Peabody, MA — Over 200 community, nonprofit and business leaders, philanthropists and legislators gathered at Wiggin Auditorium at Peabody City Hall on Feb. 26 to hear how Essex County Community Foundation and its partners will enable thousands of people in Essex County living below the living wage to make economic gains for themselves and their families.
Empowering Economic Opportunity is the Alpha Project of ECCF’s Impact Essex County initiative, the Foundation’s lasting commitment to address the most critical issues affecting Essex County’s 34 cities and towns.
In Essex County, nearly 300,000 people – 38 percent of all residents – are living below the living wage, making it difficult to afford life’s necessities. Paying rent, putting food on the table and affording quality childcare is a struggle. It is nearly impossible to save for emergencies or higher education.
“Income inequality is a complex issue that is the foundation to many challenges we face here in Essex County,” said ECCF President and CEO Beth Francis. “This is why ECCF is committing over $1.3 million over the next three years to address the issue through an engaged model of philanthropy.”
ECCF studied more than 30 successful collaboratives already working to improve economic opportunities for Essex County residents. From those 30, four – which will roll out over the next six to nine months – have been chosen to serve as the cornerstones of ECCF’s plan. ECCF will work side by side with coalitions of nonprofit partners, who will lead the following projects:
- Financial Coaching and Literacy. Working with the five Community Action Agencies in Essex County and community colleges, financial literacy providers, banks and community volunteers, this program focuses on financial literacy education and one-on-one financial coaching integrated into existing adult programming.
- Credit for Prior Learning.Launched in January and based on the nationally renowned North Shore Community College program, this solution enables adult learners to translate their specialized experience and skills into college credits. Partners include Northern Essex and Middlesex Community Colleges, Salem State University, Gordon College, regional workforce investment boards, adult education and ESOL providers and employers.
- Small Business Resiliency and Venture Fund.This project expands a Lawrence-based commercial lending program for non-bankable small businesses. It will offer micro-loans from a pool assembled by a coalition of banks and partners in the region, supplemented by strategic technical support. Mill Cities Community Investments will serve as the backbone organization.
- Essex County Think Labs.ECCF will use its ability to convene key stakeholders and attract experts around special areas of focus at multiple Think Labs over the next three years. These Labs will harness local knowledge and expertise and inspire creative thinking to incubate future program ideas that will influence our economic landscape.
“With these four programs, we want to uncover the root causes of income inequality in our region to make lasting change,” said ECCF’s Vice President for Community Leadership and COO Stratton Lloyd, who explained ECCF’s innovative approach to moving the needle on income inequality. “The Foundation is not inventing new programs or making the rules. Our systems approach is community defined, not Foundation defined.”
During Tuesday’s event, Patricia Gentile, president of North Shore Community College, spoke to the audience about the Credit for Prior Learning program at NSCC, where 20 percent of graduates take advantage of CPL options.
“This [ECCF plan] will not only help us build Credit for Prior Learning, but it will also help to build a model that can be repeated across the Commonwealth,” she said.
Mike Kennealy, Massachusetts Secretary for Housing and Economic Development, also spoke during the event. Keannealy, born and raised in Middlesex County but with strong ties to Essex County, said it was a thrill to be there.
“It was a real pleasure to read about this initiative by ECCF,” said Kennealy. “It just reflects the holistic approach we take here in this administration.”
Enthusiasm for the Alpha Project was evident throughout Wiggin Auditorium as conversations – ‘Human Infrastructure Building’ as someone coined it – focused on the possibilities that would result from these efforts.
“ECCF presented a bold vision and plan to address income inequality in Essex County,” said Natasha Lamb, an Essex County resident and business leader. “So often philanthropy addresses symptoms, not root causes, and ECCF is turning that model on its head.”
“This is so inspiring,” said Alex Lamb, an investment professional who has been following Impact Essex County since it kicked off more than two years ago. “It’s fabulous to see the implementation.”
Kerri Sheeran Perry, director of planning and development at Community Action, Inc., said the energy and excitement in the room was palpable. As part of the coalition working on the Financial Coaching and Literacy Program, Perry said she is thrilled to partner with the Foundation on this project.
“ECCF worked side by side with the five Community Action agencies in Essex County to develop a collaborative and sustainable financial literacy model that will create economic opportunities for the low-income families we serve,” she said.
Francis stressed the importance of the collaboration and systems that will ultimately make this project a success.
“These efforts will take real partnership and advocacy – and our partners will come from all different perspectives, but they will share a common goal: to provide the knowledge, tools and opportunities for Essex County residents to live a better life.”
To stay up to date with ECCF’s Impact Essex County initiative and the Alpha Project, Empowering Economic Opportunity, and to learn more details, visit www.eccf.org/EEO and sign up for our newsletter here. You can also visit ECCF’s comprehensive data website, www.impactessexcounty.org.