United Way

When Leaders Engage! Our Community Transforms

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by Ken Toll

Standing on the stage at Forty Nine South, I took in an amazing sight: a gathering of nearly 100 leaders of government, business, education, nonprofits and others who care deeply about Jackson County. A thought struck me:

With this much energy and passion, we can do anything!

I’m talking about Leaders ENGAGE!, a United Way event bringing together the movers and shakers of our community to talk about poverty, ALICE and how we can work together to build pathways to financial stability for all.

We heard from eight panelists—four representing business, four speaking for the community—who touched on the unique barriers faced by those in or near poverty, challenges to recruiting and retaining employees (including skilled trades), and the impact of partnerships in building pathways to financial stability. I had the chance to talk about United Way’s history and the changing nature of our work.

But best of all, we heard from the community! Attendees took what they gleaned and broke out into small groups to consider where we could collectively focus on solutions. Among them:

  • Where to turn for help. We have a great resource in 2-1-1, but not everyone knows about it. United Way is already elevating our marketing of 2-1-1, including launching a new public service announcement in partnership with fm last week.
  • Housing. Stable, affordable housing is one of the toughest challenges faced by low-income individuals and families. For example, between December and May, our employee resource network, JobSTAR, handled 64 requests for help with housing—from access to avoiding eviction.
  • Transportation. Another big barrier for financially struggling workers involves transportation. You can’t work if you can’t get to the job. Jackson’s public transportation options are very limited.

Many participants were surprised by the high levels of financial insecurity in Jackson, and suggested we embark on an educational campaign to build awareness that 4 of every 10 households is struggling.  None were surprised by our question of ‘what should we do about it’ though; many possible strategies were offered during the event. Later this summer, we’ll pull those together into a report that I hope will form a launching pad for new ways to push against poverty.

Leaders ENGAGE! was an amazing experience; I heard nothing but positive feedback as people left, and I continue to receive encouraging words, suggestions and thanks from attendees.  I want to thank every person – leaders all – who joined us for this working lunch. I also want to thank our presenting sponsor, the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, as well as sponsors Jackson Area Manufacturers Association and Rick Chambers & Associates.

My biggest takeaway is this: Every facet of Jackson County is eager to own the problem of poverty and build the pathways to financial stability for all. And, as I’ve said before, when the people of Jackson want to do something, they get it done.  Together, we can get thousands of families onto pathways to financial stability and success – and that will transform this community.  We’re on our way!

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