Transcript:  “Understanding The True Needs Of A Community” – with Deanna West-Torrence


Economic Development, Workforce Development, and Community Development all intersect at the North End Community Improvement Collaborative in Mansfield. Executive Director Deanna West-Torrence joins the Workforce Pulse Podcast to talk about identifying and overcoming barriers for job seekers and the importance of understanding the true needs of a community.

CLINT: Welcome to the Workforce Pulse podcast. My name is Clint Knight. I’m the Director of Workforce Development at the Richland Area Chamber & Economic Development. We’re going to bring in a variety of guests to talk about the state of the workforce in mid-Ohio and how it relates to the state. We’re going to present opportunities, ideas, and resources to grow the workforce, talk about continuing to educate our workforce, and ways that we can work together. Made possible by the Area 10 Workforce Development Board, this is the Workforce Pulse. 


Audio file 



 CLINT: Welcome to the Workforce Pulse podcast. My name is Clint Knight. I’m the Director of Workforce Development at the Richland Area Chamber & Economic Development. We’re going to bring in a variety of guests to talk about the state of the workforce in mid-Ohio and how it relates to the state. We’re going to present opportunities, ideas, and resources to grow the workforce, talk about continuing to educate our workforce, and ways that we can work together. Made possible by the Area 10 Workforce Development Board, this is the Workforce Pulse. 

Welcome back to the Workforce Pulse podcast here for episode six. We’re excited to have Deanna West-Torrence in the studio with us for this episode, the founder of NECIC, which is the North End Community Improvement Collaborative based in Mansfield, OH, where we are, obviously. You have a long history here in Mansfield, obviously founding the organization many years ago, before we get into how that affects workforce and what you do in the workforce realm, let’s talk a little bit about the concept of NECIC and the history of it, and tell us what it is. 

DEANNA: Thank you, happy to be here with you today, Clint. NECIC as you said, stands for North End Community Improvement Collaborative and it was founded in 2006. We opened our doors in 2007. It was really my intent when we started NECIC to work with other community leaders who were part of our original board to respond to some of the needs in the community in a different way. 

So, we wanted to utilize something called asset-based community development, and as we saw stores closing, houses being boarded up, crime going up and the continuation of schools closing and all of that, it was really interesting to me, like, how can you turn that around? And I served on City Council for four years from 2000 to 2004, and at the same time I was working with the CHAT program. They had just started with Doctors Mark and Sarah Redding and Doctor Celia Flynn. And so through those lenses they were very, very concentrated in one area, which was the neighborhood that my family had been in forever and me as well.  

And so as we looked at what was happening in that neighborhood, we realized that we had almost third-world birth outcomes. We had the highest of everything that was negative in this one concentrated area, and so that was really interesting to me to overlay the health with, having served on council, and then you’re looking at things like streets and police and fire and things like that that also impact the neighborhood. So, overlaying that, and then later being on the Mansfield City School Board, then you add the education element to it and it really made me feel like we need a plan. And that was something that I wanted and that the other community leaders that were working with me at the time wanted.  

I thought that it was interesting how we all hear about a plan, so businesses have plans and so forth. But to me, having been so involved at that level, I realized that things were really, really separate and that education people only talk to education, and the city people only talk to people in their realm, and that the residents in the community have to live through all of it.  

So, the intent was to create a plan that was driven by the residents, we surveyed them and they gave input and kind of set neighborhood priorities, areas in the neighborhood that they wanted to see things fixed up in and so forth. And so all of that material was compiled and that became the beginning of the North End Community Economic Development Plan, which was ultimately the goal that I had when I started NECIC and that was to coordinate all these different areas and still address the needs of the residents in a way that focused on assets or what we were bringing to the table, instead of deficits. So that was kind of the beginning of NECIC and kind of our core philosophy. 

CLINT: So, my next question was going to be about, as you mentioned, asset-based community development. When you say focus on those assets, what are you identifying as assets? 

DEANNA: When we first started, we counted everything. Tony Chaney was the first intern that I had, and he and I from the very beginning, we counted everything. We counted boarded houses, we counted churches, we counted stores, we did a complete economic-based assessment in our first year to make sure that what we were hearing was actually happening. So, at the time we were hearing that there were no jobs in the North End, no business in the North End, and so as we looked there were like 430 something businesses that were open and active and so forth.  

So that was one thing that we really, really felt like we wanted to do, was utilize this method of seeing what are actually tools that you could build upon. And that could be people, that could be churches, as I said, any of those things, and in basically utilizing this model, you start with the gifts of the individual.  

So, you start with, what does a person know about, what do they care about, what are they willing to share? And so, there was a community organizing element to this to where we had to figure out who lived in the neighborhood, who had what talent, who was interested, what problem did that need to be attached to? And so initially we had two community organizers, Gene Tady and Sam Done. That was their job. They looked at those assets. They aligned those assets and then we applied them to the data that Tony had found, and that’s kind of how we move. 

CLINT: I think it’s interesting. I was reading on your website, you’re using that data, you choose your focus based on the data that you have, and I think a lot of times in this type of work, in workforce development or community development, we see that we get distracted by trying to solve a problem that’s not really a problem. Do you know what I mean by that?  

DEANNA: I do, I do. 

CLINT: We get really focused on something that we think is a problem, but it’s not really a problem. Can you think of situations where you guys have identified things that would surprise you? Like I didn’t realize that was something we really needed to spend time and energy on because we were looking or heading in another direction. 

DEANNA: I would say that the biggest thing for us would probably be food. We already were convening residents and people throughout the county actually to do community gardens, and I think we baby-stepped into that work. And I think that once we saw the data and we realized that wow, you can’t buy a head of lettuce in the North End and that’s a big area. And so, once we started really looking at that data, I think that was something that we didn’t think about at all.  

There is no food access or any food type of a thing that was in our original plan. We weren’t looking at it when we did the first plan in 2011, we didn’t have it, but we added it in the second one. It may have been there, but it was not nearly as prominent, I’m not sure. But the food work, the fact that we were a food desert when that last grocery store closed, I think that was like wow in the neighborhood. 

CLINT: And that was something that I learned from reading about the work that you were doing years ago. I live in an outlying community. I don’t live in downtown Mansfield. I work in downtown Mansfield and now driving down every day is far more apparent knowing the nearest big box grocery store is 4 miles from the North End and if you have transportation as a barrier, that’s an issue. Which we do have public transportation. As the Chair of the local Transportation Board, I would be unfair to not say we look at those things. But there’s no grocery stores at that end and that was a surprising thing for me to realize as well. 

DEANNA: Well, we had one when we started, but it closed. It couldn’t compete with the dollar stores that were becoming prolific in the neighborhood. But I will say that we actually do have a grocery store now. KV Market is there. 

CLINT: Right. 

DEANNA: That was a great thing for the neighborhood because he also had read the plan. And he was very intentional when he first had the idea of saying, hey, I want to hire people from this neighborhood. I want to employ people who can walk here to work. So, I think that COVID has affected them, but that’s why we were so happy to have the market open.  

CLINT: And I frequent KV Market because I work downtown now and it wasn’t there. 

DEANNA: And I’ve seen you in there.  

CLINT: Yeah, and it wasn’t there when I started working downtown. It opened up and it’s a resource. So, you presented a plan, a community plan and you have results. 

DEANNA: Right. He was an investor; you know he was looking to do something and that was how we hooked up with him. 

CLINT: So, let’s talk about, we mentioned, barriers, and let’s talk about workforce specifically. NECIC has a role in the workforce in the community, specifically in the North End, but with employers throughout the county. So, you have a concept of building blocks and how those building blocks work together to elevate the community, support the community, and drive solutions. Let’s talk a little bit about those building blocks and where the workforce fits into the work of NECIC. 

DEANNA: Sure. So, we worked a lot with young people when we first started, and I think that’s where a number of our backgrounds came from, working with young people. In 2016, we launched a staffing service, Temp to Hire, and I think that was probably one of the most eye-opening things for us, was dealing with the actual employers at that level, and the employees, and so just like everything else, we want to apply an asset-based lens to it. So, the concept of building blocks which came much later than all of this, but still applies, is basically that we have to build on what’s there.  

You just got to keep building on what’s there, that can be people, that can be a process, that can be a product, but that’s kind of how we’re looking at each of these things. Each of these assets can build on one another. The impetus behind us really getting involved in workforce things was just looking at the data. The income data, particularly among African Americans, and even more specifically African American men and the local workforce, issues there and how many were out of the labor force and how many were unemployed.  

And that just kind of sends you on a journey to figure out what’s really going on, and so we realized that even though we had this plan and we have this 20-year vision that we have been working on since 2008, we still knew that at the very most basic building block is to be able to be self-sufficient to take care of yourself. And so that’s why we kind of started getting into the employment realm. 

We couldn’t talk to people about going to doctors or moving into homes or starting businesses or anything until they can take care of themselves. So, it was just a very basic thing. 

CLINT: And with the staffing agency, you guys work to identify barriers with individuals and what may be preventing them from getting to work. So, we all know right now that it is an employee’s market. Everyone is hiring, but that doesn’t remove the barriers that stand between individuals and keeping a job, or getting to the job, or just being able to report to the job, to do the job. And you guys do a lot of work in that area. One of the things that I’ve been impressed by is the way that NECIC works with community partners, be that employers or other agencies, to create solutions and identify how we can overcome those barriers. If you can talk a little bit about that and the work you guys are doing in that area. 

DEANNA: Thanks. The idea of barriers, I think for me personally and from some of a couple of our other folks, comes from working with the CHAT program. So, at my shop I am not the workforce expert, that’s our career development coordinator, Crystal Davis Weiss. But what she would tell you certainly is that the barriers are wide ranging; you have transportation, you have childcare, you have folks who have whatever issues, it could be mental health, things like that that are barriers. There are health barriers. There are a number of things that keep people from getting to work, and they’re so broad and so unique. It’s really hard to identify those, but one of the things, as you were talking about partnerships that she was able to do, was to partner with a local employer who gave us funding to address those barriers and not just specific to their business, but to eliminate barriers for people going to work.  

So, we do have people also who have criminal records. Sometimes something as simple as getting an ID is blocking someone from getting a job. There are certainly agencies that we can connect them to when there are barriers, like, I don’t have work boots and things like that. So, you can work with community partners to specifically drill down on that. In our shop, what we’ve done is we have a community health worker who is paired with everyone to kind of assess their barriers before they go to work, so that we know if there are anything, are kids sick? Do you need a doctor? And kind of walking people through that process so that during those first 90 days that they’re coming through our staffing agency, they are also getting some of those needs met.  

CLINT: So, you are identifying a potential barrier right up front and as much as the job seeker will tell you, right? 

DEANNA: Up front, right. 

CLINT: I understand some people are going to be very private, but your goal is to set them up for long-term success. And as you mentioned, in that 90 days, frequently in the first 14 days, is when you’re going to make it, or you’re not.  

Identifying those barriers before they even go to work, your organization is in a position where you’re sending them in a direction, you’re setting them up with a specific position, and you might be able to determine, based on those barriers or challenges, what might be best suited for them?  

DEANNA: Right. 

CLINT: Yeah, that’s an interesting way to look at it and focus on what’s going to make them most successful in the long run. 

DEANNA: Right, I think it is. It also plays into the asset-based thing because not only are you identifying barriers, but you’re also identifying what capacity they have? What are you bringing to the job? I think that also is a really key piece, because interestingly we have done different workforce trainings, Bring Your A Game, and There’s a Bridges Out of Poverty model and all of that, but what we’re finding is that just sitting down with the community health worker, kind of looking at what some of those things are, helping them identify what it is, you know, this could potentially get in your way, so do we have a plan? A backup plan in some cases. Then of course you have some people who just need connected to a job and they’re superstars, so it’s really running the whole gamut. 

CLINT: You mentioned asset-based community development. You’re focusing on that, the asset is the talent and ability, and you’re focusing on that with the individual with the job seeker. Whatever their situation may be, when they are at your organization and working to remove all of that, not necessarily remove the barriers, but how do we work to overcome them, so that you can be successful.  

I think that in a market right now where it appears that we just need everybody to work. That’s the employer side and there are employees. There are individuals who want to work, and it’s refreshing to hear that aspect of it that we’re working to support job seekers into long-term success. Not only that, but identify employers who want to work with them to help overcome those barriers. 

DEANNA: Yeah, and I think too, one thing that we do with the job seeker is also talk about the employer and what the employer is putting into this and so that it’s not always a one-sided thing. You’re offering that employer your time and talent and that employer in turn is paying you and you’re trying to help them do whatever it is they do. But a lot of times I think that people don’t always think like that. They don’t take into account the other side of it, so I think that’s another thing that we’ve done in working with the businesses, trying to share that story, but then also sharing that with the job seeker. 

CLINT: And that industry education, that understanding who the employer is and what the expectation is, because I mean, that’s the primary indicator for success, are you going to meet the expectation of the employer? So, overcoming the barriers in getting there, being able to be there is one thing, but then also educating that job seeker on, here’s what you need to do in order to meet that expectation and ensure that you’re on that 50/50 partnership right, of being an employee. That’s a lot of stuff.  

That’s a lot of work. So, you work with the Area 10 Workforce Development Board, which is Richland and Crawford Counties, and you’ve identified the type of work that you’re doing there. And that’s a partnership. And then, as I mentioned earlier, working with a variety of employers in the area. That’s a lot of stuff in the workforce world.  

There’s one other thing I want to hear you talk about. I know you have big plans coming up and you guys are looking at potentially a Community Center in the North End and you’re working with the county commissioners on that. Tell me what’s going on with that. 

DEANNA: Well, being that we are 15 years old, we’ve been nomads for a long time, we’ve had a few offices here and there, and so we finally found a home and that is at 486 Springmill Street, that’s the corner of Bowman and Springmill Streets. It’s where the old bank used to be and so our plan is to expand that little bank, probably by not quite 10 times, but quite a bit bigger. 

We’re planning at this point about a 30,000 square foot facility that will house our offices. We do have about 16 full-time employees, so it’ll house our offices and be our home, but also leased space for other nonprofits and businesses that may be interested in locating there. And so all of that, all of our food work and everything, so that’s kind of all on one side of the building. And then the other side will be a gymnasium. There are plans for a theater.  

So, all of that is what we’re hoping to see happen in the building and so that the involvement of the county commissioners is in committing ARPA dollars to the project. We’re really excited about that. The county has jumped in and been super supportive. The city has also been supportive and recently got to thank our mayor and City Council for allocating $1.5 million to the project as well. So, their money doesn’t kick in until we actually get to construction, so I still have quite a bit of work to do before that. But it’s really good to see our public officials be as supportive as they have been. I think it’s super exciting. 

CLINT: So that fits into that 20-year plan, right? Which runs until 2028? Am I right? That’s probably going to consume a lot of time and energy over the next three years.  

DEANNA: Yeah, exactly. 

CLINT: What other things? Any other things on the horizon there that might come along with that new facility? I know I looked at the plan and there’s going to be a lot in there with the workforce community, the community work that you do. Is there a gymnasium and a basketball gym there? 

DEANNA: Yes, there is a gym. 

CLINT: Any other ideas that you can talk about now? 

DEANNA: Well, I mean, I don’t think it’s really too much of a secret, but I think that this building is just one part of what starts up at West 5th Street where we have our first house that has been purchased to start redevelopment in that neighborhood. So coming down 5th Street to 6th Street is our Urban Farm, which is expanding. We have new hoop houses going up as we speak so that’s exciting. Then the next block up will be our building. Well, the same block actually would be Ocie Hill and hopefully that would be coming down soon and so I just think for NECIC’s part, we’re also planning to build housing and we have some things going in that area that I’m not able to talk about right now, but just know that it’s a comprehensive plan and that this is only one thing in a series of things that we have. I know it looks like, oh it popped out, but like we’ve really been at this a long, long time. This year is 15 years and it’s hard to believe but you know, we’re here so. 

CLINT: One thing that I wanted to talk about earlier and we didn’t talk about it. I want to go back to it really quickly. You just mentioned the Urban Farm which was developed with a myriad of community partners, from education to community. Let’s talk about the Urban Farm and what that is really quick. I would be remiss if we didn’t get that into this, so I’d like to give you a chance to share a little bit about that. 

DEANNA: So, our Urban Farm is located at 311 Bowman Street on the property of Gorman-Rupp, where their former facility was located. This came about as part of the Mansfield Micro Farm Project with Ohio State University – Mansfield, and it has expanded quite a bit. It’s a 12-acre space. We have now I think 10 hoop houses on site. We are part of a 9-member marketing cooperative where all of our produce is grown and then aggregated also in the North End on 3rd Street. So, all of that produce that is grown on our farm and our rural farms, and also there’s one on 4th Street, the corner of 4th and Roland, the Grow Forth Farm.  

All of the produce that is grown by the nine members of the cooperative is taken to the aggregator where it’s packaged and then sent out to institutions, institutional buyers, restaurants, grocery stores, and things like that. The cooperative that formed is called Richland Gro-Op and it’s actually the selling arm of that. So, we host two North End resident farmers on our farm at the NECIC Urban Farm. We also last year received a grant from the Ohio EPA to do composting under a high tunnel, and we’re the only farm in the United States, as my understanding, that does that. That was also part of a project with one of the professors out of Wooster, I believe.  

Lots of exciting things there. We are supplying, like I said, local restaurants, so if you’re at Hudson and Essex and you look at the bottom of their menu, you’ll see Richland Gro-Op. There’s a high likelihood that that was grown on our farm or one of our fellow farms.  

CLINT: You mentioned that you have several farmers that are operating that and running those operations. Who’s actually doing the work there? You know, throughout the spring in the summer is it just those individuals, or are there others coming in? What is that? 

DEANNA: On the farm, the actual farm?  

CLINT: On the farm. 

DEANNA: OK, it’s really exciting on our farm, I can speak to that. We have a partnership with Richland Correctional Institution, so on our farm there are people who are very close to being released who are able to come and actually work and train and learn on the farm. And that’s been really exciting because we do have labor needs. So that’s been super helpful for us and I think it is really good for them, as well. They are not quite into reentry yet but that’s a great partnership that we’re hoping to see happen and expand.  

And then on the days and times when they’re not there, we also host students through different school field trips. And we’re now going to be on an OEFFA Farm Tour, so people who are farm enthusiasts, I guess, will stop by our farm. Really exciting. 

CLINT: It is, I mean, you’re in a metro. I guess we’re a small metro, but you’re in town and to be able to walk around the three sites that I’ve been to, go into hoop houses, and, you know, there’s literally a sidewalk 40 feet away or a train crossing. It’s an interesting concept. I’ve enjoyed being able to go three blocks from the office and be in that setting.  

So, there’s more work in workforce going on there, and education and collaboration, so which seems to be the story of our community over the last recent years. 

DEANNA: I think that’s what will take us to the next level; intentional collaboration, strategic partnerships, the farm itself. For example, Gorman-Rupp, they lease it to us for a dollar, so that was very generous as well. But I think you’re right, it’s going to come through these partnerships and collaborations because we don’t all possess everything that we need to do it. So, you’re absolutely right.  

CLINT: Deanna, I appreciate you coming in to tell that story and be a part of the podcast. I’m excited about the work that’s being done. In my job, my real job as the Director of Workforce Development, I’ve spent a lot of time and have in the last couple of months at your building and talking with your team. We appreciate your collaboration. We appreciate the work that you guys are doing. We can find NECIC on the web at, correct? 

DEANNA: Yes, that’s correct. 

CLINT: You can read a little bit about those building blocks and the plan, what the vision was, and now that you’re 15 years in, five more years, you’ve seen some major realizations and some big results. 

Thanks for coming on today. 

DEANNA: Thanks for having me. 

CLINT: Thanks for listening to the Workforce Pulse podcast. Make sure you subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts so that you can be aware when the next episode is available.