Education, Training and Opportunity

One way to try to buffer against gentrification while improving your community is to try to grow your people in a way that helps them adapt, change and keep up financially. This is often given short shrift in community development plans, which is part of why the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

It's a hard thing to do in part because "You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink." So a lot of programs and communities more or less throw in the towel on this and just try to give charity to poor people rather than education, training and opportunity.

This is a poor practice because charity can only really provide short-term relief. It cannot provide long-term solutions.

This basically falls under that saying "Give a man a fish, feed him for the day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime."

Free meal sites help people survive another day, but they don't help poor people resolve their problems. They may be necessary relief for a community with high poverty rates but they don't really fix the problem.

Education and training can be hard to readily tell apart, especially in our complex world where you need a great deal of basic education before you are even ready for training. These days, college education may be appropriate and even a necessary prerequisite for jobs that at one time were menial labor performed by people with little in the way of education.

A few generations ago, it was fairly common for people in America to drop out of school after middle school because they were going to be farm hands and didn't need more formal education than that. These days, even working on a farm can involve dealing with such abstract topics as genetics.

In a nutshell, education informs you, broadens your mind and teaches you to think more effectively while training develops specific skills, usually with a goal of making you more employable. Credentialing is a separate issue from education and training and matters a great deal for making people more employable but may not matter at all for simply improving competence and quality of life.

The detail of credentialing is part of why we have trouble telling education and training apart. We think of college as education but a college degree can also be important credentialing to get your foot in the door career-wise.

If you are doing community development work and you identify a local issue, such as a lack of financial literacy, you can work at trying to foster education in that area without worrying about credentialing. It can be enough to make resources available to locals to try to encourage them to get better at this.

Those resources might include uncredentialed local classes, book lists, podcasts or various other free materials. With the wealth of free, quality materials available online today, putting together the materials may be the easy part of such a program.

Getting the word out and getting people to participate and take it seriously may be the harder part of such a program. You may also face challenges in trying to measure how effective your effort has been and/or prove that it makes a difference.

But if your goal is to improve employability, you will want to focus on training and credentialing. You will want to help them acquire skills that make them more employable and/or acquire proof of such skills.

Sometimes people have skills and knowledge but they lack credentials. In other words they don't know how to prove they have those skills.

Sometimes just helping people find ways to get credentials or somehow prove their ability and show their competence can make a big difference in their lives. Maybe they developed a skill as a hobby and it's potentially worth money if they can prove they have that skill or knowledge.

Opportunity is separate from education and training. Sometimes opportunity is the big stumbling block for some individuals or populations.

Populations that face prejudice and other barriers to opportunity are at increased risk of homelessness. This can include LGBTQ individuals, people of color, homemakers/former homemakers and handicapped people.

If they actually end up homeless, this further exacerbates the problem. Being homeless can make it difficult to access any kind of paid work, even if they have plenty of education and training, both due to prejudice and logistical issues.

Identifying barriers to opportunity for locals and helping them find ways around that can help improve employment stats and average local income levels. It can do so directly and fairly immediately without first jumping through hoops to gain additional education or training.

In practice, people who lack opportunity are often given the message that what they need is more education or training when oftentimes what they really need more immediately is simply more earned income (aka more opportunity). If someone is poor, helping them access paid work as quickly as possible may be a better remedy than directing them to educational and training resources.

This fact is why I run various websites and subreddits aimed at helping people access opportunity, even if they are currently homeless or have other barriers to establishing earned income. This includes the following: Entrepreneurs are often more interested in education and training than in credentials. In many cases, if you have some means to make money, acquiring additional skills to up your game can improve your income without needing to have a piece of paper to prove to someone that you got the education or training in question. Simply knowing how to do things better may be all you really need to further improve your income.

Relatedly, people who face barriers to regular employment may be best served by helping them become freelancers or entrepreneurs or to seek "irregular employment," such as seasonal jobs. Inability to get or keep a regular job doesn't necessarily have to mean inability to earn an income.

In the US, Black Americans have a long history of pursuing creative arts as a means to get ahead. The LGBTQ crowd also is similarly associated with creative arts, such as the music industry and acting.

If you are doing community development work, it may help to be aware of the fact that some kinds of work may be easier to access for people with barriers to opportunity and employment. Pointing people to industries more welcoming of people like them may help them succeed.

But you also need to be aware that directing people to jobs more welcoming of "their kind" can also be an insidious means to reinforce class barriers, racial barriers and other entrenched social ills. You should guard against shuttling marginalized people into jobs that will prove to be a dead end in the long term.

If there is a low barrier to entry and a low ceiling on earnings capacity and future career opportunities, it is a dead end job. The way to identify opportunity that doesn't reinforce social ills is to look for paths with a low barrier to entry and a high ceiling.

It can take some research to identify which paths offer a low barrier to entry and a high ceiling. It isn't always obvious that this entry level opportunity can lead to a future but that one, which looks very similar, probably won't.

For example, most Domino's franchise owners began as Domino's employees. So working at a Domino's pizza place may help people eventually become a franchise owner, if that interests them, but the same isn't necessarily true of other food service jobs.

It can take even more research to match a particular person to a path with a low barrier to entry and a high ceiling that is a good fit for them as an individual. This detail is one of the reasons so many programs throw in the towel on trying to provide opportunity to people with barriers to earned income and simply direct them to the welfare office and local sources of charity, like food banks.

If you are doing community development work, your greatest opportunity for growth is in helping the people who have barriers to earned income and barriers to making their lives work. You will get a lot further if you focus on helping this demographic to improve their lot in life in some meaningful way while deeply understanding and respecting why "You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink."

Metaphorically speaking, this particular "water" may be poison for this particular "horse." So don't force it.

But also don't give up on it. Even if you can't successfully help a particular individual, try to learn from them, deepen your understanding of the problem space and further develop your approach to solving these issues in your community.

If you are dealing a lot with people who are homeless, very poor or otherwise in crisis, you should develop a resource list you can hand out as an easy means to provide compassionate relief. Make a list of local food banks and other pertinent programs that you can give to people so they can "eat for today" while working on longer-term solutions that will "feed them for a lifetime."

But don't let charity and compassionate relief be a priority for you. Your priority needs to be fostering education, training and opportunity.

Giving someone a list of local sources for short-term charitable relief can help bring their stress levels down and can help make sure they are adequately well fed while pursuing education, training and opportunity. This means helping people readily find immediate relief can serve an important and constructive function for your community development work.

But always shoot for keeping your focus on "teach them how to fish" and keep a wary eye out for the possibility that people are showing up solely to get a free meal for the day with no goal of ever becoming independent. Don't allow the long-term development goals of your program to get derailed by your bleeding heart and/or their immediate sense of desperation.

It's fine to have, say, free coffee or free food to attract participants to your program and/or help them be functional while participating in your program, but make sure you are clear about why you are offering that and how it serves your longer term goals. Be willing to make some changes if you find that most people are showing up for the free food and not really converting to active participants in your program.

So, for example, you may decide a free meal is just attracting people who are hungry and actively cutting into time for program activities. Rather than cut out food and drink entirely, it may make sense to offer free coffee and lighter snacks to attract participants and help make sure they are capable of focusing without food becoming the primary focus at the expense of your real goals.

This will depend a lot on what you are doing. Creative Mornings offers a free breakfast and lecture to participants who sign up ahead of time. You can eat and listen at the same time, so there's no conflict there between feeding people and other program goals.

They also have a YouTube channel with quality content that may interest you and serve your program goals, such as this piece popular with freelancers called F*ck you, pay me:

You may also find that it simply takes time for people to convert from "here for the freebies" to "active participants," so you may need to be a bit slow to judge. Just keep your eye on the prize and keep working towards it, knowing that community development work is rarely straight forward.

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