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Rachel Harmon, a Rhodes Scholar, hired to develop talent in Birmingham

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Rachel Harmon outside City Hall in downtown Birmingham. Harmon is the new Deputy Director of Talent Development for the City. (Reginald Allen, For The Birmingham Times)
By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times

Never before has Birmingham had one person focus solely on talent and workforce development for its citizens. That all changed when the city’s Deputy Director of Talent Development Rachel Harmon assumed her new role on August 6.

“Talent development is not just about equipping people with a certain set of skills. It can include things like entrepreneurship. I also think it’s a recognition of the fact that the people of Birmingham have a lot to offer the economy in terms of their talent,” said Harmon, who will work in the city’s Office of Innovation and Economic Opportunity.

“This the first time there has been a person dedicated solely to thinking about talent and workforce development for Birmingham’s citizens,” she said. “That is a charge I take seriously and I plan to work on in a really collaborative way. We want to build a comprehensive talent development strategy that all of our stakeholders can get behind. That’s really our goal.”

Over the next few weeks, Harmon will get a sense of the work being done in Birmingham—the innovation, the educational opportunities, anything being done to make the Magic City better. She plans to meet with Innovate Birmingham; Lawson State and Jefferson State community colleges; and the Central Six Development Council, also known as Central Six AlabamaWorks, which deals with workforce development.

The focus will be on talent development which is much broader than just workforce development, she said. “Typically, workforce development is [just] about equipping people with a specific set of skills that we know employers in the area want.”

Rhodes Scholar

Before coming to Birmingham, Harmon worked for a year as an analyst at the Hope Policy Institute in Jackson, Mississippi. The 25-year-old Rhodes Scholar plans to bring her personal experiences – dating back to childhood — to her new position in the Magic City.

“This cycle of opportunity started for me in second grade,” Harmon said. “I looked at my brother, who is just as smart and maybe even smarter than me. He was just as much of a bookworm as I was, but he didn’t have the same investment from teachers and really did not have the same trajectory in life. This is not because I’m smarter than my brother, or because I work harder than him, or because I’m a better person than he is; it was about opportunity that was not distributed equally.”

Harmon added that although opportunity is not distributed equally, “talent is.”

“If my brother had been given the same opportunities I was given, he could have gone anywhere and probably could have surpassed me,” she said. “[I often] think about how this is replicated millions of times across the country.”

Harmon said she was made aware of the disadvantages between class and race as early as elementary school.

“In second grade, I was in a gifted and talented class during which we were reading the plays of Shakespeare. … That was not happening in the other classes,” she said. “Just seeing that difference in terms of the attention [our class] got was something that really stuck with me. As I got older, I got really interested in thinking about inequity, how it happens, who it happens to, and different strategies for addressing it.”

That awareness led Harmon to forge a career looking at disparities among people and how to help the disadvantaged.

Growing Up 

Harmon grew up in Champaign, Ill., just three hours south of Chicago, with her parents and four siblings. Harmon’s father was a preacher, which meant the family spent a lot of their time in church. Her father also worked as a truck driver, and her mother was a postal worker. Harmon said her parents were hard workers, sometimes working nights to take care of the family.

“As a kid, I didn’t really understand how much of a challenge that was for them, … having a lot of kids and trying to get people fed and get people to school,” she said. “Having parents who were super-hardworking was always a really good example for me.”

Early on, Harmon noticed the diversity of her hometown, but she also realized that not everyone had access to the same opportunities.

“We all went to public school, but I tested into a gifted and talented program. Those classes were not very diverse,” she said. “I think that was a defining moment of my childhood, wrestling with being in a space where I felt very different from a lot of people around me and really being struck by the differences in the education that the people in my gifted and talented program got versus everybody else in the school.”

Harmon continued in the gifted program until she got to middle school. In sixth grade, she returned to regular public school, and one of her teachers encouraged her and her parents to get her back into a gifted program. Harmon applied and tested into the University Laboratory High School in Illinois, a magnet school that serves academically talented students; she also played volleyball and basketball and ran track.

Mississippi Delta

Still, the problem of inequity remained something that concerned Harmon, and it led to volunteering with Habitat for Humanity in the Mississippi Delta region during her junior year.

“That was my first exposure to the Deep South. After that, I just kept coming back,” she said, recalling that it was a profound experience.

“In elementary school, I had already started thinking about racial inequity, but I didn’t always have the words for it,” Harmon said. “Going to the Delta opened my eyes to the different levels of disinvestment. If you’ve spent any time in the Delta, you can also see how parts of [the South’s Black Belt region] are the same.”

Harmon was so intrigued by what she found that she continued to travel to the Delta to volunteer for the rest of high school. After graduating, Harmon moved to the Delta for a year. Then she left the South to attend Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where she studied industrial and labor relations with a concentration on economic opportunity.

“I spent a lot of that time focusing on economic opportunity in Mississippi, in particular, and reading a lot of books on Civil Rights organizing and how they worked with the people in the community,” she said. “I spent a lot of time thinking, ‘How do you have this super-rich history of Civil Rights and then you have an unemployment rate that is three times the national average?’”

Uganda

Harmon also studied abroad in Uganda for a semester during her junior year.

“I was interested in studying abroad in an African country because I was curious about the continent. I felt that a lot of interesting community development work happens there in terms of microfinance and some of the work around agriculture,” she said. “In Uganda, because of the history of colonization, the national language is English, which was really helpful in terms of being able to communicate with people. The program that I went through focused specifically on community development in Uganda.”

After graduating from Cornell in 2015, Harmon attended the University of Oxford in Oxford, England, as a Rhodes Scholar for her master’s degree; she studied evidence-based policy evaluation for two years. Her time at Oxford was enriching because she was able to travel to different European countries and establish friendships with people from across the globe.

“I got to see a lot of the world that I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to see otherwise,” she said. “I traveled to Morocco, Spain, Denmark, Germany, Portugal, Israel, and a few other countries—I visited a massive number of countries in two years. Also, being in an environment where the graduate student population was very international enabled me to have deep friendships with people from across the world. Being able to get those perspectives, see how those countries have the same kinds of problems, and hear what they think about it was a really good experience.”

Back to Mississippi

Having traveled the world, Harmon returned to Jackson, Miss., where she worked as an analyst with the Hope Policy Institute, a policy think tank attached to the Hope Credit Union, which provides financial services to families that otherwise would not have them.

“My work there wasn’t on the credit union side, but more so around creating research around economic opportunity for low- and moderate-income families, seeing what the issues were and getting data,” she said. “I looked a lot at, specifically, affordable housing, as well as the racial-wealth divide. A lot of studies show that the average black household has less than $2,000 in median household wealth, compared with $116,000 for median white households, so I spent some time looking at that and ways to address that gap.”

Ready for Birmingham

Harmon’s time in Mississippi and abroad, as well as her personal experiences, give her a holistic view of economic opportunity, which will be valuable in her new position in Birmingham, she said.

“Economic opportunity is extremely holistic, but typically people think about it in a very narrow sense,” she said, “Here [in Birmingham], however, we have a very holistic understanding of what it means to have access to economic opportunity and be economically secure. It’s not just having a job. It’s a question of do you have a high-quality job? … What is your compensation? What type of control do you have over your schedule? What benefits do you have? What’s the opportunity for promotion? Those are some measures of a holistic job. But it’s also a question of do you have access to financial services like a bank account and access to capital or credit? Do you have access to housing?”

It’s also a question of entrepreneurship, Harmon said.

“Not everybody wants to go to a job. Some people want to create their own job, create jobs for other people,” she said. “All these things [will be important for] this department and how we think about economic opportunity. It has to be holistic because one thing in and of itself is not going to be enough.”

Aside from working in her new role, Harmon is very excited about learning Birmingham’s rich history, which includes the city’s reputation as a great food city.

“I’m super-excited about all of the dining opportunities here, and I’m so excited about the food. There are so many restaurants I want to try out because I just love food,” she said.

“Another thing [I’m interested in is] the natural environment. [This area] is really beautiful, and there are a lot of opportunities to hike and do things outside. I’m excited to do that. Also, I really want to get to know the different communities in Birmingham. I met a couple who has lived in Collegeville for like 90 years, and I know that kind of thing is all across the city. I’m so excited to get to know about that and people’s experiences.”