| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter RSS Feed


Making sure gentrification doesn't leave people behind in South Kensington

Working to put people to work in South Kensington

Working to put people to work in South Kensington

Wander through Philadelphia's South Kensington neighborhood on any given day and it's clear that this is a neighborhood in transition. Blocks of new construction rowhomes stand shoulder-to-shoulder with dilapidated warehouses, and hip new eateries sprout between vacant lots. While it may look like prosperity is on the horizon for a community that in recent years has experienced high unemployment, drug addiction and unstable housing, many residents fear the rapid transition will leave them behind -- still jobless and struggling.

That's a fear that South Kensington Community Partners (SKCP) is working to ensure doesn't become reality.

"The challenge here is a really big challenge," explains Shanta Schacter, president of SKCP's Board of Directors. "How do you create a community where there are opportunities for everyone? Especially in a community where there's rapid change and rapid wealth increase, how do you ensure that it's equitable?"

These questions form the foundation of the organization's efforts to create a neighborhood-level workforce partnership. The goal is to combat South Kensington's high unemployment rate and generate lasting job opportunities with living wages for neighborhood residents. It's ambitious work, and earlier this year SKCP received a $50,000 Win-Win Challenge Grant from the Job Opportunity Investment Network (JOIN) to kickstart the planning process and engage stakeholders in the program's design. 

SKCP is one of four organizations to receive such a grant, and like the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative (WPSI) (another grant recipient recently profiled by Flying Kite) their goal is to focus on matching job seekers with the needs of employers in the neighborhood. However, that's where the similarity between SKCP and WPSI ends. 

"Our investment with SKCP is different from the one with WPSI," says Hoa Pham, program manager for JOIN. "While it has similar place-based [goals], we wanted to see how SKCP was engaging with the small to mid-sized business community, as opposed to institutional employers. This project was so exciting because it acknowledged that there's a lot of growth happening on the small to mid-sized business end and asked, 'What role can a community organization play in that area?'"

To begin to answer that question, SKCP embarked on a discovery phase -- using design research methods -- to understand the needs of job seekers and employers from Girard Avenue to Berks Street, and from Front to 6th Streets. Design research uses storytelling and story-listening to understand the needs of people who will use a particular product or service. It is not often applied to workforce development, which is one of the things that drew JOIN to SKCP's initiative.

"The approach that SKCP has taken throughout this grant period has had the feel of starting with the person first," enthuses Pham. "It's definitely different than what we've invested in before. In many ways, I feel like this is on a whole different level."

That person-centric approach took several different forms, as the SKCP team conducted workshops, one-on-one interviews, door-to-door canvassing and even intercepted people on the street to chat with them. 

"It was an iterative process," explains Schacter. "It was having conversations with people on all ends of this -- how people are seeking work, how people are networking, how they're getting trained. We used those people as a sounding board for what SKCP thought we heard and then tried to work through different what-if scenarios. What if we did this? How would that look to you? How would that work?"

What they learned challenged their assumptions about local needs and barriers. For example, macro-level challenges -- such as childcare, access to transportation, reliable technology access and affordable housing -- impacted job-seekers' ability to be good employees. Small businesses, many of which had a desire to hire local residents, didn't know how to find a pool of reliable workers with professional skills. 

"There's a lot of information out there about how you develop job training programs, but it really comes down to establishing trust within a community and providing matchmaking services," says Schacter. "What we found in our research is that when someone makes a connection, and it's a good fit, it extends the reach into the community. The business may hire friends and relatives of that person."

The fact that personal relationships and networks figure so prominently in successful employment makes SKCP's role as matchmaker that much more critical, providing job-seeking residents access to networks that may previously have been closed or unknown to them. 

To find businesses that would be a good fit for these services, SKCP analyzed the make-up and infrastructure of local small to mid-sized businesses with the desire to add jobs in the near future. Food emerged as a sector to focus on in South Kensington because of its prevalence and growth. 

"There are some interesting things that come out of that," reflects Schacter. "First is that there are a lot of different parts of the food service industry. We also feel like there are a lot of connections to it, like growing [food] and neighborhood land use."

It's also an industry with high turnover, something that a workforce development initiative could potentially address. With proper training and support from SKCP, employers may see better retention rates, encouraging more of them to participate in the program.

However, if SKCP intends to focus on the food industry, it will have to overcome the perceptions of job-seeking residents, many of whom believe that the sector only offers dead-end jobs. According to Schacter, many of the people they spoke with during the discovery phase were interested in alternative work schedules that would allow them to handle some of the other things they had going on in their personal lives. Food service jobs often offer that kind of flexibility.  

Now after months of research and hundreds of conversations with stakeholders, SKCP is ready to put the outcomes of their research into practice. 

"The plan is to see if we can fund it. That's the next phase," says Schacter. "Should we be able to fund it, that will set a series of things into motion.  We want to see this have a physical location and land. We want to go around and verify the partnerships."

Of the four projects that received planning grants from JOIN, only two will earn funding for the implementation phase. The grantees will be announced publicly in early January 2016. 

If victorious, SKCP will hit the ground running. 

"Connecting the dots is a real strength of SKCP," adds Schacter. "It's really a network of neighbors, and a network from all different individual communities. Once people can trust a network, then I think things will happen pretty quickly and smoothly."

The Job Opportunity Investment Network (JOIN) has partnered with Flying Kite to explore how good jobs are created and filled in Greater Philadelphia. Stay tuned as we follow the progress of these exciting grants and track the city's continued workforce development challenges.

SAMANTHA WITTCHEN is a designer, writer, harpist and co-founder of iSpring, a sustainability strategy and analytics firm working in Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley. You can follow her efforts to make the world a better place and become a harp rockstar on Twitter at @samwittchen.
Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts