the voices of workers and learners who are facing these realities are central in decision-making and in the design of regional solutions.

One product of the F3 initiative is the applied agriculture systems certificate program, which will provide training aligned to industry needs. Typically, only faculty members are involved in developing academic certificate programs. However, as part of this initiative, JFF facilitated a process in which farmworkers from two trusted organizations—the California Farmworker Foundation and the Binational of Central California—led conversations around the design of the EDA grant application, the curriculum, and learner personas to guide equity-centered implementation. As a result of this inclusive process, faculty members and community-based leaders built trust and meaningful partnerships that can be extended into future initiatives and training pilots. In addition, faculty members broadened their view of the typical student to include farmworkers and their unique assets and needs; this in turn led them to consider different ways to deliver instruction and program supports. Read more about this case study and how our team created safe, brave, and inclusive spaces for productive discussion and program design.

To leverage and build upon the collective assets and power of community-based organizations (CBOs) to effect policy change, the College Futures Foundation launched the Community Engagement for College Success Network (CECSN) in partnership with JFF, Education Trust-West, and 11 CBOs representing Los Angeles and the Inland Empire and Fresno regions. The goal is to boost higher education access, affordability, and success in communities of color. Now, four years after the pilot first began, we are seeing multiple examples of how the member-led network is benefiting from greater understanding and unification around network members’ priorities for college success. Key among them has been a 2022-23 budget letter advocating for important investments in students’ basic needs and equitable COVID-19 recovery. Furthermore, the group established an inclusive planning and decision-making process rooted in the equitable consensus model to guide current and future work. This project has required us to hand over the reins in facilitating conversations and setting agendas. Shifting power to CECSN’s members and orienting ourselves in service to the vision and leadership of community leaders has resulted in increased network momentum, leadership stability, and shifts toward long-term sustainability. Read more about this case study here.

In this case study, we unpack how our team is collaborating with grantees and funders to design, deploy, and evaluate the High Road Training Fund (HRTF). The HRTF represents a unique opportunity to complement public funding with money from private sources to advance the principles of economic equity, job quality, and climate resilience for participants of the High Road Training Partnerships initiative. Equity is a key component of California’s high road vision and served as a critical driver behind the creation, development, and implementation of the HRTF. JFF worked in close collaboration with state and regional partners, as well as experts in trust-based philanthropy, to design the HRTF and create equitable processes for deploying funds and measuring the equitable impact of public investments. Our collaborative and inclusive approach to this work informed the development of structural elements of the fund as well as operational resources, such as HRTF use cases and the grant application itself. Potential grant recipients also influenced and validated design decisions, such as payment terms, upfront versus reimbursable payments, flexible uses of the fund, and reporting requirements. Our approach has been to establish relationships with partners and key stakeholders that are built on trust and shared accountability for the project’s impact, and to set a foundation for inclusion in the fund’s implementation. Learn more here.

How We Are Evolving

Our inclusive regional economic development approach, which centers on closing longstanding equity gaps for regions, neighborhoods, and populations experiencing underinvestment, is a new economic development strategy that can lead to greater economic growth, inclusion, and resilience. Supporting economic growth that everyone can contribute to and benefit from requires that stakeholders acknowledge the roles that race, power, and privilege play in our economic and educational systems and how those factors continue to reinforce inequality in education and the economy. Inclusion in design and decision-making is key to closing the persistent equity gaps we are seeing across California and nationally.

Our newly formed Advisory Committee for Inclusive Regional Economic Development will be a key part of our work in continuing to actively respond to the needs of regions across California. Looking ahead, we are focused on growing and evolving in the following ways:

  • Understanding and defining how we approach inclusion across the life cycle of a project (proposal development, client engagement, design, asset mapping, stakeholder engagement, implementation, and evaluation).
  • Deepening our methodology and data collection to better understand how inclusive approaches are impacting economic mobility for the communities and populations that have historically experienced barriers to economic advancement.
  • Supporting our field implementation teams with resources such as case studies, tools, and decision matrices to design and implement inclusive approaches.
  • Expanding our learning process to a wider group of organizational staff members and leaders to drive a culture of learning that promotes reflection, innovation, and adaptation.

Our equity learning and practice framework will become larger and more iterative as we test it in new ways, and it will become more nuanced as we grow and learn together. Imperative to that vision is closing educational and economic equity gaps by addressing place-based conditions that impact communities.

Learn more about our work or join our mailing list to stay in touch and join the conversation.

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