Guest Post: Inclusive Economic Development in Our Emerging High-Tech World

Harris Albany Roundtable

Harris Oberlander, CEO, Trinity Alliance of the Capital Region

Today’s guest post is the text of a speech given recently by Harris Oberlander, CEO of Trinity Alliance of the Capital Region.

Trinity Alliance of the Capital Region is a 102-year-old Settlement House. Settlement Houses sprouted up in all of America’s urban centers when our parents or grandparents who were arriving in the millions in the early 1900’s from Europe, faced challenges speaking the language, finding kin, shelter, employment, schooling, food and, yes, even discrimination from those who were already here.

Today, Trinity Alliance is a premiere neighborhood-based and family preservation entity in our region.  From a unique privately-funded early childhood language development program to financial literacy instruction, to the Capital South Campus Center addressing adult education, Trinity Alliance is engaged in addressing root causes of social challenges and economic poverty.

In 2006, the Center for Economic Growth sponsored a landmark cross-sector half-day conference at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, attended by over 100 business, nonprofit, elected, grassroots, and education leaders.  The conference centerpiece was the report, Lessons Learned from Austin, Texas, funded by CEG and authored  by the SUNY Center for Women in Government and Civil Society.

The study had been conducted on-location in Austin. Business, civic, education, elected and non-profit leaders were interviewed by an Albany team just as the locus of the nanoscale industry was pivoting from Austin to Albany.

Lessons Learned issued a call to action: the Austin high tech boom had completely bypassed the population of economically challenged residents of neighborhoods literally adjacent to Austin’s high tech industry. Albany, the report suggested, needed to do a better job of creating sustainable economic development and prosperity.

The key guidelines of Lessons Learned included:

  • Create opportunities for broad community learning, planning and visioning.
  • Involve stakeholders from all sectors.
  • Focus on education as key to workforce development.
  • Identify measures of success.

Utilizing these guidelines, task forces were created and later a second CNSE conference reviewed the work generated by each of those groups.

The METRICS work group authored the report Tech Valley Trends, a Basis for Civic Change.  Let me read just a few of those METRICS:

  1. Promote diversity and fairness to assure community well-being and an enhanced social environment by ensuring equal access to opportunities and services to all residents.
  2. Assure a comprehensive, inclusive education system that guarantees equal access to high-quality education and learning opportunities.
  3. Ensure access to affordable housing across all communities to meet present and prospective  housing needs, with particular attention to provisions for low and moderate income housing, workforce housing, and accessibility to public transportation and employment centers.
  4. Create a culture of caring by enhancing and establishing opportunities to improve the condition of people with respect to health, safety, education, economic well-being, and family support, through mentoring, civic engagement, and social and economic advancement.

These concerns are not limited to OUR upstate NY region. Two weeks ago, Robert Simpson, President and CEO of CenterState Corporation for Economic Opportunity in Syracuse wrote:

It’s perhaps the single most daunting challenge facing our region – persistently rising poverty. Make no mistake, the dynamics of poverty threaten our economy as a whole. Yes, it impacts demand for social services, crime and continued property deterioration and blight. But it also manifests itself in other economic spheres — less consumer demand and weakened buying power across broad swaths of our community means fewer customers and sales. These issues require an open community conversation. We must work to drive real and lasting economic growth while simultaneously translating that growth into more inclusive economic opportunity, increased wealth and improved quality of life for more of our region’s residents.

I come before you as a leader of a nonprofit social welfare agency, as a business leader and as a concerned American to discuss inclusive economic development  in our emerging high tech world. I lay before you the challenge that I am convinced CAN and MUST be successfully met: how do we better prepare and utilize a vast human talent pool in our own backyard, while also driving organic economic development in the same urban environment in which this talent pool resides, such that our entire regional economic base improves and Albany becomes a national success story on the same par as our burgeoning high tech industry story?

In order to succeed, the road map must include some basic tenets:

  1. That we act with vision,
  2. That we have a strategy of alignment between the education, nonprofit, grassroots, elected and business sectors and,
  3. That we act with the same urgency as we are in such suburban communities as Ballston Spa and Scotia-Glenville.

Action #1

TARGET, the corporation, produced a $1 million study that unequivocally states that the key determining factor for whether a person living in adverse conditions overcomes their circumstances is the availability of a mentor. Thomas Friedman quotes Brandon Busteed, the Executive Director of the Gallup Poll’s education division who recently polled college graduates: “Successful students had one or more teachers or mentors who took a real interest in their aspirations AND they had an internship related to what they were learning.  Graduates who had a person who cared about them in their professional development were twice as likely to be engaged with their work and thriving in their overall well-being.”

You can become a mentor in one of 4 ways:

  1. Create a way to work with an urban school district to welcome young people into an organized field internship or other such arrangement at your firm;
  2. Work with Trinity Alliance to do the same with adult learners and trainees at our Capital South Campus Center;
  3. Become a big brother or a big sister or volunteer within a similar setting;
  4. Teach and cultivate future entrepreneurs about wealth creation, and owning the means of production. These aspiring business owners can be the ones to fuel organic neighborhood economic development.

Action #2

Get on board with the Albany Promise.   Here, aligned collective impact is exemplified by the executive-level involvement of the Capital Region’s business community such as the Albany-Colonie Regional Chamber of Commerce, CEG, SEFCU and others, as well as executive leadership from education, nonprofit, government and grassroots sectors all working to close the K-12 scholastic achievement gap in Albany.  Convened by SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, U. Albany President Robert Jones, City of Albany Schools Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard and community member Mark Bobb-Semple, we are making real progress at every age and stage.

Action #3

Get on board with Governor Cuomo’s Regional Economic Development Council (REDC) Opportunity Agenda. The Opportunity Agenda is defined as one that: “Ensures the most  distressed and disadvantaged communities are being included in the  economic revitalization spurred by the activities and the investments recommended by the REDCs. Each Opportunity Agenda bolsters economic productivity by helping these communities overcome barriers to economic success.”

In the next round of REDC  funding, partner with an entity like Trinity Alliance and propose that your project have an Opportunity Agenda component involving the diversification of your workforce and include the methodology to do so.

It can be done:  Partnering with the SUNY Center for Academic and Workforce Development and SUNY Polytechnic Institute in a deep Opportunity Agenda undertaking, Trinity Alliance and the inner-city residents of Albany are the beneficiaries of the REDC Opportunity Agenda in that we were awarded funds to build an Advanced Technology and Information Networking Lab at the Capital South Campus Center  (ATTAIN).  Among the myriad capabilities of ATTAIN is the ability to confer Microsoft Certifications upon completers of this curriculum.

The CSCC is the product of a $5 million federal grant, 1 of 10 around the county, for which Trinity and the Albany Housing Authority competed against 120 other communities.  We have received direct financial support for the CSCC’s operations from many of our region’s leading economic development organizations including SEFCU and SUNY Polytechnic Institute, and many others.

It is 18,000 square feet of adult basic education, GED, ESL and college credit bearing courses on steroids, located across from Lincoln Park with each and every local college and university making a contribution to the mission of raising the median income in the city of Albany through enhanced access to education and employment training and the resulting commensurate earning power.

Quite literally, Trinity Alliance is embarked upon a mission to afford urban dwellers the jobs of the 21st century through training partnerships with local high tech industry and higher education.

Action #4

Leverage your Startup NY venture to prepare and employ a diverse workforce. If you haven’t noticed, for this Governor, workforce diversification is a huge bonus point if you want to do business in New York State.

Action #5

Directly address these challenges through strategies to develop employer-driven approaches to align workers and jobs.  Let me tell you about Trinity’s relationship with ATSCO, a third-generation family owned business on Pearl Street which until a few years ago was simply Trinity’s supplier of cleaning supplies. That changed when the owner, Dick McGrath, saw what we do at our 100th anniversary gala.  He invited me to his shop the next week where he offered to teach his industry recognized custodial/janitorial certificate in the same classroom that he trains students from all over the world.

You can do the same. Either explore the option to provide direct training to our students at the Capital South Campus Center or even a venue such as the Albany School District’s Abrookin Vocational Center where we are exploring the possibility of introducing a night time welding course along with Noble Gas Solutions.  Or you may work with us to become an end-user of those whom we have trained in the type of partnership exemplified by ATSCO.

Action #6

The recent institution of the Land Bank and its millions in funding in Troy, Schenectady and Albany hold the promise of clearing urban blight.

Encourage POSITIVE pro-social investment in neighborhoods: In Albany, there has already been progress, with hundreds of millions of dollars of housing and infrastructure investment in the South End and Arbor Hill, following upon the hard work and planning embodied in the South End  and Arbor Hill Implementation Plans started almost two decades ago.

Positive investment means to build upon this momentum in ways that are consistent with retaining amenities, including employment and training options as well as affordable housing and access to healthy food thereby addressing the urban food desert phenomenon, all designed to improve the quality of life  for all present residents and those who would return to the cities.

Action #7

Actively measure and report on our region’s poverty rate on a dashboard of economic indicators so that we have some objective measure to show us how we are doing.

Action #8

If you are not finding your niche in the preceding action steps, please stop by and say ‘hello’ to Kat Brown, our director of development and marketing.  She has a myriad of volunteer, partnership, and philanthropic ways in which you can assure Trinity can continue to play its role in developing the economy of our region.

Finally, a quick story:  Last winter during one of those successive snowstorms I arrived to work to find Trinity Place impassible. For the first time in 10 years, I was forced to close the agency. Worried that I would never get out of there, I walked over to one Josh Bacon who was shoveling snow.  I made a quick deal: if he could have us shoveled out the next morning, I would pay him.

Next morning Josh bounds in to my office with a question, “What is this place?” After explaining about Trinity and paying up, I learned that here was a 19-year-old young man, living across the street who had been bullied out of high school by other youth and by a guidance counselor who told him, “You will never amount to anything.”

Next thing I know, some two months later, there is Josh proudly displaying his GED Diploma.  He and his teacher are standing before me. I congratulate him and ask what he wants to be when he grows up.  “An aerospace engineer” he states. “NATE?” I ask the teacher. “Oh yes, this young man has the potential to be at RPI or SUNY Poly.”

Where is Josh now?  He is working a job and enrolled at Hudson Valley Community College. He has had a personal audience with President Matonak because he needed some curriculum advice and spent an afternoon with Michael Fancher at SUNY Poly on a private tour.

There are a million stories in the big city, Josh’s is just one of them.

These issues and challenges sometimes seem overwhelming.  Our fundamental shared goal — a vibrant economy that grows good jobs and leads to greater and broader community prosperity is attainable.

My comments are meant to issue a personal clarion call to action by you because I believe every  one of you are part of the solution, and are required to participate in this strategy of alignment. I hope you’ll join Trinity Alliance, plug in and commit to working with us in one of the ways I’ve set before you.

Thank you.