Robert Blaine on data-informed change and eliminating disparities

Innovators share ideas with WorkingNation Overheard at the Milken Institute Global Conference 2021

“We represent over 19,000 cities, towns, and villages across the United States. We work together with those communities to provide technical assistance on various kinds of programs. Those priorities range from equity in broadband to health care to workforce development to education.” explains Robert Blaine, senior executive and director for the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families (YEF Institute) with the National League of Cities (NLC).

WorkingNation sat down with Blaine at the Milken Institute Global Conference 2021 in Beverly Hills as part of our #WorkingNationOverheard interview series. With Charting a New Course as the guiding theme, thought leaders and innovators shared ideas about the changing economy, worker development, education, tech, philanthropy, and more.

The NLC uses data to determine disparity in communities. Says Blaine, “It’s a whole gamut of issues. Every community is different. What we’re really focusing on now is how do we use this data-informed approach with cities to really think about where the inequities are, and then help them set a set of priorities.”

“We’ve known where disparities are in communities for a long time, but it’s a way of using that confirmational data to really think about how funding is structured and to be able to use that in a way to open the spigot for federal funding, to be able to be leveraged in those communities,” he adds.

Reaching the stakeholders in any given community helps inform change, according to Blaine. “We find working with mayors, for example, is that they have incredible convening power to bring together various cross sections of the community around an initiative. What we do is we come in on the back end and help with the technical assistance, really thinking about how we bring together these various communities and effectuate a program that’s actually going to drive outcomes.”

Blaine offers an example of working with hurricane-prone communities in the South. He asks, “How can we have workforce training that goes along with infrastructure projects so that the people that live in the community are actually working to solve the problems? And then that they’re using that to be able to gain a viable income, a living wage in their communities.”

Prior to working at the National League of Cities, Blaine was the city manager in Jackson, Mississippi. He describes the city’s economic model of dignity. “You can look at Jackson and cities like Jackson and find what we called ‘economic models of humiliation.’ When you look at blight, crime, poor educational outcomes, and lack of opportunity, essentially, you’re looking at economic models of humiliations.”

“We wanted to turn that around and create economic models of human dignity. What are the components that actually create a dignified living for all residents of a city, no matter what your zip code is? How do we create a stable unit that actually provides the foundation for the success for the next generation? And when we think about having a stable job, what it means to have a living wage and to be able to provide for a family in a way where parents don’t have to work three, four, or five jobs in order to be able to make a living.”

Blaine says, “In so many communities, your zip code determines your outcomes and your opportunities. And we want to divorce those two.”

Click here to learn more about the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families (YEF Institute) with the National League of Cities.

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