What it looks like to lead a dignified life in a community

A conversation with Robert Blaine, senior executive and director for the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families, National League of Cities

In this episode of Work in Progress, Robert Blaine, senior executive and director for the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families with the National League of Cities (NLC).

The National League of Cities represents more than 19,000 cities, towns, and villages across the country. They work with mayors, city managers, and other local leaders to find solutions to pressing community issues.

Blaine explains the NLC mission this way: “Thinking about how we build opportunities into communities that have been historically underinvested and disinvested is really the footprint that our institute stands on. That’s the space that we truly try to inhabit.”

The organization sees a need and works with community leaders to try to fill it. One the NLC’s newest efforts is the Youth Excel Initiative, which focuses on connecting BIPOC youth with STEM careers and a pathway to a secure economic future.

“One of the things that we’ve seen through the course of the pandemic is that there are students that have become disengaged. This (initiative) brings together some intentional opportunities and pathways for students to really build STEM opportunities, and for us to really think about how we can leverage those opportunities to create sustainable and durable pathways for how their futures are going to move, especially when we start to think about economic mobility and their pathway towards a sustainable living wage,” Blaine explains.

The NLC says many BIPOC young people across the country have limited access to quality educational and career experiences that could lead them to equitable career pathways and quality jobs, particularly in the high-demand STEM industries.

Blaine points to issues such as lack of broadband in a community, which, for example, makes it difficult for a young person to connect with a school that had to go remote during the pandemic. The lack of broadband also makes job training and job hunting more difficult in the tech fields.

Blaine says the NLC will be working with the cities and towns to figure out how to tap into federal funding to address this need. “One of the things that I’m excited about is that as the administration has brought out new funding programs. Especially through the American Rescue Plan and the Infrastructure and Jobs Act, there has been an intentional focus on communities that have been historically disadvantaged.”

The NLC has established what it calls the Youth Excel Framework to help guide city leaders toward creating programs that will “promote long-term community economic security.” Here are the three touchpoints:

  • Developing partnerships and implementing strategies that improve access to quality postsecondary education and career pathway opportunities that lead to higher wage jobs.
  • Focusing on job quality improvement strategies.
  • Integrating the critical perspectives and voice of marginalized youth and young adults.
Data Leads to a Bigger Voice and Greater Access

To do this, Blaine says, the NLC uses data to identify specific needs in a specific community then sits with the municipality and shows them how they can match that need to federal and state funding to create solutions. It’s an approach he says served him well in his former job as city manager of Jackson, Mississippi.

“One of the things that I observed most directly was that those who have the most voice in the conversation are those that have the most access. If we’re really going to prioritize communities that have been underinvested and disinvested, we have to find new ways to make their voices heard. One prominent way of being able to do that is to use data as a way of being able to push back against what we used to call the vocal minority and really try and bring into the conversation the voices of the silent majority.”

Blaine tells me the initiative is in its early stages and there is much work to be done in the 350 communities it’s covering, but he’s hopeful it will make a difference. He adds that one of the challenges in running a city is the push and pull between the hard infrastructure of roads, bridges, and sewers and the soft infrastructure of investing in the community and — in his words — “thinking about what it looks like to lead a dignified life in a community.”

“This is actually a way of starting to bridge those two conversations. In order to be able to have that hard infrastructure, you’ve got to be able to support the soft infrastructure. It’s exciting that this is one of the first times that I’ve heard that full conversation and what that looks like.

“I’m excited by the opportunity. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have ample opportunity to mess it up, as we’ve seen in the past, but I think that we have a real chance to get it right. It’s smart people and smart conversations like this that give us a framework that we can work within.”

You can listen to the full conversation here, or look for the Work in Progress podcast wherever you get your podcasts.

Episode 216: Robert Blaine, senior executive and director of the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families, National League of Cities
Host & Executive Producer: Ramona Schindelheim, Editor-in-Chief, WorkingNation
Producer: Larry Buhl
Executive Producers: Joan Lynch and Melissa Panzer
Music: Composed by Lee Rosevere and licensed under CC by 4.0.
Download the transcript for this podcast here.
You can check out all the other podcasts at this link: Work in Progress podcasts