Fed leaders join Fed chair Powell in Conn. to shine light on community development effort
E. Hartford community-improvement program taps collaboration to face challenges, create opportunity
Darius Ritchens sat at a table in the gymnasium at an East Hartford elementary school on Monday and talked about struggling to make ends meet.
The single father of two once worked in financial and insurance services, he told the local officials and Federal Reserve leaders seated near him. But hard times came, and he could barely afford to live. Above all, he said, he’d lost his self-confidence.
Then he learned about East Hartford CONNects. Ritchens said the program gave him access to skills training and quality child care, allowing him to take advantage of new professional opportunities.
“What happened in that program is just amazing,” he said. “It brought me back to life.”
Ritchens told his story at an event at Silver Lane Elementary School attended by Fed Chair Jay Powell and Eric Rosengren, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Rosengren arranged the visit to learn about the progress made possible by East Hartford CONNects, a community-improvement initiative that’s part of the Boston Fed’s Working Cities Challenge.
Program takes a collaborative approach to try to maximize local impact
The Working Cities Challenge is a grant-based competition launched by the Boston Fed in 2013 to tackle seemingly intractable problems like crime and racial inequality in some of New England’s older cities.
East Hartford is one of five Connecticut communities to receive a $450,000 Working Cities Challenge grant in 2018. It has a rich industrial past, but struggled after manufacturers faded or relocated. The town’s average family income is about $58,000, well below the state average of about $89,000, according to 2017 data from Connecticut-based DataHaven.
Monday’s visit included a bus tour during which Powell, Rosengren, and others saw challenges EH CONNects is working to address, and learned about opportunities its hoping to create.
The stops included an abandoned cinema – a long-time eyesore off Interstate 84 – that’s being razed to make room for a new mixed-use development. The tour also stopped by Goodwin College’s 44-foot-long mobile advanced manufacturing training lab, which aims to spark interest in manufacturing and build the local workforce’s skills with on-site training at schools and businesses.
EH CONNects operates in a small office inside the elementary school. But participants said its reach extends far beyond the school grounds.
Initiative works to collaborate with public sector, private companies
The initiative’s collaborative approach has brought in partners from the public sector, nonprofits, and private sector companies. One of those companies is East Hartford-based defense contractor Pratt & Whitney, which runs a program called the Entry Level Pipeline in conjunction with the Connecticut Center for Advanced Manufacturing.
The program recruits underrepresented groups in manufacturing for a seven-week training course that ends with a job paying at least $29 an hour. The training is unpaid, so EH CONNects provides trainees, like Ritchens, with cash stipends while they complete it.
During the day’s discussions with community leaders, Rosengren said words he was repeatedly hearing – such as “partners,” “pathways,” “relationships” – showed why East Hartford was seeing early success.
“When we find other communities that are using these kinds of terms, they're terms that are actually bringing everyone together,” he said.
Dio Dilone, a U.S. Navy veteran, learned about EH CONNects after his wife brought home a flyer from the school. A full-time Uber driver at the time, he’s now inspecting jet engine parts with Pratt.
“I am a testament of the outcome of what happens when organizations get together for the benefit of all,” he told officials.
Powell thanks local leaders for “uplifting” visit
Near the end of the program, Powell thanked Dilone and other speakers for a “very uplifting, powerful day” that he said reinforced the importance of the Fed’s work to ensure a strong labor force.
“The labor market is in so many ways the gateway to lots of other forms of social progress,” Powell said. “Companies are hiring, businesses are being started. But for people who are at the margins, in low- and moderate-income communities, it’s not enough. They need more. They need a chance. They need the social capital that you have come together to provide.”
Powell added that he was impressed at the range of partners EH CONNects brought together, from government to the business community.
“Everybody is at the table here to make all this happen,” he said.
The day’s key events weren’t over Monday, even after the tour and speaking program wrapped up. As attendees continued conversations and milled about, Darius Ritchens received an offer to interview for a job. On Tuesday, with help from the EH CONNects team, Ritchens was fine-tuning his resume.