We’re thrilled to announce our newest cohort of Policy Fellows for the Economic Mobility Policy Forum. This accomplished group will use their background and experience to enrich Policy Forum Live Sessions. Read more about each of the fellows below.
Kayla Baker started her career on Wall Street managing wealth portfolios for ultra-high-net-worth clients with J.P. Morgan Chase. After experiencing first-hand how the financial sector favors a select few over the many, Baker chose to redirect her skillset to benefit historically marginalized populations like people of color. This move took her closer to home and communities like it as she worked directly for a community development financial institution in the Deep South on the behalf of black and brown working class families.
“I wanted to explore spaces where I would be able to bring that expertise to Main Street businesses,” Baker said.
Now living and working in Washington, D.C., Baker lends her expertise to partners and communities in two ways.
As D.C. Initiatives Manager at Capital Impact Partners, a national community development financial institution headquartered in Arlington, VA, Baker leads programs in the D.C. metropolitan area which address market and access gaps in the financial services sector with a particular focus on serving real estate developers and entrepreneurs of color.
As Principal of Ryse Local Ventures, Baker offers equitable solutions and change-making strategies to social enterprises and small businesses of color looking to make a difference.
“I wanted to see what it is I could do to leverage the skills I have to bring resources into those communities so they can grow small businesses, learn how to grow revenue, reduce expenses, and be an advisor in driving some strategy and ecosystem-building,” Baker said.
Now an Economic Mobility Policy Fellow with Johns Hopkins University, Baker is excited to discuss how governments can facilitate access to capital and information for small businesses, as well as the ways in which public sector practitioners can manage their portfolio of relationships.
As she works to dismantle structural barriers to accessing capital experienced by people of color, Baker also keeps the historical origin and intentionality of these barriers in mind. An avid scholar of Reconstruction, Baker is always conscious of the way formerly enslaved people interacted with capitalism and how the struggles they experienced then live on in one form or another today. This fascination stems in part from her own personal history and an understanding of how her forebears navigated an openly hostile economy. A morning person, Baker is up at 4 a.m. most days, and out riding her bike by 6 a.m.
Amanda Graor, of Kansas City, Mo., spends her days working on solving old problems in new ways.
As Chief Innovation Officer at the Mid-America Regional Council in Kansas City, which works with nine counties and more than 100 cities in Kansas and Missouri, Graor identifies new technologies and processes that can help solve problems across the Kansas City region. Her work includes setting up a regional data academy and helping coordinate regional data about the COVID-19 pandemic.
A meteorologist by training, Graor started at MARC more than 12 years ago working on air quality, transportation, energy efficiency and climate issues. One of the most pressing challenges she sees in that space is the link between high transportation costs and economic mobility, particularly in mid-density cities like Kansas City.
“As there’s these efforts for eviction moratoriums [during the pandemic], there’s been a lot of attention to how much housing costs,” Graor said. “There’s not as much attention to … the high cost of individual transportation.”
Graor’s work at MARC has attuned her to regional collaboration efforts that pool resources, strategies and talents across local jurisdictions. And after earning a Masters of Public Administration from the University of Kansas in 2016, Graor is able to combine that thinking with a deeper understanding of public administration and policy. In the Policy Forum, Graor hopes to shine a light on the changes local governments made during the pandemic that should stick around – new, innovative processes that are working.
“The longer I’m at the regional level, the more value I see in doing things collaboratively,” Graor said.
When not at work, you might find Graor working with some of her favorite nonprofits – or even out storm-chasing, a stereotype of meteorologists that Graor said for her, at least, holds true.
For a time when Michelle Massie was a child, her family experienced eviction and homelessness. Determined to never experience such hardships again, Massie focused on her education and leaned on mentors and networks, building a successful career as a journalist and then in the public and nonprofit sectors. Massie’s life experience led her to work for more than two decades on helping others achieve economic mobility as well.
Key to her work is the idea that Massie, like everyone else, was able to achieve what she did thanks to the support of others.
“I had the resilience and resourcefulness to explore and to find things that could work to my advantage, but there were always people and mentors in the background,” Massie said.
Today Massie, of Washington DC, is the deputy director of Forward Promise, a national program empowering young men of color. Before that, she led Opportunity Nation, a project at the Forum for Youth Investment tasked with measuring opportunity in communities around the country. She previously worked at the U.S. Department of Labor on employment programs for returning citizens and youth.
Massie said her commitment to her economic mobility work has only intensified since becoming a mother to her four-year-old daughter, Emilia. “I’m trying to do the right things for her and create a world she can be proud of,” Massie said.
In the Policy Forum, Massie is looking forward to discussing social mobility – going beyond a single job to help people, particularly black people and other people of color, build social networks and generational wealth to “cement their place in society.”
When she’s not talking about social mobility, ask Massie about meeting Billy Porter at the Oscars in his iconic tuxedo gown.
A fashion industry merchandise planner turned public sector professional, Mei-Li Thomas knows firsthand the challenges faced by those looking to change professions. Because of the challenges in her own career, Thomas, now a Planning and Development Specialist for Seattle’s Department of Education and Early Learning, is passionate about finding solutions for occupational mobility.
“That fight just to get out of a lower-wage, non-supervisor position has been a problem for a lot of people in the admin space, who are usually women of color,” Thomas said. She has been talking about occupational mobility internally with the City of Seattle, and hopes to deepen her thinking about the issue.
As a Policy Fellow, Thomas is looking forward to connecting occupational mobility to economic mobility as a whole by discussing the issue with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, synthesizing and bringing home new and creative ideas.
“It’s so easy to get stuck in your own bubble, and I personally don’t want that,” Thomas said.
In her position in Seattle, Thomas coordinates funding, manages contracts, and works on communications and policy development. Areas she has worked in include Black male achievement, workforce development, anti-bias training and women and minority owned business enterprises.
Thomas has been working from home during the pandemic, allowing her to find a silver lining: extra time with her 8-month-old daughter, Niara, an active baby already trying to walk.
“She is my joy, my greatest accomplishment,” Thomas said.