How Colleges Can Grow Community Service Despite Coronavirus


How Colleges Can Grow Community Service Despite Coronavirus

EAB’s Community Impact Leader, Catherine Brown, is joined by Monique Rizer from The Urban Alliance and Monica Floyd from Streetwise Partners to talk about ways that higher education leaders can generate greater impact from their community service projects despite social distancing restrictions.

The three share reasons why volunteers from the ranks of higher education can have an outsized impact on the lives of young adults.

They also talk about trends in volunteerism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, including growing calls for employers to get more actively involved in community service initiatives.


00:09 Matt Pellish: From EAB, I’m Matt Pellish, and this is Office Hours. While many people have come to know EAB for a lot of our work in enrollment services, technology, research, there’s actually another part of our work, really a part of our culture, and it might be even more impactful than our work with colleges and universities. That’s our community impact work, a core part of our mission since I started with EAB over a decade ago. At this time of year when we’re all thinking about our communities, what we’re thankful for, we’re gonna spend some time hearing from EAB’s Head of Community Impact, Catherine Brown, who’s joined by Monique Rizer from the Urban Alliance and Monica Floyd from StreetWise Partners. They’ll talk through ways colleges and universities can achieve some greater impact from their community service projects, even during COVID, in the midst of all the social distancing restrictions. We’ll hear why volunteers from the ranks of higher ed, they have an outsized impact on the lives of young adults, and some tips for motivating more employees to participate. Finally, we’ll hear about trends in volunteerism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder including calls for more active involvement from employers. Thanks for listening, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB.

01:20 Catherine Brown: Hi everyone, welcome to Office Hours at EAB. I am Catherine Brown, the Community Impact leader here at the firm, and today I’m joined by Monique Rizer, the executive director of the Washington, DC region of Urban Alliance, and Monica, the DC Program Director at StreetWise Partners. We’ll be talking about a lot of things today, but the primary focus will be community service in times of crisis and change. Monique, can you introduce yourself?

01:45 Monique Rizer: Sure. Thank you so much for having me, Catherine. I am the Executive Director of Urban Alliance in DC as you shared, which covers DC, Prince George’s County, and Montgomery County. And I am here in my home office in Northern Virginia but working in DC. Thank you so much for having me.

02:05 CB: Thanks for being here. Monica?

02:08 Monica Floyd: Yeah. So my name’s Monica Floyd. I am the Program Director for the DC region of StreetWise Partners, which is a workforce development mentoring program. So also excited to be here in the DC region to talk with you all today.

02:24 CB: Awesome. Thank you, Monica. Can you tell me a little bit about the work that you all do?

02:30 MF: Yeah, so I already sort of touched on it. At StreetWise Partners, we work with adults from underserved populations, really recognizing that talent is distributed equally but that doesn’t mean that opportunity is. And so our solution to that is to pair our qualified and motivated jobseekers with professionals who can walk them through the job application process, but also work with them on skills building so that they can have a successful career. We work with about 100 adults every year in the DC Region and over 500 volunteers, some of them from EAB so lots of incredible work happening.

03:12 CB: Thank you.

03:15 MR: Yeah. Thanks, Catherine. This is Monique, and this will be fun with a Monique and a Monica. This is Monique with Urban Alliance, and we are also a youth… We’re a workforce development organization. We focus on youth primarily seniors in high school. We’ve been around for about 25 years, founded in the DC area, in southeast DC, and now actually expand across five cities including Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, and Northern Virginia. I’m very honored to lead the DC region, and our primary work is pairing high school seniors from public and charter schools in DC with paid professional internships. We put them through a six-week intensive learning process called pre-work, also known as the longest interview of your life, and then if they get through pre-work and complete an interview with us, we match them with an internship in the area as well as a mentor who is their supervisor. They work for nine months, part-time during the school year and then full-time in the summer, and we’ve been very honored to serve about 2500 youth in the DC area.

04:27 CB: Thank you for sharing. So, so much great work happening, and I’m curious, what are some of the ways that your job and your programs have changed during the pandemic aside from working remotely, and how has that changed the ways that you connect the communities that you serve with resources and mentors that can help them?

04:45 MF: Sure. So this is Monica from StreetWise. I think the work that we do, we’ve always really focused on a holistic approach, recognizing that economic insecurity is tied to food insecurity, tied to housing insecurity, but I think that has only been heightened in the last six, seven months. And so our team is really working with our mentees but also with our volunteers to make sure that we’re supporting our populations as best as possible in all of those different ways. I think the other big thing that we’ve seen change at StreetWise Partners is there’s just been a massive increase in volunteer interest, which I know is something we really wanna talk about today, but just because I think people are feeling disconnected from their community, they want to give back, they want to help out. And so there’s just been a huge rise of interest from our community to get involved and give back and do something.

05:46 MR: Yeah, this is Monique. Very similar to what StreetWise is experiencing, we’ve seen definitely more interest, especially following some of the civic action around George Floyd and Breonna Taylor because the work we do is mostly with the 99% youth of color from distressed communities. And so not only have they been hit harder with the health impacts of COVID-19 but the economic impacts, and now we’ve got this collision of talking about racial equity in our spaces too. And so for me, how the job has changed has been both. I would say, operationally, just honestly, we’re working more. I feel like we’re working a lot more because we are home, and so you’re up working and then you’re done working and you go to bed so we’re just available to do more. And then substantively, we’re a workforce development organization. We want youth to develop soft skills that make them ready for the professional workspace, whatever they do after high school, but we know that it is in a context of a lot of intersecting issues that contribute to why our program is necessary.

07:09 MR: So health challenges, home and security, food needs, especially with our youth are often helping the other siblings, so now they’re at home, and so in a way, I feel like our work has become very focused on the root issues of why we’re all here. And so we started the student support fund to meet those needs. We have implored mentors to stay connected even if they couldn’t continue work remotely. We were just asking we need you to be there as a warm relationship for these students, whether or not they can contribute working for you because their work maybe can’t happen remotely. So I would say, and it was an important intense gray moment for like, this is why we’re here. Our internships are important vehicle, but really we’re here to care for the whole person.

08:03 MF: Yeah, awesome. I think another interesting thing that I talk and say is not only have we had to look at that holistic approach but something that Monique reminded me because I think also the core of our programs have had to be re-thought in the sense that our programs are so based around the workforce and education and higher education, and all of that is changing right now. We have students that are in virtual school. We have a very changing job market, and so I think really thinking about that also has changed a lot over the last six, seven months.

08:43 MR: Apparently.

08:44 CB: You’ve both touched on a lot of good points and Monique you’ve specifically touched on soft skills, so I wanted to ask you, and ask you both, what would you wanna tell higher ed leaders about how they can better support underserved student populations and as the word, simply getting more underserved groups or under-resourced groups into college is a really good start. But what are some of those soft and hard skills that colleges can help students, traditional or returning, acquire to prepare them for success after they graduate?

09:14 MR: That is such a great question, and I feel like I should have the perfect answer ’cause that’s what we do for a living. I’ll start by saying we at Urban Alliance have developed five big buckets of core competency, the social and emotional skills that we want our students to have, and those are things like self-awareness and communication. It’s funny to me that we use this term soft skills because we do this stuff every day without thinking about it. And so sometimes it is hard I think to step back and think about, okay, what are we doing as professionals that helps us be successful, and then how do we teach that to our young people? So how can higher education leaders support the development of those soft skills? I guess it might seem very tactical, but I have found that students, they learn by doing and so schools that can offer practical ways to practice those skills are incredibly important. For our students in particular, they’re coming into higher education, about 60% of them being their first in their family to go. And so the soft skills I feel like is something that higher education institutions can embed in the classroom, embed in maybe more workforce experiences, embed in clubs.

10:37 MR: There are lots of places that you develop them, but you have to be really intentional about it. I think that is what we have done pretty well is we’re saying to mentors, “These are the particular skills we want them to develop. We’re naming them, and we’re gonna show you the kinds of activities that can develop them.” I think all students need it, but we wanna make sure our students who maybe aren’t seeing it as much really can name them and know that they have them and they know how to talk about them. So I’ll just close up that is that I was the first one in my family to go to college. I get that experience of it being a little bit of a foreign space, and I think I wish that my colleges would have helped us a little bit more on how to talk about ourselves and the skills that we bring to a workforce. That may be sort of the next frontier I guess for higher education is really connecting it. How do I use this in the real world?

11:37 MF: The other thing that I think higher education institutions really have the opportunity to promote is that idea of social capital. So we work a lot on soft skills just like Urban Alliance. The other thing that we really emphasize at StreetWise Partners is the importance of a network and the importance of a professional network. And I think a student can graduate and have a degree and have all the skills, but they can still be locked out of careers if they don’t have that driving social network, that driving professional network. And so I think knowing that 70% of jobs are never posted publicly and that 70% of jobs are gotten through referrals, I think universities have a really, really incredible opportunity to use their alumni network, to use their career centers to really connect their students with those networks so that when they do graduate, they don’t only have the skills, they don’t only have the degree, but they also have the people that can help them get in those careers, especially once again, thinking of those people that are in underserved populations who don’t already have those networks, how can we make sure that we’re growing their network during those four years at college, or during those two years at a community college, whatever it may be. I think social capital can be so important and forgotten about sometimes.

13:00 MR: Monica, you said something that also made me realize, I don’t think a lot of… At least I didn’t. I’m a little bit older but students really maximize their career center. I got my first internship in college through my career center, and it was a very off-hand like, “Oh, you should try the career center,” but I kinda leaned on them because I didn’t have a network to help me find anything. And I was a student parent. I had a child when I was a freshman in college, and so I had just a trickier situation to deal with. And so I would love to see higher education institutions really promote their career centers more and really help students, especially our first generation college students. They go to college because we’ve become a college-going country, and there’s a whole conversation about that. But it’s great that they’re going, but they need to get jobs. And they need to get jobs that are gonna pay them well. We could talk a lot in a whole other podcast about the wealth disparities between African-Americans and other populations. These are young people for us who are the first to do a lot of things, and I wanna make sure that they’re getting the most they can out of their higher education by getting a job that is gonna be upwardly mobile. And it’s a very strategic move for them, and I think career centers can help a lot with that.

14:22 CB: I agree. My career center at Central Michigan University provided us a lot of resources from mock interviews and resumes and really helped set me up for success as I transitioned after college. You guys talked about networking a lot, and at EAB, we push our mentors to connect their mentees to the networks that they currently have to help promote them through success, so that’s one of the responsibilities we put on them. I’m curious, what are some of the experiences and skill sets that you think might make a university employee particularly valuable as a mentor to the communities that you serve?

14:56 MR: I think exactly what you just said. I think universities have such strong community feels. We know that when you are on campus, there’s so much school spirit, so the students are all really connected. I think professors, staff and administration have the same community feel, which is fairly unique to universities. And then you go on and you still have the alumni associations and so there’s this really strong connection between everyone, which I think is very unique. You don’t necessarily always get that in an office space and that sort of thing. So I think that’s a really unique opportunity that someone in higher ed has to pass on and connect to people in their network with their mentees or whoever they’re working with.

15:45 MF: Yeah. I would just add that… I don’t know that a lot of our students really know the range of career opportunities within higher education. They might just think like, “Professor.” But knowing that this is a whole industry where they could work and have influence, and a lot of our students wanna give back to their community, and they talk about big social issues like higher education, like getting jobs, and so knowing that they could be a part of that industry to help shape how it serves students like them is a really important message that a mentor from higher education could carry them. You could work in the back office. You could be a professor. You could run an institution. To me, the ideal is that our young people from underserved communities see the arc of the potential in any industry they’re in. And I don’t know a lot of people are talking about how they can have real social impact through higher education institutions. The mentors from that space could really open up the aperture of what’s possible in the industry they might not have thought about.

16:51 CB: Thank you so much. Colleges and universities like a lot of large employers are always looking for ways to provide employees with meaningful volunteer experience as a means of doing good but also to raise employee morale and engagement. On the other side of that, also don’t make a good impact and use all the resources at their disposal like you said to really expand the view of how social impact in higher education, how they can be embedded into that. I’m curious on what advice you can share with higher ed leaders about the benefits of helping their employees become more engaged as volunteers and share the work that they do.

17:25 MR: That is such a good question. It’s so funny ’cause even I have to think, as a person who’s in this work deeply, and I think about higher education leaders and volunteers, and I was like, “You know, I never really thought about that before. I didn’t know they volunteered.” So I would say the same thing to them that I might say to other organizations too, and maybe it is even be more important for institutions of higher education because they are the place where a lot of young people are still going as their next step out of high school. And so their volunteers and efforts maybe are even more impactful that they are… There’s the word proximate to the communities that you do have to work harder to reach out to. If you’re a predominantly white institution, you are gonna have to work harder to diversify your space and find students who are great for your community that might not be thinking about you because they just don’t see themselves there.

18:22 MR: And volunteerism is a really important way to get that way of thinking in the bloodstream of any organization. It’s just hard to ignore something if you have a relationship with someone who comes from a very different community from you. That is how we get our biggest champions in a time where we know that resources are limited, but our message has been, this is the time where we need to keep the foot on the gas and double down on working with, for us, youth of color from communities that are under-resourced. This is not the time to be making cuts on the lowest hanging fruit of what they might call charity. And I do think volunteerism is a really important part of that, stay connected, be invested in young people’s lives who maybe not are the ones that are right at your door. You gotta find them and find intermediaries like StreetWise and Urban Alliance to help you connect to them.

19:23 MF: Yeah. And just to echo Monique, I think institutions of higher education are mission-driven. And so I think the people that are working at your universities, at your colleges, are there because they really want to have a purpose and they’re really driven by that. And so by listening to them and listening to what they’re interested in, I think it can only improve engagement morale within your team. I would say, it also gives you the opportunity, like Monique touched on, to work with people outside of your normal populations, which I think then can drive the innovation to some extent because you are trying to reach these new populations. You are trying to solve common goals. And so by understanding the issues better, understanding what these populations are facing out there, your university, your institution has a better chance of being able to really address those root causes and being able to reach new populations and support students better. So I think there’s a really great benefit, not only to the individual employees, but also hopefully to the institution as a whole, as you are able to be aware of what’s happening a little bit better, come up with new ideas, be connected to new programs that are already happening that might work and be adapted for your program. I just think there’s these opportunities to benefit the employees, but also the institution as a whole.

20:50 MR: And institutions, they have students. Your students are not your employees, but they have this huge advantage over other traditional companies and that they’ve got a population of young people who probably really wanna do something and so leverage that. Have them tell the full-time staff of universities like, “This is what we would like you to do.” That’s an exciting opportunity, to work more closely with your students, but I’m sure a lot of them know this and do this well, but I just wanna encourage them to continue doing that too.

21:24 CB: Well, let us circle back on the discussion of the rise in volunteerism in response to the rise in activism and interest in social justice causes from higher education institutions and other large employers. Are you seeing a direct correlation in people’s interest in getting involved because of what they’re seeing and how are you seeing attitudes change because of that?

21:45 MF: Yeah.

21:48 MR: Hot topic.

21:50 MF: In one word, yes. There has…

21:52 MR: Yes.

21:52 MF: There’s definitely been a change. There’s definitely a correlation, if you will. I think the biggest change that we can speak to is sort of like what Monique was just saying about listen to your students. I think that you just have this rise in employees going to their leaders and saying like, “Hey, we want to do something,” or, “Hey, we want you to get involved. These are things we care about. We don’t wanna just go to work and do our normal day-to-day thing. We want to go to work, do our day-to-day thing, and then have an impact.” And so I think you see companies listening to their employees and really doubling down on their community impact efforts, sort of rethinking their community impact efforts in regards to both public health and the pandemic, but also to Black Lives Matter and all of the social activism happening. So absolutely, yes.

22:57 MR: Yeah, I mean, Monica said it well. I guess I would add that I think I am excited about the energy that has been unleashed around getting involved. I hope it will be sustained. Truly, I just like… My fear is that something else will come along and we’ll forget about it, and I think every person who’s been involved in any kind of civil rights work for a long time knows that you have peaks and valleys. And I really think this is an exciting time to make this a permanent part of our work, at least I’m referring and thinking mostly about the United States.

23:39 MR: And also just honestly, we love volunteers and we also… We need resources. I joke like volunteering doesn’t pay the bills. We need volunteers, but we also need… We have to pay our students. And so, I’m sure this is same for StreetWise. If financial investment needs to come with volunteering from an institutional perspective, that would be my humble request is like please pair those things together. Please also know that, at least for our program, we have moments of volunteers and then we have longer term, which is being a mentor. And we’re gonna need both to make sustained change, investing in a person’s life to change. To help influence and open doors for them happens over a period of time. And so I welcome all the volunteers, and I also hope that they will stick with us and help bring in some financial support because that’s a real thing that non-profits are facing right now. Our budgets are constrained by employers who can’t afford to continue to pay their own employees, and we get that. We really do need both right now.

24:56 MF: I love what Monique is saying about this sort of sustained commitment, and I think… Going back to what I was saying about volunteers or employees pressuring their leaders, I think it’s really… It’s going to be interesting to see what those commitments end up looking like from the companies because if it’s just, “Hey, here’s the volunteers,” that’s a short-term commitment. And so, really thinking about, okay, what are your goals and your community impact and how can you create long-term goals, not just what are we going to do in the next month so that our employees have some volunteer opportunities, but really long-term, what do we want this to look like?

25:35 MF: And like Monique said, non-profits are at capacity. And unfortunately, what that means is, we’re not going to be able to serve everyone that needs us. And so, if your commitment is to really impact these populations that we’re serving, just like Monique said, we need volunteers, but we also need that financial commitment to grow our programs and grow our organization so we can serve those populations and then accept more volunteers and have more volunteers and get your company more involved. So it’s really the cyclical partnership that’s needed where, let’s continue to grow together, and that means a lot of different types of resources in the long run.

26:15 MF: My suggestion to everyone is, absolutely think about the different ways you’re committing, whether it’s through volunteerism, through pro bono work, through fundraising, but also like think long term, “What are you doing this month? What are you doing in one year from now? What are you hoping to complete and impact in that one year,” instead of just like, “I want to do this one thing tomorrow.” I think that long-term planning is really how you’re going to have the most impact. I love that.

26:43 MR: Have a strategy. I think that’s what… As a company, if you’re making the commitment, volunteerism should be a part of your strategy. It should not be the strategy,  and I don’t mean that flippantly because we need so many volunteers to produce some of our most important events around judging final intern presentations and things like that. And EAB has been a fabulous contributor, both in actually hiring and having skin in the game.

27:08 CB: Thank you.

27:09 MR: You hire our interns, you mentor our interns, you are renewing for another year in one of the most difficult years, and we know that’s the hardest decision ever to make. So we appreciate that you sort of modeled that and couple that with volunteerism, but it should be a strategy, and I think maybe… To me, an algorithm like EAB has that kind of approach, and I would encourage people to think about volunteering as a part of a strategy.

27:34 MF: I was going to say the exact same thing. If you want to know what a long-term strategy looks like, EAB is a great example. You’re doing all the different work. Catherine is also an all-star, so we get to awkwardly compliment her. So you all know how incredible she is. But yeah, just like Monique said, I think really thinking about holistically what that partnership looks like, talk to Catherine if you are interested.

27:57 CB: Yeah, okay.

27:58 MR: Catherine, more work for you. You could ask for help.

28:04 CB: Thank you both so much. This has been such a really fascinating discussion and I’m so sad I know we’re coming up on time, but I wanna ask one more question before we wrap this up. Monique, you talked about mentorship. Both of you talked about fiscal or financial support. I’m curious, what are some of like direct examples of ways people can get involved in virtual volunteering, and what are some innovative ways that you’ve seen your partner is supporting volunteerism as it relates to social justice?

28:35 MR: What a big and wonderful question. So the way we’ve been able to engage volunteers a little bit differently in this virtual age is adapting to things we currently do and adding elements that we might not have done in the past. So our big volunteering needs are around… We used to do something called Networking Night in person with our juniors, and it isn’t just serving seniors. We serve 9th to 11th grade in modified programming. And our juniors practice this networking, these skills that Monica talked about earlier too. And so having volunteers come in and do that now happen virtually, and so that’s a great way to get involved, learn how our students are, and then think about being a full-time mentor in the next year.

29:24 MR: We also have final events. So each of our interns present on their internship experience and they go through a panel of judges. We’ve been able to adapt that virtually and actually enable to offer this to volunteers on their own time. We also as non-profits are thinking about, “How do we make this easy for volunteers too?” We know that you will have full-time jobs just like the rest of us, and so in a way, it’s forced us to think more creatively too about how do we expand the opportunities for volunteers in a way that works pretty seamlessly into their workday. And so we’ve been able to do that by giving them opportunities to review recorded mock interviews of our interns and quickly fill out a survey and let us know how they’re doing. That’s been fantastic, and we brought in new partners that way, which has been wonderful. I could go on and on, but I would say the pinnacle of volunteering for us is really mentoring, and really hiring that intern and working with them for a year as a job partner. So they can go to our website and learn more about how to become a job partner. That is sort of peak volunteering for us.

30:29 MF: Yeah. Also just such a good question because I feel like the opportunities are endless to get involved. Like Urban Alliance, StreetWise Partners has been fortunate enough to really be able to transition our structured mentoring program to be virtual. So that’s a really great opportunity for someone who is interested in sort of a long-term volunteering opportunity. It’s a 13-week program, all virtual, so now it doesn’t even really matter where you are. And so the other thing that we’ve really seen is companies and teams have a really great opportunity to use their specialized skills. So if your team has a specialized skill… As we are in forced development, that has been really valuable to our mentees. So doing industry discussions for mentees, doing skills building workshops with our mentees is really great.

31:19 MF: The one thing I’ll add to this is, you asked about sort of how people can get involved with volunteerism as related to social justice. We’ve been really trying to work closely with our partners to think about employment and hiring practices and HR practices, and so someone from EAB is actually sitting on our employer advisory board and helping us sort of think about how do we connect with these companies and make sure that our mentees have those connections and can get hired by these companies. I think a great opportunity that companies and teams have is to first think internally. We’re working with companies to say, “Here are sort of best practices when you’re thinking about hiring and you want to diversify your hiring.” Thinking about HR policies, we really try to be a resource to our corporate partners in that way, and then just like Monique was saying, when you take that one step further with your partners, can you hire from your partners?

32:22 MR: Yeah.

32:24 MF: And I think that’s such a good opportunity when the conversation right now is still about, “How do we get more job opportunities for these underserved communities?” There are organizations like StreetWise Partners, like Urban Alliance that are like, “Hey, we have qualified candidates for you. They are ready for you right here. So you don’t even need to create a process. We’re right here available for you.” So I think that is… I would emphasize that over and over and over again.

32:54 CB: Yeah. Thank you so much.

32:55 MR: I was vigorously nodding my head.

32:57 CB: Me, too. Ladies, this has truly been great. I know we can talk about this all day, so we might wanna schedule a virtual coffee chat later. I hope you both enjoyed this as much as I have. For now, we’ll probably have to go ahead and wrap this up, but thank you so much for joining us on Office Hours with EAB and for your awesome partnership. Honestly, our employees truly enjoy the impact that they can make through the Urban Alliance and StreetWise Partners programming, so I really thank you for that. And I hope you both have a great week.

33:29 MR: Absolutely, thank you.

33:30 MF: Thanks for having us.

33:35 CB: Bye.

33:37 MP: Thanks again for listening. Join us next week for a discussion with EAB’s Christina Hubbard and Ed Venit on the issue of financial aid and how it’s just as critical to student’s success efforts as academic advising or student affairs. Until then, I’m Matt Pellish, and from all of us at Office Hours with EAB, we wish you and yours a very Happy Thanksgiving.

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