NexStep Alliance Exploring New Partnership with Empower Evergreen

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This Wichita neighborhood sees higher poverty levels. New nonprofit aims to change that

Growing up in Wichita’s North End, Ron Rosales visited the Evergreen Library after school, where he now takes his own kids. Soon, the gathering space won’t be just a library but a renovated community center that will host a new nonprofit.

Empower Evergreen launched in March to serve residents of the largely Hispanic community north of downtown. It aims to connect them with resources in education, small business incubation and workforce development.

“It usually takes a long time to make things happen on our side of town,” said Rosales, who also represents District 6 on the Wichita school board. “But this has gone expeditiously. It’s something we can do in our community to upgrade it.”

Ariel Rodriguez, executive director at Empower Evergreen, said the organization plans to bring existing resources to a trusted, bilingual location within the neighborhood.

Ensuring access to workforce training is particularly vital to help build wealth in a neighborhood where many workers live in poverty, Rodriguez said. Minimum wage jobs often don’t allow them to make enough money to take care of a family and own both a house and a car, said Rosales.

The nonprofit will partner with the Workforce Alliance of South Central Kansas and NexStep Alliance to bring employment retraining and adult education into the neighborhood.

Janet Miller, the former City Council representative for District 6, has worked to get a nonprofit like Empower Evergreen off the ground for years, saying that financial stability can make a real difference in someone’s life.

“A lot of issues can be solved by helping people increase their economic self sufficiency,” said Miller. “If you help people become more financially stable, secure better paying jobs, they then are empowered to do different things that improve their own lives.”

For example, the difference in a larger paycheck could allow working parents to send their children to day care or receive health care benefits.

The median household income in Wichita’s North End is $35,967, according to data Empower Evergreen received from the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University. In Wichita more generally, median household income was $52,620 in 2019. Nationally, it was $68,703 in 2019, Census Bureau data show.

About 40% of North End residents don’t have a high school diploma, while 24% have some college education. Most employees in the neighborhood work in construction or manufacturing, the WSU data shows.

“This is a community that has been under-invested in,” Rodriguez said. “I think it’s easy to move the needle when you make an intentional effort to tell the story, to show that these programs are out there. And that can really change the trajectory of someone’s life.”

Workforce development resources

The North End has a long history related to physical labor. The neighborhood grew as companies looked to hire workers from Mexico to fill jobs working on the railroads and later meatpacking plants in north Wichita, according to Wichita State University archives.

By the end of World War II, the North End was bustling with new residents and local businesses. But when rail yard work dried up and meatpacking plants moved to western Kansas, the North End experienced population loss in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Today, jobs are changing.

It can be more difficult to find high-paying employment without some type of trade certification or college education. Manufacturing work is expected to increasingly turn toward automation, changing available jobs from those that need handiwork to those that require advanced computer skills.

The nonprofit hopes to break down common barriers — like transportation, language differences or internet connection — that might keep people from connecting with adult education or job training. To ensure North End residents have an equal chance to retrain as desired, Empower Evergreen teamed up with two local partners to give them easier access.

The Wichita Workforce Center provides retraining and education for job seekers and has worked to connect laid-off workers with new opportunities. This year, the center received nearly $10 million in federal funding to upskill workers in advanced manufacturing, transportation and information technology fields.

NexStep Alliance, a partnership between Goodwill of Kansas and WSU Tech, offers a number of workforce readiness and adult education programs. For nearly nine years, the organization has provided classes to prepare for a General Educational Development, or GED, test to obtain a Kansas high school diploma. It also administers English as a second language, or ESL, courses.

Training in digital skills prepares students for everything from basic computer knowledge to using Microsoft and Google suites or social media, said Chris Stanyer, vice president of career services for Goodwill Industries of Kansas.

NexStep Alliance has locations across Wichita, but the partnership with Empower Evergreen allows it to directly serve another neighborhood, where residents might be interested in classes but couldn’t previously access them elsewhere.

Stanyer hopes NexStep can have a classroom at the new community center with Empower Evergreen to teach its ESL classes in the future. That way, residents don’t have to travel elsewhere in the city — which can make education more difficult when working full time.

The GED classes take place in the morning or evening hours to accommodate different schedules. The entry cost is $50 for the year, but Stanyer said they won’t turn anyone away if they can’t pay it.

Stanyer knows firsthand how difficult it can be to choose a career path or get a job without outside help. He changed his major in college and remembered sitting with various catalogs, trying to figure out what type of job he could find based on his education.

“I didn’t want others to feel that way, like they didn’t have a place to turn for questions,” Stanyer said.


Remodeled community center

For now, Empower Evergreen is in the Evergreen Neighborhood Resource Center near 25th and Arkansas. It will eventually move to the newly-renovated community center where the Evergreen library currently sits.

The $1.6 million dollar project will include space for Empower Evergreen, the library, the Kansas Hispanic Education and Development Foundation and the neighborhood resource center — which includes community policing, city inspections and the Department for Children and Families.

In addition, the center will also have shared office space, a multi-purpose room, classrooms, a conference room and space for smaller groups to meet in private.

“We don’t have a community center like this in Wichita,” said Cindy Claycomb, the City Council member representing District 6, which includes the North End.

The city is funding the renovation with $1 million from the sale of the Hyatt Hotel and $650,000 that the City Council later approved from the capital improvement budget. It should be completed by the fall.

Rosales is happy to see forward momentum from the city on the project. But to sustain it into the future, he’d also like to see investments in the road infrastructure at 25th and Arkansas.

Ideally, the community center will create more traffic in that area from cars, pedestrians and bicyclists. To show a commitment to the neighborhood, he’d like to see an extra turn lane or turn signals installed there.


Building relationships

Ultimately, by connecting the neighborhood with existing workforce programs, the goal is that workers can get new or better-paying jobs, Claycomb said.

Miller hopes Empower Evergreen can help the community build wealth and reverse the higher levels of poverty in the neighborhood.

“The end goal is that by the next Census or the Census after that, we’ll see poverty level going down and education level going up,” Miller said. “Those are lofty, lofty goals, and they don’t happen overnight. This kind of work takes a long time.”

While that objective is far away now, Empower Evergreen’s advisory board members said it has already been years in the making to reach this point.

“This won’t happen in my term, the full long-term goal,” Claycomb said. “But if we can set the stage for this, the idea is to help build on this pride in the neighborhood.”

Miller said Empower Evergreen needs to start by making sure it offers the services that people actually want and need to use.

“Even before that though is going to be cultivating a relationship with the neighborhood,” Miller said. “It will take a while for this organization to be seen as the neighborhood’s community center.”

Rodriguez wants to see it be a multigenerational, one-stop shop.

Maybe a parent or a grandparent brings their kids to the library for a reading or to check out a book, and they find something for themselves at Empower Evergreen that they didn’t know they were looking for.

If the city sustains development around the community center and can reach residents through robust engagement, Rosales thinks Empower Evergreen has a chance to make a multigenerational impact too.

The North End already has a lot of homeowners, like himself and his own extended family, Rosales said.

“That property helps build wealth,” he said. “If Empower Evergreen can educate people to help start that cycle, they could empower the neighborhood.”

Original story by Megan Stringer from the Wichita Eagle.