Breaking Through Employment Barriers: C to C, The Commitment to Community Podcast Series from Oswald
I am honored to bring this episode of C to C your way, featuring long-time Oswald partner and community mainstay Vocational Guidance Services. At the time I conducted this interview, my guest April Walker, Chief Development Officer, was just starting the process of launching her consulting company Philanthropy For The People. April connected with VGS as a consultant and made the move Cleveland to support fundraising at Vocational Guidance Services. As she embarks on her new endeavor to center racial equity in philanthropy, she assures me she won’t be far away from Cleveland and all the critical needs in the community shared in the interview below. Take note that October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) and this year’s theme is America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion. Stay connected with April via LinkedIn, her website, or on Instagram.
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Schmitz: Hi, it’s Christina. And we are back for another episode of C to C., the Commitment to Community podcast from Oswald Companies. Today, I’m here with April Walker of Vocational Guidance Services. April, thank you for having me here.
Walker: Thank you so much for coming.
Schmitz: And we’re at the headquarters, right? So, what things happen around here? I’ll let you introduce yourself in a second, but what’s happening around right now?
Walker: Yes, you’re right here on 55th Street. VGS has been around for 131 years actually, but we’ve been at this location for several decades. We’re right at the sort of edge of Midtown but before you get to Opportunity Corridor for those of you that know Cleveland. And we have two locations here, we have another location in Columbus, one in Elyria, and then one in Brooklyn as well. And what happens here are all things employment services for people with disabilities. We also do some day programming for folks that have very significant disabilities. Ohio is an Employment First state and so under that model, that means they’d like everyone working towards some sort of vocation, and that’s where we come in. So, if you have a disability, whether it is a developmental disability, an intellectual one, a mental health condition, then VGS can be your resource to start or find your way along your employment journey.
Schmitz: Great, thanks for sharing that. So, today’s topic that we’ll be digging into is breaking through employment barriers…. inclusion and impact, is the general theme. But before we get into that, April, tell us a little bit about yourself, maybe how you arrived at Vocational Guidance Services, and in your connection to the cause; we know that this is more than a career. It’s a calling…anything that you’d like to share?
Walker: I’m originally from Baltimore. I’m not from Cleveland. Born and raised on the east coast, and I have a master’s in Social Service Administration from the University of Chicago and a Bachelor’s in Sociology and American Studies from the George Washington University. For the past 10 years, I’ve worked in philanthropy in some sort of grant making, fundraising, or consulting capacity. And that’s largely what brought me to VGS. I was a consultant and I was asked to, or I was assigned rather, to come manage our organization’s capital campaign. We raised about $3.2 million over the course of 18 months and by virtue of that success, the organization asked if I wanted to stick around and lead all of the fundraising. And so that’s how I find myself here, and now as the Chief Development Officer, and I’m honored to lead our efforts to engage with the community in our work. And we do that, of course, through events and social media, marketing campaigns, and philanthropic contributions.
Schmitz: Sure. So talk about your move to Cleveland, then. So how long have you been in town? And what’s been your experience?
Walker: Yeah, so my move here, it was supposed to be an eight-month assignment. We’re coming up on four years, so careful what plans you make, folks. But Cleveland has been a really warm city. It’s a very welcoming and kind pace like that place. I did live in Chicago for six six years before moving here. And I will say Cleveland was recently ranked as the number one city that has the most stress, financial and work stress and otherwise. And while that hasn’t been my experience, I certainly use that to sort of compel our organization and others to make things as equitable as possible. You asked earlier about my connection to this work and what the connection to the calling is. For me, all things are rooted in racial equity and social justice. So, we know for example, that there was hiring discrimination, we know there is workplace discrimination and that’s the intersection and the lens with which I approach what we do. So, for example, individuals with disabilities nationwide, are about 40% less likely to be employed than if they didn’t have a disability. And for those that are employed, they earn 30% less. And so that’s pretty staggering. But if you layer that with race, for example, we know that if you “whiten” your resume, so say my name was Lakesha, say my name wasn’t April. If Lakesha sends in a resume, she’s 30% less likely to get a callback than if Emily was on the same resume, same job description, same everything. And they’ve done a number of studies on this; I don’t know why they keep doing it, because the facts are simply there, by it seeps in at every part of this process. And if that’s what it takes to get hired, then you can only imagine the experiences that people have in the workforce. So, my heart behind this, my connection is making sure that we all have as much access as possible to employment journeys that are not burdened and belabored by injustices and inequities.
Schmitz: Well, let’s talk about a little bit about the pandemic. I know it’s such a big topic. It’s the every day, right? It’s changing, constantly having to adjust, what we’re doing and protocols and all of that. But from the lens of your clients, what has this really been like through their eyes?
Walker: The pandemic has been particularly horrible for people with disabilities. So, we know since March of 2020, one in five individuals with a disability was removed from their job versus one in seven individuals who didn’t have a disability. Individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities are more likely to have a COVID fatality. There’s also higher unemployment, and homelessness, and food and housing insecurity. So, a pandemic that sort of shut most services down, that limited transportation, that really jolted our infrastructure, those things are very slow to rebuild. With hiring that is competitive right now, with a lot of people that are overqualified for jobs that they’re going out for. If you have a disability, if you need job coaching, if you need job accommodations, it certainly changes the trajectory of how you can access employment.
Schmitz: And you talked about maybe layering some of those other additional challenges, how has Vocational Guidance Services responded to that? And has any Is there any bright side? Is there any, has there been any breakthroughs that you’ve seen?
Walker: Yeah, that’s a great question. You know, the first thing that we want to do here is just keep as many of our people safe as possible. And so, all of the COVID best practices and protocols, we are cautious to implement and keep our environment safe. The other primary thing that we can do is continue to sound the alarm and continue to educate. Individuals with disabilities need to be included in the economic recovery that we’re all hopeful for and in the post COVID world that we have not yet entered. You know, as much as we would like that to be our reality as of August 2021, we’re simply not there. And so, if we are not intentional about integrating people with disabilities, it’s not something that’s going to happen naturally, organically, or on its own. So, VGS just continuing to educate employers and advise regarding job accommodations. You know, I like to ask people, have you ever had a colleague that required a wheelchair? Have you ever had a colleague with a vision impairment? Have you ever had a colleague that you knew was experiencing hearing loss? And most people say no. It’s okay, that folks are not required to disclose disabilities, but almost 10 times out of 10, folks can’t think of a time in their own professional lives where they’ve seen a colleague truly need job accommodations. And if employers aren’t taking some initiative to learn that accommodations are not as costly as they think they are and there truly is a benefit to a disability diverse workforce, our job is to kind of to continue that education as best as possible.
Schmitz: Well, speaking, from the employer side, I know we talked a bit about clients, but in addition to the education, what are some other programs that you work with? Whether it be on the inclusion side, or hiring or staffing? Can you share a little bit about that?
Walker: When we work with employers and in 2020, we had 75 employer partners, and we were able to create job opportunities for them so we could hire people with disabilities that could either work on site at our facility or work on site at their facility. Obviously, that was a little difficult in 2020, with a lot of the shutdowns and mandates that we saw. Working from home certainly has barriers for folks that don’t have technology access, there is a digital divide, as we know. But employers who have a packaging need or manufacturing need or need welding, or engraving, those are all job functions that we can do on site, or we can train employees to do with an employer partner. And so, the employer has the benefit of having someone that is skilled with working with someone with a disability. But that person also really becomes a part of their team. And so even though that person is on and their supervisor on VGS’ payroll, they feel like they’re part of the PNC Bank team or whatever the organization is, so they get the experience of being experiencing the workforce, but having the support that they require.
Schmitz: Wow, that really must be a very rewarding piece to be able to make those connections between your clients, between the employers, and then come together and create something new for the community. Absolutely. And as we want to do with trying to do with this podcast is tell that story, and continue that education.
Walker: We had a young man in our summer youth employment program who, for the first time had a summer job. He had a job coach and he shared his feedback with us that this was the first time he had felt so much positive energy around him. I think when you have a disability or learning challenge, you hear a lot about that but what people don’t often speak to as the possibility – how many things you can do well and do right, and how you can actually find a place that makes great sense for you. And so that’s what keeps us going in the day to day.
Schmitz: Definitely…in talking with some other advancement directors and in people I’ve been talking with the mental health crisis has been this undercurrent of everything. Is there anything you can share, some of the challenges? Or maybe some of the successes you’ve seen through the programs?
Walker: I know in the earliest days of the pandemic, which is still strange to say, but in about April or May of last year, we had all of our staff who were primarily working from home make calls to individuals who were in our programs and to their families just to see if there were any resources we could provide, or any connection points. And most of those people were simply just happy to have somebody check on them and because this is a relationship field, right, you’re building relationships with other humans in order to provide the best service to them – that’s really what’s key. So, if we continue to only think about the outcomes are the deliverables, that’s where we really lose sight. But the fact that we are displaced, people can come together and try something and have someone support that journey, that’s really at the heart of what we do. And so being able to continue to build community, whether that’s virtually whether it’s on zoom, whether it’s in smaller groups in person. That’s where we see the most sort of impact in our connections.
Schmitz: Well, speaking of that, so what’s next? And how can people get involved? …we’ll share the website and social media, but what what’s coming up, what’s those first steps that people can take to get involved?
Walker: I would say, of course, our website, social media, are always great places. But I encourage everyone to start with educating themselves, the ADA is a really great place to start. There are a lot of tools and resources that you can glean from that; and that’s the Americans with Disabilities Act. It’s a piece of legislation that was passed about 30 years ago. But it’s not perfect. And I think a lot of us would assume that it does everything, and it’s giving us sweeping changes, but there’s still some work to do. So looking at that legislation, understanding where things fall short, and where we can make some changes are usually a good place to start. And then look around the businesses that you patronize. Look, in your own community. Are you seeing people with disabilities integrated at all levels? And start asking some questions.
Schmitz: …That’s something I haven’t thought about. But your right, it’s the greater community and how we see that…. Do you have any best memories from moving to Cleveland? Or, or maybe things that that you’ve seen that makes this place unique?
Walker: Sure. You know, since I’ve been in Cleveland, the Cavaliers have won a championship, we have survived a pandemic together, and the Browns are close to probably winning the Super Bowl. So I feel like I’m a very great addition. You’re welcome. This is a very warm city and there are a lot of great, especially small businesses to support. And so, anytime I see creators and makers and bakers out there, I’m so happy to just support individuals doing their thing and creating great products. So, Cleveland is a gem, even if it is not always received as such. It’s a great city with a lot of heart.
Schmitz: Well, I would add that, you know, based on my experience based what you share, working with other members of your team VGS is part of that story, that Cleveland story and it’s such an integral and important part. So I look forward to keeping in touch and seeing what’s next. And thank you for all you all you do and all you’ve done.
Walker: Thank you so much, Christina.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and web formatting.
Introducing the CtoC podcast, an oscast by Oswald production
Commitment to Community is a core value of Oswald; it’s the foundation of who we are and the purpose behind all we do. The C to C podcast provides a platform for nonprofit partners to share their stories and discuss the critical issues facing their clients. Our goal: create a halo effect of service and support, inspiring our audiences to align with causes that speak to them and take action in their companies and communities.
Hosted by Christina Capadona-Schmitz, VP and director of marketing communications and leader for community engagement, this podcast series features in-depth interviews and highlights the good works happening throughout our communities.