Breaking down barriers in Brownsville


April 13, 2017


Mary Tobin can barely contain her excitement about the progress Brownsville is making.

Tobin is the director of The Brownsville Partnership, an initiative of Community Solutions to address employment, safety, and neighborhood conditions. She knows the challenges the community faces, and the stats on high poverty, low graduation rates, and other issues that, she says, keep her up at night. But as she and her team work every day with members of the community trying to improve their lives, she can’t help but feel awed by the potential of Brownsville.

Our new report, From Strengths to Solutions: An Asset-Based Approach to Meeting Community Needs in Brownsville, highlights the issues that face Brownsville and many of the efforts underway to address them. The report found that more than half – 54 percent – of Brownsville children are growing up in poverty. According to the report, much of that is driven by low employment rates. Fewer than half of working-age Brownsville residents are employed.

The Brownsville Partnership is working to change that. One of the cornerstones of the nonprofit Community Solutions’ anti-homelessness and anti-poverty work, the Partnership has been working since 2011 to identify and amplify the community’s strengths. The Partnership convenes other organizations and agencies to maximize resources and funnel them into effective programs that beautify open spaces, expand access to job training and placement and education, open satellite Boys and Girls Club programs and other youth enrichment programs in local facilities, help the 73rd Precinct engage youth, increase the efficacy of faltering systems like public housing, and otherwise equip Brownsville residents with the tools they need to thrive.

“We aim to be the connective tissue that connects funding and programs to community needs,” Tobin says.

One signature program, the Brownsville Employment Pathways initiative, targets unemployed individuals in some of the highest-risk categories – including young people with criminal justice backgrounds and single mothers – and provides them with employment resources like skills assessments, resume building, and workplace attire advice, as well as resources to address other barriers that may be keeping them out of the workforce, like housing instability or child care needs.

“Our goal is to reach out to unemployed individuals in critical demographics and say, ‘This is what success could look like for you,” Tobin says. “We want them to feel that getting a job is attainable and remove barriers to success.”

The Partnership is working to eliminate obstacles earlier in life for Brownsville residents as well. It’s currently working on prototyping a STEM pipeline that begins in elementary school and carries throughout high school, that will ultimately lead students to a STEM major in college, a STEM-related job, or an entrepreneurial venture.

“These are the jobs of the future,” Tobin says.

Her own team at the Partnership is proof that education and job training efforts work.

Every staff member was born and raised in Brownsville. One first discovered the Employment Pathways program when she came to it for help. She was homeless and had not finished high school.  With the help of the program, she moved from a homeless shelter into public housing, got her GED, and is now working on a college degree so she can become a certified counselor. She’s also working on improving her credit score so that she can buy a home in the next five years.

“These are goals she couldn’t fathom before people started helping her believe it was possible,” Tobin says.

That staff member is far from an isolated case. In June 2015, the Partnership opened a community center on the first floor of its building. The center is free and open to any Brownsville resident looking for job resources, tax advice, education direction or simply a place to mingle with other community members. Since its opening less than two years ago, the center has served 32,000 people.

“This place is a beacon of hope,” Tobin says. “These are people who are actively working to change for the better, and they come here for hope and help.”

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