Our latest blog post comes from Rob Hope, Director, and Kayla Tolentino, Initiative Associate, of ReWork the Bay at the San Francisco Foundation. ReWork the Bay works to increase the number of people in the Bay Area who have quality, empowered employment that offers the pay and benefits necessary for people to thrive in the Bay Area, and have a meaningful say in their work and working conditions.
As a funder, do you ever question why, despite the efforts of a whole sector, with considerable private and public investment, we continue to hear from employers that workforce development programs are not their go-to source for recruiting? Why are we seeing ever greater income inequality, particularly when comparing workers by race, despite massive efforts to close those gaps by our workforce development system?
When posed this question recently, a Bay Area Workforce Development Board director observed, “Workforce development doesn’t write the rules of the game, we just play it as best we can.” 
This reflection from someone within the system points to an inconvenient truth: our economy is set up in a way that severely limits the impact of workforce development programs.
It’s time to unpack that. First, let’s look at the players of the game.
Employers can be thought of as the “buyers” of labor in the labor market, and workers the “sellers” (selling their labor at the price of their wages and benefits). In this metaphor, workforce development programs are a “broker” between employers and low-income workers and job seekers, charged with filling the labor needs of business while also helping workers find employment.
Now, for the rules.
Ample regulations and restrictions dictate how workforce programs can operate; laws provide basic protections to workers; and many criminal justice, housing, employment and immigration policies make it easier or harder for workers to succeed in the labor market. However, many of the rules that dominate our labor market are take the form of narratives, not laws and regulations.
Underpinning these narratives are the beliefs many Americans hold that our labor market is generally free from bias, assesses workers based on the value of their labor, and compensates them accordingly. Although this set of beliefs is far from the truth, and a growing number of people and organizations see and are actively challenging this perception, these and similar assumptions still dominate the mainstream labor market that workforce development operates within. And, these narratives are also frequently used to establish or reinforce racist beliefs that fuel racial inequities.
Here are some of these beliefs (or “rules”), and examples of narratives that reinforce and racialize them:
While these beliefs have the veneer of fairness and race neutrality, the impact of the racialized narratives they create allows policymakers, businesses, and even funders to focus on “fixing” individuals and abdicate responsibility for changing systems and structures.
In fact, these assumptions help create a catch-22: the rules of the game are not fair to workers, yet workforce development feels disempowered to try to make the rules more fair for fear of alienating employers. All of this ultimately harms workers and jobseekers by dramatically limiting income gains and economic mobility.
At ReWork the Bay, we believe we have an obligation to address the fact that the rules of the game being played are not fair. We bring together leaders in philanthropy, economic justice, education and training, and business to make the Bay Area a place where everyone has access to jobs that allow them to benefit from and shape the region’s economy. We believe everyone deserves to live full lives with security, dignity, and agency in our work, home, and communities, and that shared prosperity is everyone’s job.
So while we embrace the value of resourcing workforce development programs and systems to serve jobseekers, our main goal as a collective is to look deeper for structural and systemic reasons why economic mobility isn’t getting better in our region in spite of these investments. In other words, yes, let’s equip workforce development with the resources to play the game well, and let’s also do our part to fix the rules of the game.
For additional analysis of racialized narratives and historical policies that have boosted economic opportunity for white men while blocking it for women and people of color, check out this project with partner the Insight Center for Community Economic Development.
 Paraphrased quotation.
 The discussion of narratives in this piece is heavily informed by the work of Jhumpa Bhattacharya and Anne Price at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, including their article “The Power of Narrative in Economic Policy”.
 Many of our funder members are leading supporters of Bay Area workforce organizations.