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Focus on South Bend: Making skills building available to the entire community

Mayor James Mueller: 'Learning will only help people move up the ladders of opportunity'

As the nation looks toward a post-pandemic economic recovery, WorkingNation is speaking with the nation’s mayors about job creation, training programs, and in-demand industries in their communities. In this article in the series, we Focus on South Bend.

“We’re living in a knowledge age. We’re at a time when everybody’s skills and knowledge are becoming obsolete on an ever-faster basis. All of us, no matter what our backgrounds are, need to have continuous learning built into our jobs and into our lives.” Those words from Rick Wartzman, head of the KH Moon Center for a Functioning Society at the Drucker Institute.

Among the challenges, the KH Moon Center addresses, “…every person has a rational chance of equal opportunity.”

Rick Wartzman, Drucker Institute (Photo: Drucker Institute)

Wartzman says despite all the resources available online, there have been declines in employer-provided training, as well as public dollars for postsecondary education. “Learning is hard, and learners need a lot of support if they’re going to actually acquire new knowledge and skills.”

Enter South Bend, Indiana.

The Drucker Institute—based in California—already had a working relationship with South Bend in 2017, when Wartzman approached the city’s leadership. “What if we brought all these good learning resources that have been developed to bear on one community? If we put all this to bear on one place, could we create a community of lifelong learning?”

The result—launched last June—is Bendable. The digital learning platform holds curated content that’s accessible to anyone in South Bend with a library card.

“Knowledge base and skillset available to all of our residents”

South Bend Mayor James Mueller notes, “We’re a rust belt city. We’re making sure we get through the end of the pandemic, as well as looking toward the future and the growth measures that we need to take.”

“The pandemic has accelerated some of the issues of automation and the questions around future of work. So, all of those pieces are coming to a head now, and that’s what we’re focused on in terms of economic development.”

Mueller says feedback so far indicates residents are finding value in Bendable. “I hear from people who have signed on. At first, it was more of a curiosity and then they really dug into it and realized all that it can offer.”

“It’s a great democratic – small D – platform that makes this knowledge base and skillset available to all of our residents. Having that exposure will only help people move up the ladders of opportunity over time.”

“There are a number of folks who are taking advantage of the real training opportunities and the advancement of their own careers. So that part is still growing. We hope that we’re able to connect our residents to even more as this continues to evolve.”

Among the employers in the area, Mueller notes, are health care, insurance, manufacturing companies, and the University of Notre Dame.

“Everybody learns all the time”

As Bendable was being built, many local stakeholders participated in the process – offering feedback regarding the content to be included on the platform. Over the course of a year, 2,000 South Bend citizens were invited to share their thoughts. Wartzman says, “We essentially asked, ‘What do you need to learn? What do you want to learn? How do you like to learn?’”

Lex Dennis, director of lifelong learning for the Drucker Institute, details the resource providers. “We have our national learning providers. These are mainly digital learning providers. You’ve got Khan Academy,, edX, and Penn Foster. We also have our local learning providers like Ivy Tech which is our local community college, Indiana University South Bend, and even smaller shops like the South Bend Code School and Forever Learning Institute.”

Lex Dennis, Drucker Institute (Photo: Drucker Institute)

Dennis says local residents can also share personal expertise. “The Community Collections basically engage residents to share with the community. That’s where Bendable is a bit more open source. Those Community Collections can be composed of books, articles, TED talks, YouTube videos, you name it. It’s really whatever that person has used to become an expert in whatever the topic is.”

Dennis says people are always flexing their learning muscles. “One of the things that we talk about all the time is there’s a bunch of people that don’t fit into traditional education for whatever reason. The other side of that coin is that everybody learns all the time. Might be for different reasons. They might not even realize that they’re learning.”

“What we’re trying to do with the breadth of our content and other kind of community-related activity is show people that learning for work when bundled together with learning for need and learning for pleasure are really creating the habit of learning.”

A recent Bendable update shows among the most popular learning resources between December 2020 and February 2021 were Creating a Culture of Inclusion in the Workplace, Basic Computer Skills, and Career Explorer.

The Library System is Essential

South Bend’s public library system has been important to extending Bendable’s reach. “The public library is our face to the community. They are a key on-the-ground partner and collaborator,” explains Wartzman.

“Bendable and the library are kind of inseparable because the general mission of Bendable and the mission of the library really aligned – which is to promote lifelong learning and to be accessible to everyone in the community,” says Norah Alwalan, Bendable engagement specialist with the St. Joseph County Public Library.

Norah Alwalan, St. Joseph County Public Library (Photo: SJCPL)

Alwalan says Bendable has allowed the library system to stay connected to the community during the pandemic. “I’m the person who works most directly with Community Collection authors. So, connecting with folks across the community who are making these collections and seeing them come up on the website, it’s a living manifestation of Bendable, happening in real time.”

Currently, due to COVID-19 protocols, residents are able to use the libraries’ computers for one hour at a time.

Encouraging Learning Among Employees

“I was excited about the [Bendable] opportunity because we really wanted to focus on specific skill building for the team,” says Kimberly Green Reeves, director of community impact with Beacon Health System.

(Photo: Bendable)

Green Reeves explains the outreach performed by her team. “We make sure that we can, ourselves, be equipped with navigating the health care resources to provide to community members. But then also we provide funding to not-for-profit organizations that we work alongside in our four areas of focus – healthy mind, body, spirit, and family.”

Kimberly Green Reeves, Beacon Health System (Photo: Beacon Health System)

Green Reeves says associates participate in Bendable learning at their own pace. She says Bendable content is helping employees understand the data-driven outcomes of their programming. “Beyond collecting the data, how does the data inform our work? Part of engaging was really giving them an opportunity to learn more about that space.”

“What I appreciate is not leaving all of that up to mid-level management or leadership, but that they have a role in that, too, should they desire. I do have some staff that appreciate the entire picture and how they plug into the puzzle, if you will.”

She notes others are studying content regarding leadership skills. “I have associates that are very interested in promotional opportunities. Not only do they want to know what can contribute to their direct work, but they’re also interested in what’s important from a leadership viewpoint.”

“Having social emotional intelligence is very important. Communicating is important. In the health care setting, a communication course from the hospital is very clinical. With Bendable, it is very much about how we communicate, in general,” says Green Reeves.

(Photo: Bendable)

“We’re never done learning,” says Green Reeves. “When I look at some of the health inequities and disparities, learning is a social determinant of health. What I appreciate about Bendable – this lifelong learning experience – is it’s at your fingertips, whether it’s at the computer in the library, in the comfort of your own home at the computer, or even on your phone, it’s accessible.”

South Bend’s future

“We’re looking into the future. We’re trying to figure out how do we get into growth and succeed in our new economies,” says Mueller.

“The economy now is not about chasing smokestacks and bringing people in. It’s about building value from our own community. It’s going to take an all-of-the-above approach by maximizing the potential, the creativity, and innovation of our residents.”

With a population of about 102,000 within the city limits, Mueller says, “We’re big enough to have a lot of the issues that big cities have, but we’re nimble enough to come together and work together to find solutions to these challenging problems.”

Scaling Up in Other Communities

Findings from a recent third-party developmental evaluation report reiterate the importance of the Bendable platform’s strong community engagement.

Drucker Institute’s Wartzman says there are plans to expand the platform outside of South Bend. “We’re talking to other communities across the country.”

“Part of what we look for is, ‘Is it cohesive? Does it feel like a community? Can you identify the employers that really do a lot of the hiring and are these the key industries? Can we get 50 people in the room who can really make things happen and do it in a way that is truly inclusive?’”