Merrick Community Services

Report date
October 2019

What has been most instrumental to your progress?

We have strong commitment from our partners, reinforced by:
• Our work has evolved based on partner relationships. Partners have defined the “action teams” that organize our work; and, placed themselves voluntarily as leaders and members in teams. Partners choose the activities that are most meaningful and advance our work with enthusiasm and spirit!
• Partners drafted a Memorandum of Understanding that underscores the principles, values, and vision upon which the xChange was formed and had ALL partners sign the same document. Each individual partners’ commitments to leading and/or participating in specific work is detailed in an addendum specific to each partner.
• Bush funds allows us to compensate partners in two ways: partners are offered a flat fee, per organization, for participating in the xChange as a “base” regardless of level of engagement. Then, partners created a pay-for-participation structure with leadership roles paid at a higher rate and all partners paid for each staff person who is engaged. This model yields a meaningful reward and acknowledges the deep engagement coming to our work. We are proud that over half our Bush grant funds are distributed to partners.
We have felt momentum from the support and confidence of: East Side Funders Group, Saint Paul Port Authority (SPPA), and the East Side Area Business Association. Our relationship with the SPPA has demonstrated to us the power of having a public regulatory “hook” (hiring agreements within SPPA leases) together with a community-led and philanthropically-supported solution for delivering qualified talent to employers. The combination has proven effective and is growing stronger still.

At our Tech on the East Side event, the ESFG was able to bring its voice to gather tech business leaders and entrepreneurs (a top-down perspective), and the xChange provided a community (bottom-up) perspective. The result was clarity among all parties about the gaps between business need, training currently offered, and the interest/skill level of the East Side talent pool.

Our engagement with employers has already resulted in process improvement among them. A few have become more inclusive and welcoming through their work with us. Some have changed the information they share in recruiting, based on learning from the xChange.
We are making progress in our efforts to do shared job development and more collaborative programming among partners. We feel confident about our approach to this work; and, are cognizant of the natural pull toward centralizing job development and employer relationships to preserve control and ‘quality’. Because employer relationships and job opportunities are one of the most precious commodities in the workforce arena, maintaining an open and collaborative process for sharing is uncomfortable and somewhat uncharted territory. With trust, and technological innovation, we hope to maintain the collaborative approach. Similarly, we work hard to ensure that all partners are maximally engaged, with workloads shared relatively equally, not pushing toward more centralized staff. Both employer relationships and partner relationships within the xChange, are dependent upon trust, high degree of communication, and sharing of information to ensure transparency (which circles back to trust). We will continue to explore ways to make this work as effectively and efficiently as it can while maintaining the collaborative and highly relational nature of the work.

Key lessons learned

A first key lesson is, again, about trusting relationships. A positive example came for us from a small task/moment as many xChange partners were preparing proposals for a DEED funding opportunity. In two days, we were able to produce letters of support from five organizations, all in support of each others’ proposals. This would never have happened without the time and trust that was built through our shared work. Similarly, we made a deliberate decision to apply as a collaborative for United Way funding – potentially risking requests from individual partner organizations. There as a trust among partners that, indeed, we could make the collective ask and that it was worth the potential downside of losing funding elsewhere. The result was a significant investment from United Way that has further strengthened our collaborative work. Finally, there have been relationships pursued among individual partners within xChange as a result of our collaborative work. Several partners have said that they have progressed from seeing each other as competitors to collaborators and partners; and, this has reverberated elsewhere throughout their organizations.
A second, more difficult, lesson has been around the challenge of initiating and maintaining authentic community engagement efforts. We recently used an all-partner retreat to explore how we integrate different kinds of community engagement into our work across our action teams. We used the IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation to do a baseline assessment of our activities. Then, we did some additional collective brainstorming, which is being integrated into our work plan moving forward. We acknowledged that we know we’re not going to get to the final stage of IAP2 Spectrum as the field we’re in isn’t conducive to public participation and our role as the xChange is to intervene within a diffuse field of power and stakeholders. We are not a grassroots organizing effort – but rather a service-providing collaborative. Within the confines of that work, we want to ensure that we are gathering, understanding, and making actionable some authentic connections to East Side jobseekers and residents. We will continue to use the IAP2 approach to assess each of our activities and push each, as appropriate, down the continuum of participation and engagement.

Reflections on inclusive, collaborative or resourceful problem-solving

Thus far, we feel best about our collaborative energy. xChange partners repeat that they are excited to be in relationship with each other – so much so that they frequently ask for more face-time with each other! We have a significant technology effort underway to capture our collective impact and strengthen communication among partners. We are exploring tools that we can use across partners that will change practice and help manage our external relationships (which are all “many-to-one”). With the help of external consultants, we have gotten baseline inventory of the data systems that partners are currently using, and are now working to understand where the most valuable opportunities for shared data tools is in our work. We are excited to use the technology applications to further strengthen and extend our collaborative efforts.

Other key elements of Community Innovation

We have learned a great deal from three key sources: community residents who participated in our Talking Circles; residents who have participated in our Career Fairs and hiring events; and, staff among our partners. All have helped to articulate what is “needed” and “desired” among East Side residents in leading them toward sustainable and meaningful employment. Our Talking Circle participants moved through a structured conversation about work, opportunity, and values. Insights gained there were foundational to our work. We have gleaned a lot of valuable information from our Career Fairs and hiring events about what’s important to East Side jobseekers – and the kinds of information that are critical to their job searches and decision making (e.g., shift times, work culture, etc.). We have returned this information to employers and it has, in turn, begun to be used for internal shifts in employer behavior. Finally, we note that our own partner staff have keen insight about how to support, advance, and grow employment and neighborhood vitality on the East Side. We have found their voices to be valuable (and valid!) in shaping strategy and direction in our work.

Understanding the problem

As noted above, we have continued to reveal more detailed information about job opportunities, and employment preferences, that are meaningful to East Siders. This, along with improved process in conveying this information within and among xChange partners, employers, and jobseekers has helped us clarify our understanding about the needs identified in the original proposal. We are also now more aware of the power dynamics at play. Employers hold a great deal of power and are largely not accountable to community for their decision making and actions. We are also aware that jobseekers and employed residents could have greater power – both in the transactions of becoming employed as well as in the long-term of earning income that can then be spent in bending the East Side toward sustainability and prosperity. These are long-term efforts that are difficult to bring to scale; and, are always interrupted by market forces outside of our control. That said, we are developing a sharper sense of where the levers and opportunities for change might lie for future interventions.

If you could do it all over again...

A few key 20/20 observations:
• We might consider creating an easier structure. We’ve allowed a very organic structure that has, at times, felt just a tad unwieldy to communicate/manage across eleven partner organizations and upwards of 50 individuals involved in different aspects of the work.
• As with all group efforts, there is some ebb and flow to the energy that individuals bring to the collaborative. In some cases, the individuals most active at our tables are not the most influential within their organizations; and, for others, they are key decisionmakers and consequently, sometimes are able to be less present for the xChange. This is an ongoing challenge at tables where our approach has been that everyone is invited all the time. We would like to find the magic formula that would allow for “maximum efficiency” for partners to be engaged, present, and productive.