In early March, Amanda Cage officially joined the National Fund as president and CEO. We sat down with her for a wide-ranging discussion. This conversation was edited for brevity.
National Fund staff continue to work remotely to ensure that our team and our communities remain safe and healthy. This interview took place a few weeks ago, before the novel coronavirus pandemic severely impacted the United States. Given that, the content here doesn’t address our current situation or our changing economic realities. However, we hope it serves as a brief respite with something a bit more lighthearted and introduces you to who is leading our team.
Q1: Tell us a little about yourself, and what drew you to the National Fund?
I’ve been working on issues of economic inequality for about 25 years. I started as a labor organizer and worked in philanthropy. Most recently, I worked in the public sphere leading policy and program work with the Chicago workforce board.
I’ve been interested in the National Fund’s work, especially industry partnerships. I see the world in economic terms, and industry is a primary lens to understanding the labor market. When I first started working, I observed first-hand how different industries—manufacturing, construction, healthcare, service industries—operated. This was formative to how I think about the work. Combine industry partnerships with job quality and racial equity being new strategic focuses of the National Fund, the position just really appealed to me. I thought to myself, “I am perfect for this job.”
Q2: How did your background in labor organizing inform your perspective about this work?
I entered my professional work life having seen a lot of crappy jobs. Workers didn’t get paid well, worked in areas with health and environmental concerns, or had bad bosses. Work can be a really difficult place for people. The number of people in this country who make ends meet with very little resources — and are resilient in the process — is amazing. Seeing people navigate hardship in the workplace really informed my thinking.
Working within the union movement has also influenced the way I think about leadership. Leadership happens in lots of different places, including some you don’t expect. I interacted with so many people who, regardless of personal circumstances, were able to organize people to truly affect change. It was inspiring.
Q3: Does that directly tie into your commitment to worker voice?
I think worker voice definitely affects job quality, which is an important issue for me. On some level worker voice has to do with basic ideas of fairness and justice. And sometimes it’s just good business. I think companies run better when the people who do the work have input into how things are done. When investigating problems in the workplace, you get such different answers when you ask people at every level.
Q4: Tell us how you see the current state of workforce development. What are some of the main issues we are facing? What are some of our opportunities looking ahead?
As a field, I think we’ve been really successful in talking about the importance of skills, career ladders, and work-based learning, because it really resonates with people. The problem is, that became the solution to everything. While those things are necessary and good, there is more work to do on job quality and worker voice, things that get to the fundamental social contract between workers and employers.
We need to think through the various intersecting systems and the range of stakeholders, all of whom are reflected within the National Fund network. Whether you’re a small manufacturer, the president of a community college, or a union leader, people are coming to the table with different perspectives trying to solve a shared problem.
Q5: What excites you most about leading the National Fund’s large and diverse network?
One, I’ve been focused on Chicago for a long time, and I’m happy to expand my focus to the national level. What is unique about the National Fund is that our local networks reflect what is truly happening on the ground. We see cohesiveness and common purpose across communities. People are trying to build inclusive economies. People are trying to create economic opportunity. We get to have a direct connection to those efforts; that’s something that can sometimes get lost in national organizations. Second, the opportunity for peer-learning is exciting. I love the idea that someone in Birmingham is going to be learning from someone in Cincinnati, who is going to be learning from someone in Boston. I’m thrilled to lead a network where people build relationships, talk with each other about the hard things, and think creatively about solutions.
Q6: How do you think about the tension between common principles and practices versus place-based strategies?
In our field, a common question has been, “How can we scale this?” I’ve learned that when you strip a lot of local issues down to their essence, they’re very similar. “We have a neighborhood that has been in distress for decades, and we’re struggling to help.” I guarantee that conversation is happening in Des Moines, in Detroit, and all over the country. Being able to focus on some of these fundamental questions is key.
Locally, sometimes politics gets in the way of good practice. When you connect with people from different places but working in the same context, it can eliminate baggage and blind spots and create a learning space where people can see possibility. As I start going out to visit our collaboratives, I think there will be universal issues that bubble up. I think that when you have a network as large, strong, and diverse as this one, there’s just so much potential.
Q7: OK, now for the fun questions. You have told us you love television. Tell us what television character you most identify with, and why.
I would say I identify with certain eras of television, rather than any particular character — especially the 70’s and 80’s. Part of that is because it’s what I grew up on. But I also think television at that time was about trying to solve social problems. It seemed like almost overnight, television changed to become more representative of what communities actually looked like. We went from Ozzie and Harriet to seeing black people, people living in apartments and urban areas, and women who worked.
I really think television gets a bad rap. I believe in the power of television to teach and learn. In a time where society continues to be as segregated as it is, television is the only place some people ever see somebody that’s different from themselves.
Q8: What characters on television do you love to hate?
I don’t know if it’s “hate watching,” but I really hate reality TV. I hate that television has devolved into watching the banal existence of really wealthy people. My family makes fun of how I watch television. I’m old school. The shows I watch air on network TV with commercials for personal injury law firms and scam companies. But I wear it as a badge of honor.
Q9: There’s been talk around the office about your distinct laugh. Tell us what kinds of things make you laugh.
I’ve been told many times that I’m louder than my size, but I didn’t realize my laugh carries like it does. I really enjoy sarcasm, although I realize that my sarcasm gets lost in email and other written communication. I think there needs to be a special font for sarcasm so people can understand me better (laughs).