“What more can city government do to promote upward economic mobility?” This is the question that Jason Ewas and Alexandra Valdez ask themselves every day at the City of Boston’s Economic Mobility Lab. Ewas, the Lab’s Director, and Valdez, the Director of Engagement, are dedicated to crafting collaborative projects that work closely with city residents to address major issues around economic mobility. City governments can ease the way for entrepreneurs and small businesses, or they can erect barriers. At the Mobility Lab, Valdez and Ewas know that certain groups are excluded from opportunity, and are doing everything they can to mitigate and remove those barriers.
Together, the two spoke with Data-Smart City Solutions about the relationship between resiliency and economic mobility, the importance of data, and the lessons they’ve learned in Boston. Their dedication to the work, and their respect for everyone they engage with, sets forth a model for how cities can actually impact the economic mobility of its residents. Cities must examine and improve their role in helping — and sometimes hindering — economic mobility.
The Economic Mobility Lab is a small group of social entrepreneurs located in the Mayor’s Office of Policy; in addition to Ewas and Valdez, there is one other full-time fellow. Valdez recently moved to the Lab; previously, she was a Mayor’s Liaison to Latino communities in Boston. Valdez ensures that the Lab is directly involved in the communities that will be affected by the projects and policies. As a communicator and engager, Valdez also recognizes that when the Lab goes into a community, she’s helping bring city government to those who might not have had positive interactions with it in the past. Ewas oversees the Lab’s portfolio of projects and pilots, which involves meeting with and organizing both the internal and external partners. The Lab works cross-departmentally in city hall, but also engages with many community and nonprofit partners as part of its dedication to engagement. Ewas is also the research lead on the quantitative side. The Lab uses a mixed-methods approach for research, implementation, and evaluation of its projects; Valdez shores up the qualitative side.
The Lab investigates what city government can do to improve upward mobility through an innovative mix of research and testing, with significant emphasis on building partnerships and community engagement. The Lab will research new ideas, then test the most promising ones with both internal and external partners; after piloting, the initiatives are evaluated for effectiveness. The next step is either scaling the project, within city government or with an external partner, or going back to the drawing board to adjust or amend the original pilot.
Founded in 2017, the Lab was a flagship of Boston’s Resiliency Strategy. Traditionally, urban resiliency trends toward infrastructure, climate change, and disaster planning, but the Lab makes the case that equity is the foundation of resiliency. Ewas explained that “the founding principle of Boston’s Resiliency Strategy was that racial equity and economic equity are critical parts of resilience.” While Boston does still focus on physical infrastructure, the Lab values building up and securing people in ways that extend beyond disaster planning. According to Ewas, Boston “will be able to better weather other challenges if we’re promoting equitable opportunity for all people.”
To that end, the Lab focuses on childcare/early childhood, college/career transitions, and unexpected expenses and financial empowerment. These were chosen through a mixed-methods research process, identifying where there were existing gaps and where the Lab could build on strengths in the city’s economic mobility ecosystem. In addition to considering the quantitative research, the Lab also partnered with the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics and the design firm IDEO to conduct in-depth interviews with a diverse cross-section of Boston residents. The Lab talks about those “key moment” focus areas because that’s how the interviewees identified what mattered to them. From a content perspective, those were also the areas that municipal governments haven’t done as much or haven’t worked through systematic barriers, especially in regards to childcare.
The method for choosing focus areas is reflective of how the Lab approaches all of its projects; peoples’ voices have significant weight. Traditional research can skim over the stories and experiences of its subjects, something that Valdez and Ewas challenge themselves to avoid. While research and data are critically important, they make sure to do mixed-methods research and engage any population that would be impacted by their work. Valdez always guides new projects by asking herself “Who is our audience? And how are we making sure we’re communicating with them effectively?”
Effective communication means accessibility and inclusivity “in every shape or form that we can think of.” This means that Valdez studies every area and neighborhood of the city, in every aspect that the Lab can imagine, to develop a more intuitive way to communicate. Seeing how each place operates differently means the Lab can harness specific data and bring the projects directly to people. That familiarity, and respect, helps them build and develop projects that will actually address identified needs in the community. Valdez acknowledges that this work is time consuming; however, she’s a strong advocate of that person to person contact, and feels that the success of a project is directly tied to that initial interpersonal connection.
On the quantitative side, the Lab partners with universities and research centers to help with survey and data generation. Pre-existing data can be difficult to match to the Lab’s questions, since they’re innovating in a space that is complex and mutli-dimensional. The Lab wants to convey that economic mobility means talking about people at different levels and at different points in their lives. Due to this dimensionality, the Lab doesn’t just set one metric; instead they’ve built out a pathway. Ewas wants to make sure that both the Lab and the city are creating pathways for everyone regardless of where they are, which necessitates having different measures that resonate or matter for different people.
An example of this process is the childcare initiative that the Lab has just launched. In collaboration with the Office of Women’s Advancement, the Lab has developed the Childcare Entrepreneur Fund, focused on helping in-home childcare providers. Through meetings with the Office of Women’s Advancement, conversations with childcare providers, and citywide parent surveys, the Lab identified challenge areas and opportunities for the city to provide assistance. For the childcare providers — almost exclusively women — it always went back to wanting more economic stability. The Lab is focusing on specific, smaller childcare providers, especially ones in Boston Housing Authority.
The Childcare Entrepreneur Fund launched on October 17, 2019 and applications (in English and Spanish) are open for one month. The Fund will award small startup grants to early educators who want to start up new childcare businesses, awards for existing childcare providers, and one for childcare co-op entrepreneurs. In line with the Lab’s dedication to their communities, the project will not simply end with the financial grants. With the Office of Small Businesses, the Lab will continue to support award winners with trainings around building strong businesses, managing financials, or finding expansion help. In-home childcare is connected to a specific population, and Valdez was concerned that they were often overlooked. As female and/or minority-owned micro-businesses, the Lab wants to ensure childcare providers receive the same help that other Boston businesses receive.
Valdez and Ewas are eager to share the lessons they’ve learned in Boston. They’re hopeful that other cities will want to tackle the barriers and systems that have created unequal economic opportunity for specific segments of the population. For Valdez, this comes back to her reminder that everything is different. As she said, “we have to give each initiative its own individual world and attention. Sometimes we can get lost in trying to get one strategy to work for everything.”
Ewas gave advice that can be applied to much of the equity work that is being done by city employees today. As he said, “It can be easy to get downtrodden or frustrated with things globally, federally, at all different levels, and it can be easy to say that the thing you’re doing won’t solve all the problems. But the way that you get to the changes is by doing things...don’t get bogged down in the big picture but just move forward.”
With dedication and integrity, Valdez and Ewas are willing to put in the work to correct a legacy of unequal economic mobility. After all, there are many answers to the question of what more can a city do to promote upward economic mobility. It’s up to everyone to bring the Lab model into their own work, and assist their community in finding the solutions.