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#ICSummit2015 Preview: Focus: Hope’s Rashida Thomas Talks Detroit

Throughout its history Detroit has experienced major social changes, from its postwar economic prosperity and the 1967 race riots that divided the city to its current resurgence and revitalization. Since the late 1960s, Focus: HOPE, a civil and human rights organization dedicated to solving the important issues Detroit’s underserved population experiences, has helped Detroit residents succeed through economic and social flux.

Rashida Thomas, the Director of Workforce Development and Education at Focus: HOPE, will share her work, experience and insights as part of the “Opportunities for Businesses in the Inner City: Evidence from Research and Practice” panel at this week’s Inner City Economic Summit, Revisiting the Promise and Problems of Inner City Economic Development. ICIC recently spoke with Thomas to get a glimpse into the upcoming discussion. Below is an edited transcript from our conversation.

ICIC: What is the mission of Focus: HOPE?

Rashida Thomas: Some key words within our mission are “intelligent and practical action to overcome poverty, racism and injustice.” In 1967, the organization began after the race riots to serve the underserved population in Detroit. There are three core lines of business: the commodity supplemental food program which provides low-income seniors food every month; the Hope Village Initiative designed to help ensure those living in the area around us are economically self sufficient, have access to quality education and have a supportive neighborhood; and workforce development and education programs.

ICIC: How is your organization approaching workforce development in Detroit?

RT: Our workforce development is very comprehensive and realistic. We’re not in the business of training people just to train them. We’re about having a good sense of the industry and making sure we’re training people in fields where there are sustainable opportunities. We recognize and accept people where they are. The population we serve is largely underprepared, underserved or underrepresented, and that comes with a whole series of barriers to success. The population has the capacity to do a whole lot of things, but not always access nor opportunity. We have programs to mitigate those barriers to help them be successful.

ICIC: What is an example of a project in Detroit that you’re really excited about?

RT: Lots of good things are happening in Detroit. We’ve been promoting the city as a whole and joining forces around the idea that better outcomes come from good collaboration. I’m also excited about efforts to reignite our career and technical education program and extend our pipeline into the K-12 space. We’re really trying to get kids prepared for STEM-related fields and provide them with technology skills and experiential learning alongside that. It’s also a direct feeder to the adult training programs that we offer.

ICIC: What are you most excited about in participating in our Summit?

RT: I’m excited about having the platform and the opportunity to make people aware of what we do at Focus: HOPE, the population we serve and great potential they have to fulfill workforce needs, and to actually have the ear of employers at the event.

ICIC: What do you hope the audience will take away from your remarks?

RT: The comprehensive nature and quality of the Focus: HOPE program. There are a lot of programs out there today and we believe that our approach leads to sustainable change. They will also take away the importance of employers to our work and the role we really want them to play in making a substantial change with the clients we serve. The other thing that I want to mention is that the employers play a very important role: There are tangible ways they can be more engaged, it’s not just about hiring, but also trusting that the population has the ability and then investing in training programs and providing direction on the skills they need and conveying industry trends.

ICIC: What do you hope Summit participants will learn from the economic development efforts underway in Detroit?

RT: That collaboration has been key. For too long what people have been doing has been in isolation. There’s something to be said about the collective impact. I’d love to see more opportunities for collaboration rather than recreating the wheel.

Revisiting the Promise and Problems of Inner City Economic Development, ICIC’s 11th Inner City Economic Summit, is happening on September 15-16 in Detroit. The Summit will include keynote addresses by ICIC’s founder and chairman, Harvard University Professor Michael E. Porter, and Rock Ventures’ President and CEO Matthew Cullen.

Our partners for the 2015 Summit include the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, the Federal Reserve Bank of ChicagoEconomic Development Quarterly and Sage Publications. Click here to view the complete agenda. If you can’t make the Summit, but would like to follow the discussions at home, follow #ICSummit15 on Twitter for the latest.

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