Midwest Urban Strategies (MUS) Workforce Innovators are change agents in diversity, equity and inclusion. They are making diversity actionable, advocating for representation, leadership and positive narratives of women and minorities in the workforce development ecosystem. Ida Ford is part of this cohort. In her capacity as Workforce Development Administrator for Ohio Means Jobs Cleveland-Cuyahoga County (Ohio Means Jobs), Ida is showcasing the contributions of women and African-American entrepreneurs in the construction sector where they have been historically underrepresented.
Indeed, Ida supports the Ohio Means Jobs Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee and serves as its representative to MUS Workforce Innovators. – a cohort of leaders developing, incubating and sharing best practices through a network of workforce development boards. In an effort to further the impact of network diversity activities, Ida concluded, “Increasing women and minority representation starts with us. It is our responsibility to do more, to develop new outreach activities, connect communities and support inclusive innovations.” Therefore, she recently joined panel discussions, luncheons and other events with diversity advocates, such as AKA - a woman and minority-owned business in the construction sector - and representatives from the National Association of Minority Contractors (NAMC). Additionally, Ida coordinated the first meeting in a series of stakeholder consultations arranged by MUS Workforce Innovators and centered upon diversity in leadership. The meeting was conducted ahead of Women’s History Month on February 10, 2022, with Dr. Kara Whitman and Ms. Sheila Wright.
Dr. Kara Whitman is a Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion AmeriCorps Volunteer at MUS and through assessment, reporting and outreach, is delivering resources to inform forthcoming diversity initiatives. In fact Kara asserted, “Program priorities in the workforce sector have not sufficiently addressed the gender-related expectations that narrow access to specific careers and minimize belonging. Moreover, the service model at job centers is primarily employer-focused. The model is also transaction-based, causing job-seekers to navigate enrollment processes independently; explore gigs, business incubation and career alternatives with less support; network and build relationships elsewhere. Workforce priorities and service models are therefore less relevant than they could or should be and the future of work requires we change this.”
In addition, Kara maintained, “The typical form of engagement between workforce development organizations, employers and industry associations is a long-term relationship. Conversely, engagement between workforce development organizations and program participants comprises a temporary experience. For example, we host job fairs and other one-time events in public space and job-seekers traverse eligibility requirements in short-term interactions. Unfortunately however, we are not always embedded in minority communities or renowned as a year-round resource. Furthermore, outreach to women and minority business owners is often limited or intermittent, which in turn minimizes the diversity of our boards and committees, our ability to show solidarity and provide access to success models in leadership roles. Thus, when we encounter decreases in retention and completion rates, we must go beyond the numbers and frame them in relationship terms.”
Kara further advised workforce development organizations connect participants with peer networks, mentors, women and minority entrepreneurs at the point of registration. Sheila’s position as President and Managing Partner of Frontline Development Group is especially relevant in this regard. Indeed, Sheila noted, “I was a teen mother with immeasurable family support. As an adult, I received state benefits that allowed me to go to school for several years and learn how to build catchall mechanisms within systems. My ambition and strong network of mentors made a difference and provided incredible exposure. Expanding my understanding of possibility through mentorship led to my daughter attending college, my entry into law school and a commitment to helping others. Eventually the opportunity to partner with others created the ability to start a real estate development business and launch transformational projects in communities with longstanding disinvestment. Real estate-based industries experience a dearth of African-Americans and women. Working in this space creates a responsibility to mentor others which in turn, allows people to see themselves represented in industries they may not feel empowered to enter."
Mentoring, longstanding relationships and embeddedness should be underscored because they describe how workforce development organizations could operationalize inclusion and establish a measurable diversity framework. Within this framework, compliance issues, market influences and other external conditions do not compete with inclusion for priority; nor do they position it as an option in the workforce development ecosystem. Rather, accountability for inclusion is internal, fully integrated in each position description and in job centers - an intentional part of the enrollment experience.
Stakeholder consultations therefore exist to broaden career pipelines, diversify partnerships and strengthen relationships with women and minority entrepreneurs. MUS Workforce Innovators underscore these activities because they signal change in undeserved communities and recognize women and minorities as business leaders, with contributions relevant to industry boards and other decision-making fora. Through her commitment in these areas, Ida has become one of the region’s most respected leaders.
In March, she will engage minority business owners and further participate in events that increase support for women and minority representation at all levels. She will also provide new recommendations to the network, to improve the experience of women and minority job-seekers in job centers, testing and training activities. Moreover, she will work alongside Workforce Innovators beginning in June 2022, to establish curricula, capacity-building activities and toolkits to help workforce development organizations develop staff members for advancement to senior management and chief executive roles. These activities make diversity actionable and visible and situate Ida in a community of practice committed to positive results. The relationships she embraces in this community are also making the workforce sector a more accessible environment.