A meeting of the EMO Cohort in Detroit, Michigan
A meeting of the EMO Cohort in Detroit, Michigan

Throughout this year, 10 communities have come together to create ICMA’s Economic Mobility and Opportunity (EMO) Cohort. Individually and collectively, these local government teams have explored ways to enhance their residents’ financial security, sense of power and autonomy, and sense of belonging to their communities.

As participants in the cohort, the teams received small grants to advance their work in housing, job opportunities and business development, engaging vulnerable populations, support for working families, and more, made possible by ICMA’s partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

For PM ’s counties issue, we highlight the three counties participating in the cohort and what they can offer to their peers looking to reimagine processes or approaches to enhance upward mobility of their residents.

San Juan County, Utah, is a sparsely populated county consisting mostly of breathtaking national park land. “Our population here is just over 51% Native American. Ideally, that would be reflective in government roles in the county as well, and it currently is not,” said Mack McDonald, county administrator.

Through conversations with partners at other levels of government in the region, it became apparent that they were also having difficulty in filling roles that would seem to offer ladders to increased income, benefit, and retirement opportunities, among many other things needed to boost upward mobility for the Native American population. The San Juan County team has since been working to inventory the types of government positions available and assess what barriers may be discouraging their native population from seeking such roles.

On the far west side of Texas along the Mexican border, El Paso County zeroed in on a specific barrier known to impact their workforce: a lack of childcare options for working households and families. While this is not a situation unique to El Paso, county chief aide Lorena Rodriguez noted that beyond a general lack of providers, which is especially challenging for single parent families, there is a particular lack of services available to third or overnight shift workers. These types of shifts are common in the area, given job opportunities associated with the U.S. border. Their efforts have focused on gathering data on the unmet demand for childcare services among the workforce and employers, as well as trying to understand and lessen barriers to expanding the supply of providers.

“When we think about the jobs that require round-the-clock employees, our main industries are health care and government and those are some of our highest paying industries,” said county director of strategic development Jose Landeros. “If there’s a barrier to entering those jobs because an individual may not have the childcare that they need, we really wanted to understand and figure out what it would take to evaluate the issue and then come up with tangible solutions.”

Chesterfield County, just south of Richmond in the Commonwealth of Virginia, could readily identify a number of supports critical to segments of their population. “Economic mobility is a priority in Chesterfield County as we work to address issues related to workforce development, financial literacy, affordable housing, and education,” said James Worsley, deputy county administrator.

But despite many well-intentioned services offered by the county and its partners, his team recognized an opportunity to enhance how they were promoted and delivered to residents that might not have the time, resources, awareness, or interest needed to take full advantage of the offerings. They worked to develop a wraparound service model offered through “mini conferences,” where residents can access various education and outreach programs in a single day and location. Transportation is provided, as are other incentives such as professional headshots and participation stipends.

Why Counties Are Taking the Lead Role on EMO Initiatives

For San Juan County, they knew that taking the lead role in career development for students and the Native American population was important because no other organization within their community was looking at this problem or trying to come up with solutions to help. McDonald also noted a concern shared by other communities in the cohort: “Most students grow up here, but then move out to other communities, and even other states. We’ve lost 2% of our population since the census. Our team really must look at what we can do to keep our individuals here, especially our students.” They believe that connecting younger people in particular among their native population with career paths in government will yield multiple benefits to their families and the larger community.

El Paso County knew that taking the lead role in filling childcare gaps was important since their county is the regional unit of government in their community. Rodriguez and Landeros described the scenario as a bi-national, bi-state regional economy given its proximity to both Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. “This is an issue that doesn’t really understand geographic boundaries,” said Landeros. “Even when we compare ourselves to regional economies in our own state of Texas, those are more homogenous than ours because we have two states, two countries, three distinct communities with a unique culture, but they share a lot of the same issues because we have cross-border movement not just across state lines but international boundaries.”

In the case of Chesterfield County, it was about elevating an already strong but necessary role in addressing their county’s needs in the areas of affordable housing, workforce development, education, and financial literacy. “Chesterfield County traditionally is a place where people of our community have come to seek information and resources and this initiative really allowed us the opportunity to offer new and innovative economic mobility opportunities for those that live here in Chesterfield County,” said Worsley. “Our team members are on the front lines every day, seeing the needs that exist in our community in every way possible.”

While each is focusing on unique needs, several key themes have emerged from the cohort’s work addressing specific service gaps or barriers to catalyze systemic change.

Use of Data to Understand Conditions

El Paso County identified a local organization, Workforce Solutions Borderplex, to be their biggest partner on this, with additional support from industry partners, including childcare providers. Landeros also emphasized that “a lot of our research is going to be based on survey data collection and direct engagement with industries. For these industry partners to be willing to share their insights and share their challenges in a candid way is going to be critical to this effort.”

For other communities interested in exploring local or regional data on evidence based predictors of mobility from poverty, the Urban Institute’s Mobility Metrics cover all U.S. counties and communities of over 75,000.

Intentional Community Engagement

For San Juan County, their approach is now giving them opportunity to establish a stronger relationship with the Native American community. Elaine Gizler, economic development/visitor services director, shared excitement for the “opportunity for us to get to know these students in the schools, talk to them, meet with them, show them the opportunities, and encourage them. Hopefully we’ll be able to encourage these young students to think about what their path forward is. Maybe they’ll find that these education and job opportunities might be something that they’re interested in and will be able to stay in their community with access to even more resources.”

McDonald agreed that the most important relationships for the government to foster are with their native population. He encourages other communities to “take the time to learn about and understand the people that you are working with, including their culture. Know your population, know the cultural sensitivities, get to know the people so you have a relationship already built if any concerns or problems arise.”

Leveraging Community Partners

While local governments are uniquely positioned to implement policies and effect conditions that promote overall well-being and upward mobility for their residents, identifying and leveraging partnerships is essential to this work. Chesterfield County realized the importance of breaking county partners out of the silos they typically work in for a more unified effort than ever before.

Emily Ashley, director of community engagement and resources, shared that this work “really gave us the opportunity to make everything come together and to offer these opportunities for our young people and the underserved in our community. We have combined all of our experiences between the administrative office, community development office, and local organizations to provide an experience for our community that is comprehensive and helpful rather than provided in pieces that may be missed.”

Outside of county government, she noted, “The YMCA was a critical partner, as well as a few Latino-led organizations. We’ve also been working with some of our business partners and our credit unions, which became crucial when providing financial literacy training. We have also worked with local educational institutions, such as Bright Point, Bryant & Stratton, and Virginia State University. Bringing these partners together to get their viewpoint and share their lens is what has made this program stronger than what we have tried to accomplish in the past.”

Small Changes Can Make Big Impacts

Landeros stresses that “you are not alone, and we all have the same or similar issues. When looking at long-term issues and long-term solutions, it’s better to invest in an additional year of early childhood education than it is to have to invest in some of the social issues that come with a lack of sufficient education as the population ages, in terms of public health or increased criminal justice costs. You hate to look at it in dollars and cents, but sometimes that’s kind of the argument that you need in order to go out and garner resources, but really this is a long-term people issue.”

Tina Shreve, managing director of workforce development for Chesterfield County, shares that “it seems overwhelming trying to tackle all of the issues associated with upward mobility, like you can’t boil the ocean. I think we all wanted to miraculously do something really grand, but I think it’s those baby steps that really matter. Even that one little workshop affected someone’s life, hopefully for the better. We don’t expect ourselves to go out and build a program without having input from the people that are going to be receiving the services. Sometimes in communities that is a strong miss, thinking that we know what is best without actually talking with the community.”

ICMA has curated open-access, evidence-driven resources to help local governments in identifying, refining, and advancing local priorities for increasing upward mobility and decreasing inequities—from data sources to planning guidance to intervention examples and implementation support. Visit icma.org/emo to access these resources and to learn more about archived and upcoming ICMA programming aimed at boosting upward mobility in communities.



ANNA MITCHELL is senior program manager, publications and research, at ICMA (amitchell@icma.org).


JESSI ATCHESON is program manager, global communications and marketing, at ICMA (jatcheson@icma.org).


LAURA GODDEERIS, AICP, is director of research at ICMA (lgoddeeris@icma.org).


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