Workforce Development


While great work is happening around the country, it is widely recognized that structural change is needed in the workforce development sector, which currently encompases job training, hiring and advancement, connecting people to employment, and more. As part of an inquiry into the ways arts and cultural approaches may help support those needed changes, ArtPlace partnered with NORC at the University of Chicago (NORC), Jobs for the Future, and the Sweet Water Foundation to convene a working group of artists, advocates, workforce development practitioners, and more in January 2020. Using NORC’s research as a jumping off point, the working group gathered for two days in Chicago to learn together and discuss opportunities for advancing workforce development through integration of arts and culture. 

Building off of working group recommendations, ArtPlace supported an expansion of the Arts & Wealth Building Learning Lab, a peer cohort and systems-change initiative led by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC). This effort directly responds to and seeks to move forward several key findings in this sector by lifting up the ability of arts & culture to connect workers to opportunities, build technical and critical skills, shift policies, create regenerative jobs and firms, and more. The Arts & Wealth Building Learning Lab, initiated with support from the Kresge Foundation, is strengthening the field of organizations working at this intersection and creating more fertile ground within the workforce sector itself to better leverage the arts. Many community-based organizations are already doing significant workforce and economic development work, but are not directly supported in those fields nor is their work recognized by key metrics or funding. This program seeks to shift that by directly impacting systems within LISC and other community development intermediaries at local, regional, and national scales.

It’s worth noting that ArtPlace intentionally conducted research and field building efforts in the workforce development sector separately from (though simultaneously with) our work in the economic development sector. While there is significant overlap between these two spheres of practice, the stakeholders and systems governing each industry are distinct.

Field Scan

In November 2018, researchers from NORC at the University of Chicago (NORC) issued a report commissioned by the James Irvine Foundation entitled, The Role of the Arts and Creative Expression in Employability and Economic Opportunity. The report examined the role of the arts in preparing and assisting those struggling with financial hardship to seek and gain living-wage employment. It indicated that while little formal research has been done on using the arts and culture to contribute to job readiness, employability, and economic opportunity, some programs and organizations have already adopted and successfully implemented these approaches. These programs have demonstrated that artistic, cultural, and creative practices can play an important role in achieving employability goals.


Following the convening in January 2020, ArtPlace and NORC co-authored a paper that summarizes insights from the working group dialogue, key trends in the workforce development sector, and six ways that arts and culture can influence workforce development: 

  • Build power and drive policy change
  • Improve recruiting, hiring, and advancement
  • Highlight the social determinants of employment
  • Create regenerative jobs and firms
  • Connect workers to opportunities
  • Build technical and critical skills

Download the full report, Transforming the Workforce Development Sector through Arts & Culture, to learn more. 

Working Group

January 29-30, 2020
Chicago, IL

Co-convened by ArtPlace America, Jobs for the Future, and NORC at the University of Chicago 


Joe Altepeter, Downtown Women's Center
Marsha Armstrong, City of Newark
James Bryant, Full Employment Council of Kansas City
Jasmin Cardenas, Independent Artist and Chicago Workers Collaborative Arts Activist
Lisa Chensvold, National Fund for Workforce Solutions
Tamara Clunis, Amarillo College
Angie Datta Kamath, The City University of New York (CUNY)
Brandon Dennison, Coalfield Development
Lauren Eyster, Urban Institute
Tammi Fergusson, White House Initiative on HBCUs
Chris Hope, The Loop Lab
Esteban Kelly, US Federation of Worker Cooperatives
Seung Kim, Local Initiatives Support Corporation
Deron Johnston, Brownsville Community Justice Center
Abigail Langston, PolicyLink
Wendy Levy, Arts2Work / The Alliance for Media Arts & Culture
Kelly Miyamura, Hawaii P-20 Partnerships for Education
Bryan Parker, First Peoples Fund
Leslie Payne, James Irvine Foundation
Emmanuel Pratt, Sweet Water Foundation
Jia Li Lok Pratt, Sweet Water Foundation
Judilee Reed, The William Penn Foundation
Nelda Liliana Ruiz, Southwest FolkLife Alliance / VozFrontera
Meghan Sobocienski, Grace in Action
Randy Smith, Rural Community College Alliance
Nancy Hoffman, Jobs for the Future
Sandra Lee, Jobs for the Future
Andrea Messing-Mathie, Jobs for the Future
Carol Hafford, NORC at the University of Chicago
Yadira Montoya, NORC at the University of Chicago
Michael Reynolds, NORC at the University of Chicago
Gwendolyn Rugg, NORC at the University of Chicago
Jennifer Novak-Leonard, Northwestern University

Facilitator: Deepa Gupta, Blue Lotus Advisors

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Case Studies

Build power and drive policy change

Chicago Workers’ Collaborative, photo courtesy Jasmin Cardenas.

The Chicago Workers’ Collaborative (CWC) is focused on organizing to improve conditions and policies for low-wage workers. Its mission is to “promote the creation of stable, living wage jobs with racial and gender equity for temporary staffing workers.” Theatre activist Jasmin Cardenas first connected with the CWC through the Lookinglass Theatre, which in 2016 mounted a play about workers’ conditions. After the show closed, Jasmin began independently offering Theatre of the Oppressed workshops to CWC members, with the goal of seeing if Theatre of the Oppressed techniques could help CWC strengthen its organizing. Initial programing showed that CWC members were able to build confidence and leadership skills, process trauma, and raise awareness for worker abuse. In 2018, the team received a grant through the Center for Performance and Civic Practice’s Catalyst Initiative to continue their work, and the group named itself the “Workers Resistance Theater” (a longer case study from that grant is available here).

Requests from worker-organizers continued to increase given the numerous positive benefits the program was having on them individually and as a collective body. Pieces of theater are now integrated into protests, performances in parks and other cultural sites around Chicago, and worker meetings. This theatrical technique has become a valuable organizing tool within this labor organization where Jasmin continues to partner as an independent artist. Worker leaders in the theater group have now worked with other worker groups in the Chicagoland area training them to use Theatre of the Oppressed as an organizing tool in their own organizations. 

Improve recruiting, hiring, and advancement

Photo courtesy Workforce Development Institute of New York

The Workforce Development Institute (WDI) is a non-profit organization that works to increase and retain living-wage employment opportunities across New York State. To further its mission, WDI uses a range of strategies to help job seekers build skills and strengthen employers’ ability to hire and promote workers. As part of WDI’s sector-based initiative to bolster the creative economy in New York, WDI published two anthologies of personal essays about working by reflective practitioners. The first, Working Stories (2015), features 19 essays about work experiences and career development. The second, entitled Creative Lives: Essays by Creative Practitioners, focused on the arts and culture sector and features 17 essays from a range of creative practitioners— a film producer, exhibition designer, playwright, photojournalist, and software applications designer—that shed light on their career pathways and speak to the challenges and opportunities of working in the creative economy.

To make this information accessible to employers and beyond, WDI organized a series of presentations by the authors and both books are available at no cost via its website.

Highlight the social determinants of employment

Photo courtesy Clark Davis WV Public Broadcasting.

Coalfield Development is a non-profit organization in West Virginia that aims to end the intergenerational cycle of poverty in Appalachia through a holistic model of economic and workforce development. Coalfield Development provides professional, academic, and personal training for chronically unemployed community members, and simultaneously oversees a family of social enterprises in fields such as solar energy, sustainable construction, mine-land reclamation, agriculture, and artisan trades. These social enterprises generate desirable jobs for their program participants as well as revenue to support the organization’s operations. Coalfield Development’s social enterprise training program offers a 33-6-3 workforce development model which places an emphasis on the holistic needs of each worker. As part of this program, “crew members” agree to a 2.5-year contract culminating in an Associate’s Degree, and includes 33 hours of paid work, 6 credit hours of higher education, and 3 hours of personal development mentorship each week. 

Create regenerative jobs and firms
Rolling Rez Arts, Pine Ridge, SD

Photo courtesy First Peoples Fund.

First Peoples Fund is a non-profit organization headquartered in South Dakota that supports Indigenous artists and culture bearers across the country. Founded in 1995 by Jennifer Easton as a donor-advised fund of the Tides Foundation, in 2003 the organization established itself as an independent non-profit and continues to build on Jennifer’s vision. The organization’s programs and services focus on strengthening the ability of individual Native artists to contribute to economic growth, cultural preservation, and the overall welfare of Indigenous communities. First People’s Fund sees Indigenous culture as inextricable from career pursuits, and their Rolling Rez Arts program is a prime example of how the organization supports artists as a way to bring about positive change in Native communities. Launched in 2016, Rolling Rez Arts is a mobile arts space, business training center, and credit union office that travels around the Pine Ridge Reservation providing local artists with access to resources and retail services while offering the broader community easier access to artists’ wares. By expanding access to capital and culturally sensitive business training, First Peoples Fund supports Native artists’ entrepreneurial ambitions, which in turn helps their communities to imagine and build regenerative forms of labor.

Connect workers to opportunities
VozFrontera, Nogales, AZ

Photo courtesy Southwest Folklife Alliance

VozFrontera is an initiative for youth engagement, leadership, and local arts incubation in Nogales, Arizona, a border town where many youth leave after high school because they have trouble connecting with employment opportunities locally. Through documentary arts mentoring and artist- and scholar-in-residence programs, as well as startup entrepreneurship training for local youth, VozFrontera furthers the mission “to build more equitable and vibrant communities by celebrating the everyday expressions of culture, heritage, and diversity in the Greater Southwest.” Founded by the Southwest Folklife Alliance (SFA) following an iterative community engagement process and local needs assessment, VozFrontera operates within the community of Nogales through a series of projects and initiatives in partnership with SFA, the University of Arizona, and other local organizations and individuals. While conducting the local needs assessment, SFA heard from residents and leaders that they want to build stronger connections between older and younger generations and for local youth to gain skills and access to economic opportunities in Nogales.

Now, VozFrontera regularly connects participants with artists, entrepreneurs, and leaders from a variety of industries, providing mentorship that expands and strengthens local youth’s social networks and empowers them to become Nogales’ next generation of leaders.

Build technical and critical skills
Juxtaposition Arts, Minneapolis, MN

Photo courtsey Juxtaposition Arts

Juxtaposition Arts (JXTA) is a youth-powered social enterprise and community-rooted art and design center based in North Minneapolis. The organization was founded in 1995 by Roger and DeAnna Cummings and Peyton Russell to address conventional schools’ failure to engage Black, Indienous, and people of color (BIPOC) youth meaningfully, and to provide participants with the tools necessary to develop their creativity into viable career paths. Twenty-five years later, what started as an after-school program has now evolved into a multi-faceted cultural institution that employs over 70 young artist and designers and 30 teaching professionals, and supports hundreds of young people across Minneapolis and beyond to develop the skills, connections, and confidence they need to become leaders in the creative industries. With an emphasis on hands-on learning and self-determination, JXTA provides free after-school and summer training programs for youth ages 8-21, and year-round paid apprenticeships in six revenue-earning production studios called JXTA labs that allow for young adults ages 14-21 to work side-by-side professionals in graphic design, textiles and screen printing, ceramics, public art, environmental design, urban planning, and community engagement. JXTA labs earned over $500k in 2019 and are on track to beat that in 2020.  The organization also offers apprentices the opportunity to participate in a concurrent college and career pathways program that offers additional mentorship, workshops, internships, and field trips as a way to deepen skill building and pipelines to college and careers.  

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