FUSE Fellow, FUSE Corps
Education: Current Ph.D. Student in Spatially Integrated Social Sciences (University of Toledo), Master of Planning (University of Southern California), Master of Public Administration (University of Toledo), Graduate Certificate in Municipal Administration (University of Toledo), B.A. in Geography (University of Toledo)
Describe your job. What are some of the most important tasks or duties for which you are responsible?
I was recently selected as a 2019-2020 FUSE Fellow assigned to a project entitled “Forging Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration for Community Economic Development.” FUSE Corps (https://fusecorps.org/) is a national nonprofit that partners with local government to help urban communities thrive. The organization works with cities and counties on a range of issues, including economic and workforce development, healthcare, public safety, climate change, and education. They work closely with government partners to design yearlong strategic projects, recruit experienced leaders to take on those challenges, and provide ongoing support to assist selected fellows in achieving their full potential for community impact.
I am responsible for creating a blueprint for effective, multi-stakeholder economic development designed to assist the City of Wichita, Kansas in the development of robust partnerships to bring housing, infrastructure improvements, and economic vitality to distressed communities within the city. I will also be responsible for developing a national model on how to successfully utilize Opportunity Zones, a viable tool for effective community economic development work in urban communities across the U.S.
Over my 20+ year work history, some of my previous positions have been with the City of Toledo, the City of Pasadena, Los Angeles Community Development Commission, United Way of Greater Toledo, and Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC). Each position addressed community and neighborhood development in urban areas throughout the U.S.
What attracted you to this career path?
It was a high school sociology course that first led me to consider geography as my field of study. I found that I was very much interested in how groups and individuals both interacted with and were affected by one another in our nation’s cities. When I entered college as a freshman, I sought a major that would allow me to study people, both from an individual and group perspective. Geography was not initially on my radar as I assumed that sociology or even psychology would be the path to take. However, in review of my college bulletin and each department’s list of courses offered, it was initially city and regional planning that would later transition to geography and planning that offered the courses that most peaked my interest. And so, as an undergraduate I graduated with a B.A. in Geography.
My graduate studies led me to seek out an advanced degree not only in planning, but also public administration. It was my thought that both local government and the nonprofit sectors played key roles in implementing change in communities. I desired to engage in a career path that would allow me to be most impactful in being a change-agent whose daily work would bring positive impacts to communities. With that as my motivation, I found myself drawn to positions working with either local or county governmental entities, as well as local nonprofits that also held a national or international footprint.
How has your education/background in geography prepared you for this position?
My background in geography has been invaluable for each of my professional positions. Being true to Tobler’s “First Law of Geography”, I have been trained to approach phenomena occurring within society from the perspective that “everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.” This foundational perspective on how to observe and perceive phenomena within cities, neighborhoods, and communities has charged me with always approaching my work in a broad manner. As geographers we are trained to look broadly and approach problems from a multi-dimensional and multi-faceted vantage point. My professional experience has shown me that many outside of geography approach both problem-identification and problem-solving from a very narrow and fragmented approach that overly simplifies how to address issues within our communities. For me, as a practicing geographer, such an approach is both counter-intuitive and counter-productive.
What geographic skills and information do you use most often in your work? What general skills and information do you use most often?
Geographic skills that are most often used in my work are: 1) Understanding of Scale – The ability to discern both the importance and relevance of scale in any analysis. As geographers, we should be keenly aware of how scale impacts both our perspective and analysis. I am often reminded of the relevance of scale in my work in local communities. 2) Geographic Information Systems (GIS) – Ability to utilize GIS as a tool for both the visual display of spatial phenomena as well as a tool of spatial analysis. Even if my position has not required its use, I utilize this software to enhance my own understanding of the communities I have served.
General skills that are most often used in my work are: 1) Interpersonal skills – The ability to build both individual and organizational relationships that foster the establishment and maintaining of trust. In a world of limited resources available for addressing unlimited challenges, the ability to build, develop, and deepen relationships with individuals and organizations in your community for collective impact is paramount to being able to usher in change. Having the skillset to maintain positive relationships is highly important in my experience. 2) Written communication – The ability to convey and relay information in a clear and concise manner. Communication in the written form (whether through emails, letters, and/or reports) is a task that I use often. Being able to hone in on key ideas and synthesize information is essential for successful communication.
Are there any skills or information you need for your work that you did not obtain through your academic training? If so, how/where did you obtain them?
My academic training taught me about the relevance of geography as a field of study and provided me with many opportunities to learn and explore how to engage in practice. However, because of my focus on urban communities, racial/ethnic disparities, and practice through the role of nonprofits and government, I found a need to seek out more specialized practical experiences. To gain more real-world insight I served as a volunteer with both AmeriCorps State and National and served a term as an AmeriCorps VISTA Summer Associate (https://www.nationalservice.gov/programs/americorps), where I worked with cities and nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity of Charlotte. I have also served on the Board of Directors for a local community action agency in order to gain a better understanding of poverty issues. I believe both vantage points of academia and practice are necessary to truly create long-term positive change in our cities.
Do you participate in hiring, screening, or training of new employees? If so, what qualities and/or skills do you look for?
Not currently, but I have in the past. I looked for applicants that showed the ability to think beyond the task at hand and view the work broadly and comprehensively. I also looked for applicants who seemed to align philosophically with the mission of the organization and who were not applying to simply get a job. I desired people who wanted to help move our organization’s mission forward.
What advice would you give to someone interested in a job like yours?
Recognize the strength you bring as both a geographer and a broad thinker. I have come to understand that many practitioners tend to become locked into the perspective, purpose and mission of their organization exclusively, which is unfortunate because many of the issues that impact communities are not typically things that any one organization can address. I have found that the most innovative and impactful organizations are those that recognize that it most often takes collective approaches to address the challenges facing our communities. Be an advocate for collective-impact and cooperative relationships for change.
What is the occupational outlook for career opportunities in your field/organization, esp. for geographers?
As a geographer, because I am currently pursuing my Ph.D., I have the option of entering into teaching and research within academia. At the same time, because of my professional experience I also have the option of pursuing employment both within the nonprofit or governmental sectors. Currently, because of the flexibility it provides, I have focused on providing contractual services as an independent consultant. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects all of these career paths to grow in the next 10 years. Therefore, I believe there will continue to be a place for these interests and skillsets with regard to future employment opportunities both within academia and practice.