Acting Locally: Interview with Community Development Executive Deborah Scott

This article is part of a continuing interview series that spotlights important views from experts in the community and economic development field.

Deborah Scott is the executive director of Georgia STAND-UP, a "think and act tank" that supports community and economic development. The organization advocates for community benefits agreements, workforce investments, job creation, and other policies that increase equity and economic opportunity for underserved community members. STAND-UP is an alliance of local leaders that provides information and resources to help create healthy, livable neighborhoods while respecting the rights of current residents to benefit from the progress and developments taking place within their neighborhoods. Scott recently received a White House "Champions of Change" award for her efforts to promote energy efficiency, revitalize outdoor spaces, encourage transportation options, and improve quality of life in our cities and towns.

Kyan Bishop, director of the Atlanta Fed's Community and Economic Development group's outreach efforts, spoke with Scott to discuss critical issues for underserved communities and how STAND-UP works with numerous partners to address key community and economic development issues in the Atlanta metro area.

Kyan Bishop: Deborah, thanks for joining me today. I know you are involved in a quite few important initiatives here in the Atlanta area. Perhaps to get us started, can you describe what you see as some of the key priorities for the metropolitan region currently?

Deborah Scott: While the region is still struggling to emerge from the economic downturn, I believe this is a perfect opportunity for metropolitan Atlanta to increase investment in transit and make that our primary economic development infrastructure. To be competitive in the future, our region will have not only to create jobs in new and emerging industries, we will have to get people to those jobs and to other destinations more efficiently and economically, and so in this way, transit should be a major part of our focus.

I also believe we have to address issues of equity and look to make changes that can bring benefits, prosperity, and the prospect of economic mobility to all residents. At Georgia STAND-UP, we are active in helping neighborhoods take proactive steps to better inform their destinies, such as producing the award-winning Fort McPherson Community Action Plan. This plan calls for transit-oriented development on the 488-acre base and the nine neighborhoods surrounding it. It also strategically addresses important community needs, such as training and employment opportunities for people who live in impacted neighborhoods near the redevelopment site.

Bishop: As you may be aware, our team here at the Atlanta Fed has been very interested in workforce development and chronic unemployment issues. Since last fall we have been working with other Reserve Bank partners both to share and gather information on the many dimensions of these matters. I am curious to hear about your perspectives on such issues, and specifically on core needs and challenges for lower- and moderate-income individuals.

Scott: I believe the primary challenge right now is job creation. Without bold new investments in initiatives such as transit and large-scale building retrofits for energy conservation, we will not generate employment demand. Employment growth is the demand side of the equation while workforce investments are the supply side. The two go hand in hand. That's why we work both sides of the equation, encouraging and supporting business growth and innovation while also creating a "jobs pipeline" for training and placement.

Three years ago, with assistance from the North Georgia Building Trades Council, I founded TRADE-UP as a response to complaints from developers that they could not find "qualified" workers in low-wealth neighborhoods where large new construction projects were under way. TRADE-UP is a pre-apprenticeship training program aligned with the building trades that targets individuals who typically come from low-wealth and largely minority neighborhoods. Program participants generally have lower levels of educational attainment, are long-term unemployed, old and young, female and veterans. And they often are "second chance" employment seekers—people with a record in the criminal justice system.

With assistance from partners such as the Urban League of Metro Atlanta and Atlanta Tech, TRADE-UP addresses issues that represent persistent barriers to employment for many in the Atlanta labor force. Participants who successfully complete the program pursue training courses that feature 21 trade skill options under the Multi-Craft Core Curriculum. Thus far, we have had three classes and over 100 TRADE-UP graduates, and the program is currently being considered as a national training model by the U.S. Department of Labor. I believe that more focused, hands-on training programs like TRADE-UP are needed since such programs provide workers with the training they need for jobs aligned with employment projections.

Bishop: What are some promising approaches for continuing to address sustainable economic development issues either here in Atlanta or elsewhere? And what about funding streams and other kinds of financing to support such programs?

Scott: Atlanta is ahead of the game in some areas. Mayor Kasim Reed has taken a strong position in support of sustainable solutions to our economic challenges. He has brought two important economic development programs to the city: the Emerald Cities Collaborative, which I convened locally, and the Atlanta Better Buildings Challenge (ABBC). Both are focused on creating a new, large-scale energy conserving and building retrofit industry in the region, an industry that I believe could be an important economic stimulus and job creator.

On the workforce side, TRADE-UP just passed its three-year anniversary, which makes it eligible to compete for federal contracts and other resources. Emerald Cities Atlanta is now gearing up to begin promoting building retrofits in the governmental and institutional sector (or MUSH: municipal, university, school, and hospital buildings). That will complement the ABBC's focus on commercial buildings and hopefully broaden job creation through energy initiatives. TRADE-UP is also working in residential housing retrofits and renovations with plans to launch for-profit small businesses based on the experience and skill sets of entrepreneurs who have passed through the program. The goal is to build a multifaceted initiative balanced between nonprofit, mission-oriented objectives such as workforce training and entrepreneurial efforts such as business start-ups that help drive growth, create new wealth, and generate jobs. Going forward, we anticipate a mix of resources: grants, earned income, small business loans, private equity investments, etc.

Most of STAND-UP and TRADE-UP's funding thus far has come from private philanthropy. We have been fortunate to attract the attention and generous support of several national foundations, including the Ford Foundation and others. We have also received critical support from labor organizations in the region. One of our challenges is to convince local philanthropy to take a more active role in helping build momentum in the economic sectors I have been describing. With Mayor Reed's support we are hopeful that the city will enact policies that require local hiring and training on city financed or subsidized development projects. Such a program would provide ongoing funding and make permanent the workforce pipeline we have pioneered for Atlanta residents.

Bishop: Deborah, the White House "Champions of Change" award is one that focuses on leadership in developing healthy and sustainable communities. What do you consider to be some key reasons for your success in this area?

Scott: The award is an acknowledgment of the collaborative efforts that have led to my being personally recognized for certain achievements. The success I have realized is based on building partnerships and working with a wide range of individuals, organizations, and agencies representing community, business, and government interests. Changing our approach to economic growth, transportation strategy, housing development, and workforce preparation requires broad consensus.