Urban League’s RISE Katrina 10 Conference, closing remarks

Urban League’s RISE Katrina 10 Conference, closing remarks

Prepared remarks to close “Education Town Hall” At Urban League’s RISE Katrina 10 Conference, Hyatt Regency—New Orleans

Thank you, and good morning everyone. This has been an exciting conversation, and I am so grateful to have the chance to contribute to it. It’s invigorating to be part of an event like this—one that is serious, and forward-looking, and fueled by so much energy. The leaders assembled in this room have already given us all a lot to think about this morning, and I hope my remarks can contribute to the dialogue and keep it moving in a positive direction.

For those of you who may not be familiar with Lumina Foundation, we are a large, Indianapolis-based private foundation with a singular mission: We work to increase Americans’ access to and success in postsecondary education. And we do that in a very focused way, pursuing one specific aim: by the year 2025—just 10 years from now—we want 60 percent of Americans to have a college degree, certificate or other high-quality credential beyond high school.

We know—and I’m sure everyone in this room would agree—that high-quality education is the key to a brighter future—not just for individuals, but for cities … for states … for the nation as a whole. New Orleans certainly seems to be acting on this belief, particularly in the years since Katrina. The city has taken many impressive and forward-looking steps, and progress is undeniable, as we’ve heard this morning.

In fact, the city’s resurgence these last 10 years has been remarkable—even inspirational. You’ve all seen the piece in the New York Times from earlier this month which highlighted some obvious points of pride:

  • In 2014, Forbes magazine noted that New Orleans was first in the nation in the number of college graduates.
  • The previous year, Forbes had the city as the No. 1 destination for working-age Americans who were moving.
  • The Times article praised the city’s growing reputation as a leader in entrepreneurship, pointing out that more than 10,000 people attended the Entrepreneur Week event last March.

Clearly, New Orleans is doing a lot of things well, and things are moving in the right direction. The question now is: What next?

And that question is critical. It’s critical because, despite the progress that’s been made since Katrina—progress that is, in many ways, amazing and for which so many people in this room deserve tremendous credit—it’s clear that much more needs to be done to secure a bright future for this wonderful city and its residents.

Let’s go back to that big goal I talked about—the 60 percent college-attainment target. The latest Census figures show that, here in Orleans parish, only 40 percent of working-age residents have even a two-year degree. That figure—which ranks Orleans third among the state’s 64 parishes, by the way—is obviously well below 60 percent.

In other words, what’s been accomplished these past 10 years has been great, but it’s just a start. What really matters—to this city and to the people who call it home—is what we do now to build on that impressive start and ramp up the rate of progress.

And as I think about our discussions today, the main thought I want to share this morning about how we can ramp up that progress can be summarized in one word: Talent. If you look at New Orleans through that lens—if we all see it as a talent hub or a factory for talent—we’ll go a long way to ensuring a bright future for all who live here.

Now, I’m not really talking about the artistic or musical talent that you find in the city’s galleries or jazz clubs or on the sidewalks in the French Quarter. That talent is prodigious, of course. In fact, it’s a treasure. What I’m referring to is, maybe, a bit less entertaining, but it’s certainly no less important to the city’s future.

In my world, talent is defined more broadly. It means human capital—the sum total of citizens’ knowledge and skills and abilities. Talent is the vital ingredient in the recipe for the type of workforce that every city needs to truly prosper in today’s dynamic global economy.

I’m convinced—and I’m certainly not alone in this conviction—that the cities destined for real success in coming years will be the ones that work continually to broaden and deepen their pools of talent. The places that set themselves apart as having a true 21st century workforce—the ones with a wealth of human capital—these are the cities that will thrive.

This isn’t exactly a revelation, I know. In fact, the idea of attracting talented workers has long been a mainstay of economic development. Look at some of the more prominent recent success stories—the tech-magnet cities in Silicon Valley or the “cool-factor” cities such as Denver or Seattle or Austin. All of these places have succeeded by practicing expansion by attraction. No doubt about it, the strategy works.

Unfortunately, there’s also a down side. Many of the cities that have closed the skills gap by “importing” talent have actually found that they’ve widened another gap: the equity gap. By attracting new talent to the community, they often reduce opportunity for those in their cities who need it most.

Austin provides a telling illustration of this. More than half of the out-of-state transplants living in Austin hold college degrees—but that’s true of just a little more than a third of the native Texans in the city. This is, bluntly, a damaging divide—and it isn’t specific to Austin. In fact, according to a recent National Journal analysis, it’s true across the board. Three-quarters of the cities with the widest gaps in college attainment between blacks and whites also rank among the top half for college attainment among white residents.

The smart city is the one that grows its own talent

Any city that wants to build prosperity and be sure it endures can’t just focus on talent attraction. For the long haul, and for the benefit of all, what really needs to happen is talent cultivation. The smart city is the one that grows its own talent. It’s the city that finds ways to boost the quality of education offered at all levels, kindergarten through college. It’s the one that makes postsecondary education—because a high school degree doesn’t cut it any longer in the knowledge economy—more accessible and more relevant for its residents—all of its residents, no matter their age, race, ethnicity, job status or income level.

There are cities that fit this profile—places that are publicly committed to cultivating their own local talent. Santa Ana, California, for example, where the city limit signs read: “Education First.” Or Buffalo, New York, home of the “Say Yes to Education” initiative.

Leaders in these cities are making a concerted, collaborative effort to forge their futures by focusing on education. They set goals and work collaboratively to achieve them. They listen and respond to employers’ needs. They provide multiple educational pathways for all types of people to be successful.

After listening to the conversation this morning, I have no doubt whatsoever that New Orleans can succeed—and succeed brilliantly—in a similar effort to cultivate its local talent. The progress that’s been made in the post-Katrina period is undeniable proof of a deep resolve and an inspiring resilience. It’s made this great American city a national symbol—one that, in my opinion, this nation sorely needed.

And New Orleans can be that type of symbol again … by embracing the talent challenge—a challenge that extends far beyond the city limits. In fact, our nation’s success hinges on how we face the talent challenge. Consider that by 2025, close to two-thirds of all jobs will require some sort of postsecondary credential. At our current pace, we’re projected to fall short of hitting that goal by some 5 million workers. If the U.S. is going to thrive in the global economy, it’s simply not enough to shuffle talent from one location to the next. We have to focus on equipping more residents with essential skills and knowledge.

So I urge you to take on that task—to do what this great city has already done so well: Show America how to do what must be done.

Thank you all for a terrific town hall meeting.

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