Innovation Ecosystem

Creating the on ramp for better jobs, better lives

Genesis Center provides job training and wraparound services, including daycare and language learning, to help community residents find a pathway toward success

Photo courtesy of Genesis Center

Shannon Carroll, executive director of the Genesis Center

Photo courtesy of Genesis Center

The Genesis Center childcare center serves about 100 children at its 5-star Bright Star facility

By Richard Asinof
Posted 8/16/21
An interview with Shannon Carroll, the executive director of Genesis Center, who is leading numerous initiatives in providing job training and wraparound services to support low-income community members enter the workforce.
How much of the federal funds from the American Rescue Plan will be invested in job training programs focused on low-income families? What are the opportunities to create cooking classes utilizing top chefs in the Providence restaurant community to offer better cooking skills to low-income families? What kind of coordination is there with health equity zones around the training and deployment of community health workers? How has the presence of more women in the R.I. General Assembly influenced the ability to enact legislation to provide better support for women’s health care priorities?
One of the unmet needs around health care delivery is the scarcity of health care clinics in schools that provide the mental health and behavioral health care needed by students. It seems as if it would be smart to convene a community wide conversation, not just of institutional stakeholders, but with students and teachers and parents as participants, to help to design a new approach to school-based health care clinics. And, to include school-based nurses as part of the conversation.

PROVIDENCE – There has been a rash of good publicity with the opening of the new Genesis Center restaurant, CHOP, the “Culinary Hub of Providence,” at the Providence Public Library, which will serve as a brick-and-mortar training ground for the agency’s culinary arts program, which has served, as a recent story in The Boston Globe with the clever headline, “Browse and Graze,” described it, as a “pipeline” for workers at local restaurants.

But the Genesis Center serves as much more than an apprentice program for jobs in the restaurant industry. Its educational programs include training for health care jobs, including medical assistants, CNAs, and dental assistants. The agency also features wraparound services for its clients, including financial and job counseling, daycare, and language skills – and even a program, “Keys To Success,” which helps clients save up to $2,000 and then matches that amount, to help them buy a car, a necessity for being able to get to work and maintain a job.

At a time when it often appears that the forces of entropy are winning in Providence, given the long hot summer and the continuing coronavirus pandemic, Genesis Center is serving as the family backbone for clients.

ConvergenceRI caught up with Shannon Carroll, executive director at the Genesis Center for much of the last decade, to ask her to talk about her vision for creating a better future for the clients that her agency serves.

It is a conversation that had begun a decade ago, in 2011, when ConvergenceRI was working at The Providence Business News, and he had attended a training for job interview skills, which focused on the “soft skills” that potential job applicants needed to master.

The interviews were being held at Dorcas Place, under the watchful eye of a portrait of the agency’s founder, Sister Mary Reilly, with whom ConvergenceRI had collaborated with in 1995, when working with United Way of Rhode Island. It is a small world, after all.

“The pandemic has been terrible on everyone’s mental health,” Carroll said, whether they are rich or poor. “It has been a difficult time. But I think with any community, whether it is a learning community, or a close-knit neighborhood, we all look out for each other.”

The one word that kept coming in focus groups with clients and community members, Carroll continued, was “family.”

The forces fighting against entropy in Rhode Island’s urban core cities, building up resilience and creating economic opportunity for those who live lives of not so quiet desperation, are rarely celebrated when it comes to events talking about the innovation ecosystem, particularly the bottom-up approach that is focused on community needs.

One of those is Shannon Carroll, the executive director of Genesis Center, who has stewarded thousands of adults into the job market, providing childcare, language skills and job skills training,

Much like Angie Ankoma, now with the Rhode Island Foundation, and her work on health equity with the Sankofa Initiative in the West End of Providence, and Jennifer Hawkins, executive director of ONE Neighborhood Builders, Carroll is a community leader whose vision is changing the landscape toward achieving a place-based community. Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Shannon Carroll, the executive director of the Genesis Center.

ConvergenceRI: In your work, you seem to be involved in so many initiatives that are creating positive outcomes in Providence, related to the convergence, if it is OK to use a bad pun, with your work at the Genesis Center.
CARROLL: We try hard, and we have a great team that works with the community, We try to get feedback from them – and what they need – and design our programs around that. That’s what we do.

ConvergenceRI: Way back when, I think it was in 2011, I attended a series of training exercises you were conducting for people prepping for job interviews in the hospitality industry sector. At that time, it was important for people to learn the “soft skills” in order to get a job. Today, how important is it for people to have the soft skills in order to find a job, given how disrupted the current economy has become?
CARROLL: Are talking about the soft skills when you watched us do practice interviews ? Or, are you talking about job training with the hard skills? I can talk about both things.

ConvergenceRI: You decide. It is your interview.
CAROLL: I think that back in 2010, it was almost a novelty to have what we’re going to call success skills as part of a training program.

Now, they are so married together that we can’t separate the two. I think a lot of the things that we have learned through our work at the Genesis Center we now take for granted. That a lot of what we call the soft skills, they are embedded in our work, it is a critical part of all the trainings we do, the wrap-around services and the success skills needed for doing any sort of job.

Those are integrated with the hard skills training. We do a lot of health care training of health care workers, particularly for those on the front lines.

These are direct support positions, such as medical assistants, CNAs, and direct support professionals. Traditionally, they have not paid very well, but they are great entry points for our community we work with right now.

Obviously, we want to get them into the health care [job market], and without question, they need hard skills training. And, we can offer that in a cost-efficient way. So, for example, our medical assistant training, it is free for most participants, or there is a nominal fee, whereas a proprietary school will charge people $20,000 for the same training.

I think we are meeting the demands of our clients, who want to have access and opportunity to jobs like that – as well as the wraparound services and the soft support skills that we offer.

And then, we help them to map out a career pathway, if they have the desire to move on into other occupations within the health care field.

ConvergenceRI: You used the phrase, “our community.” Could you define what you meant by that?
CARROLL: Sure. Our mission is to serve low-income individuals. And so, many of the low-income individuals I am talking about are people from neighborhoods that are diverse communities that traditionally lack access to jobs and education. So, we are here to help them open those doors.

ConvergenceRI: What do you think have been your most successful programs? Has it been with health care? Has it been with the hospitality industry? Has it been with the restaurant industry? And, how would define success?
CARROLL: Probably our oldest and most successful training program that people know us for is our culinary program.

I always used to say that there are very few restaurants in the Providence area that do not have a Genesis Center graduate working there.

We have graduates that now have their own restaurants, their own food trucks, who have become executive chefs and managers of restaurants overseeing graduates of other culinary programs.

I think that has been a very good program; it has been highly visible, and now with CHOP, our restaurant and café, [serving as] the training hub of Providence, it will I think be highlighted yet again.

But, as we know, the restaurant business was very hard hit during the pandemic.

So, we are taking a little pause from our traditional culinary training as we reset, talking with employers to see what they need as we build out the training café.

In the past five years or so, we made a conscious decision to offer training programs in other sectors; we went all in on health care.

We have very deliberately put resources toward that, to build a nice foundation of entry-level jobs in that sector that have upward mobility and further training opportunities.

In the most recent years, the strongest demand from our community is coming for our health care programs, and those include medical assistants, which I think is the one that we have the longest waiting list for. And, for certified nursing assistants [CNAs], there is so much demand that we just started an evening program, so that people who work during the day at other jobs can take this training.

And pharmacy technicians; we are working with CVS; we are a pre-apprenticeship provider for CVS to train pharmacy technicians, which is also proven to be very popular.

And then we also offer, as one of our newest programs, training to become dental assistants.

There has been a dearth of dental assistants in the state. We have transitioned to remote learning; we were asked to do a hybrid-training program, specifically for people in East Bay, to do remote training, while the clinical piece is onsite at dental offices.

I think it was smart for us to focus on one sector that has a lot of opportunities in it, so we can help people with all those pathways.

ConvergenceRI: From your own perspective, what have you learned as part of this journey, of what is needed, and where there is a need to invest more resources when it comes to job training?
CARROLL: One of the things that I didn’t mention when I talked about the diversity of our population [that we serve] is the limited English proficiency part of it.

Along with the diversity comes many different languages, and to be able to go on and to take college classes, English proficiency is really an asset.

But, what I learned is that the more we listen to the community, to see what they need and what they want… I think maybe in my younger days I was little more presumptuous, “Oh, I know what this program needs, I know what our community needs;” I don’t.

What I learned was to really listen to the community and to listen to what our clients want and need.

I also think we have gotten a lot better at contextualizing our language instruction. So, helping people with whatever goals they have for a career, being able to be more efficient by providing language instruction in the context of work.

You are increasing language proficiency, and you are providing the knowledge and skills needed for a job. And, we have learned how to do that better.

It is tough being poor. You know, when people are really struggling to pay their rent, and to put food on the table, it is hard to focus on the longer-term career goals.

We have done a very good job of integrating all of those wraparound support services, whether it is financial counseling or job counseling, or efforts to help people access benefits to get the resources to help them focus on their training.

We really try to combine a lot of things to be more efficient and save time for our adult learners, who don’t have the time to devote a year or two to training for their jobs.

ConvergenceRI: In terms of working with other agencies and community groups, what kinds of partnerships have proven to be most beneficial? I was thinking that there is a lot of work being done around health equity zones, looking at health care solutions, for instance, and developing outreach community health care workers,
CARROLL: We are participants with the health equity zone in Elmwood; we have done a lot of work with them.

A few years ago, we realized that the more we collaborate, I know it may seem counter-intuitive, but, if we go in on a partnership with other people for a grant, even though we may not get the [largest] piece of the pie, it pays back in many other ways. It builds into other opportunities in the future. I think it not only benefited us but benefited the community and the workforce.

As a whole, other partners have included CVS. The hospitals in the area have also been key. We recognize the more we can integrate the competency of a community health worker with other health initiatives, the better.

We are strong partners with the R.I. Department of Education, the R.I. Department of Labor and Training, all of the state agencies. We work with the Providence Housing Authority; we do their adult ed classes now.

We know we can’t be experts in everything.

With our community partners, and our state partners, that really allow us ot offer comprehensive services to everyone.

ConvergenceRI: I remember doing a story about the Sankofa initiative, and the Genesis Center had put together a recipe book, and, as I recall, you were also doing cooking classes. Is that something that is still going on?
CARROLL: Yes. Things have paused a little bit, because of the pandemic, but we anticipate that CHOP will be hosting community events,

I see a lot more community events occurring, once we have CHOP up and running, because it is centrally located downtown. Our synergy with the library, another community partner, we have worked with them for years on expanding literacy initiatives.

And learning circles, which is another way for learners to get together and support each other in the development of English skills and computer skills.

ConvergenceRI: What haven’t I asked, should I have asked, that you would like to talk about?
CARROLL: Don’t let me forget to mention childcare, Because you can’t talk about workforce development if you don’t talk about childcare.

The pandemic has been atrocious and terrible, but one thing it has done is to highlight that childcare is a work support.

It is critical to have high quality, consistent, reliable childcare if we want people to go to work. Workers in the childcare field, they have traditionally been women from diverse backgrounds, who get paid very little. We need to recognize the importance of these workers and pay them more.

We’ve gone from a two-star to a five-star rated Bright Stars rated program, and we are now a state Pre-K site. I feel like our investment in our staff and in our childcare center have been paying off.

ConvergenceRI: What is your childcare center called?
CARROLL: We call it the Genesis Early Learning Center.

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