United Way of Steele County

Report date
February 2015

What has been most instrumental to your progress?

We were very successful in bringing many voices to the process of identifying the barriers that are contributing to disparities in educational success, adequate income and good health. In an evaluation we conducted with Rainbow Research, community members spoke of the profound experience that they had speaking across race, class and cultural divides that have existed in our community and really being heard. We held 13 focus groups of low-income participants facilitated by community leaders. (4 focus groups were in English, 3 in Somali and 3 in Spanish). This involved 106 participants (47 Caucasian, 30 Latino, 27 Somali and 2 African American). In addition, 80 Community members attended the Town Hall meeting; 22.5% were people of color (1 Asian American, 2 Latino, 2 African American and 13 Somali) We also administered an online workplace survey, answered by 480 people, and held key informant interviews with 30 health and social services professionals, academics, educators, administrators and religious leaders who were all experts in the fields directly related to this study.
At the completion of the needs assessment and community engagement process, the Board of the United Way adopted a Strategic Roadmap. The recommendation was to have the main focus of the Strategic Initiative be around the three disparities that prevented economic success in our community; job preparedness, transportation options to get to work, and increasing the financial stability of individuals and families. At the same time, there was an agreement that reducing gaps in academic achievement by race and class, was critical to increasing the academic success of all of our residents. Finally, the Strategic Planning Committee recognized the link between good health and the ability to succeed economically and chose a focus on reducing chronic health problems through a reduction in community levels of obesity. These 5 areas form the basis of our grant work to implement community changes to address Income, Education and Health Disparities. We realized quickly that the right person to help with the needs assessment might not be the right person for implementation. This means we had to reorganize our leadership structures.
One of our early successes in reducing educational disparities is the Dolly Parton Imagination Library program. This program sends free age-appropriate high quality book each month to children from birth to age 5 enrolled in our community. We began enrolling children at the end of August 2014. Based upon the broad participation in the community assessment and new and existing partnerships with the United Way, we currently have 815 children enrolled, or 62% of the eligible children in our county in just 5 months!
One of the important barriers to employment that emerged during our community assessment was the cost of the steel-toed boots that many employers require in order to accept a manufacturing job. Through a non-profit/business partnership we have distributed 152 pairs of steel-toed boots free of charge during this grant period. In order to receive the boots, individuals had to be below 200% of the poverty level and have an offer of employment in hand.

Key lessons learned

Our project has met with some unanticipated challenges along the way. As we have communicated with the community and potential partners for the initiatives, we have found that part of the work we need to do is to learn about the scattered pieces of other community groups’ programs that have been tried in the past but did not work. Instead of letting “we tried that already and it did not work” stop us, we have spent some time with our partners trying to evaluate the root causes for the failure of the previous attempt at addressing transportation or community health, and how we can structure our new initiative to address those hazards to its success.
The challenge that we face now is to continue to find ways to include diverse voices at the table, including the voices of those who are the ultimate beneficiaries of any changes we are looking to make. There has been some resistance in the committees to the possibility of bringing working class or poor participants in that will be able to contribute to the solutions in our community. It is important that we do this so we are able to recognizing that people have more to share than their story and that our success will depend upon their ideas and input on how to make the new initiatives work. In recognition of the need to include a diversity of voices on our implementation workgroups, at our most recent Strategic Planning Committee meeting we developed some concrete pathways for recruiting new members to the work on planning and implementation of our new Strategic Initiatives. These include leveraging United Way agency relationships to identify individuals at or below 200% of the poverty level that would have an interest in participating on a workgroup.

Reflections on inclusive, collaborative or resourceful problem-solving

Although all three elements of the community innovation process are important, the two most relevant to our project and progress are inclusivity and collaboration. In order to identify strategies to reduce/eliminate income, education and health disparities, it has been imperative that our partners represent a cross section of our community. Because disparities fall most heavily on the poor, working poor and people of color in Steele Country, they were most heavily involved in our assessment process. Fifty-six percent of focus group members (n=106) were low-income people of color and 22.5% of Town Hall meeting participants (n=80) were people of color that came from poor, working class and professional socioeconomic backgrounds.

Collaboration is central to our success. United Way has spent 35% of its efforts during this grant period building and sustaining community collaborations. Built into the collaborative model is resourcefulness. 156 individuals representing every sector of the community gave a total of 111 hours of volunteer time and professional in-kind services valued at $10,528.00.

Other key elements of Community Innovation

United Way is playing four roles in building collaboration, planning strategies and implementing actions: Aligner (aligning organizations working on related issues with our strategic plan); Convener (convening community partners); Facilitator (facilitating trainings and meetings); and Joiner (joining existing groups that are working on projects that meet the goals of our initiatives). In many instances, United Way is playing multiple roles. In other cases we are starting in one role and moving into another role as the work progresses.

Understanding the problem

In our search to understand the barriers to a quality education, an adequate income and good mental and physical health, we have gone through a community assessment process that has prioritized specific areas of interest where we will be focusing our community change strategies; these are early childhood education including the scarcity of affordable quality childcare in our community that leads to great disparities in our community in being ready to for kindergarten, job preparedness including the disconnect between training and jobs in our community, the lack of any public transportation options that get people out to our industrial park at shift change times, the high number of unbanked low income people who are in need of financial stability through increased financial literacy and savings, and the lack of affordable options for healthy eating and exercise. These areas have become the focus of community working groups and early implementation of solutions.

If you could do it all over again...

We learned that it is critical to get everyone at the table and agree to a specific strategy before moving forward on an initiative.. Early on, United Way developed a strategy to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetable by WIC and food stamp recipients by organizing our existing Farmer’s Market to accept both WIC coupons and EBT cards. Before we could strategize the best approach to getting the Downtown Chamber Committee who operated the Farmer’s Market to partner with us, they had been approached by another group with the same goal who did not have a well thought out plan. This resulted in the Downtown Committee rejecting our plan out of hand. We have since invited the other organization to join our Health Committee and work collaboratively to implement a plan to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables to WIC and Food Stamp recipients. We have also invited the Chamber President to co-chair another committee, thus creating a strong alliance for future initiatives.

One last thought

The grant has had a transformative effect on how United Way has managed its own grant making portfolio. The Board of Directors has elected the Chair of the Health Committee to serve as Vice President of our Community Investment (grant making oversight) Committee. With the leadership of the new Vice President, the Committee is working to align our own grant-making portfolio with our strategic initiatives. As a start, this year’s RFP asks applicants if they currently offer services aligned with our income, education and health strategic outcomes or if they would be interested in offering such programs in future. Our overarching goal in this area is toward funding programs that create opportunities for academic success, escape poverty and increase health in addition to programs that meet basic needs. The grant has also helped change the perception of United Way from solely fundraising/grant-making organization to a community leader that works to convene, facilitate, align and also join community collaborations to develop strategies that address the root causes of income, education and health disparities.