Latesha Jackson is a single mother of three who hasn’t held a steady job in years. She struggles to get by in her hometown of Columbus, Georgia—worrying constantly about how she will pay rent and provide for her children.
Unfortunately, Latesha’s story isn’t unusual. The Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO) wanted to understand why so that they could work within Georgia’s communities to create real and lasting change. After all, Latesha, her children, and anyone else facing poverty and joblessness deserve every opportunity for a better life.
So, what barriers make it more difficult for Latesha and others to pursue a good life? To understand these obstacles, GCO started to engage with underserved communities across the state. Through this outreach, GCO deepened their understanding of how poverty affects people and the different ways it presents itself.
One question sparked GCO’s decision to start developing relationships with their community: “How do people flourish?” As GCO’s President and CEO Randy Hicks notes: “They flourish locally, in their communities. We learn to live, love, and trust in our homes and neighborhoods. It’s in our communities that we find work and get our education. When people are in need, it’s local relationships that are most helpful. It’s not the state government based in Atlanta, but relationships with a neighbor, with a friend, or a nonprofit organization that help people who are struggling.”
Engaging with community leaders helped GCO advance their policy work too. Hicks added:
“There’s a tendency for state think tanks to live and think theoretically about a lot of the issues we talk about. Unless you’re actually connecting with people and organizations affected by the policies you promote, your credibility and even your authenticity to some degree, is limited. By working on the ground, you are developing relationships with people and organizations that can serve as fellow advocates for policy ideas. Those may be fellow advocates you never would have had had you not stepped into a community to examine an issue more deeply.”
Hicks used to think that GCO was a policy organization that helps civil society. Over time, he’s realized that GCO is a civil society organization that helps people through policy.
In talking with their community, GCO found one of the biggest hurdles to human flourishing is the inability to find and keep a job. Besides under-developed skills and training, there are other systemic barriers to employment for these disadvantaged communities—lack of access to transportation, housing, and childcare. GCO began talking to local nonprofits in these communities—institutions that are often in the best position to help people overcome those barriers.
GCO also developed relationships with business leaders across the state, and specifically in the Columbus area. These businesses had a manpower shortage and were desperate to find talent to fill available jobs. GCO’s conversations with these groups sparked their idea for the Hiring Well, Doing Good program. The initiative brings together nonprofits and business leaders with the shared goal of getting people into the job market. Through an online platform, GCO connects low-income individuals with nonprofits in their neighborhoods, giving those individuals the resources and training needed to prepare them for the workforce. They are then matched with a job.
Through Hiring Well, Doing Good, Latesha found her way back to the workforce for the first time in 10 years. Since launching the initiative in 2018, GCO has helped more than 100 disadvantaged people turn their lives around.
For state think tanks that want to partner with members of their community, Hicks has a few tips. First, focus on one or two policies. State think tanks understand there are a whole host of issues that impact people’s lives, but to start forming relationships with community leaders and members, pick one or two policies and talk to the people who are directly affected by those policies.
“Before we went to work on prisoner reentry, we put together a working group,” Hicks added. “We conducted 50 interviews with prison wardens, prisoners, ministry leaders, judges, and people within the criminal justice system. We weren’t sitting back and reading what others had written on the issue. We got to know the people in our community who were affected by the system.”
It’s a powerful step—one that leads to positive and personal change for Americans who need it most.