To start the year, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development reported black unemployment at historic lows. In February, the state black unemployment rate fell to 6.1 percent. A groundbreaking Twin Cities organization is focused on seeing that trend continue.
The whole country’s unemployment rate was looking better as the year began, but recent developments have shown we have far to go to upend the long history of black people being boxed out. In August, using Census Bureau data and weighing the cost of living, 24/7 Wall Street found Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District, represented by Ilhan Omar, to be the worst for blacks in several respects, including unemployment in the nation.
The district includes all of Minneapolis and parts of suburbs like St. Lois Park and Fridley. “Black area residents [of the district] are about four times more likely to live below the poverty line than white residents and three times more likely to be unemployed,” according to the index.
The Twin Cities’ Center for Economic Inclusion (CEI), with offices in both St. Paul and Minneapolis, works to bring blacks and others left out of the economy back to work. It’s the first organization of its kind in the country.
“Our mission is to create an economy that works for everyone,” said Tawanna Black, CEI founder and CEO.
Finding and breaking barriers
CEI’sprimary focus is on North Minneapolis and the East Side of Saint Paul. According to Black, about five years ago unemployment for black men ages 25 and up was at 52 percent on the North Side. “When we launched two years ago, we really identified those two core areas because of their need, but also because they’re areas of huge opportunity,” said Black.
The center has worked with a few companies that have historically not hired individuals from North Minneapolis. Black said one obstacle is broad generalizations that black people are lazy and don’t want to work.
“I have people in almost all industries who can’t wait to be able to come and tell me about the person they know who didn’t want to work, who came with all these [issues],” said Black. “That’s a smaller number of people. A vast majority of people do want to work and are equipped to be able to work.”
Graco, a manufacturing company, has been working with CEI. Graco wants to change their hiring policies and practices to help get African Americans employed at their facilities in Northeast Minneapolis and in Rodgers, MN. One such policy that’s been changed was the requirement for a high school diploma.
That requirement, Black pointed out, was keeping people locked out. “Now they changed that requirement and this opened the door for more African Americans to be able to come in and work at Graco.”
The Center also helped Graco with another simple change to their hiring policies. The company was hiring talent from North Minneapolis but having them go all the way to Saint Paul at an early morning hour to get a drug test. Eliminating even seemingly small inconveniences such as this can make a huge difference for a worker below the poverty line.
“If we know that our population that we work with are chronically unemployed, they don’t have their own transportation 85 percent of the time, and [lack] other resources. That’s a setup for failure. They’re not likely to make [the distant drug test],” said Black. “So we work with [Graco] to say, how about we change that if we’re serious about this partnership.”
That is how Black boils down CEI’s role: to provide companies and hiring managers with help considering every way of accessing and building up differing communities of workers. With CEI’s knowhow, companies factor in the possibility that transportation can be a barrier for many, for example making it difficult to get to a drug test or an interview. As a community-based organization, CEI aims to bridge that awareness gap between job seekers and employers.
Most employers the center has worked with are not aware of all the potential barriers to getting and accepting a job offer. Employers often stick to a system that has worked for them so far, noted Black.
CEI not only works with companies to break down barriers that are hindering them from hiring African Americans; they’ve also started to work with companies to help grow black businesses.
“One of the places that we’ve seen the market demand for our services is in helping companies get better equipped to be able to contract locally with minority-owned businesses,” said Black. “This requires us to make sure our employers have the tools to know who those businesses are.”
The Center helps interested companies find black businesses that can provide a needed service. Overall, a main goal of the Center is to help make sure African Americans in the community are moving forward at the same rate as the economy.
“We recognize that an employer’s ability to spend hours with businesses owned by people of color isn’t charity,” Black said. “It is helping our economy grow.”
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