Nontraditional approach seeks workers already ‘connected to the Zone’
By Vickie Evans-Nash
Lucretia Gill is a connector. She talks to families with children in North Minneapolis to determine their family’s goals, and then she connects them to the organizations that can address the challenges hindering them from reaching their goals.
Last year, Gill was a personal care attendant (PCA). She now works for an organization that has added 42 new positions over the past year — 32 of them filled by Northsiders — to the North Minneapolis job market.
Gill had previously been one among the hundreds of families in North Minneapolis that the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) is charged with reaching. Through NAZ, her son had attended a childcare facility that prepared him for kindergarten through a Race to the Top scholarship. Her other three children attend NAZ anchor schools within the Zone, the geographical boundaries of the city that NAZ works within.
“I came in contact with NAZ through my children’s school at Harvest Prep,” Gill explains. “We were at an honor roll night to accept awards for my kids…and I had met my connector Gwen, and she had told me about the program.” Now Gill is working with other families, and she enjoys the change.
“I love this job actually way more better than I liked [being a PCA]. Just the feeling of giving back, wanting to help others.”
Before her new job, Gill volunteered at NAZ, where she developed a feeling of belonging. “It helps me to know that I am able to help others… I love NAZ’s model, whatever works. We’ll try anything that works.” NAZ’s mission is to see that all children in the Zone graduate from high school and obtain a four-year college degree.
Gill ended her connector training in February. She currently works with eight families that she communicates with at least once per week. Over time, she will work with 40-50 families.
This transition from a parent receiving services to an employee connecting others to services is a result of Deonna Smith’s work. Smith is NAZ’s human resources (HR) director, who joined the staff in June of 2012.
“NAZ appealed to me on a personal level, because what we are trying to achieve here is exactly how my life has been lived,” Smith explains. Born and raised between South and North Minneapolis, Smith bought a house and raised her children on the North Side. During her 30s, she decided to go back to school, where she received an undergraduate degree from the college of St. Scholastica while juggling a full-time job and four kids. She later received a master’s degree in human resources from Concordia University.
“I’ve been working in HR since 2002, and when I saw the opening at NAZ, [I said] that’s me,” Smith explains. “Sometimes people have missions in their program and they kind of have to explain it. They didn’t have to explain it to me at all. I get it.”
When Smith was hired, NAZ consisted of 17 employees in a small location on the intersection of Freemont and Broadway Ave. North. Now sharing the ground-floor level in the Delisi Building that also houses KMOJ radio, at the corner of Broadway and Penn, they have 58 staff members. Smith says she has done the recruiting, hiring and orientation of over 40 employees. Her grassroots approach to hiring has achieved a diverse staff that very effectively captures Northside residents.
“We don’t do big old recruiting ads in the Tribune or Career Builder,” Smith says. “What we are doing is, we’re going out and we are really trying to be personable in our career efforts.”
NAZ is looking for very specific hiring qualifications with each applicant. “It’s not like we’re asking for somebody who lived out in Chanhassen to come over here to the Zone and then appeal to a family and help them walk through how they live their day-to-day life,” Smith says.
“No, what we’re saying is, I live in the Zone, too. I know exactly what you’re going through. I’m going to support you in your effort to achieve different outcomes.”
Their employment vetting process has a point system of approximately five points. A prospective employee who has a connection to the North Side (like graduating from high school in North Minneapolis) and having a NAZ affiliation (such as receiving NAZ services) “give you kind of a leg up to begin with,” explains Smith.
Job applications are posted on their website, but connectors also know when jobs become available, and as they are visiting families they are also looking for prospective employees. NAZ provides assistance for members of the families that they work with who want to apply for open positions.
NAZ also has five VISTA volunteers, two of whom are from the North Side. “It shows [that] we make a concerted effort to pay extra attention to the fact that people are Northsiders and connected to the Zone. ‘Cause without that passion, without that ‘I’m not afraid to be here [attitude],’ we’re not going to be able to achieve what we want to achieve.”
NAZ hopes to employ 24 connectors by the end of the summer; they have nine left to hire. The staff also includes specialized navigators, focusing on behavioral health, early childhood education, career and finance, and housing.
Smith’s mission is to develop a staff of people who culturally reflect the families they serve. Their staff consists of both a Spanish-speaking connector and program manager and a Hmong-speaking connector. Smith also works hard to retain staff.
“That means we pay really well” Smith says. “We pay our connectors and our staff that are considered line staff at the same [rate] that any other employer would pay a four-year degreed person. We also provide 100 percent of employer-paid medical [and] dental for the employee [and] their dependents, and 50 percent for their spouses but 100 percent of their dental.”
Their benefit package includes long- and short-term disability, life insurance, and employee assistance programs. However, in order to be a connector, only a high school diploma is necessary. Depending on whether or not Smith finds that the candidate is a good fit for NAZ, even a high school diploma may not be required. But staff members are encouraged to continue their education no matter what level they arrive at NAZ with, because it makes for more skilled workers.
NAZ also continues to provide support for employees like Gill who come to them by way of receiving services. “[We] help them transition from being a person who’s on public assistance and using resources that they are no longer eligible for, and…learning about the return on investments in some of their decision making.”
So far, Gill is one of three NAZ staff who has made the transition from receiving services to employee. And they are not done yet. “NAZ wants to be the type of employer that we want our children — our young scholars — to be employed by when they get those four-year degrees…
“We need to be an employer of choice on the North Side,” Smith says. “We want to make the Zone a better place to be. We want to make it attractive to other employers to come to the Zone, because we want the Zone better — period. The better we make the Zone, the better it is for our kids.”
For more information on the Northside Achievement Zone, go to http://northsideachievement.org or call 612-521-4405.
Vickie Evans-Nash welcomes reader response to firstname.lastname@example.org.