Finding Their Voices, and Speaking Up: Part 2.

The National Transitional Jobs Network and Southwest Housing Solutions Discuss Michigan Earn + Learn’s Visit to Washington, D.C.

Interview transcribed by Caitlin C. Schnur, Workforce Policy and Research Fellow

DCTripOn September 19, the Earn + Learn Southeast Michigan region’s Participant Advisory Council (PAC) boarded a plane headed to Washington, D.C.  With the support of a travel scholarship from the National Transitional Jobs Network (NTJN) and with the NTJN’s D.C.-savvy Melissa Young to guide the way, the PAC members had an eventful and exciting week in D.C. that included a day-long visit to the Hill to talk to members of Congress about just how important it is for them to champion Transitional Jobs programs like Michigan Earn + Learn.

Launched in 2011, Michigan Earn + Learn is a statewide initiative that helps low-income, at-risk individuals who are disconnected from employment and education, including many young minority males; returning citizens; and chronically unemployed individuals reenter and succeed in the labor market.  Earn + Learn participants gain work experience (and earn a paycheck!) via a Transitional Job while also pursuing education or job training to help them advance in the workplace.

Melissa Young, the NTJN’s Associate Director, and Laurie Diener, Senior Manager of the Earn and Learn program at Southwest Housing Solutions Corporation, spoke about their experience in D.C. and the importance of having constituents  speak directly to their elected officials.

Melissa: Hi Laurie! It’s great to talk with you about our recent trip to Washington, D.C., with the Michigan Earn + Learn Participant Advisory Council (PAC).  What was your general impression of our time in D.C.?

Laurie: It was amazing. The entire trip was just terrific and Capitol Hill was my favorite part. And, we could not have done it without the National Transitional Jobs Network and your helping us get meetings, advising us, guiding us around D.C. and coaching us along the way.

Melissa: It was my pleasure! I loved seeing how empowered the PAC members were to tell their stories.

Laurie: They were so empowered – and it really showed. It took serious courage to tell total strangers about their stories. I was blown away with their courage and how much they care about keeping programs like this running for more people. This experience really showed them that they have a powerful voice in policy change. You know, you rarely get to see the change making process like this.

“I was happy to have seen John Conyers, Sandy Levin, and Gary Peters. I believe we really made an impact on these three.” ~Alfonso S, PAC member

Melissa: I agree! What was your favorite part of Capitol Hill?

Laurie: One of my favorite parts was seeing members of Congress shift their thinking right in front of our eyes. You could actually see the light bulbs turn on for them and their realization that we HAVE to do something different to create employment opportunities and get people back to work. It was palpable. It makes you realize that we can talk and talk and talk about the needs of people but in the end REAL stories from REAL people experiencing these programs make all the difference in the world.

The other thing that I loved seeing was that PAC members recognized that other people saw them for who they were not as a person with a criminal record – it changed their way of looking at themselves. For example, when we were eating lunch at the Longworth Cafeteria, a Capitol Hill lobbyist was talking with one of the PAC members. The lobbyist asked what the PAC member was doing on Capitol Hill. After the PAC member responded the lobbyist said, “Oh, so you’re a workforce and education lobbyist?” The experience created a shift in how they identified themselves and how they saw other people responding to them. It was powerful.

Melissa: I could not agree more. I also loved helping PAC members get comfortable with the policy-making world. At first, they may have been intimidated, but by the end of the day, they were completely comfortable to speak up.

Laurie: That’s right. The entire experience empowered them to think about how they could have a voice in local and state policy work too. After we came back from the trip, PAC members set up a town hall meeting with Detroit’s two Mayoral candidates to talk about jobs, education, and transportation needs AND we invited Michigan state agency officials and other representatives to Southwest Housing Solutions to hear about the Michigan Earn + Learn program directly from PAC members.

Melissa: That is awesome. What advice would you give other transitional jobs programs who might be interested in bringing participants to the Hill to tell their stories?

Laurie: First, they should not hesitate to do it. It was powerful and a great reminder of how we all need to do more to tell our stories. Other programs that want to bring their participants to Washington D.C. have got to work with you and the NTJN. Having you come out to our offices and meet with PAC members before we went to D.C. was so important also. Having you organize all of the meetings, coordinate schedules and guide us along was invaluable. I also loved that you translated the participant stories into federal policy language during the meetings so that members of Congress and their staff could latch on to a specific bill or issue area. I would also advise other programs to come with data about their program’s effectiveness and to support participants in telling their own story. That was the most compelling part of this trip.

Melissa: Wow, thanks!! Their stories will stay with me forever. I’m so glad that the experience was meaningful for them and for you. Thanks so much for talking with me today!

To learn more about the Michigan Earn +Learn program, visit:

To learn more about Southwest Housing Solutions, visit:

Hear from Rabih Bazzi, a job developer at one of Earn + Learn’s partner organizations, ACCESS, speaking about their experience in D.C.

Hear from Melissa Young, Associate Director of the National Transitional Jobs Network, speaking about her experience traveling to D.C.


About National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity is dedicated to ending chronic unemployment and poverty. We believe that every person deserves the opportunity to succeed in work and support themselves and their families. Through our field building, we provide support and guidance that fosters more effective and sustainable employment efforts. Our policy and advocacy work advances solutions to the systemic issues that drive chronic unemployment.

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