Integrating a Racial and Ethnic Equity Lens into Workforce Development Training for Young Adults

Research BriefYouth & Young AdultsJun 8 2021

The majority of youth and young adults in the United States who are out of work are youth of color. To better reach and support all participants, many workforce development programs are increasingly embedding a racial and ethnic equity and inclusion (REEI) approach into job skills training initiatives.

The literature is limited on whether training staff to explicitly address interpersonal racism, implicit bias, and structural racism1 can lead to better outcomes for young people of color. This literature does not suggest that trainings may have a negative effect, but rather that additional, ongoing support is needed to see positive changes. While many programs are committing to increasing their staff members’ knowledge and comfort with navigating challenging conversations through training opportunities or more intensive, multi-year strategies, it is becoming clear that training must be accompanied by ongoing supports and policy changes (e.g., hiring and supervision policies that ensure programs are inclusive and equitable).

In the broader Generation Work initiative, REEI has been a key area of focus and complements the initiative’s emphasis on positive youth development (PYD)—a strengths-based approach that elevates the voices and builds the skills and social capital of young people—and employer engagement. While programs that integrate PYD may effectively create welcoming spaces for young people of color, an intentional focus on embedding REEI strategies is also necessary. This allows programs to directly address interpersonal and structural racism and to ensure that their PYD approach is supported by the policies and systems in place within the organization.

This brief explores how one local partnership in the Generation Work initiative, led by the Goodwill of Central and Southern Indiana (GCSI) and specifically its Excel Center® adult high schools—rolled out REEI training for its staff throughout the organization as part of its recognition that PYD approaches would have limited reach without more explicit REEI work. To inform this brief, Child Trends researchers conducted 10 interviews during an October 2019 site visit with staff from both GCSI, which runs The Excel Centers, and EmployIndy, which is the local Workforce Development Board.

Since the interviews, the national conversation about race and racism in the United States has changed . At Goodwill, this change in public perception has spurred more motivation for change within the organization. Nationally, the progress made has been driven primarily by a reawakened racial justice movement inspired by a series of widely shared recordings of racist incidents against Black people. Increasing levels of support for the Black Lives Matter movement make clear that programs now seeking to prioritize racial justice work may find useful lessons from Goodwill’s experience in Indianapolis and from the step-by-step process they undertook over many months.


At the end of this case study, we briefly share updates of the Indianapolis partnership’s work, but it is important to place this case study in its rightful place—in the midst of a larger, ongoing process. The case study captures a moment in time within a longer, transformative process with which Goodwill has engaged. These findings should be interpreted not as the final point in the partnership’s efforts to incorporate a more robust REEI lens, but as one step of the process.

Key Findings

  • Champions within the organization were necessary for advancing discussions about race equity. A small group of committed employees drove ongoing conversations about—and support for—racial equity work, while also promoting and leading opportunities for training. Their efforts were essential in helping more people at Goodwill feel comfortable discussing racism and racial equity and become more willing to address it.
  • White staff members’ reported experiences in the REEI trainings differed from those of their Black and Latino colleagues. White participants tended to think very positively of the trainings across the board, while employees of color had more varied responses. It is important that employers support all staff to feel safe, no matter how they respond personally to the trainings. Staff may need space to navigate the emotions that the trainings bring up.
  • Few staff connected the training they received with how they support program participants. Translating learnings from trainings to specific changes in practice likely requires conscious effort from organizations and employees, along with ongoing support to promote organizational change that aims to sustain changes in programmatic practices.
  • Following the trainings, staff members identified a need to increase employer engagement around the topic of racial equity as a clear next step. Some staff members noted that this may remain an ongoing challenge: Many are hesitant to push conversations with employers around a variety of issues (but particularly those related to racial equity), for both personal and professional reasons.
  • Finally, while PYD is a valuable tool, it is not sufficient to address inequities driven by race and ethnicity. While staff at the Excel Center® (alternative high schools run by GCSI) employ strong PYD approaches, most had never thought explicitly, prior to the trainings, about how to prepare participants to navigate or respond to racism in the workplace. Their PYD focus would be strengthened by explicitly equipping young people with the skills to choose for themselves how to respond to experiences of racism in the workplace.


1 For this report, we use a definition of structural racism from the Aspen Institute. They write: “We use the term structural racism to define the many factors that contribute to and facilitate the maintenance of racial inequities in the United States today. A structural racism analytical framework identifies aspects of our history and culture that have allowed the privileges associated with “whiteness” and the disadvantages associated with “color” to endure and adapt over time. It points out the ways in which public policies and institutional practices contribute to inequitable racial outcomes. It lays out assumptions and stereotypes that are embedded in our culture that, in effect, legitimize racial disparities, and it illuminates the ways in which progress toward racial equity is undermined.” See here: