For Ridge Schuyler, the quest to eliminate poverty in the city of Charlottesville begins with a question.
“How do we find the people who are being left out and engage them in a process that leads them to a meaningful job?” Schuyler asked.
Schuyler is the director of the Charlottesville Works Initiative, a program created by the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce to find solutions to chronic unemployment.
In September 2011, Schuyler co-authored the Orange Dot Report, which concluded that one in five families in the city do not make enough money to be self-sufficient. They need assistance from government or charities to have enough food and clothing, to have a roof over their heads and to keep the power on and the water running.
When Schuyler updated the report this past September, the figures had worsened to one in four.
“If you have 25 percent of your families not making a self-sufficient income, how do you lift those families up?” Schuyler asked. “You get them a job that pays a decent income and make sure they have everything they need to be successful in that job.”
But that, he said, is easier said than done.
“I think there are a vast array of services available to under-resourced individuals in our community,” said Stephen Davis, executive director of the Charlottesville Investment Collaborative. “The hard part is knowing what services are out there, which you’re eligible for and how to access them.”
Schuyler has spent the last year and a half analyzing that problem from all angles. He concluded that there are many jobs, but many barriers prevent connections from being made.
“The system here and everywhere else in the country requires people to come find the jobs available,” Schuyler said. “We need a way to reach into neighborhoods and identify in a very specific way the people who are struggling.”
Schuyler’s solution: Establish a comprehensive system where individuals who need a job work with peers who have been educated on the resources job-searchers need.
Myrtle Houchens has lived in Friendship Court for over 20 years. She’s one of two people currently working with Schuyler on a three-month pilot project to create what he calls a peer network.
“It’s very positive and it has given me a better insight as to how to best serve our community, how to help individuals to reach themselves to a level of wanting to getting out of poverty,” Houchens said.
Participants work with peers to complete a questionnaire that assesses their education level and technical skills. But the self-assessment tool also asks them whether they have substance abuse problems, whether they have a stable housing situation, and other questions designed to let Houchens and other peers know what services are needed to prepare them to be ready for the workforce.
“One of the clients I’ve been working with has been very, very depressed,” Houchens said. “Just calling and talking with me gave her a sense of hope.”
Houchens said she knows a lot of people who have felt disconnected, disenfranchised and alone as they try to navigate their way to a well-paying job. Her role is to help them overcome those feelings.
“All of that has to do with emotional support so you’re not trying to put a Band-Aid on something but really getting to the basic needs of individuals,” she said.
Using the results from the self-assessment, the peers work with individuals as they go through a process to explore what they need to get and keep a job. Participants also attend classes to teach what Schuyler calls “soft skills.”
“We could be great at skills training and child care, but if people need soft skills, like how to deal with stress in the work environment, and we don’t provide that, they’ll fail as an employee,” Schuyler said.
The peer network continues to work with clients once they have a job. Schuyler said there will be opportunities for financial advice, tax preparation to ensure people get earned income tax credits and ongoing job counseling.
“In everybody’s job there are rough days and you have to help people through those rough days,” Schuyler said.
But the peer network isn’t the only way Schuyler hopes to address the issue. He’s also trying to generate career-ladder jobs.
“Part of our effort ought to be about making sure our economic development programs think about job creation along the whole income spectrum,” Schuyler said. “Not just high ends, and not just minimum wage jobs, but how do we make sure we are continuing to foster the creation of those jobs that pay $25,000 and up?”
Schuyler said jobs can be created if community interests can be matched with economic opportunities. In that spirit, he is working with the Local Food Hub to help create a facility that would allow for flash-freezing of fruits and vegetables grown in the area.
“Right now, we have organizations like the food hub which are doing great work aggregating produce from family farms in the summer and the fall,” said Sam Speedie, project manager for Virginia Produce.
“What’s missing in the value chain is the ability to extend the season for produce in the depths of winter,” Speedie said. The idea would be to pay people to freeze produce and other locally grown food so more can be available year-round.
The Local Food Hub has obtained a $35,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services to develop a business plan. Charlottesville and Albemarle County have contributed $17,500 each to the project.
Speedie said the project also is being developed with the intent of creating jobs in an industry that has become largely automated.
“Another critical aspect of what we’re trying to do is create a pathway for middle class jobs in light manufacturing and industry,” Speedie said. “What we’re trying to do is rebuild a component of our food system that hasn’t been around since the 1930s,” Speedie said.
Schuyler said he hopes that if the flash-freeze facility becomes a reality, it will be staffed by people who he thinks need the jobs the most.
The Charlottesville Works Initiative pilot currently has 10 individuals who are at various stages of preparing to be ready for the workforce and one has already obtained a job.
“We are very happy to report that,” Houchens said. “There is a way out if they’re willing to put the time and the energy in the training in the hopes that things will get better with a new job.”
Schuyler said the peer network approach can help make a difference, but he is far from ready to make a judgment about whether the process is working.
“To me, there is only one real measure of success,” he said. “Have we taken people and increased the money that’s going into their pockets so they can become self-sufficient?”