25 May Being the Change: A Story About When Systems and Visions Align
by Caroline Ridgway, Special to Florida Weekly
You know it’s a worthy celebration if both cake and social good are on the agenda, and the Southwest Florida Community Foundation knows how to shine a light on people coming together to make a difference. Recently the organization convened its signature Women’s Legacy Fund at a formal luncheon to unveil preliminary results of their three-year grant program supporting initiatives related to workforce development and opportunities for girls and women in healthcare. Attendees heard directly from beneficiaries of the grant, who reported strong early outcomes and increasing uptake.
Nearly 100 contributors and advocates of the Women’s Legacy Fund gathered at the Collaboratory on April 12 to learn details of the grant’s impact to date, as well as workforce and demographic data underscoring the project’s importance. Southwest Florida Community Foundation President and CEO, Sarah Owen opened the conversation by observing the extent to which the Women’s Legacy Fund (WLF) represents “the marriage of vision and ideas.” The WLF’s stated mission is “to engage women in effecting change in our community through collective philanthropy,” pursuing the goal to inspire, educate, and empower.
WLF Contributor Gail Baumgarten noted that, while opportunities for girls and women have evolved, actions such as this “help girls realize it’s a big world and they have a place in it.” Adriana White, also a WLF contributor, echoed those remarks, and offered her appreciation for how the “women involved pour out their love and passion into the community.” This is the WLF’s first multi-year grant cycle and was targeted towards workforce development in the healthcare sector in recognition of significant public need.
Beginning with a review of the nonprofit Institute for Women’s Policy Research March 2018 report on The Status of Women in Florida by County: Health and Well-Being, considering a standard academic grading scale, Florida earned a C- on the composite index. While an improvement over 2014’s score of D+, the ranking remains troubling. The researchers considered a range of public health determinants across both physical and mental wellness.
An evaluation from the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, Florida Women’s Funding Alliance, and Florida Philanthropic Network, The Status of Girls in Florida: Educational Attainment and Disparities by County, released in February 2019, illuminates poor system support for elementary through high school girls, including academic and behavioral metrics. Examining early reading proficiency, there are wide disparities across race and ethnicity, with girls identifying as Hispanic or Black underperforming relative to their White, Asian, American Indian, Pacific Islander, and other peers. Influences of systemic differentiation persist into students’ high school years, when Black students are more likely to be subject to arrest at school than their White counterparts, with the likelihood even higher for Black girls than boys. Drop-out rates at the high school level are also statistically higher for Black and Hispanic students than for White students.
Collectively, the result is a proliferation of young adult women who are academically unprepared to enter the workforce in a sustainable way, and lacking access to high-paying employment. Considering these data, luncheon participants engaged in small-group dialogue around why girls are not performing equitably in the school system, and what do we have to gain societally from better educational parity. Myriad reasons contribute to these trends, and the motivations to work towards correcting them are equally abundant and critical, with implications for the vitality of Southwest Florida’s workforce.
Sharing results from a recent WorkForce Now report depicting a regional workforce and economic review, Dr. Aysegul Timur, Assistant Vice President of Strategic Initiatives, Strategy and Program Innovation at Florida Gulf Coast University, alerted audience members to the dynamic and shifting nature of jobs in Southwest Florida, as well as the demand in many areas. Looking ahead, substantial need for new employees will be in sectors related to healthcare and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math). These jobs tend to be high-paying but require, generally at a minimum, some college education. To thrive in the near future, the economy and availability of jobs in Southwest Florida demand better diversification, which, in turn, requires investment into workforce training and job readiness.
Acknowledging the deficiencies in educational preparation and employment gaps, the good news is the efforts of the FutureMakers Coalition and the Women’s Legacy Fund are driving real local change. Hearing from a panel of FutureMakers Partners representing Cypress Cove at HealthPark Florida, the Lee County School District, Fort Myers Technical College, and Physicians Primary Care of Southwest Florida, it is plain that proactive, strategic collaborations between educators and employers can be effective at addressing employment gaps.
Through thoughtful system alignment, and financial support, including that of the Women’s Legacy Fund over the next three years, 80 percent of locally vacant Certified Nursing Assistants’ roles have been filled, and the program has been recently expanded to include Medical Assistants. Panelists noted in good humor that achieving this degree of partnership isn’t rocket science, but may even be harder in day-to-day practice. Substantial time and effort have gone into establishing the credibility of the program, bringing stakeholders together, hosting community events, sharing information, and removing barriers.
This sort of program hits our community where it is most needed. The majority—91 percent—of enrolled students are women, many of whom exited school or the workforce early due to external circumstances and are now seeking the chance to pursue additional opportunities. WLF grant funding continues to enable program administrators to address the financial obstacles of school tuition as well as the costs of the certification exam. Program participants come from throughout Southwest Florida. To date, 313 have completed the training, and 250 have been placed in competitive employment.
Southwest Florida is fortunate to be home to many difference-makers. The power of a group like the Women’s Legacy Fund is its collective strength. The individual meaning to those whose lives are changed is undeniable. The magnitude of the challenges faced may seem daunting, but the commitment of a few can mean real benefit for many.