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“I can do something to make it better.” Acacia St. John and Alex Painter on community needs and strategies

Headshot photos of Acacia St. John and Alex Painter

You hear a lot these days about data-driven decision making. You hear it in business, you hear it in government, and you even hear it in the context of our personal lives, as people track their steps, exercise, sleep, food, location and more to help them achieve their goals. Data can be helpful, and it can be overwhelming. Data can be powerful, and it can also be too abstract to mean anything. But when gathered and delivered and understood in a way that tells an interesting story, data can change our lives. It can help us see things in a new way. It can shift our focus, it can clarify our priorities.

Last month the Wayne County Foundation and Forward Wayne County released their April 2021 County Indicators report (PDF, local copy). It’s a document that at first seems to be a collection of graphs and tables and numbers, but when you dive into it, it starts to tell at least part of the story of our community. It sheds light on issues of poverty and education, wages and population changes, housing and employment opportunities. And for people who want to work on making Wayne County a better place, it gives us strategies that flow from that story.

The report deserves your attention when you have some time, but I wanted to sit down with the people involved in producing it to talk through some of the finer points and see what they learned in the process. My guests in this podcast episode are Acacia St. John, Program Manager at Forward Wayne County and Alex Painter, Community Engagement Officer at the Wayne County Foundation. We talk about how the report was developed, who it is for, and what it means for the health and future of our community.

I hope you enjoy the conversation. If you find it interesting or useful, please share!


The below transcript was generated with the use of automation and may contain errors or omissions.

Chris Hardie: We’re here to talk about the County Indicators Reports that the Wayne County Foundation and Forward Wayne County released last month. Before we dive into that, in previous podcast episodes, I’ve covered a bit about what the Wayne County Foundation and Forward Wayne County are and do. Let’s just briefly touch on that and remind people if you could both tell me a little bit about those organizations and your background, your role? How you got to this point working with them? That would be great.

Alex Painter: I’ll start if that’s all right, Acacia. My name is Alex Painter. I work as the Community Engagement Officer at the Wayne County Foundation. The Wayne County Foundation has had a presence here in Wayne County since 1979. We exist because we want to encourage private philanthropic giving and enhance the spirit and vitality, and improve the quality of life here in our community, Wayne County. We do that through a multitude of ways.

I guess, perhaps most visibly through making grants to local nonprofit organizations, as well as we’re the hub for facilitating scholarships for our Wayne County students. That’s a bulk of what we do. As far as what I do for the Foundation, in my role, my goal and my ongoing charge is to tell the story of our shared impact here in our community, which is I guess, one of the reasons why this County Indicators Report was born.

Acacia St. John: I’m Acacia St. John. I am the Program Manager with Forward Wayne County. Forward Wayne County is the umbrella initiative under the Wayne County Foundation starting in 2018. Forward Wayne County is a backbone organization that uses collective impact models through coalitions to create a vibrant economy and promote prosperity at Wayne County.

We do that through a variety of areas. We have three current coalitions, which is our Main Street coalition, employability coalition, and early childhood success coalition. Then as part of that, we have eight focus areas. All of that information can be found on our website

Chris: Awesome. I’m glad for the website pitches there because there’s so much information that we’re talking about today and so much to learn. I’m sure we won’t even scratch the surface, but there’s a lot more online at, and I know at, is that right, Alex?

Alex: That is correct, Chris. Thank you. I’ve realized I forgot to put out our websites. Thank you.

Chris: That’s okay. I saw this County Indicators Report go by. It’s I think a 28-page PDF document. It was just chock-full of information and statistics that it’s just so important. I took some time to try to digest it, but part of why I’d asked you all to join me today is just to look at it together and talk about what it means and what we do with it. Just introducing it a little bit, it’s a County Indicators Report. You touched on, I think it’s five key indicators.

We’ll talk about them more but there’s population levels, poverty levels, and related factors, income levels, educational attainment levels and housing. Can you talk a little bit about how those particular high-level categories were chosen as indicators of, I assume, how we’re doing as a county, as a community, the health of our area?

Acacia: Sure. Those big indicators really were developed under the Forward Wayne County model, to look at what can we do collectively as a county to increase our quality of life or quality of place for the county. If you think about it, things like poverty level, reducing that number, increasing our population, getting better educated, whatever that form may look like, certifications are higher, et cetera, it all moves us forward.

Some of those goals, also the increase in housing, those are big-picture items. At the same time, some of that is attainable if we are creative. I will also say if we partner well together. That’s the whole purpose of Forward Wayne County is to bring all of the parties to the table to make sure that we are working together and not against each other to make some of these indicators happen.

Alex: As Acacia mentioned, these link directly to the goals of Forward Wayne County. There’s big goals but as always, if you want to paint a goal, it’s always good to know where you’re starting from. I think I have no doubt. I learned a ton in putting together this indicators report. I think Acacia did too, even though she’s a lot sharper than I am on a lot of this.

We put this project together because we wanted to unify the efforts of the foundation in Forward Wayne County, of course. We really wanted it to be a resource and as a conversation starter that could be used by nonprofit leadership or grantmakers like us or folks who are in community policy or just the general public. I think it’s really good information. Again, if you want to know where you’re going, and if you want to know about what goals you should set, it’s always good to know where you stand currently.

Chris: My understanding is that some of the origin story for Forward Wayne County, and some of the things that the foundation have wrestled with over the years are trying to get people on the same page about any given conversation about priorities, any given conversation about funding allocations, things like that. If a group of people are sitting around the breakfast table talking about what does Wayne County need to be a better place to live or to work or to raise a family or whatever it is?

You might get four people are sitting there. You might get four different answers when it comes to any given issue. My understanding is that that can make it really hard to make progress because you have diverse opinions. You have strong opinions. As part of gathering this data, looking at this data, is it to bring some clarity to those conversations? Is it to reduce the amount of confusion or overlap that might be happening as we talk about those things? Have you seen that happening as you start to work with more clarity about the data?

Acacia: Well, I would definitely say that we see a lot of overlap throughout the county. We know that individually, organizations do great work, but collectively, they could do great work if they were all to look at maybe some of these indicators and say, “Well, how can we do this together? If we’re all doing very similar work, what is maybe one or two things that we can do together to really move some of these goals forward?”

I think that’s the key to this. This document and pulling all this information together was really one of our ways just to have it all in one location. Chris as you know, in work that you do, when you have to research a lot of things, it’s a lot of work. We’ve covered a lot of different areas. If it’s current information, we’ve pulled you where we’ve got it, where we sourced it from so that people can use this to do some of that work. Like you said, “How can you do it together and maybe do some greater things?”

Chris: Maybe we’re saying too, this document we’re referencing is a PDF. I know on the Forward Wayne County website, you’ve established a clear impact scorecard or score chart where you take some of these things and make it a little bit more interactive. My understanding is the goal here is not to just have this report out there and say, “Well, there, we did it,” [chuckles] but to keep that information up to date over time to talk about target values, to talk about changes over time. Is this report the first one of these? Have there been others? Will there be more?

Alex: This is actually the first I can tell. Maybe Acacia you can correct me if I’m wrong. I think this is the first one, at least, this comprehensive that’s spun out of Wayne County, at least that I have seen. I’m glad you mentioned just the nature of the report, Chris. Yes, it’s been released. It’s out there, but the goal, again, the idea is that we can constantly update it. This gives us a really, really strong starting point.

Again, we can see our work in action. Something Acacia just mentioned that I’m glad she did is, there’s a lot of really passionate people here. I think it’s trying to get everyone to see where some of the lower hanging fruit as far as how we can collaborate together and roll out of the same canoe or whatever expression I’m looking for. Anyways, yes, the idea is that we can collaborate and hopefully see gains, and see them in this report and future iterations of this report.

Acacia: I would also say that I think the plan is yes, that we are going to try to update this yearly.

Chris: Great.

Acacia: Depending on some of the data, sometimes it changes every six months, sometimes it changes yearly, sometimes even depending on the resource that you’re looking at and the sourcing agency, sometimes it’s an 18 month. Our purpose and our goal is to try to update this yearly. Again, one location, like Alex said, “Well, we know where we started and we know where we’re going.” Maybe we can look at some very specific things, not just strategies that Ford Wayne County has, but maybe people can look at this to say, “Okay, I can take this information and work on a strategy collectively, or maybe even individually and really make something happen in the county.”

Chris: Let’s talk a little bit more about who the target audience is and what people can do with this? Maybe this will get a little bit clearer as we dive into some of the specific data points. Do you all picture an individual resident of Wayne County downloading this report and saying, “Okay, now that I know these data points, I’m going to make some changes,” or is it people in leadership positions in the county? Is it something you picture a business owner or a manager trying to incorporate into their day-to-day decision-making?

I’m thinking about, if we talk about, let’s say, median income levels, someone who’s setting the salary structure for a business might care about that when it comes to what they’re paying for a given topic area or skillset. Then collectively, businesses in the area need to care about, “Are we paying well enough to draw people to the area to keep them here?” I can see it trickling into that decision-making, but is that the audience that this report is made for?

Acacia: This document, Chris, is really for everybody. An everyday resident to look at this and say, “Wow, I didn’t realize some of this stuff.” That might spur them to volunteer. It might spur them to donate in certain areas. If they serve on boards or et cetera, it might give them pause to say, “I’m want to bring this to my board and my board’s attention.” Everything from business to economic development to our city-county governments, I really think that there’s something for everybody in here for our school systems, whether that is Pre-K through college. It really does touch on everything.

A common resident, I say common, but just an everyday resident could look at this to say, “Wow, I could make some changes,” or it would maybe spur them to get involved a little bit. As you said, a business might say, “Wow, I didn’t realize that we are below-median income as compared to the rest of the State and might say, ‘How do we maybe restructure some wages to better attract workers, to better attract residents to the county, et cetera?’ ” In my opinion, when I look at this document, I see it going from everyday resident all the way through our top leadership in the county.

Alex: If I may just interrupt there, I don’t think I could have said it any better than Acacia just did. I would just certainly reiterate on the fact that perhaps we wanted to make it accessible. Aside from just finding the data and finding trusty, reliable apples-to-apples data, so to speak, we focused a lot on presentation. How it was grouped together and how it flowed together. That way, anybody could truly pick this thing up. You could be the CEO of the hospital, or you can be anybody.

Hopefully, I think there’s a lot of take-home. Like I said, Acacia has spelled it out very well. When you look at the report, you can see, hopefully, it has a natural flow to it and a natural order to it. That’s something that we were really cognizant of throughout the process.

Chris: Well, let’s dive in a little bit. I have the report in front of me. [chuckles] I know for people listening to this in an audio format, it might be a little tricky to follow along. We won’t spend too much time on the individual numbers, but I want to talk about the trends and implications. The first area was population. Very clearly, the data shows that Wayne County’s population has been decreasing since 2014.

It’s not always dramatic numbers, but it’s a trend. At the same time, I think what you’re showing is that people 45 and over collectively comprise about 46% of the population. We have a decrease in population and older population, older than State averages. What does that mean? Why does that matter when it comes to the health of the county?

Acacia: When you look at population, you’re looking at population not income. It’s just the age of the population, but that’s also your workforce. When you think about it, we have a medium age of 41. We are just slightly older than the State average, not anything drastic. That is the core group that is choosing to remain here. They have buy-in to the county. They live here. They will probably work here. That means that they’re settling here.

That’s a good thing. I think it will be interesting to see in the coming years just with the introduction at high level of remote work, what that number starts to look like in the future. Demographic, when you also talk about your workforce, it also shows us there’s some concern in that area. We know that we’ve been decreasing in population for a while now. We really need to think about why is that? Part of that is, do we have job opportunities here? Yes.

Do we have the wages that match? Probably not. I think that’s something that we really need to start looking at just as a county. I think businesses, both large to small really need to look at– If we’re serious about retaining workers, if we’re serious about the value of our workers, if we want people to move here, live here, play here, then we need to look at our wages to see, “How do we be more competitive with someone who is 30 minutes away, but can draw our workforce away?”

Chris: I’ll probably ask a bunch of questions here that just maybe are dumb questions or don’t make sense. I could imagine someone saying, “Having an older workforce maybe that’s not such a bad thing. They’re more established. They’re more skilled. They are probably a little bit more financially stable and so maybe have more disposable income as a result of that.” Why do we want a younger workforce, or why do we want to make sure we’re balanced in the age draw that we have for our workforce when it comes to the strength of the economy?

Acacia: That’s a great question. You want your younger workforce involved because that’s your pipeline. As these older workers continue to work, they’re going to, at some point, want to retire. You need that younger population to come on up and be that pipeline into our businesses here in the county. If we’re consistently losing population by age at a younger level, why are they going away? Is it because we don’t have good Internet access here or availability? Is it because the amenities don’t appeal to them? Is it for a number of reasons?

We need to be looking at it and be serious about it because although we have this medium age of 40, you still need your younger population to come up to be that pipeline into your workforce.

Alex: Absolutely. I would just add, we did a lot of digging into, of course, Wayne County and then obviously, State averages. One of my exercises, and I know Acacia is very well aware of this too in other counties and what are other counties looking like? I think it’s not a struggle that is unique to Wayne County. I think everybody aspires to be at that State average of median age because, of course, that’s how counties are sustainable.

You won’t see the precipitous population decline. I agree. I think it’s all about attracting, keeping, retaining the young folks here in Wayne County. Then finding new innovative ways to attract younger employees who can bring different ways of thinking, or be attractive to different consumer bases or whatever it might be.

Chris: I remember about, I don’t know, maybe it is a decade ago now. There was an effort to connect older business owners who were thinking about retirement with younger entrepreneurs who might be interested in taking over a business, starting out as an apprentice for a couple of years, and then eventually owning a business so that someone can retire in it. It sounds like that’s one way that this plays out is that we have lots of really neat established small businesses here. If there’s no one there to work there, let alone to take over ownership, we start to lose some of that rich history and that rich knowledge base that’s in the community for different business areas.

Acacia: I’ve been encouraged by some of the local things that have been happening over the past year. The Chamber is ready to have their hiring fair for seniors in high school that have no current plan after high school. That hiring fair is that it’s really itself it’s exactly what it is. It’s a hiring fair. It’s not just you go and learn about companies, but these are local employers within the county who have job openings.

They’re going to interview those seniors. I think about some of the things that are going around the county, that’s a direct career pipeline that you’re looking to attain. That has a high school level to local employers. Our colleges are starting to really try to work on the work experience, internship, externship, whatever you want to call it, to really connect their students to local employers.

Forward Wayne County is supporting some workforce development initiatives to connect people, students, et cetera, to local employers and what that means within the county. I’ve been encouraged by just things that are happening throughout the past year to really start looking at how do we engage this younger audience, and make sure that they know that we have opportunity here and they have opportunity and that they can excel? I’ve been encouraged by what I’ve been seeing over the past year.

Chris: That’s great. That’s great. I was also wondering, there’s been a conversation since the pandemic. There was an original expectation that there would be a baby boom following the pandemic. Then I think the CDC, even this last week released some data that basically said it was the opposite that in the light of a lot of uncertainty and maybe additional stress, people were not having children as much.

That followed on a national trend of population decline. Did you all look at all about the factors that get into someone’s decision to have kids to raise them in this community? Are we seeing any kind of dynamic around how maybe economic hardship or uncertainty affects that decision?

Alex: That’s a great question, Chris. Unfortunately, didn’t really delve too much into that, at least, not directly. Acacia do you have anything you can add?

Acacia: You’re right. We did not look at that level. Chris, just to go back to that question in general, just if you think about it though, yes, there’s probably that uncertainty, but as a parent, you’re looking at some of the same quality of life things that any other resident would look at. Is my county safe? Do I have parks? Do I have access to things for my kids that, for example, Little Leagues and opportunity, is that here? We didn’t go into specifically about the why or why not of having kids or anything like that.

I would say taking it just back to that quality of place, not only for maybe new parents but single residence, I think it’s very important that those quality of place things are here. I know that Economic Development Corporation of Wayne County is working as well as others on some really strong quality of place initiatives that are going to be happening in the next couple of years.

Alex: Yes, really supplemental case study to this is really maybe getting some voices to share their thoughts on this. If you look at my family, there’s four newborns in my family right now. [chuckles] I know it might greater family. I have a big family to be fair, but yes, I saw that exact report out of the CDC, Chris. I thought that was very interesting because yes, I think common knowledge would have otherwise indicated the opposite.

Chris: It’s just interesting to see as creatures that react to the environment around us that uncertainty has played a factor. I know that affects everything from leisure spending and disposable income to having kids and raising kids and where you stay. Let’s turn to poverty level now as this second big picture indicator. The goal here, of course, is just to reduce the number of people who are living in poverty to at least get to the State average, which may itself not be the best target, but it’s a place to start. I know you made it clear in the report that we have as a county a higher percentage of people living below the poverty level than either the State or the nation.

You also make it clear that the federal poverty level is a pretty low number. The examples, for an individual, it’s income of just over $12,000. For a family of four it’s $30,000. For a family of eight, it’s $44,000. Those strike me as some pretty low numbers that I think a lot of people would say are not workable. I think that’s maybe why you make the distinction with the ALICE population. Can you talk a little bit more how we think about poverty level, what the differences between the federal poverty level and the ALICE population? Go from there.

Acacia: I think that’s a loaded question, Chris. Well, I say that jokingly because there’s so many factors that go into poverty level that it’s really hard to just say, “Well, here’s how it correlates to ALICE.” When I think about poverty levels, I really look at just from a workforce development perspective, number of individuals within a family, whether or not they are employed, and what that wage looks like. That really, really affect a poverty level in a certain way.

Then when you throw ALICE into it, for example, and I think I’ve stated this in other places, you could be making a great wage. If you are the only person working in your home and you have five or more children, you could still be almost at a poverty level. That question in and of itself, there’s so much into those words poverty level that it’s really hard to pull them out a little bit. You just have to look at it from so many different angles.

Chris: I should interject real quick to say ALICE, you spell this out in the report is an acronym for, “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, but Employed.” Again, that’s people who have employment, the wages and assets they have to work with may put them above the federal poverty level, but less than the basic cost of living. Sorry, go ahead, Alex.

Alex: No, Chris, that’s actually exactly, what I was going to expound upon is just how important the ALICE number is in providing some context to the entire conversation. I think a lot of folks might look at just poverty level. The conversation starts and ends there. When you really, as you mentioned, Chris, look what the levels are and the amount of money that constitutes the poverty level, personally, I think it’s criminally low.

That being said, ALICE does provide a lot of context that just because you’re above the poverty level, doesn’t mean that you’re not constrained to use their word. I was actually unaware of what ALICE was before this report and yes, it was incredibly enlightening.

Chris: I guess why I ask, and maybe this is just not a fair question to pose to you all, maybe it’s too philosophical. Is there a difference if we target for at least getting people to the State percentage of people living below the poverty level and we’re optimizing for that, but at the same time, acknowledging that poverty level as defined at the federal level is just a really low number?

Are we missing an opportunity to really rethink what kind of community we’re trying to create? Just in my mind, getting to a point where everyone is making enough to just be getting by still doesn’t sound great. Getting to a point where households are economically secure and people are fully employed as they can be, and everyone has the income to cover expenses, that sounds like where we want to be.

I don’t know if those are two different paths and if we have to choose. If it really is that getting people to at least the State average is a milestone along the way to a much better place. That’s my worry and maybe it’s an unfounded worry or maybe it’s a worry I’m not expressing very well. How do you all think about that when we’re talking about a target that might feel artificially low, but that gives us something to work towards?

Acacia: I don’t think it’s an unfair question or unfair thought. I think probably many of us throughout the county have been thinking about this. How do we look at this and say, “How do we make Wayne County better and for our residents?” I think a lot of it comes down to economic stability. You alluded at that the economic stability of a family or person or whatever that looks is that they have a livable wage. They’re able to take care of themselves, their families, others. They also have the amenities here that will inspire them to keep going. They have a connection here.

They bonded to something in the county. They are working towards bettering themselves. Some of that comes along with educational attainment. They are economically stable. I think that is the key to what we’re looking at is someone being economically stable means that they are [chuckles] not at an ALICE level, and they’re not at a poverty level, doesn’t make them a millionaire. It means that they’re stable enough to be able to take care of themselves, and then maybe do some things extra.

Alex: Absolutely. I think a big player to this, of course, and not to jump the shark and move several slides ahead is educational attainment. That’s something that is spelled out I think fairly well on this report is you can see right about the point where Wayne County falls behind. Anyway, I don’t want to jump. Sorry, Chris, go ahead and continue. We can pause on the education scene. [chuckles]

Chris: That’s great. It’s good to say, it’s good to acknowledge several times that all of these things are connected to each other. You can’t untangle income level from housing, from population, from poverty from education. They’re all related. We can jump around as we need to. I was struck as I was reading the report. Sometimes our conversation about quality of life, people can start to picture really specific details in their own mind and what that means. It’s how many ball fields there are in a park, or is the bike path, six feet wide or eight feet wide.

As the report points out, so many adults in our community don’t have any leisure-time physical activity. There’s the 31% of adults 20 and over. For a lot of people, like when we’re talking quality of life, we’re talking about, “Do they have the time and the place and the help? If they need childcare or whatever it is to take care of themselves, to take a mental health day, to take the time to shop for groceries and make a healthy meal, as opposed to maybe buying something that’s not as healthy?”

When you’re out in the community talking to people about quality of life or those factors, do you find you have to really get into definitions and breaking down? What exactly are we talking about here so that people don’t gloss over all those different interpretations?

Acacia: I think it’s interesting when we talk about these things as what I have found, this is again my own personal experience, my own opinion is that sometimes when you talk about all those different areas, it really comes down to the person and their initiative to do something. Whether that means, “I’m going to look at, how do I make a better wage?” Sometimes that means you’re going to have to maybe get some credentialing. Am I going to make that decision to do that or I don’t want to do that? Therefore, I might be stuck at a wage level for a while that does not make me economically stable.

Another example, health and wellness. Wayne County has parks, every community. We have some bigger locations that you could do to the Cardinal Greenway, Cope Environmental Center, Hayes Arboretum. We have so much. Again, it’s going to come down to the person. Am I going to watch Netflix for a couple of hours, or can I go take a walk, or kind of grab a buddy and we can ride our bikes on the Cardinal Greenway? It really comes down to the initiative of the person. How they’re going to make decisions for themselves or with their family? Again, that’s my personal opinion.

There are some things like time constraints. Maybe the work schedule doesn’t work, but there’s a lot of time within a week. People sometimes just have to re-evaluate, which I thought was really interesting during 2020 when we were at home a lot. I think you found a great increase in a lot of those health and wellness areas. People were outside. People were playing with their kids. They were doing all kinds of things.

They say that they don’t have time for when they’re working full time, but sometimes they were working full time at home. All of a sudden it was they couldn’t go anywhere. Some of those things change. My own personal opinion, I think some of that comes down to the initiative of the person.

Chris: I’m sure that part of what you’re working with too, is helping people see that there are investment in whether it’s exercise or credentialing, help us all see the path that can take us. Sometimes it can be hard to imagine, if I felt healthier [laughs] and I watched Netflix, what would that mean for these other areas of my life. If I got a bump in pay because I got an additional credential, what would that mean? It can be hard for people to imagine that. I think taking some of this data and personalizing it, making it a story that people can see themselves as a part of, I’m sure that’s helpful too in turning it into action.

Acacia: I want to encourage our residents in the county to really seek out some of our great businesses that we have here and the resources that we have. Purdue Extension, I think they have cooking classes. How do you cook on a budget? Cope has all kinds of activities that they do for residents. We have some really great community organizations and businesses in the county. If people just took the time to do a little bit of research and seek those out, maybe they would just have a pot of gold at their hands to do some great things.

Alex: That’s a great point, Acacia. We’re in the midst of the foundation’s Spring Grant Cycle. That’s one thing that I would definitely impress upon folks is the fact that we have got so many motivated, fervent, passionate nonprofit organizations, community-serving organizations here who are constantly thinking of ways which they on, even just their little micro-level, some micro-levels larger [chuckles] than others, admittedly, but how they can better improve our community. It’s hard because there’s not one silver bullet. If not to use that phrase. It’s not a simple answer to a complex question. They’re all tied together. You have the obesity rate.

If you’re not making a livable wage, typically, you’re buying cheaper food, which preservatives, and it’s just not as healthy. As Acacia says, there’s a lot out there that our residents can really take advantage of. My wife, she works over at the Boys & Girls Clubs. The amount of programming they have for kids starting at age six is astonishing. It’s very, very cost-effective. I’d just like not to stump [laughs] for the Boys & Girls Clubs because, of course, there’s tons of other organizations just like them that are community-minded. That’s one thing I would always impress upon folks, is don’t hesitate to seek them out and utilize the services.

Chris: A number of different efforts over the years of projects or studies have shown that sometimes it’s not a matter of not having the programs or the amenities or the options, it’s just people knowing about them. It’s being able to find out about them in a [chuckles] reasonable amount of time to make plans. I know we’ve made improvements there and can continue to do that. Let’s jump into the personal income and medium income category. I think again that the data shows that the median household income in Wayne County is 24% less than the United States average.

Sometimes we get into this narrative in Wayne County about; we have a low cost of living. It makes it an appealing place to live in that way. We attach them the idea that housing costs are going to be a little lower. It’s okay if income is a little bit lower. I want to ask, is that narrative accurate? Is it helpful? Does that set us up for success or why is raising that household income level an important thing for us to be focused on?

Alex: That’s it. I appreciate that question. This is just my own personal opinion. I agree in the sense that our median household income is dramatically lower than the United States average and a good bit lower than the Indiana average. Some points you find yourself realizing like, “Oh, some of the amenities are much less expensive in Wayne County than the rest of the state or your family or friends in other parts of the country.” I think that is nice. I do think it is perpetuating a bit of a cycle, a bit of stagnation for the obvious reasons, places where the median income is lower and wages are lower and that affects everybody uniquely. Like I said, I don’t have the neat-and-tidy answer, but I think that is something that we need to look at with nuance. It’s nice in some regards, it’s nice in some respects, but looking at the big picture, I think that’s a pretty big issue with the stagnation of population-level and all of that.

Chris: That was one area where the strategy points coupled with this goal of raising those income levels struck me as just really difficult or just really broad. The first one is supporting better employment options and wages for residents. The second one is supporting training and education that will lead to promotions and increases in wages. How do we tackle that? How do we tackle better employment options and wages for residents?

Short of marching into a place of business and saying, “You need to pay people more,” which is maybe what we should do, but short of that, what can we be doing as a community to make sure that we have better employment options and higher wages that are available for the jobs we have here?

Acacia: Good question. There are a couple of different things to that. When we talk about supporting better employment options and wages for residents, in Forward Wayne County, we are advocating higher wages to our businesses. Sometimes that means educating an employer on what their wage looks like to a worker. Sometimes a business may not understand fully that if they’re paying $10 an hour, that sounds like a good entry-level wage, what that might mean for that person that at that wage because take out insurance, take out taxes, what does that really look like to the worker?

We do advocate for those higher wages for workers, but sometimes it’s the educating our employers about what their wage looks like. I know that Natco Empowerment Center, they do a good job where they can actually talk to employers and say, “If this is your entry-level wage, this is what it looks like for a worker.”

The other part of that is supporting and training education. There are pathways in employment. You can get to a certain level through experience, but you can also get through certain levels, maybe faster with training and education. When we go back to that topic of economic stability, at Forward Wayne County, we do advocate to our residents that training and education are important, and that pathway could look different for everybody.

You can get educational attainment through an apprenticeship, through a structured registered apprenticeship, which we have those in Wayne County. You can go back to school part-time, you could go full-time, you could take one class this semester, but there are things that are attainable should you choose to do it, those credentialing methods, whether it’s a certification, maybe industry-specific, et cetera, that will help you accelerate your wages and promotions.

Again, if you have to go those paths, then you might still get there someday. It’s just going to take you a lot longer. Part of our reasoning is that we want people to understand, you have a choice on how you get there, and sometimes life throws you some curveballs, but there are options. It is about if you expect to start a company and you want to be at a high-level position within five years, but you don’t want to get any education, it’s probably not going to happen.

Alex: Of course, it’s important to know, Wayne County is a groundswell of higher education. There’s not a lot of counties across the state that can say they have a world-class– I’m an old graduate, so I’ll throw it out there, a world-class, liberal arts college, but also Indiana University, Purdue, Ivy Tech, as well as a couple of seminaries. It’s thinking as creatively as we can on how to leverage the fact that we do have a lot of higher education options.

I know there’s a lot of people working really hard to make those options attractive to students in Wayne County and then in turn, trying to get the Wayne County students, or even students coming from outside Wayne County to stay and put their roots down in Wayne County. Like any complex issue, it’s going to take a fairly complex and innovative answer, but I do think that is something to consider like, how do we best leverage our institutions of higher education too?

Acacia: I want to encourage all of our residents that may be listening today, that it’s never too late for you to get some credential or training. In my past life of workforce development, there were many times we assisted adults who just never thought that they could be successful in college and we would help them and assist them. They were getting associate degrees, finishing bachelor’s degrees, getting short-term credentials that moved them up in their companies. I will tell you that the satisfaction of knowing that they could do it was worth it. Again, it took that initial step for them to make the jump to do it.

I would just encourage our residents, never be discouraged by what happened in your past. Maybe you weren’t the best student in high school or et cetera. You can do it. You may have to readjust some things, but that possibility is there for you with all these institutions across our county. I would encourage our residents that if you’re thinking about it, do it now. Now it’s your time and you might surprise yourself.

Alex: Ivy Tech of course has articulation agreements with now, I believe, every other institution in the county. If cost is a worry or cost is an issue, as Acacia says, there’s a lot of ways to go about it, so 100%.

Chris: We’re well into the educational attainment area here, which is great. Some kinds of professional development or training, the resources for that might be limited, but we do not seem to be limited as a county in educational options. When we talk about the goal that you have, which is to increase the percentage of the population that holds an associate degree or higher by 2025, it seems like we have the resources there for that. We have the options for doing that. Is it fair to say, it’s a matter of helping people understand the importance of that and seeing, again, a path for them to do that? Or are there other complicating factors there that make educational attainment a challenge?

Acacia: You’re always going to have some of your standard barriers such as, childcare might be an issue, transportation might be an issue, but again, I would think that some of that is just also some of the knowledge, like “How do I get started?” Again, I would just encourage our students that our colleges are ready. If you can make contact, if you can send an email, they’re going to contact you back to see how they can help you.

Right now, our state is so flush with training and education assistance that that shouldn’t be a barrier. The governor has his next-level jobs grant dollars. There are employer training grants where employers are funding people to get credentials, their workforce, and then on the flip side of it, they have workforce-ready grants, which are for the individual that they can apply. That’s free trainings just like Ivy Tech, other institutions across the state that people can do something, they just have to make, again, the decision to do it.

If you have questions on education, I would definitely reach out to those colleges of your choice here in the county. If you need help with that, again, I would just say, call me, and I can at least direct you in the right direction to who you’d to talk to. The educational attainment, that goal of 35% by 2025, that aligns to the governor’s overall agenda, where he wants 60% of Indiana have some certification or higher by 2025. We are seeing increases in that. We are moving in the right direction. It’s a slower rate, but it is something that can be attained.

Chris: I wanted to ask a detail about that. Do you feel like our employers that are located in the county are ready to be a part of that effort? In other words, if someone goes off and spends a year or two really upping their game, getting a certification and degree and then they come back to a local employer and say, “Hey, I’ve invested in myself. I’ve got this knowledge now. I’m ready for the increased pay level. I’m ready for more responsibility,” are employers ready to be a partner in that and offer those?

The worry would be, of course, that someone invests in their education and then says, “Now, I can go across the state line or to another city and make more money,” and then we see them leave the community. How do we anticipate that and make sure we’re ready for that?

Acacia: I would say, I know for a fact employers are absolutely ready to do that commitment. Retaining their workers is such an important factor for them that if they go through tuition reimbursement programs through the company or the person does it outright and is ready for that next step, our companies are ready to promote.

Again, not unique to Wayne County, but here in a few years, we’re going to have a real problem because we have a retiring workforce. There needs to be someone to fill that, so our employers work really hard to retain their employees. If you take that initiative just to get some sort of credentialing et cetera, they’re absolutely going to work with you to try to promote you and keep you on board. If a company is unwilling to do that then there are lots of other companies in Wayne County that would snap them up in a heartbeat.

Alex: I’ll just echo this briefly, what Acacia said. I don’t think I could have said it better, but in my sense, there’s a lot of urgency from local companies, and in this retention. It’s always urgent, but here of late, that urgency feels like it’s been increased. I think that companies are trying to make themselves as accessible and open and friendly to workers of all classes.

Chris: Great. Well, let’s turn to improved housing, our last big picture indicator area. Again, I think sometimes we get ourselves in trouble with the narrative that develops about housing in the area like it’s a very affordable place to live, you can find amazing houses very cheaply. If you’re handy, you can find an investment property really easily to fix up. Your report shows the median home value in Wayne County is $97,400 which, compared to the national median home value of $204,900, we’re less than half of that.

Why is it important for us as a community to be thinking about the value of the properties, I don’t know if this is true, but if we’re mostly buying and selling houses to each other within our community? Is it okay if our home values are lower and that just makes us a more affordable place to live? Or does that point to some possible concerns?

Acacia: It does lead to some possible concerns. The housing issue has been a big topic of conversation for many years in Wayne County. It has been even more prevalent, I would say probably within the last eight months. Having a great, affordable housing doesn’t mean that it always has to be a lower value. When you think about that $97,000 average, we have a lot of older homes in Wayne County. What we don’t have is new housing developments or new housing areas.

That’s where a lot of the struggle comes in is that we have a lot of older homes, our rental ratio is really disproportionate to actual homeownership. We also don’t have areas of housing development. I know again, that is something that county leadership, Economic Development Corporation at Wayne County, top business leaders, the Chamber, everyone’s talking about that, tourism, is how do we start working on the housing availability in terms of new development and working with those developers in terms of helping assist with the infrastructure costs?

At $97,000 average, all the infrastructure is already there. It may not be the best infrastructure but it’s there. When you talk about new housing development and what modern needs are, that’s where the deficit really becomes prevalent.

Chris: Just to clarify for folks who might be out there saying, “If we have enough existing homes even if they’re older homes, why would we build new ones?” Can you talk a little bit more about why it’s so important to have new housing developments happening or what that means for all these other indicators?

Acacia: Great question. It’s important because that’s how you attract new business. It’s how you attract new residents. It’s how you attract new projects to the area. It doesn’t always have to be a business but new initiatives, and new grant opportunities. If there’s nothing new available, what are you offering a new person coming into the county? Use an older home? Or would you potentially have a higher-priced home, not that it is unattainable but it’s more value?

Let’s say, for example, broadband is built into the infrastructure of your housing development. That’s one less thing you have to worry about. Guess what? I can work from anywhere then. My company might be out of Indianapolis Fort Wayne et cetera, but I live in Wayne County, and I love it. I have no problems because I can do all the same things that I could do in an office, but I can do it right from home. If we have areas of our county that don’t have that infrastructure built into it, that attraction piece becomes a little bit more difficult to calculate.

Alex: The construction and development of real estate and building of new homes, of course, has an immense effect on the local government tax revenues, it provides lots of jobs, of course. It’s normally a pretty good indicator if you’re not the end-all, tell-all but a strong indicator of your economic stability and your economic growth too.

Chris: Should our goal be to get to a point where we have neighborhoods of– Are talking about million-dollar homes? Are we talking about enticing tech millionaires or that kind of population? Are we talking about something that’s somewhere in the middle of what we have now?

Acacia: Definitely in the middle. We know that million-dollar homes is not probably what Wayne County needs or wants. We also know though that lower price housing options may also not work, but somewhere in that middle of the road that is an attainable mortgage. Again, that attraction piece, everything, those amenities are already within that housing development, or within my home, that’s going to make me want to stay. 2020, as far as anything, we can work from anywhere, but we have to have access to the things to make sure that we can work from anywhere.

Alex: Maybe just a few tech millionaires.

Chris: It doesn’t hurt, right?

Chris: We’ve gone through the five indicators. I just need to ask you both, looking at these goals, looking at these strategies, as you both said, this is complex stuff, this is hard stuff. There may be some low-hanging fruit there, but we’re talking about change that is pretty huge to contemplate. The vision of what we would be as a community if we got there is very impressive and it’s compelling. Do you all feel like it’s possible? Do you feel like we can get there in a short enough time to make a difference? Can we get there in a way that keeps the momentum going? How do you personally stay engaged and motivated about this work, knowing that in some cases, we may be talking about change that could take generations?

Alex: It’s true. Just right out of the gate, I think it’s about perspective, and not to use a phrase that I’m not sure even exists, but it’s about taking a bite out of the apple, not a bite out of the elephant. All these things are truly connected. It’s locking in on attainable goals. When I was familiarizing myself with this role and I got familiarized with Forward Wayne County, that’s what I respected most. These are obtainable goals, and then when you reach them you can reset.

Again, I think it’s about taking a bite-size, realizing all these things are incredibly complex but yet interconnected. If you can really lock in on a few objectives achieved, then you’re probably going to see gains in a multitude of areas. It’s about just keeping the focus sharpened, and like I said, trying to obtain first those achievable goals because nothing is more disheartening than goals that aren’t. Once, you’ll see those in a trickle effect but in a positive.

Acacia: These are definitely attainable. Our own barriers and our own stumbling blocks are ourselves. If we have a mindset of, “This is not attainable,” you’re never going to be involved to make it actually happen. You’re never going to be invested in doing it. This is something we were working on through Forward Wayne County’s NICE program, Neighborhood Involvement and Community Engagement, if you change your mindset and you look at your community through an asset-based lens, then you start seeing all the possibilities of what could happen.

These are attainable goals that will take all of us working together to make it happen. That doesn’t mean it’s just the key leaderships or leadership throughout the county, it also involves our residents. Looking at your community through asset-based models rather than what’s wrong with it, will help us achieve some of these goals.

Chris: I really appreciate that. I appreciate the perspective of thinking about, “How do we want to create the community that’s the one that we want to live in?” as opposed to, “How do we address this problem or stop this bad thing?” Obviously, they’re related, but it might seem like a small mental shift, it seems like it can make a really big difference in what we’re able to do.

Thank you both for walking through this with me, and getting into the weeds on some of these numbers, I appreciate that. I’m sure each of these points, we probably could have spent an hour on alone. Are there any final thoughts that you want to leave people with as they digest this report, think about what it means for them, and think about what’s next?

Alex: I’m sure Acacia has probably more profound thoughts than I. I would just reiterate, if you have questions about it. I’ve actually fielded a couple of calls from people around the county just this week about “Hey, you found this. Where might I find this?” I think the idea is that this report gets to people’s hands and it gets them thinking about things. Don’t hesitate to pick up the report as often as you can– as often as you’d like, pardon me. It’ll be widely available, but as we alluded to earlier, it will be fairly consistently updated as well, so be sure to check back.

Acacia: I would just add that some of the numbers and some of the data points within the report are disheartening. There’s no other way to say it, but at the same time, it should give everyone some pause to think, “How do I be involved to make it better?” Again, that comes from that asset-based mindset, is we know we have struggles, we’re not trying to hide that, but what can I do, what can we do, what can our county do, to really combat some of the things and make it better?

I would just say, always looking at it from that, everyday, we can list all the problems, and we can do it probably to throw us off our tone, but if we have to stop and pause and really take some time to look at it from that asset-based mindset, then looking at those disheartening numbers, should encourage you and challenge you to say “I can do something to make it better.”

Chris: Acacia St. John, the Program Director at Forward Wayne County, and Alex Painter, the Community Engagement Officer at the Wayne Country Foundation, thank you both very much.

Acacia: Thank you.

Alex: Thanks.

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