By Josh Jacobson

In this blog post, I’ll discuss Strategy H: Apprenticeships, Paid Internships and other Work-Based Learning, otherwise known as “Learn & Earn,” though the thoughts here apply to the role of the broader community as a part of implementation of the entire plan.

I must admit, I’m heartened to see the impact the Economic Opportunity Task Force report Leading on Opportunity has already had on leaders in our community.  One’s familiarity with the report serves as a sort of litmus test on how plugged-in that individual is. Such is the nature (and legacy) of this important initiative.

I was at an unrelated meeting recently and when the subject of the report came up, one influential leader took out her dog-eared copy of the report, with post-its marking pages and highlighter on every page.  Leaders of nonprofits throughout Mecklenburg County see this effort as a blueprint to the future; a roadmap for social impact. I’ve also taken to carrying a copy of the Recommendation Matrix with me and find myself referencing it a lot.

Because of the work I do, I am also brought in contact with donors and volunteers who are outside the nonprofit mainstream – supportive people who have day jobs and do what they can to make a difference. And the news there is less rosy.  When I bring up the report, most of those people have not heard of it. Many are even unfamiliar with the Harvard University/UC Berkeley Study that inspired the initiative in the first place.

Such is the challenge for those who are working to implement this important work.  What is a seminal work to leaders in our community has perhaps yet to connect with the broader community.

Strategy H is focused on increasing paid work-based learning opportunities for students, and it uses my favorite language yet: “galvanize community.” To make good on this ambition, it will take more than civic leaders – it will take an entire community working collaboratively to “create apprenticeships, paid internships and other work-based learning programs.”

If you’ve followed this series all along, you know what is next – isn’t galvanizing community a unique strength of the arts, to inspire people and encourage them to think and act differently?

Storytelling as Advocacy

Strategy H is focused squarely on employer commitment and infrastructure development.  The pathway from student to employee is one that will require the buy-in of many along the way, and none more important than the businesses who employ our residents.  And while corporations are an important driver of this, so too must be the small businesses and trades that are less often at the table for civic initiatives.

When I speak to small business owners about their commitment to the work of any given nonprofit, many speak to moments that serve as inflection points – a time when their heart was touched and their minds changed.  While some were impacted by an experience in childhood or as a result of parenting, it is just as often a surprising anectdote from adulthood – a time when that person encountered a social cause that was unexpected and not planned. “I feel like I stumbled onto this cause…” is a typical comment.

Allowing people to “stumble upon” new and different ways of thinking is a strength of quality storytelling.

According to Donna Scott, founder of donna scott productions, the arts can make social issues easier to approach:

“Theatre can act as a neutral third party on topics. It has the ability to present issues and current events in a compelling story format to an audience. Since actors are playing the parts, the audience is naturally more receptive and open to the concepts presented. Reacting to a story being told feels safer to most than encountering real people involved in a specific situation.”

So there is something to the way the arts can frame social issues, to challenge the participant while also entertaining.  Robin Tynes, Artistic Director of Three Bone Theatre concurs:

“There is something very powerful about sitting together with strangers, who all have different experiences, in a dark room to witness live storytelling. It helps to develop empathy and an understanding of the effects of circumstances on people’s lives.”

Surely the same can be said for arts and cultural organizations throughout Charlotte in every discipline.  It is present in a recital for Carolinas Latin Dance Company and The Bechlter’s thrilling Inside Out program.  It can be found on the walls of the Levine Museum of the New South, in the ears of audiences at Tosco Music, and on the stages of producers like donna scott productions and Three Bone Theatre.

If we are looking to encourage local businesses to create new work-based learning opportunities and build a pipeline of CMS students into their companies, how can that ambition be helped along by storytelling? Or really any of the strategies expressed in Leading on Opportunity? The only limitation is the imagination.

Social Capital for Nonprofits

Indeed, a galvanized community can do almost anything.  And while the report calls for increased development of social capital for those in poverty, it is so often the nonprofits themselves, who are called upon to implement change, that lack the social capital (or the marketing budgets) to make a galvanized constituency possible.

I have become convinced that the challenge most organizations face is not only a strategic one but a relational one.  All the planning in the world is unlikely to be successful if the network isn’t there to deliver on it.  While this is a primary role of the board of directors, it is not for that group alone.  A board is comprised of 15-25 people, and nonprofits need tens of thousands of people to come alongside them to make real change.  We need an army and I believe we need the arts community to help draft them into service.

It is not hyperbole to suggest that our future as Charlotteans is at stake.  More than ever, we need the sort of storytelling that inspires people to act.  It is time for our incredible arts community to rise to this challenge.

JoshJosh Jacobson is Managing Director of Next Stage Consulting, a Charlotte-based firm focused on organizational development and fund development for the nonprofit sector. Josh has worked with more than 150 nonprofit organizations throughout the Carolinas, including both human services and arts organiations. Before relocating to NC, Josh spent his formative years working in the cultural sector as a fundraiser for The Juilliard School and Manhattan Theatre Club. Josh is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE) and is President Elect for the Charlotte Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.