In life and basketball, there are visions, missions, and signs . YouthForce NOLA’s Co-founder and President Cate Swinburn is kept awake by the vision leading the mission to create employment and career advancement opportunities while striving for greater economic empowerment for Black youth through high-wage career pathways. She can now rest a little easier with a $300,000 boost from the NBA Foundation. The NBA Foundation has given approximately $11 million spread over three dozen grants to organizations in the league’s communities; Swimburn recently explained how the NBA’s aid is helping her organization create a better New Orleans.
Swinburn shared, “Someone told me once: Your mission is what gets you out of bed in the morning. Your vision is what keeps you up at night. (Our) mission is built around creating this network of opportunities for our young people so they can build their career skills, connections, and confidence so they make much more informed choices.” The program’s demographic are “predominately black, predominately experiencing poverty. So we have this real exciting, comprehensive collaborative mission. Our vision is that our young people will be the most sought-after talent in our region.”
Then came the first sign: the NBA Foundation’s creation to address racial and economic issues. There was just one hurdle. Swinburn needed introductions and allies to champion the cause. “Someone sent me the announcement when the foundation was created last year and I highlighted in yellow, send to three board members: Who can help me get an introduction with the NBA Foundation?!”
Now, Swinburn admits it is kind of cool knowing Gayle Benson and Michael Jordan are onboard. Swinburn said, “Sharing a vision. It’s incredibly synergistic and exciting. I’ll stay up a little bit less at night worrying about the vision because…we are incredibly aligned.”
The NBA Foundation’s stamp of approval matters “locally and nationally. Locally, the work we coordinate in support of our young people is an all-hands-on-deck effort. This means bringing around school, employer, and training partners, community organizations, and our young people’s families all in the service of awareness of these opportunities. Nationally, this puts YouthForce NOLA’s name on a larger platform.”
This matters because their “work is around policy advocacy. A big reason a lot of our young people of color have not been able to access high-wage pathways has not been through a lack of skills or connections. It has been through policies and closed doors. The larger our platform the more we can have a voice to influence federal, workforce, or education policy. And again, funding opportunities.”
The biggest thing the program needs? “We need people to know these opportunities exist. We need people to donate their time, whether it is hosting a young person for an internship or a job shadow, or of course donate some money to support our efforts financially.” Swinburn anwsered.
Beyond those basics, “there are a whole range of things between giving money and hosting an intern” such as simply coming to speak, answering some questions. One never knows who they might inspire, or how much they may benefit from the experience. It’s even part of the pitch to employer partners.
Employers “love what we look at as the quadruple bottom line. In addition to the talent cultivation and pipeline work, it is an opportunity for staff to liaison with younger, insightful, creative people so now there’s an added value to their work product…There are also opportunities for their existing team to grow management and leadership skills interacting with these young people, marketing their company to future employees…There is the charity aspect to it. These companies love New Orleans and they want to support New Orleanians…” Swinburn pitched.
Every YouthForce NOLA job is educational: there is the youth but others must map out the mission to donors, policymakers, and the communities they serve. Swinburn walked through the options and experiences. “Everyone wants the young people coming behind them to have the exact educational and career pathway experience they had. Whether it is a teacher in a school saying ‘I did high school, I did a bachelors degree institution, I majored in education, and here I am. I can afford a house and a car. My pathway to stability and prosperity is this and that’s what I believe all young people should do.’”
Then she countered, “Well, some folks have lived experiences where it’s like, yeah, don’t do that. That did not work well. I want our young people to be able to kind of leapfrog these lessons learned. A lot of our work then is…giving young people increasing access and the confidence to not only seize the opportunity but to advance in them.”
Swinburn acknowledged “Mrs. Benson has a vast business portfolio with opportunities for our young people to learn about venture capitalism and entrepreneurialism, to learn about small business and brewing, sports and health science… Then there are also some fun opportunities to attend games.”
For example Swinburn offered that linking with the “NBA Foundation facilitated a deeper partnership with the Pelicans and broader Benson organization, both in opening doors for time and talent. Lots of our people love sports, want to work in sports. So now we have this deepening relationship with the Pels so (we) can not just see Zion Williamson in action but also the athletic trainers, facility managers, and sales reps. You know, all these different pathways around the brilliance that is basketball.”
Gameday integration does help get the word out. Swinburn explained the Economic Mobility Training Fund, which is announced during breaks in the games, as existing to support access to internships and career training. Maybe someone “hearing about our collective efforts is then contributing to this fund that helps black youth in New Orleans access paid internships and high-wage career training.”
Benson is big business. Small businesses need these programs to thrive just as much as the city and state governments. Swinburn has, “26 employees and growing who have incredibly complex work they need to do each day. I need them ready and when I need to fill new positions, I want everyone to be ready. A diverse, local workforce is going to have greater ideas, synergies, and outcomes….We want them to be local because they are going to be more loyal, they are going to have more insight. They are going to stay longer.”
“What we hear from employer partners…is this is about long-term talent cultivation. People in high school are not going to weeks later jump into full-time. This is built around providing insights and opportunities. (It) is about cultivating that longer-term talent pipeline that is local, diverse, and skilled.” Swinburn responed on employer feedback.
YouthForce NOLA is growing the tax base, giving the next generation a route to building a life close to home. “A well-skilled, well-employed citizenry is going to be more engaged. It’s going to grow the tax base, the customer base. It’s going to grow overall regional wealth. The City of New Orleans for example is a long-time partner. We have a shared vision of a more prosperous New Orleans,” Swinburn said.
That happens through more prosperous New Orleanians. “A lot of our work is around building young peoples’ awareness of the diversity of career pathways and the connections and skills into those different pathways. This is because of course, no one is going to train in a profession, going to apply for a job, if they do not know those jobs exist…or don’t think people that look like them can thrive within that company.”
These goals are accomplished by focusing “on a set of high wage, high demand resilient skill clusters (that are) are transferable. Our four are digital media/IT, health sciences, skilled crafts, and business services.”
Why these four? Market economics. “These four skill clusters have tons of jobs projected over the next 10 and 20 years. That job demand is what then creates resiliency. Looking at one’s ability to attain, then maintain prosperity, we want our young people looking at career pathways that we believe can weather the storms. Actual storms or pandemics. That’s something we saw through COVID is our priority skill clusters either saw no impact from the pandemic, rebounding, or saw an increase looking at health sciences,” Swinburn detailed.
They are focused on what will “yield the greatest return of opportunities. With that, we prioritize opportunities that in some cases a young person could go straight to work out of high school with a credential where others could leverage the chance into a bachelor’s or associate’s pathway. It is about maximizing options and pathways that our young people can pursue that are authentic not only to the interest but their skills.”
This collaboration between the NBA and YouthForce NOLA is not only aligned and authentic, but it is also legitimately beneficial to the past, present, and future of the game and city. Thanks to the NBA Foundation’s aid, Swinburn can sleep easy with her visions, dreaming of YouthForce NOLA’s next big move to make a positive difference for the city’s youth.