CivicLab has been a partner of the FutureMakers Coalition since its inception; the organization helped design the partnership, with LeSage benefiting from coaching from the ground up. “I have been doing [CivicLab’s] stakeholder engagement process in every iteration for the past eight years,” she says. But the Hendry initiative, part of CivicLab’s Building Rural Community Systems cohort, is more narrowly focused. “I knew that to seize this opportunity with Hendry, we needed that capacity-building,” LeSage says.
The FutureMakers team is also benefiting from the exchange of information with other members of the rural cohort, both offering and receiving advice. Its navigator program, for instance, was informed by the challenges faced by other rural communities. “I'm a firm believer in looking at what works elsewhere and replicating it here,” says LeSage. “I also really believe in sharing what we learn with others so that others don't have to go through all the pain and suffering that comes along with figuring stuff out.”
That attitude means LeSage and her team also take full advantage of CivicLab’s coaching and technical assistance – and she urges others to follow suit. Often, LeSage observes, organizations overlook offers of technical assistance because they don’t value it as much as money, or they think they lack the time. Both attitudes, she says, are misguided.
“If you don't take the time, you are never going to grow your capacity. I've had people say that FutureMakers was moving too slowly in the beginning. But I'm thankful I didn't buckle to that [pressure] and did the work to give it a solid foundation and a good process for working together -- because it's literally what has made it a successful model and made us sustainable.” (FutureMakers recently received a $23 million Good Jobs Challenge grant from the Economic Development Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce.)
Likewise, CivicLab’s mapping tools have helped FutureMakers visualize the system they are working with so they can change it to better serve Hendry County residents. “We were trying to see who the players were, and what we found is that you can focus on GEDS and credentials or whatever, but you're going to have to solve every problem because rural communities are so small and everyone wears a million hats,” LeSage says. “We're really not just doing education and workforce work, we’re serving a whole person, a whole family.”
The FutureMakers team also found, as is common, that instead of solving problems, the various organizations were simply managing them. As a result, Future Makers brought partners together to better understand the problems and how they intersected, and how to address them collaboratively. “We're trying to create an asset map of what exists now in Hendry County, who's doing what and where gaps might be, and then the navigators will use those to help a person remove barriers,” says LeSage. “And once we identify gaps, we and the partners will look for funding to fill in some of them.”
Although the Hendry County work is in its early stages, LeSage says she is pleased with how the team is building relationships and valuing their efforts. “I'm really excited about how we can leverage this work to get more resources for Hendry County and to shine a light on how amazing that community is and how much it can flourish if given the opportunity,” she says.
Still, LeSage knows too well, it’s a race against the clock: “I’m scared because the time is limited. We need time for people to be able to get their GEDs. It takes time for people to learn English, and it takes time for people to earn credentials. We don't want to miss our opportunity given how quickly the economic development is moving in Hendry County.”
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