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Q and A: Launch of Working Places site about sharing info, strengths Q and A: Launch of Working Places site about sharing info, strengths

Working Places leader talks about new ‘umbrella,’ response to COVID-19 Working Places leader talks about new ‘umbrella,’ response to COVID-19

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July 13, 2020

Since 2013, the Working Cities Challenge has helped cities in southern New England tackle chronic problems like poverty and crime. And last year, its success inspired the launch of the Working Communities Challenge to serve rural northern New England, starting in Vermont.

Now, the efforts are merging under the banner of Working Places to combine the strengths of both initiatives. The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s communications team spoke with the program’s head, Tamar Kotelchuck, about Working Places, its new website, and its work in a time of pandemic: 

How does the launch of Working Places impact the future of the Working Cities/Working Communities initiatives?

Well, our model is based on bringing together people from different community sectors to work on solving chronic problems. And over the years, we’ve learned the model is relevant to small cities as well as rural areas. But as we get to know communities in Vermont, we’re seeing that not only can the model work in both urban and rural areas, but these places can also learn from each other. So getting these groups under the same “Working Places” umbrella is a way to make sure that we have a community of learners and practitioners that really see each other as peers, despite differences in the nature of their places. They both are places of potential, they both are places that are not just problems to be solved. They have people and assets and land and energy, and we want to support those assets and bring attention to the work that’s being done in both those places.

How has the Working Places model helped in the communities that practice it during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Bringing people from different parts of a community around the same “table” is incredibly helpful right now because it helps them connect with people that institutions might not otherwise connect with. We’re talking about community organizations, government, residents, and business, all united around a common issue. This helps everyone understand needs we might not otherwise appreciate or recognize. It also helps coordinate responses, so that agencies can do what they’re best at and ultimately make sure resources reach the people who need them. It’s been encouraging to see our teams coordinating community responses and meeting local needs.

We’ve seen Cranston (Rhode Island) offering enrichment activities for kids stuck at home. In Waterbury (Connecticut), they’re helping distribute gift cards for groceries and providing support for families with COVID in their neighborhood so they can stay at home while sick. In Danbury (Connecticut) the Working Cities team leads a weekly call coordinating city, police, nonprofit and school efforts to reach low-income families. Haverhill (Massachusetts) is building an online English-language learning program for parents. Our teams are really part of their communities, and they’re doing really important things during the crisis.

Are certain Working Cities/Working Communities principles proving particularly relevant during the pandemic? 

I think the emphasis on real-time learning and adaptation has been really important. You know, at its core, the model is really about building a team of leaders. And we’ve seen that team is going to address the needs of their communities, no matter what comes their way – whether it’s COVID-19 or something else. And we’re seeing the value of those teams having the skills to adapt in times like these. I think COVID-19 is providing a natural point of reflection, where they’re asking, “What work do we need to keep doing?”, “What work do we leave behind?”, “How do we make sure we stay as engaged, excited, and productive?” The teams are seizing the moment to continue to rethink their work as they do it, so they can continue to be as nimble as possible.

Do you have specific goals in mind for the new workingplaces.org site?

The original site was really built for a competition, so what we wanted to do with the new site was build it for community, recognizing there is so much to be learned and shared across these different places. I mean, this initiative is about more than just the first frantic months competing for a grant. It’s really about creating a space for people to reflect and share and learn and adapt. So we hope that the site allows people to connect better to each other, because they can see commonalities. We also hope it helps draw the public’s attention to the good work going on in these places. We think people in the public and the field care about good work, regardless of where it’s being done. So this is really showing it off as a body of work, rather than being bound by one state or city. We’re getting out of our silos!

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