Communities of Change

by Brent Baker, Greater Peoria Economic Development Council
Above, an internship at Beachler's Auto Service gives Peoria Public Schools students experience in basic auto maintenance.

The initial success of Pathways is a promising demonstration of our capacity to embrace change to meet the challenges ahead.

I first met Victor in September of 2016 in a cramped computer lab at Peoria High School. The room itself wasn’t extraordinarily small, but on this morning, it was full: seriously, there was a line into the hall and students were doubled up on computers. About 50 rising sophomore, juniors and seniors were there, each interested in learning how to connect with the internships we were creating through the Peoria Pathways to Prosperity initiative.

As the bell rang, Victor walked up to me and asked if any internships were available in civil engineering. I swallowed hard, knowing my answer wasn’t what he was hoping to hear. I took his email and phone number, and said I’d let him know when we had one for him. Unknown to Victor, this brief, seemingly mundane moment was actually a major milestone for our community, years in the making.

Investing in Peoria
Work on Peoria Pathways to Prosperity formally began in 2014 when Mayor Jim Ardis pulled together a diverse group of stakeholders (including Peoria Public Schools, Peoria Federation of Teachers, Peoria Regional Office of Education, City of Peoria, Illinois Central College, Illinois Student Assistance Commission, Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, CEO Council and the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council) to create strategies that more intentionally connect Peoria Public Schools students to the careers most needed in our region, while also improving student outcomes. Simply, how could we better contextualize high school coursework in the career interests of our students and the region?

The strategy that emerged—based on a robust regional assessment conducted by the nonprofit Jobs for the Future—was two-fold: develop internships for high school students with local employers and build a system for students to connect with those opportunities, while supporting the development of career-relevant curriculum at Peoria Public Schools.

In 2015, the team submitted a grant application to the American Federation of Teachers Innovation Fund and was awarded $65,000 of seed funding, which facilitated the creation of my position, the Peoria Pathways to Prosperity Coordinator. This blossomed into two years of additional funding; by August 2018, the American Federation of Teachers will have invested $265,000 in Peoria.

Unique Opportunities
This summer, Victor is participating in an eight-week internship at Infrastructure Engineering, Inc. in downtown Peoria. He accompanies engineers on site visits and reviews, and even assists in preparing project documents for the firm. In the fall, he will attend North Carolina A&T State University to pursue his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. He laughs when I tell him I expect him to come back to Peoria. “My family’s here, man,” Victor says with a smile. “I’ll be back.” That was good enough for me.

Victor is just one of 70 students, placed among 18 unique companies, who have taken advantage of the internships and work experiences supported by the Peoria Pathways to Prosperity effort. What’s even better is that the majority of these opportunities were created uniquely for high school students, meaning that many of these employers are investing in high school students for the first time. That is to say, they are investing in the community—in a new and very intentional way. But it hasn’t necessarily been easy.

Some of the challenges, strangely enough, were induced by the work of creating the system itself. How easy it can be to slip into jargon and buzzwords during marathon strategy sessions: collective impact, systems change, cross-sector stakeholder collaborative, organizational structure and all of the equity metaphors… I’ve certainly been guilty of this myself.

While this rhetoric isn’t necessarily obstructive, it can lead to a sort of “paralysis by analysis,” wherein we may fail to account for the fact that each of our businesses and organizations are communities unto themselves, with their own unique systems, processes and values. Supporting these communities to embrace change and adopt shared values, then, is where the work lies.

Embracing Pathways to Change
Last summer, with the support of Mayor Ardis’ office, we called on a number of Peoria-area employers and encouraged them to make internship creation for high school students a priority in 2017. Two of those employers, OSF HealthCare and UnityPoint Health – Peoria, really took the task to heart. By the end of this year, the two organizations will have created paid internships for 22 Peoria Public Schools students. From business and nursing to childcare and even logistics, these students are provided an opportunity to experience the range of careers in highest demand in our region.

More importantly, spurred by the work of creating student internships, these healthcare and community leaders are developing new practices for engaging talent and providing a clearer path to lucrative career opportunities within their organizations. UnityPoint Health – Peoria has created a framework that outlines tiered career paths across nine departments, which will be used by recruiters, hiring and human resources personnel. This concept arose out of the early work of planning their student internships, outlining which entry-level positions could be adapted to accommodate a high school intern and how to expose them to various careers within each department.

While the initial cohort of student interns may seem small and the new framework a simple rhetorical shift, it is actually a major community milestone. Recognizing that great work often starts small, it’s a promising demonstration of our capacity to embrace change to meet the challenges ahead.

Over the past two years, I have had the privilege of getting close to many of the unique communities within Peoria: working with students and counselors in Peoria’s public high schools, human resources professionals from countless employers, city officials and administrators, our friends at Illinois Central College, and many others. Through all of these interactions, I have been heartened by the willingness to embrace and impact change, to have hard conversations and emerge from them with a renewed commitment to the work. Together, quietly and surely, we are building a stronger, more resilient community. There is certainly more work ahead, and I look forward to it. iBi

Brent Baker serves as the Peoria Pathways to Prosperity Coordinator for the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council.

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