With $25 million in state funding, the University of Memphis is weaving several university centers and community organizations together to the benefit of some 2,500 West Tennessee families over the next three years through workforce training programs and related wraparound services.
U of M received the grant, which it says is the largest in the university’s history, as Tennessee begins spending down on a reserve for funds for low-income families. In 2019, the state was reported to have more than $730 million in unused federal funds.
The state will use $175 million of the current $700 million it has in unused funds from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to fund pilot programs to help families in need. U of M is the lone university among the seven recipients of the $25 million grants, which Gov. Bill Lee and the Tennessee Department of Human Services announced last week.
SPENDING RESERVES: gov. Bill Lee announces $175M in grants as Tennessee starts to spend reserves for needy families
FUNDS FOR WORKING FAMILIES:Report: Tennessee has $730 million in unused block grant funds for poor working families
U of M’s program is called “Growing Relational and Occupational Wealth in West Tennessee Households” or GROWWTH, for short, and was developed from information researchers collected through interviews with 451 TANF recipients across each county in West Tennessee.
The project, set to begin this case, will resource West Tennessee families with upskilling and job training and will help address barriers like childcare and transportation, explained Richard Irwin, executive dean at U of M and lead on the project.
Speaking to U of M board members in the spring, Irwin said the U of M’s project focus on “the self, the family and the child” would define its proposal to the state.
Job training academy, mental health supports part of new U of M program
The family interviews provided “enlightening” data, Irwin said: 94% of the respondents wanted to work, U of M found, and of those, two-thirds said they needed upskilling or training. Many also indicated a need for mental health support.
“There’s such a myth out there that people just…don’t want to (work). That they want to stay on benefits,” said Irwin, who is dean U of M Global and academic innovation. “I was pleasantly surprised to hear people indicate that they want to work…Now, we also then found out that there are barriers to that.”
As families told U of M about those barriers to working, like getting childcare or transportation, employers were telling U of M a similar story. These challenges shaped much of the program U of M then developed, Irwin said.
A team of people will canvas West Tennessee for eligible families to qualify for the program. People in care coordinator positions will help determine what people need and which of the GROWWTH wraparound services they’ll benefit most from, Irwin said.
U of M is working on a job training curriculum to include three weeks of workforce readiness training and a second component of specific skill training for a person’s interests.
Workforce Midsouth among dozen-plus partners
The U of M began working on the project after Kyla Guyette, president of Workforce Mid-South, brought the idea to Irwin, he said, and the workforce group will remain part of the project, as will the Southwest and Northwest Tennessee Workforce Boards.
Tennessee initially whittled down more than 80 respondents to a request for proposal to 17 who got planning grants for the proposal. U of M created GROWWTH with $445,000 in state-awarded planning funds, Irwin said, before ultimately being chosen to carry out the project, which will include the following partner organizations:
- Abyssinian Baptist Church
- American Job Center
- economic opportunities
- MICAH (Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope)
- Stand for Children
- Whole Child Strategies, Inc.
- The Organizing Expert
- community lift
The following U of M centers are also involved in the project:
- Office of Professional & Continuing Education (PACE)
- Center for Community Research and Evaluation (CCRE)
- Center for Workplace Diversity and Inclusion (CWDI)
- Institute for Interdisciplinary Memphis Partnerships to Advance Community Transformation (iIMPACT)
- Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change
In a statement, U of M President Bill Hardgrave called the project “a testament to the ability of departments across our University and partners in our region to work together and create upward economic opportunities for West Tennessee families.”
When Irwin presented the project to the board, trustee Cato Johnson, a senior executive with Methodist Healthcare, praised the state’s Department of Human Services Commissioner Clarence Carter and acknowledged the TANF surplus Carter was tasked when he began in 2021, with spending.
“They had been using the same processes. So people who were on welfare stayed on welfare. Nothing ever changed,” Johnson said.
Johnson called the GROWWTH proposal a “tremendous project.”
Laura Testino covers education and children’s issues for the commercial appeal. Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-512-3763. Find her on Twitter: @LDTestino