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Our Town DC: Eshauna Smith – CEO, Urban Alliance

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Our Town DC: Eshauna Smith – CEO, Urban Alliance

By Janice Iacona Ockershausen, January 29. 2019

Andy Ockershausen: This is Andy Ockershausen. This is Our Town. Speaking to an absolutely gorgeous young lady who has one of the high profile jobs, to me, in Our Town, and that’s Eshauna Smith, the head, the CEO of Urban Alliance, or The Urban Alliance, I think is the correct pronunciation. Is that right, Eshauna?

Eshauna Smith:nIt’s Urban Alliance.

Andy Ockershausen: I don’t want to say the?

Eshauna Smith: You don’t want to say the.

Andy Ockershausen: Okay.

Eshauna Smith: Our website is www.theurbanalliance.org, but the organization is Urban Alliance.

Andy Ockershausen: Well, it was a new word to me and I learned it through the Washington Board of Trade’s publications that I read religiously, because it’s about Our Town. And what you’re doing is so great for Our Town, what the Urban Alliance is doing. How old is the Urban Alliance?

Eshauna Smith: Urban Alliance is 22 years old. We began here-

Andy Ockershausen: About your age.

Eshauna Smith: Well, double. I am 43.

Andy Ockershausen: No way.

Urban Alliance – When and How it Was Started

Eshauna Smith: To make it official, yes, I am. But Urban Alliance was born 22 years ago in Washington DC in 1996. And it was born at the hands of a young person, or several young people who spoke about the need for jobs in the city, and to have jobs while in high school, and to have jobs that helped them to connect what they were learning in the classroom to the real world.

And one of those young people happened to say, “What I really need to make my experience better is a real job.” And we were lucky that one of our founders said, “Great. I am gonna help you to find that job.”

Andy Ockershausen: Who might that be?

Eshauna Smith: Well, that maybe-

Andy Ockershausen: A banker?

Eshauna Smith: He is now a banker, but at the time, he was a young attorney with the Department of Justice who had been at an event around stemming youth violence, that was pretty rampant in 1996. And not that the youth were doing that, but just the city was having a lot of challenges where young people were being victims of violence and lots of things going on to that extent.

And he happened to be a young attorney at this event where youth were speaking up about what would make this better. And so Andrew Plepler is our founder. He is today a banker, but at that time, he just wanted to help. And when this one young woman said, “What I really need is a job,” and when he said, “I will get that for you,” she then responded and said, “And I have five additional friends who need jobs.”

Andy Ockershausen: Wow. That’s a landslide for jobs. It’s always been about jobs. And what the Urban Alliance seized upon something, or did seize upon something, is we have a connection problem, I think, in Our Town. I think there are jobs, but we’ve gotta put the people with the jobs. And I hope that’s what the Alliance is focused on. We go way back to summer jobs for needy youths. And Marion Barry started in the early 70s. We were involved with him and with George Allen and the Redskins, and it was a great thing to see for Our Town.

But that was just summer. What you’ve done now is expanded, and you need a job, not just in the summer.

Urban Alliance – Focuses on First Time Job Experiences and Support

Eshauna Smith: That’s right. The summer jobs program in DC is a great opportunity. What we really try to do, and what we’ve been trying to do from the beginning, is to expand that into a … that first-time or initial job experience into a year-round, year-long experience where a young person works every day, but then also has certain supports wrapped around them.

Eshauna Smith: And I think you’re absolutely right about the jobs are here, the students are here, the young people are here. But it’s that bridge that hasn’t been here. And what Urban Alliance has really been doing for 22 years is acting as that bridge that brings together the employers and the young people. And we are that intermediary force that really makes this all work. And it’s the young people, the students … The students, the employers, and the schools, which I left out.

But that’s really where the magic happens, is that we recruit the students, we prepare the students, we talk to the employers, we work with the schools. And we really act as that bridging function to bring jobs and young people together.

Andy Ockershausen: Well, you probably have had a lot of life experiences, and probably none better than being born and grow up … You were born and raised on the West Coast, in Los Angeles. Is that your home, LA? I don’t wanna say LA, it’s Los Angeles.

Eshauna Smith – From Asbury Park to Los Angeles

Eshauna Smith: Los Angeles. It’s a long story. I was actually-

Andy Ockershausen: We want a long story.

Eshauna Smith: Okay, great! I like long stories. I was born in Asbury Park, New Jersey.

Andy Ockershausen: It’s only Asbury Park.

Eshauna Smith: Asbury Park, New Jersey. And my entire family, mom and dad, are from there. And I spent the first eight years of my life there. And then when my parents divorced, my mother followed her sisters, three of whom … Well, she has three sisters, all of whom had traveled to LA for a better opportunity. There weren’t lots of job opportunities in Asbury Park at the time. I think almost everyone either worked at the hospital or you worked at another … It was the hospital or nothing. I think both my grandmother, as well as my mom, were working at the hospital.

And so, she followed her sisters, and so I ended up being raised in Los Angeles with her and my aunts.

Andy Ockershausen: Well, Asbury Park took a beating in that big storm up there in Jersey, I know that. But you’ve gotten a lot of bad weather. Nothing is better than moving to Los Angeles. It’s definitely an upgrade from Asbury.

Eshauna Smith: It is. In terms of economic opportunity. But what I remember from being in Asbury Park is that we had family members on the block, we could walk to my grandparents’ home. All of your family was very close, and that really did help knit together a kind of-

Andy Ockershausen: Neighborhoods, absolutely.

Eshauna Smith:… community and reinforcement of support that definitely was not the same thing when we moved to LA, which was-

Andy Ockershausen: Different world.

Eshauna Smith:… big city, lots of things going on.

Andy Ockershausen: Well a guest that we had on Our Town, Pat Burke, who’s the head of the Police Foundation, could have been Chief of Police here but he retired to go into this other work. His whole thing now is neighborhoods. The police work is mostly keeping neighborhoods together because they support each other. And neighborhoods are very important. So you missed that, but you went to Los … Did you go to school in Los Angeles?

Eshauna Smith Graduated UC Berkeley with a Focus on Social Justice

Eshauna Smith: Went to high school … Well, elementary, middle, and high school in Los Angeles, and then went to UC Berkeley for college.

Andy Ockershausen: Yeah, I saw that. Berkeley’s not LA, of course. That’s a wonderful world.

Eshauna Smith: No, it’s Northern California.

Andy Ockershausen: I know where it is. They teach bomb throwing at Berkeley, of course. I love Berkeley.

Eshauna Smith: No, no they don’t. They teach a lot about social justice.

Andy Ockershausen: Berkeley is just … That’s where all the smart people go, to UC Berkeley. I know that.

Eshauna Smith: Well, they teach a lot about social justice. And there were some smart people there, but-

Andy Ockershausen: Very smart people.

Eshauna Smith: But if I could go back to your point about neighborhoods, which I think is important-

Andy Ockershausen: This affects the Urban Alliance. It sure does.

Urban Alliance Creates Bridge to Opportunities Senior High School Students Might Not Otherwise Have

Eshauna Smith: Absolutely. What we see is that there are certain neighborhoods where there’s not as much opportunities. We have students and we have young people who may live close to museums or the White House or the Capitol of the United States, but never get to those places, never get to experience those things because of the inequities in our economic structure, and because of lack of resources to do so.

And so, one of the things that Urban Alliance I think really has done is to help just bring young people into a new reality, into a different reality, into a space that’s different from their own so that you can connect with folks who may be living different lives than you, may be from different places than you, maybe have different experiences from you. And that is just critical, that exposure to something other than your own day-to-day gives you the opportunity to say, “Oh, there are multiple and different other kinds of possibilities out there for what I can do, what I can be, who I can become. And I’m not necessarily limited to only the things that I know.”

And that is another piece of the bridging, this bridging to exposure and a new reality.

Andy Ockershausen: Looking ahead, and that’s what you preach. And I think it’s wonderful. We’re having a great conversation with Eshauna Smith about the Urban Alliance. And we’re gonna take a break now and be right back. This is Andy Ockershausen, this is Our Town.

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Announcer: You’re listening to Our Town with Andy Ockershausen. Brought to you by Best Bark Communications.

Andy Ockershausen: This is Andy Ockershausen and I’m having a conversation with Eshauna Smith. I am so excited for Our Town, and I’d like to be here for the whole run of what it is. But having Amazon come, even though it’s Arlington, Alexandria, and Potomac … their impact is gonna be citywide, all of it. I would hope that some effort could be made, talk to Amazon people about your program. Maybe you’ve done it already, but they should make an obligation to more than just Arlington or Alexandria. Washington DC is very important to them and to the world, and certainly to the Urban Alliance.

And one of the things I’ve been reading about for Georgetown, they’re gonna have a boat service by people who will come to go to work there. Not the pleasure boats, but taxi service back and forth from Georgetown and from the waterfront, to give people a chance to take some of these jobs. And that’s a domino effect. You might work there and you might live somewhere else. And you’re gonna shop somewhere else, you’re gonna eat somewhere else, and you’re gonna enjoy your life maybe in Washington DC, but work for Amazon.

I hope the Urban Alliance jumps on it. You already have.

Urban Alliance Chapters : Washington DC, Northern Virginia, Baltimore, Detroit and Chicago

Eshauna Smith: Well, Andy, we are going to try to. And thank you for bringing up Amazon. We’re excited. This is a great opportunity for our city, for our region. So one of the things, since we were founded in 1996, Urban Alliance has expanded into some different cities, including … We have a whole chapter, Urban Alliance Northern Virginia.

Andy Ockershausen: Oh, I didn’t know that.

Eshauna Smith: As well as Detroit and Chicago and Baltimore. So we have five, now, cities that we are running our nine-month paid internship with over 600 students per year going through these year-long paid internships.

Andy Ockershausen: Publicly funded?

Urban Alliance – Providing the Next Generation of Workers Through Mostly Private Funding and Boot Camp Skills Training

Eshauna Smith: These are privately funded, for the most part. So the employers are paying Urban Alliance a fee of which most of that goes directly to the wage that the student is earning, because it is a paid internship. We also have philanthropic funding from major national and regional family foundations, and we have a small bit of federal funding as well.

So really, the employers are picking up a good bit of the tab. And so back to Amazon, we definitely think we are training the next generation of workers. We’ve got amazingly talented young people, who they go through very intensive professional skills, soft skills training with us before any internship ever happens. So they are getting immersed in things like critical thinking and problem solving and communication. And then they get into these internships if and only if they successfully complete this boot camp soft skills training that we put them through.

Andy Ockershausen: That is a good word for it – boot camp. We all have to go through stuff like that in life.

Urban Alliance – Looking to Make Connection with Amazon

Eshauna Smith: You do, and you have to learn. What does it mean to dress appropriately? What does it mean to have the right kinds of conversations and make eye contact and shake hands? And so, yes it is our hope that we will be able to make a connection and relationship to Amazon as an entity that’s been here 22 years that has many, many talented future workers.

Andy Ockershausen: Well, it would seem to me that the public relations effort of Amazon has been to talk about these $150,000 a year jobs they’re gonna have, they’re gonna create so many. You’re not looking at that. That’s not what Urban Alliance is in. But for everybody that makes that much money, they gotta spend it somewhere. They gotta spend it on food, clothing, transportation, and your efforts, then, come with the boot camp. You teach ’em about these things.

I don’t wanna interrupt your thought, but I will say as a graduate of Eastern High School, I got very familiar with the principal years ago, and he was a great guy. Now, he’s moved on up somewhere in the hierarchy, but he was telling me something that didn’t surprise me, but I wonder if it’s still true. He said, “Our biggest problem in the schools is time. People arriving and leaving on time.” By people, he meant students.

They gotta pay attention how important the clock is in life. And somebody’s gotta teach ’em that. We’re doing our best, but the parents gotta teach ’em that, too.

Skills Often Taken for Granted – Basic Life Skills

Eshauna Smith: Yeah. I 100% agree that those are the skills that often we take for granted. So we think that they don’t need to be taught, that you will somehow just by osmosis understand that you need to be on time and that you need to call in advance, or you need to have certain kinds of professional attire.

And so our philosophy at Urban Alliance is that these are skills that need to be taught. Basics that need to be taught. And they don’t necessarily teach them in high school. And there’s potentially good reason for that. High schools have many, many other priorities and things that they are focused on, and so that’s where, again, us as partners with the schools, to say, “Let us do this piece. Let us work on these soft skills, these professional skills, and get them ready and focused on the working world,” while you shore them up with basic academics.

Andy Ockershausen: Yeah, basic life skills.

Eshauna Smith: We can make a win-win here, so that they can be ready for the Amazons of the world.

Andy Ockershausen: But I know a lot of people that are gonna benefit and don’t even know it now, that are in lower-paying jobs because they know what’s happening with Amazon. But Amazon’s the tip of the iceberg. It’s gonna be a great revolution for Our Town. And one of the things the heads of the school said, “It’s not so much high school. These kids gotta learn that when they’re little kids, when they’re in grammar school, how important it is to get up, get dressed, and be on time.” All the things they need becomes then goes back to family.

You got it, I got it because the family did it. We didn’t learn that in school.

Eshauna Smith: Right. And some of our students have families who love them tremendously, but are stretched and are strapped.

Andy Ockershausen: Absolutely.

Eshauna Smith: And so, some of those lessons may not be transmitted. But what we try to do is that there are, by the time … So our internship, and I don’t know if I said this earlier, really focuses on high school seniors. And so there are many, many students by the time they get there, they haven’t gotten those lessons. And so this is one last amazing opportunity for them to be able to catch those lessons before they are handed off into the real world.

It’s like, “You’re an adult now. You’re 18. Figure it out.” But they never had the benefit of receiving those lessons and having adults who were able to take the time to impart that.

Andy Ockershausen: And you’re trying to fill that void. The Alliance is somewhere between home and the job. They’re gonna learn skills and you’re gonna help ’em.

“You’re trying to fill that void. The Alliance is somewhere between home and the job.” ~Andy Ockershausen

Eshauna Smith: I love that. That’s exactly what we are. We are between the home and the school. We are another set of caring adults who basically takes them and we open the door, they run right through. They just need a little support. I think that’s what I want people to take away, is that our young people are raring to go. They have the talent, they just need the support. And so we are another support for them.

Andy Ockershausen: That’s where the Urban Alliance comes in. This is Andy Ockershausen. We’re talking to a great leader. She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s gonna be a great leader. I can tell. Eshauna Smith. This is Andy Ockershausen, we’ll be right back.

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Announcer: You’re listening to Our Town with Andy Ockershausen.

Andy Ockershausen: This is Andy Ockershausen, and I’m speaking with Eshauna Smith from Urban Alliance. She’s the CEO, which means she’s the boss, and she has a grip, as I can see, on this city and what it is and what it needs to be. Our Town is a fabulous base to launch anything, I believe, Eshauna. And you’re proof of that here.

Eshauna Smith: Thank you.

Andy Ockershausen: I like what you’re saying about the job thing. You seize upon the fact that there are gonna be a lot of jobs available in Our Town. You’re preparing people for that.

Preparing for Change in Demand for Talent

Eshauna Smith: We are. There’s a lot of change happening right now. So you have college which has become extremely expensive. It was already hard for our students … It was already a little bit out of reach. And now the rising cost is making that more difficult. And then you have … We’re in a great labor market right now. Unemployment is low, and so you’re sort of getting this perfect storm where a lot of the companies that we work with are really in need of talent.

And then you layer on top of the fact that they really need diverse talent as well. And so, we are working more and more with companies who really want to … who really see the 17 and 18-year-olds that we bring in through this internship program as people they can hire right now. And that hasn’t been the case historically. I think in the beginning, it started off as, “Hey, this is a nice thing to do. This is our responsibility as a corporation.”

“But now, it’s also that they actually can bring benefit to us day one, even being only 17 or 18 and not having yet gone to college or gotten a credential of any sort.” So this is a great and new opportunity for Urban Alliance to think about where there is a student who is ready to go into a job and who has the supports that they need right away after high school. How do we connect those dots?

Whereas historically, most of our students were going off to two or four-year colleges. Most of them still do, but more and more of them are able to hit the ground running at the Marriotts of the world, the Quicken Loans of the world, the LinkedIns of the world, these major companies who are hungering for talent.

Andy Ockershausen: There is a talent pool that has to be expanded. I’ve been reading about it, I know what you’re talking about because it is important to have a pool of people to work and run your business. And when you can’t get ’em, you’re gonna pay the price. You got inefficient business and so forth. Some of these young people will add a lot of efficiency to the workforce.

Janice Iacona Ockershausen: Eshauna, excuse me. How do the kids find out about your program?

Eshauna Smith: Through their schools.

Janice Iacona Ockershausen: Guidance counselors?

How Students are Recruited into Urban Alliance Program

Eshauna Smith: Exactly. Massive recruitment across … Taking DC, for example, we recruited every single high school in the city. And guidance counselors are a critical part of that, helping us to identify students that will be eligible for the program. In DC, it’s additionally sweet that we’ve had cousins and sisters and brothers at this point, over 22 years, who’ve gone through the program. Students know that, “When I become a senior, I can apply for Urban Alliance.”

We’ve got kind of a built-in recruitment system in DC, more so. But it’s really through the schools that we mainly advertise the opportunity.

Andy Ockershausen: The schools that have the people, and they’ve got the people you’re looking for. And I’m so excited that you guys are onto the right track. And we know what it means to get that little bit of pump from high school into the workforce. It’s not easy; it’s a new world. We live with these kids at Don Bosco know what that is. But you’re doing it, and it’s gonna be more important every day to businesses to have a work pool available.

Senior High School Students Who Complete Commitment to Urban Alliance Program Have Ability to Compete in Workforce

Eshauna Smith: That’s right. And I want to give our students a little bit of a shout-out here, because they … When they take on the Urban Alliance internship, they are working nine months of their senior year. It is 600 hours of work. It is every day after school, they are trekking out to these companies between … They’re going three hours a day during the school year, and then in the summer it becomes a full-time job.

And if you can imagine doing this at the time of your senior year where there are many other obligations and things, everything from college applications to prom to all kinds of senior dues or what have you. And so, they make a huge commitment, and they follow through with it. And that alone is a huge-

Andy Ockershausen: 600 hours!

Eshauna Smith: 600 hours is a huge testament to their-

Andy Ockershausen: It’s almost a career.

Eshauna Smith:… to their ability to compete in the workforce. If you can do Urban Alliance, you can succeed in the workforce. You can succeed in life. And I think that’s what we’re really trying to show them. If you can get this done, everything’s pretty easy from here on out.

Andy Ockershausen: The opportunities will be there for you. That’s something else that you’re supplying to ’em. Well, I’m excited to the idea. I read all about the Urban Alliance and what you have done now, and what I can see you’re doing. You have the ability to move people, and that’s what it’s all about. And you’re doing it. And the DC government’s helping you. You’re not alone in this project, right?

Eshauna Smith: Yes.

Andy Ockershausen: You must have had some friends. You worked for DC for a while.

Success of Urban Alliance is Through Its Many Partners

Eshauna Smith: Well, it takes a lot of moving parts to run this internship model and to run the larger organization. So we have many partners from the schools, to over 200 employers that we work with every single year, to our funders: national, local, regional, individual donors, small family foundations. We have individuals who sponsor students, so we have couples who will sponsor students to have a job site. We have individuals who will do that.

So there is a network that we weave together very intricately every year to make this happen, and we definitely can’t do this alone. To use the phrase, it takes a village, and so we are extremely grateful to all of our employer partners, our schools, our funders. We can’t do this without them. And the biggest limitation are the employer sites. If we can get more employers and companies raising their hand and saying, “I wanna do this,” we can serve more students. And that’s the only limitation to the model.

Andy Ockershausen: And I hope that we enough people that listen to our podcast to understand what you’re doing, how important it is and any help we can give you, because we believe … We meaning Our Town, we believe in what you’re doing for Our Town. It’s so great, Eshauna. And we’re so fortunate to have you. You could have ended up at UC Berkeley, hanging out there on the grass with the group. But you decided to go to work.

Giving Back – From UC Berkeley to DC

Eshauna Smith: Well, we should credit Berkeley for inspiring and instilling in me that the most important thing, at least from where I sit, is to live a life where you give back. And so that got me thinking about having a career that allowed me to do that. And DC –

Andy Ockershausen: You’re so fortunate.

Eshauna Smith:… is a unique and special place in that way. I think there’s lots of ways to contribute.

Andy Ockershausen: And the more you give, the more you get back, Eshauna. We know that. We live our lives doing that. Janice has taught me that for 35, 40 years. But so happy to have you on Our Town. And we’ll keep aware of what you’re doing, and you keep aware of who we are, and we will have you back and see how your program is doing this fall.

Eshauna Smith: Thank you so much. We are appreciative and thank you for inviting us to share our story. And tell your friends, tell your family and colleagues about Urban Alliance.

Andy Ockershausen: We appreciate you and what you’re doing.

Janice Iacona Ockershausen: And the website address for those interested?

Eshauna Smith: www.theurbanalliance.org.

Andy Ockershausen: This is Andy Ockershausen. This is Our Town. Incidentally, that’s my wife who does the talking. She’s actually the brains behind this whole thing. As you know, any successful man has a woman pushing him. So this is Andy Ockershausen, this has been Our Town.

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