By: María Islas-López, Visiting Fellow, Interdisciplinary Research Incubator for the Study of (In)Equality (IRISE)
Evidence shows that work training and employment programs can lead to greater economic self-sufficiency for individuals living in low-income and high-poverty neighborhoods. Yet, for training and employment programs to succeed, they need to consider the aspirations of program participants. The Sun Valley Kitchen + Community Center (SVKCC) have been facing these opportunities and challenges in implementing a youth employment and an entrepreneurship program for adults in Denver’s west side neighborhood of Sun Valley, currently considered the city’s most culturally diverse and economically challenged neighborhood. Following a social enterprise model—and after serving the community for the past five years through public engagement programming, free meals for youth and a free of charge food pantry—the SVKCC recently opened as a neighborhood restaurant that, as part of its goals, aims to provide learning and employment opportunities in the food serving sector for interested community youth and adult residents. Our DU Grand Challenges project used participatory group methods to explore the goals and aspirations of the youth and adult residents from Sun Valley and locate their alignment with the Sun Valley Kitchen + Community Center youth and adult training and employment program goals.
The DU Grand Challenges Scholars Grant supported the organization and execution of a number of data collection opportunities that allowed us to gather information both from youth and adults about their perception of work opportunities and their personal aspirations. We held a number of focus groups, which we treated as community conversations, where participants were asked to think about their experiences of employment, understandings about work and ideas about their lives in the future. We worked in small groups to do a couple of activities that facilitated conversations around these topics. Interviews with community members complimented the insights emerging from these community conversation events.
The community conversations served as effective mechanisms for data collection. Also, they served as a fantastic opportunity for community building and conversation among community members and between them and the community partner. Information gathered through these community conversations is helping the SVKCC identify the appropriate approaches for creating local opportunities for financial growth for the at-risk-families living in Sun Valley. More importantly, they brought about the awareness of the need to generate continuous knowledge about the meanings and understandings community members have about work.
An unexpected outcome of the project was the realization that opportunities for conversation among community members are needed in Sun Valley. The experiences of participants in the community conversations and their feedback brought to the attention the importance of continually engaging the community members in conversations about aspirations, goals and plans for the future. I have brainstormed with the community partner about developing a series of events to promote the sharing of goals, ideas and ways for achieving them—tentatively referred to as “dreaming circles”—and possibly a series of presentations that tackle diverse aspects of future thinking and planning. This brainstorming is opening the possibility of continuing with certain aspects of the project beyond this grant. In this sense, the project is fulfilling its long-term impact goals, as it has sensitized the SVKCC and participant community members about the benefits of engaging in conversation about aspirations and its role in the pursuing of work opportunities.