17 min read

Future Proof: Leading to an Equitable Economic Recovery

An equitable economic recovery isn’t an aspirational euphemism. It starts with the most basic needs of life for everyone—housing, food, warmth, health care, and a family-sustaining income, for starters.

As we head into the third year of the coronavirus pandemic, there are earnest efforts at the local, state, and federal levels to work toward building a fair and just economy. While there’s no magic wand, there are some fundamental principles that leaders in education and workforce are applying. 

That’s the focus of the fifth episode of the Horizons podcast, in which host Tameshia Bridges Mansfield revisits four sessions from last year’s Horizons summit that emphasize the need for partnerships, agility, collaboration, employer leadership, and even storytelling as key elements of efforts to “future-proof” an equitable economy. 

We’ll hear from Joe May, chancellor of Dallas College, about his institution’s pivot to online learning when the pandemic started in the United States. No easy feat for a seven-campus organization that offers 15,000 courses to 82,000 students. One of the lasting lessons was the exposure of the glaring inequities that existed for students who weren’t familiar with or readily able to access the digital platforms that became their classrooms. 

On the employer side, listeners will hear JFFLabs Managing Director Cat Ward and Walmart executive Gayatri Agnew compare notes on JFF’s employer Recovery Playbook, a resource that JFF developed in partnership with more than 40 corporate leaders from companies across 11 industries. Gayatri says the collaborative process provided the group with an opportunity to think about “how might we want to shift what we do” in the workplace—not only to get through the pandemic, but also to plan for the role that wellness plays in the workplace for long-term recovery. 

Meanwhile, writer, influencer, and New York University marketing professor Scott Galloway minces no words when he reflects on the importance of putting workers at the center of economic recovery efforts: Capitalism without empathy for people is a system that self-destructs, he says.  

And three California community housing advocates share lessons they learned about resilience and recovery during the pandemic. Tyrone Roderick Williams and Julius Austin of the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency and Lauren Kennedy of North Valley Housing Trust emphasize that housing security for workers and their families is essential to pandemic recovery and economic advancement, and they add that storytelling has an important role to play in the process. Sharing their stories—in this case, stories aimed at reversing communities’ inequities—is a powerful tool that helps people understand the steps we must prioritize in order to foster economic advancement for all. 



Tameshia: [00:00:00] Hi, I’m Tameshia Bridges Mansfield, vice president for workforce innovation at Jobs for the Future, also known as JFF. And this is Horizons. In this special podcast series, we’ll share the best and brightest highlights from JFF’s annual Horizons summit, a national gathering of influencers dedicated to reimagining the future of learning and work, and leaving the past where it belongs: behind us. We’ll hear from a diverse range of experts, many with unconventional points of view representing private industry, government, philanthropy, nonprofit, and educational institutions focused on aligning people, places, and systems to drive economic advancement for all.

As we enter the third year of the pandemic, many of us are reflecting on the dramatic turning point it marked for our society. Millions of people have tragically died around the world, and what we might have considered normal is no longer. There’s no predicting when the pandemic will end, but we can’t afford to wait passively for a much-needed equitable economic recovery. While the pandemic has been catastrophic in more ways than one, it has also shined a light on longstanding inequities in our society. The economic impacts of the pandemic have adversely affected many communities across the U.S., and although traditional indicators like the GDP and the stock market currently hint at a general economic recovery, this progress does not apply to many Black people, Latinx communities, women, immigrants, and more. Thankfully, there are people, organizations, and programs in place to help level the playing field, but we still have a long way to go.

In this episode of the Horizons podcast, we’ll explore four sessions from the Horizons 2021 conference. Each session reflects on the changes that were set into motion by the pandemic, how we can drive an equitable economic recovery, and where we’re headed as a collective from here. The first clip we’ll hear comes from a Horizons discussion titled "Partnerships to Create Future-Proof Jobs In Local Economies." During this session, Dr. Joe May, who has served seven years as the chancellor of Dallas College, reflected on the college’s rapid pivot to online learning when the pandemic first hit. A new approach to supporting their students ultimately enabled Dallas College to expand educational opportunities and widen their reach.

Joe May: [00:03:03] We made a virtually instantaneous transition to 99 percent online and did so in a matter of days. For us, that was 15,000 courses, 82,000 students, a historic undertaking. And we did it well. It really, really put a spotlight on issues that we already knew that existed among the population. What it really highlighted were historic barriers, long-standing that had been in place, and we knew many of these barriers that existed, that got in the way of people being able to earn their degrees and one in particular that we were very much aware of that we appreciate partnerships on, was the, on one hand, the great reliance that we have on digital technology today and the ability to deliver new forms of education, but also the inequity within our community about accessing those technologies became absolutely crystal clear.

And I think that while you know we were aware of it before, it really allowed and gave us a bit of a platform and a bullhorn to really point out the issue, you know, just kind of put in perspective, before COVID about 40 percent, 38 and some change percent, of our learning materials were digital. During COVID, 70 percent were digital, meaning that instead of hard-copy textbooks, we were addressing that in digital format and those require a very different approach on the part of students. So this was critical and having great partners that understood that, that could work with us, understanding that individuals needed this help, support, and assistance. But it also meant they couldn’t afford to give up on their goals and aspirations and dreams and expectations of getting a credential and a degree that would lead to a job and a career.

Tameshia: [00:05:11] In the next segment, titled "Leading Through Recovery," we explore how some major corporations have used the pandemic as an opportunity to pivot their operations and ride the waves of change. Employers have a major role to play in creating an equitable economic recovery, which is why JFF collaborated with several major corporate partners to create a valuable resource that will help us work toward recovery together. JFF led the design of the Recovery Playbook, which brought together a number of Fortune 500 companies in a time of crisis to share, learn, and help to set in motion an equitable economic recovery in the workplace. During the segment, Cat Ward, managing director at JFFLabs, explained the purpose behind the Recovery Playbook initiative, still relevant for employers and, by extension, employees today.

Cat: [00:06:09] This is a resource that offers insights into the unique challenges companies face in this moment, along with the emerging practices to help business leaders navigate a more equitable and just recovery, following COVID-19 and the related crises. We co-created the Recovery Playbook with over 40 leaders from the human resources, DEI function, and social impact arms of corporations. They represented 18 top employers from across 11 industries. These leaders came together in small topic focus groups to workshop, to brainstorm as peers, and together they helped surface the promising and emerging talent practices that their companies have adopted. They’ve also come up with bold innovations that have yet to be put into play.

Tameshia: [00:06:56] In the same segment, Gayatri Agnew, now senior director and head of Accessibility Center of Excellence at Walmart, described the process of bringing the playbook to life. She noted that not only did the creation of the playbook result in plenty of helpful content, it also gave the collaborators a chance to reflect on the priorities that they have held in the past, and where they want to make shifts in the future.

Gayatri: [00:07:24] You know, it’s interesting, just even like how did we get here, the process of co-creating and building this playbook under the leadership of the Recover Stronger Coalition was an incredibly collective effort. And to me, you know, that’s not always the case with major companies in America, we can’t always be collective in our approach to things, oftentimes we are in competition with one another, but I think when it came to certain practices, especially around how do we support our people and show up for our people in the right ways through this, this global crisis, there was more similarity than there was difference in terms of opportunity to rethink practices or to collaborate.

And the format of how we actually got here, I think, was really unique. So there were teams assigned to each of the categories within the Impact Employment Framework, and we had a number of folks represented on different teams, different working groups. And those dialogues and discussion, I think, not only resulted in the content that’s in the playbook, but it also gave my colleagues an opportunity to have the space to reflect and think about: What do we do today? How might we want to shift what we do? In what ways is all of this naturally shifting around us? And in what ways do we control and can we manage and make choices about what that shift looks like? A great example being to emphasize the wellness, the role that wellness plays in a workplace, which has not always been the case, and that’s been a huge theme for our company out of this time. So just is the process of getting there. The process of building a community together around these tough issues has felt really valuable.

Tameshia: [00:09:04] Next, Cat asked Gayatri for her key takeaways from the process of creating the recovery playbook. What she had to say emphasized the importance of strengthening company culture and focusing on the growth of all employees as we move towards an equitable economic recovery.

Cat [00:09:23] Again, you’ve seen this playbook, you’ve contributed to this playbook. If you could have your greatest hits list right or like a couple of things that you would want to say to your colleagues, like do this now. Right? Take this action now. Is there anything in here that felt like it really popped for you? I know Gayatri mentioned wellness as an area of focus. What do you want to make sure your peers are thinking about and taking action on as they move to recovery?

Gayatri: [00:09:54] So, you know, I mentioned well-being, and that’s such a core part to how employees and companies will be successful through this period. But I think the other big one is just the dynamic nature of the labor market, right? And so, thinking about the choices and the roles that employers can play in talent development, in training, in upskilling and in career pathing. And you know, I don’t think there is a company, including Walmart and we’re very large, who can manage for the talent development needs and growth of every single employee. We can manage for a lot and many folks are able to grow their careers with our company. But if what we’re after as a society is a place where economic opportunity and economic mobility can be achieved, we have to be more creative in what those career pathways look like and they will include multiple employers, right?

And so I think the pandemic, you know, there were just some acute labor market transitions that I think showcased ways in which we, as employers, can be more creative in managing for the needs of workers. But there’s just this dynamic nature of how we as employers can support and facilitate the growth of people. And again, we hope they grow with us but at the end of the day, what is most important to a vibrant and economically healthy society is that that growth is enabled. And I think that the playbook really highlights ways that employers can look at growth.

Tameshia: [00:11:21] Finally, Cat closed the session with some powerful words about the importance of a collective effort in the fight for an equitable economic recovery.

Cat: [00:11:32] If you’re a corporate leader, we’re calling on you to step into the urgency of this moment on behalf of the well-being of your employees and our broader economy. And as we look forward to recovery and our return, we know we cannot revert back to the way things were. We have a tremendous opportunity to reimagine talent management practices in a way that emphasizes equity, that puts people at the center of business strategy and that creates widespread economic mobility so that we can all recover stronger.

Tameshia: [00:12:08] Scott Galloway is a professor of marketing at the New York University Stern School of Business. He’s also a public speaker, author, podcast host, and entrepreneur, and some might say provocateur. In a Horizons 2021 segment titled Looking to the Future: Building a More Inclusive Economy, Scott made some insightful points about the need for greater empathy for individuals, not corporations, especially during a time like the pandemic. Building on some of the points made by Cat and Gayatri, Scott also underscores the idea that healthy capitalism depends on a robust government and stronger support for communities.

Scott: [00:12:54] Capitalism, if it doesn’t sit on a bed of empathy, on a certain level of concern, or if we don’t fund connective tissue called a robust government, it all collapses on itself. And what I see is that when corporations are more profitable than they’ve ever been in history, I see a system where capitalism is collapsing on itself and young people state that a third of them think communism is better than capitalism, and this is wrong.

Capitalism is the best of its kind, but what we’re seeing right now isn’t capitalism. It’s cronyism, where people want full-throated, you know, rugged individualism on the way up, and then they want socialism on the way down. So the top five biggest airline CEOs pay themselves $150 million in total comp pre-pandemic by taking 93 percent of their free cash flow to buy back stock that reduces their compensation, which is largely based on stock, and then shit gets real in a pandemic, and we’re all on the Hallmark Channel state and they’re all stating, we’re in this together and they want a bailout.

So we have been, when we look back at this, we’re going to realize we should have been much more harsh on companies and much more empathetic and loving with individuals. We should be protecting people, not company.

Tameshia: [00:14:10] Last but certainly not least, we’ll hear some touching clips from a discussion titled Learning Through Storytelling: Housing, Recovery, and Resiliency, moderated by Mara Lockowandt, senior program manager at JFF.

The discussion features three panelists, Tyrone Roderick Williams, the deputy executive director at the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency and the Sacramento Promise Zone, a federal designation that gives local leaders an opportunity to improve the quality of life in vulnerable areas; Julius Austin, the Sacramento Promise Zone coordinator at the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency; and Lauren Kennedy, executive director of the North Valley Housing Trust.

As we’ve mentioned, the pandemic brought to light certain systemic issues that had been in existence for years, especially the problem of housing for people experiencing poverty and marginalization in the U.S. As a fundamental human need that provides the foundation necessary to lead a full life, housing is one issue that we can’t afford to ignore if we want to make a full and equitable economic recovery. Given this, all three of the panelists placed a strong focus on solving housing issues within their communities. During the session, Tyrone talked about the role of housing for disadvantaged communities.

Tyrone: [00:15:46] Well, the role of housing from our viewpoint is it’s fundamental. Without a guarantee of where you’re going to lay your head at night, everything else is really up for discussion. So our goal is looking at how to ensure one, that there is affordable housing, whether it is a pandemic or not. And so our department has been financing affordable housing throughout the county. We’ve been working with the city and the county and developing opportunities for shelters, both for families, for men, for youth aging out of foster care.

So from that standpoint, we’ve been working and we’ll continue to work, particularly with the support of additional federal funding that can expand housing opportunities and housing security even through rental assistance. The role of housing and economic development and inclusiveness throughout our city is a key component. And as Julius shared, our focus has really been ensuring that those disadvantaged communities or at-risk communities or individuals are not left out, that we are constantly including their needs, hearing about their needs, and then trying our best to address that.

So as this continued, even after the pandemic numbers, you know, cease or are reduced, we’re still going to be as committed, and even more committed to providing housing that leads to community stability and looking at bringing those resources, including economic opportunity, because it’s one thing to live in a house, it’s another thing to be able to have a job or a career so you can continue to stay in your house. And so we see those as equally as important and we are equally committed to both of those and much more.

Tameshia: [00:17:38] Lauren also helped drive home the fact that housing was already a longstanding, systemic issue pre-pandemic.

Lauren: [00:17:46] I mean, I echo what was just said about before the pandemic, housing was already a key issue for us in economic development. And you know, when I was in my former life, I worked as a home birth assistant and I switched careers after hearing an amazing midwife, Sophia Monroe, give the statement in a conference that you can’t have safe birth if communities are not safe. If housing is not secure, food is not secure, and it really hit home this week.

I’ve had multiple families messaging me who are currently living in between cars and motel rooms, waiting for children to be born in the next few weeks. Those issues were already there in our community, and we’ve been trying to bring forth the message that as much resistance as there is to the cost of housing, that the cost to communities is higher without it. The emergency services that come because people’s small issues escalate to huge issues are both traumatic for those community members and come at a cost for communities. And again, that piece of community cohesion, that collective imagination, that spirit of working together and collaborating that’s so necessary for the kind of economic ventures that stick and improve communities. All of that is missing too when a community is in trauma and at war over these basic needs of shelter and then the education, the mental health, the food security, all of which can’t be found without adequate shelter. So yeah, that’s our message up here and will continue to be that housing has to come first.

I remember when I first had family come to this area back in the ’90s, the joke was that Chico was always 15 years behind the rest of the country, and so Star Wars was just showing up in the theaters. But I feel like now it’s not quite as funny as we seem to struggle to catch up with the rest of the state and the country and understanding that the problems that we see visibly escalating in our communities in terms of homelessness on the streets, emergency services being used, those are not a fault of the individuals experiencing them. Those are systemic issues with systemic solutions.

Tameshia: [00:20:08] During the same session, Mara prompted the panelists to reflect on their pandemic experiences, asking them to read a letter they wrote to their 2020 selves. The letters helped to illustrate the inequity that has been present for years in the country and became more glaringly obvious in crisis mode, underscoring the need for an equitable economic recovery. Julius and Tyrone’s emotional letter highlights the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic, but it also acknowledges the new opportunities for innovation it has created in society. You might relate to some of their reflections that continue today.

Tyrone: [00:20:51] Dear, Tyrone,

Julius: [00:20:54] And, Julius, from 2020. The two of you will experience a year that will impact your lives and your perspectives. 2020 will reinforce the importance of the work that you do.

Tyrone: [00:21:08] You just woke up new staff members and have their training schedules planned for the next 90 days. However, in less than 30 days, you will experience a cataclysmic shift in your life. You will live through a worldwide pandemic. All unnecessary travel will cease that you will not see your daughters or other relatives or persons in your life for over a year. Everything you have planned will come to a halt, and as the death toll mounts on a daily basis, you will hear of how communities of color are being impacted by this virus.

Julius: [00:21:57] Though everyone in the world will be impacted and altered by the pandemic, people who fit the target demographic focus of the promise zone work will be disproportionately affected and in greater need of support and resources.

Tyrone: [00:22:12] Your heart will break and your anxiety will grow.

Julius: [00:22:17] The COVID-19 pandemic, social justice movements, and focus on anti-racism will shine an extremely bright spotlight on all of the issues and barriers that you have been working to impact and resolve.

Tyrone: [00:22:33] Tyrone, you will pray continuously for the safety of your daughters, especially the one who’s a flight attendant. You will watch your wife learn how to teach her fifth grade class online and push past an onslaught of technical difficulties and frustrations. All and you will love her and admire her more because of her unwavering commitment to teaching students.

Julius: [00:23:06] Julius, you will have to deal with stress and anxieties as you guide your staff members through the pandemic quarantines, teleworking, and returning to working in the office. You will have to be supportive of your family from a distance since they live in other states. You will question whether you’re doing OK with the pandemic because you’re more of an introvert that likes solitude or wonder if you’re convincing yourself of that as a way to deal with the solitude and isolation that the pandemic has forced you into. Thankfully, you will be OK. You are resilient. You will thrive because you’re uniquely positioned to help thousands of people deal with the impacts of the pandemic and the trauma caused by racism. You are not alone. You will see that though the issues highlighted and created by the pandemic and anti-racism movement are vast, there are opportunities to create innovative solutions that will result in more inclusive and equitable outcomes.

Tyrone: [00:24:13] It will become clear to both of you that before, during and after the pandemic, it holds true that working together to focus on the people who need it most is the best way and maybe the only way to eradicate disparities and inequalities. Now that you’ve survived 2020, you will begin to thrive in the months to come for hope springs eternal and through it all, the work of changing lives continues.

Julius: [00:24:52] We will continue to work together and build even more partnerships that will create positive impact and fulfill the promise of giving everyone in the zone and beyond a great chance at a life full of opportunities.

Tyrone: [00:25:07] Sincerely, Tyrone,

Julius: [00:25:10] And Julius. May of 2021.

Tameshia: [00:25:22] To close the session, Mara asked each panelist to share their thoughts on the role and power of storytelling during a period of intense and emotionally charged transitions. Their answers served as a reminder of the fundamental experiences we all share as human beings. At the end of the day, we are much more similar than we might think, and there is always hope for positive change during a dark time.

Tyrone: [00:25:54] For me, I think it was, as Julius said, we’ve been so busy. I didn’t even have time to pause. It was like every day being tormented with issues. So this has really allowed me to take a deep breath and exhale and realize I’ve been through some stuff. That I’m still standing. And not only that, we’ve helped literally thousands of people. And that’s something to be proud, not in a proud way, but proud that we had an opportunity to touch lives in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. That’s something I’ll be telling my great great grandchildren about. And this has caused me to think about that differently.

Julius: [00:26:45] I don’t want to be redundant, but I’ll just add it just, it was a reminder for me that we are all so interconnected, right? It’s doesn’t impact just our community here in Sacramento or just those across this country, right, this impacted the world. And it’s a reminder that whether you believe it or not, we truly are interconnected and we have the ability and the power to either positively or negatively impact one another. And we all have different roles and we all have different levels of influence. But I hope that we all can use whatever that’s within us to make positive impact and positive outcomes for people. And once again, I’ll focus on those people who need it the most.

Lauren: [00:27:34] Yeah, it was a welcome opportunity to reflect, to really take the time and think of what did change over that time. And to reflect on, you know, what really is important to hear as we get ready. We’ll have more. We’ll have more challenges like this. Maybe not the same, but what is it that really gets us through? And I was reminded of Lloyd Pendleton, who has passed now, but he really led the housing first effort in Utah to end chronic homelessness, and when the Housing Trust brought him to Chico to speak in 2016, he finished his presentation and I asked him, OK, so here’s a person in this community who gets what you’re saying. What can we do to do this in our community? What does a person need to do? And he said, you just need to stay. Keep showing up because sometimes housing will be the issue and then it won’t. Councils will be supportive and then they won’t be. Governors will send funding your way and then they won’t. But the work is the same and you just need to stay. And that really came to the forefront this year.

Tameshia [00:28:51] All four of these powerful Horizon segments have helped to drive home many great lessons throughout the pandemic and the need for an equitable economic recovery above all.

Here are three key insights I’ll be taking away from this episode.

First, the unfortunate reality is that it can take a tragic event like a pandemic to set into motion the societal shifts we needed so desperately. While the pandemic has obviously been a destructive event for many, it has also served to highlight the economic inequality that has faced our society for generations, especially in fundamental areas such as housing.

Second, storytelling is much more than an entertaining pastime. It’s a powerful agent for change and a vehicle for reflecting on our shared experiences. Storytelling helps us reflect on our struggles and triumphs so we can integrate important learnings in the future. By recounting our stories of inequality, we can ultimately help more people understand the need for change and greater equity in society.

And third, the pandemic has forced our leaders and decision-makers to fundamentally alter their perspective at lightning speed. It has demonstrated the importance of staying flexible to change and collaborating with others, not only in times of crises but in all situations. This lesson will ultimately give us the vision and forethought needed to drive an equitable economic recovery moving forward.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Recovery Playbook referenced in this episode, visit JFF.org and search “the Recovery Playbook.” The full link will be included in the show notes.

Thanks for listening to the Horizons podcast brought to you by JFF. Together, we’re building a future that works and inspiring others to fight for equality, diversity, and inclusivity everywhere.

Make sure to subscribe, rate, and review the podcast, and tune in to our next monthly episode. To learn more about Horizons or watch the full sessions featured in today’s episode, visit us online at JFF.org/Horizons.

I’m Tameshia Bridges Mansfield from Jobs for the Future. See you next time.


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