Survey: Massachusetts “Working Cities” see lasting, positive impacts from program
Residents say Haverhill, Lowell, Pittsfield, Springfield also more committed to getting diverse views
Leaders from the four Massachusetts cities chosen for the second round of the Working Cities Challenge say their communities are better off now, three years after the initiative kicked off.
The cities are also more deeply committed to seeing the perspectives of their racially and ethnically diverse residents, according to a survey by an independent evaluator, Mt. Auburn Associates.
The Working Cities Challenge is the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s signature community development initiative. Mt. Auburn examined what went right and wrong in the WCC programs in Haverhill, Lowell, Pittsfield, and Springfield at the end of a three-year, $475,000 funding window, which closed in 2020.
Mt. Auburn evaluated the programs’ effectiveness by conducting dozens of interviews and surveying stakeholders and community residents, said Devon Winey, the principal at Mt. Auburn. The interviews took place in March through May of last year, during the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Winey said 90% of survey respondents said their communities had improved since the start of the Working Cities initiative, and “most feel that low income people are better off today.” She added that 62% strongly agreed that “seeing the perspective of racially, ethnically economically diverse body of residents is more important today.”
“In general, the sites emerged from WCC with a stronger commitment to inclusion and engagement,” Winey said.
Cities faced challenges, made progress
The WCC is a grant competition under the Working Places umbrella that focuses on improving economic opportunity for residents in New England’s smaller, post-industrial cities. The model, which debuted with the first round of Massachusetts cities in 2013, unites a variety of community sectors to take on tough problems, such as crime and a lack of jobs. Each local team sets a 10-year vision, and the first three years of funding are provided by public and private donors. The model’s success has led to the program’s expansion to small towns and rural areas in northern New England as the Working Communities Challenge.
The Mt. Auburn evaluation noted various struggles in the cities, including difficulty meeting initial goals and establishing sustainable cross-community leadership teams. But the evaluations found each program made lasting impacts. The following are city-by-city highlights from the evaluations:
Highlights: Springfield WORKS, the city’s lead WCC agency, designed the “Ready, Willing, and Able Framework,” which strengthened the recruitment pipeline of workforce development partners. (This effort wove 43 largely independent training providers into a larger, stronger system with numerous offerings, including coordinated intake and support services.) Springfield WORKS also created a “two-generation/whole family” approach to career development, which accounts for interdependencies between family members when offering services (e.g., parents may need child care to attend skills trainings.) And the organization focused on increasing awareness about the “cliff effect,” which is when income gains make residents ineligible for important public benefits.
“The relationships among those workforce development stakeholders has really expanded and deepened, and that is perhaps the most significant outcome.” (Winey)
Learn more about WCC Springfield.
Highlights: Berkshire Bridges Working Cities, or BBWC, employed “community navigators” who led, represented, and advocated for Pittsfield’s low-income communities. They connected more than 300 residents to food pantries, mental health services, and housing and energy assistance services. BBWC also conducted an intensive workshop series called “Getting Ahead,” which aimed to help attendees build financial, emotional, and social resources. A BBWC survey of Getting Ahead graduates found 9% reported stabilized housing or became homeowners and 30% reported better jobs or higher wages.
“BBWC contributed to a number of incremental practice and program changes that have empowered Pittsfield’s under-resourced residents. More broadly, stakeholders suggest a shift in the mental model in the community toward greater inclusion and the importance of resident voice.”
Learn more about WCC Pittsfield.
Highlights: The Mount Washington Alliance, the WCC initiative in Haverhill, focused on strengthening connections between city systems and residents of the Mount Washington neighborhood. This encouraged residents to mobilize, and that got tangible results. Those included turning a vacant lot into a community park, new English Language Learner classes for parents, and helping the neighborhood secure more funding than was allocated historically through Community Development Block Grants. The alliance also hosted an “Undoing Racism” training for 37 city leaders.
“The (Mount Washington Alliance) has been present at a number of tables and has demonstrated a strong ability to partner with other entities toward aligned outcomes. Ultimately, these efforts have increased the visibility of the neighborhood and the degree to which others recognize Mt. Washington and are willing to invest in the residents and the neighborhood.”
Learn more about WCC Haverhill.
Highlights: Working Cities Lowell, or WCL, began with a focus on improving connections to community leadership in the Acre neighborhood. The initiative later evolved to work primarily on improving the inclusion and civic participation of low-income residents and residents of color, and its advocacy helped broaden the city’s resident engagement effort. For example, Lowell’s director of economic development began to include translation services in multiple languages for public meetings, marketing materials, surveys, and public reports in grant applications.
“WCL was part of a general mindset shift in the city around making civic engagement more inclusive, especially concerning translation services and more effective outreach to communities of color.”
Learn more about WCC Lowell.