June 04, 2021

Shavar Jeffries — Civil Rights Lawyer, Law Firm Partner, and Advocate for Social Justice & Educational Equity

Dana Safa

1Huddle Podcast Episode #18

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Shavar Jeffries, a Civil Rights Lawyer, Law Firm Partner at Lowenstein Sandler LLP, and Advocate for Social Justice, & Educational Equity. Shavar is also the President of Democrats for Education Reform. This is a national political organization seeking to expand educational policies that will empower students from every background. Shavar has been a leader in law policy education and social justice for over twenty years.

Shavar is also a leader in the Newark community who has big ideas for how we can create a stronger educational system to make the future of work better for all of us. He was also New Jersey’s assistant state attorney general and was even a candidate for mayor of Newark in 2014. 

On this episode of Bring It In season one, Shavar sat down with 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci, and talked about how we can create a stronger educational system to make the future of work better for everyone.


Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 

TOP 3 HIGHLIGHTS

Below are some of the insights Shavar shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “I hope the future of work enables the average human being to find work that’s fulfilling and provides them with a good quality of life.”
  • “We have to have a space where adults can receive ongoing, continuous learning at an affordable rate, if not free and subsidized by the public sector.”
  • “We first have to do the work of anti-racism within ourselves and within our organizations.”

FULL TRANSCRIPTION

Sam: To kick it off Shavar, What got you into the line of work you’re in obviously across policy and legal profession. What made you do it? 

Shavar: Thanks for having me Sam, excited to have this conversation. Appreciate all the work you do. What got me into this work? And when I say this work, it’s really, you know, work at the kind of intersection of civil rights, racial injustice, economic opportunity, education opportunity is really connected to my upbringing. I’m from Newark, from the Southward of Newark, I loved the city very much. Amazing people in the city, brilliant people, talented people. And, you know, as I was growing up, I didn’t really have a sense of college. I didn’t really have a sense of the kind of life beyond Newark. My grandmother was a public school teacher. She really kind of was insistent that an education opportunity was kind of the key to me fulfilling my potential. Even though she was a public school teacher in Newark public schools, she felt because of the politics in a system, some of frankly the bureaucracy in the system, the inefficiency and the fact that the system at that point in the seventies and eighties was significantly underfunded, severely underfunded. So all of those issues combined, she just felt that the public school system in Newark just wasn’t aligned with the potential I had inside of me, or frankly, a lot of the other kids in the system generally. So long story short in 1987, the philanthropist, the great Ray Chambers who I love, is really a hero to this world. The work he’s done with the UN and the work he’s done that way, but around the world, he created a scholarship program for about 15 kids in Newark to get scholarships to go to college prep private high school. So I was one of those kids and I just saw up close the type of education opportunity I had and the rigor and the expectations. The expectations at Seton Hall Prep, which is where I went to high school, was that every student’s going to go to college and be the best that they could be. Not just for themselves, but so that they could be a servant in this world. I just saw day by day that I was on a different trajectory because the opportunity I had available to me and I saw how the kids in my neighborhood didn’t have those same opportunities. And so they weren’t thinking the same way I was about what college and beyond could mean. Long story short from there, I’ll be the first one for me to go to college, let alone law school. I decided to become a civil rights attorney because I wanted to use these skills that I had been given. And that, of course I have to work very hard to obtain as well, to make sure that other young people in my city had similar opportunities, to make sure some of the inequities and the kind of opportunity they get that people in cities like Newark face. They were hopefully remediated so that, you know, every American child can have the same opportunity to build their potential. So that’s kind of what got me into this world. 

Sam: From your perspective, I guess, how do you define the future of work or how do you think about it?

Shavar: I think about it in a few ways. One I’m very aware of is the fact that the labor market is undergoing many transformations right. Many of these transformations have been evolving over many years, a couple of decades. Obviously a city like Newark again, I love Newark, I still live here. You know, we used to be a strong manufacturing base in the sixties and seventies. A lot of those jobs left the city in the eighties and nineties. Some of those went overseas, and obviously, technology is really disrupting the labor market. Moving much more into the services economy. There’s obviously a conversation about technology going to the next level where a lot of potential blue-collar jobs and kind of rote activity, repetitive type jobs could be replaced by technology over time. And so for me, what it really means is making sure that wherever the labor market is going in this next generation, that we’re able to equip everyday Americans with the skills that they need in order to obtain good jobs where they can put food on the table and take care of their families. It means for me, making sure that we rethink, not only K-12 and higher education but frankly, continuous learning. Because the labor market is changing at a very fast rate, the jobs that exist today may not be the jobs that exist, forget five years from now, they may not be the jobs that exist a year from now, maybe a few months from now. It also means for me, we have to have a space where adults can receive ongoing, continuous learning at an affordable rate, if not free and subsidized by the public sector. As the labor market changes, people can obtain the skills they need to be competitive as the labor market transforms. Right now I just think there’s a lot of gaps. I mean, there’s a lot of gaps between what high-paying jobs are looking for in terms of skills and competencies and types of skills that many Americans have. We see often times foreign workers are coming in to fill some of those jobs. We see in our political conversation this plays out. You have many middle-aged people, particularly, in all parts of the country. You have people in the city, you have people in the Midwest and the rust belt, you know, where a lot of those manufacturing jobs just aren’t there and people are afraid, right? People were afraid about how they’re going to take care of their family. We see opioid use up in the Midwest and in the Southwest we see in our cities, we see all types of, you know, heroin and other types of up, cause there’s such a despair among many folks and the pandemic is only making this worse. So I really think it’s essential that our public sector steps up in a non-partisan fact-based way, to make sure that there’s deep conversation between government and the private sector, where jobs are going, where good-paying jobs are going, today and into the future. And then we got to make sure we have a public sector vision that enables people to obtain the skills that they need in order to fulfill those jobs. My fear is too much of a public conversation, very much a scapegoat. So rather a kind of fact-based data-based conversation about the labor market and where service sector and technology sectors, and frankly, just other high paying jobs and going. We get the blame game. Immigrants are taking my job and this one has taken my job and all of that. And that’s really just absurd. And that’s the kind of politics of division that can keep people distracted from the fact that the labor market is undergoing dramatic transformations. And we’re going to need a kind of evidence-based calm, objective conversation and set of policies that we can prepare Americans to, to deal with that account.

Sam: We have a lot of talent leaders that are attending and watching. They might be a job title, like head of learning and development or head of human resources, head of diversity and inclusion or head of talent. These roles are responsible for recruiting, onboarding, training, and developing folks. I found that like sometimes the conversation around what’s happening in education, or you just mentioned a bunch of things are happening in our communities. What would you say to that role inside of an organization? Something that they need to know about, the state of education, as they think about developing, empowering and tapping into their talent?

Shavar: I was really encouraged by people who were in talent roles, to not only think about what I think many, I think already are focused on, which is how to support the kind of internal HR operations, succession planning, professional development for internal staff, obviously working through with management and with, subordinates, uh, personnel issues that arise in the workplace, but also to be very intentional about engaging with the public sector. Engaging with the university community, engaging with the community colleges, in the community where these businesses either are located or where they’re pulling talent from or where they’re selling services, where the customers are and really being in deep conversation, with those actors in terms of what is it that the company needs today to fill the roles that already exist. And where’s the company going? Right. What types of skills going forward is a company going to project that it’s going to need. We understand sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know, things can change, but many companies do know some things already. So I think it’s very important for people based folks to really be involved in the external conversation around how we equip future workers with the skills and competencies they need. So as those jobs become available, employers have a ready tool of talent, ideally from the same communities that the company is selling its goods and services or where its headquarters are located, so that you kind of get that integration with, with your community. And you’ve tried to get the flywheel, right? Obviously, to the extent a company can find great talent down the road, that’s going to make that company more successful. They’re going to be able to make more money. And then you of course get the double net. If you’re putting the dollars in the pocket of workers in the communities or, or workers from the communities, from which your service or your customers are located. You get that kind of multiplier. 

Sam: We’re curious about the future of work. What’s the line of questions that we should be seeking the answers to? 

Shavar: I really think is, is essential. I mean, obviously, there’s a set of questions that different businesses will have around, you know, the regulatory environment for their business and obviously making sure the government has a critical role to make sure that the private sector and the markets work in a reasonable way and aren’t predatory, but obviously at the same time, entrepreneurs and innovators need room to innovate. There’s a set of compensation that different businesses will have, but on the labor market side, I really think it’s essential for anyone who cares about the future work and the future ability of Americans to be able to have gainful employment, to have the conversation around what is the post-secondary vision that we all have as a country, or if you’re looking at state candidates or local candidates in your state or your local community. Around preparing our residents for the next generation of work, preparing our residents for the future of work. Right? What are those skills we need? We spend a lot of money in this country on post-secondary education at the community college level, at the four-year college and university level. There seems to be some bipartisan consensus around making it to college, whether it’s community or four year and other in career technical training post high school free or dramatically more affordable, so there’s going to be a lot more money probably from the federal government to make these programs more affordable. We have to demand that not only is the money there, um, and that’s obviously an important piece, but that the right vision and execution is there too. We have to have, you know, integrated organic conversation between companies in terms of what they need and being very clear about that. And then the PR the public sector in terms of matching and aligning those investments where we’re the job to go in. I tend to think public private partnerships are the best way to go. I mean, I think the government is very effective as a funder, and is reasonably effective in terms of demanding results for those investments. Sometimes there can be challenges when the government sets up its own agency to implement it, to be frank. I mean, there’s a lot to be desired oftentimes with some of the ways in which some of our one-stop job training programs are run by local or county governments. Some people may have a different view in my experience. They tend not to be that effective. So I tend to like to see public-private partnerships where we can have job creators tomorrow, right, they can create apprenticeship programs. Maybe the government can fund that as opposed to the government agency actually running the service. So I would say those questions around what is your vision? To prepare Americans for the future of work. What is your vision for how the country should invest in those training programs so that Americans are ready because what we are seeing, I would argue, on one hand, we see one party which tends to focus a lot on putting a lot of money to make training free. We’re very affordable, I think it is a good conversation, but frankly, less on accountability around results because we not only want the money spent, it has to work. It has to be invested wisely or don’t often hear a conversation from that side, around how do I actually deliver in a way that actually ensures that Americans not only get the training, but then they get the job placement. Sometimes on the other side, we hear too much, frankly, of a zero-sum conversation. So rather than a fact-based honest conversation about how technology is disrupting the labor market, how a lot of the jobs of yesterday may not exist tomorrow. I mean that truck driving job may not be here 10 years from now, may not be here five years from now. Many of those jobs and manufacturing plants, to the extent some still exist, may not be here. It’s not because immigrants or somebody of another racial category has taken some from you, it’s because the whole labor market has changed. So let’s get you ready for that. Right. So, that can be maybe a harder conversation, but it’s the truthful conversation. So we need a truthful, honest conversation. We’ve got to get away from the zero-sum one group against another, because frankly if you’re a working person or working for a person, you have so much more in common with everybody else who’s a working person than any of these other categories that people always put in folks face. So I would encourage people to focus on the facts of where the labor market is going? How do we get Americans ready for it? How do we hold government investments accountable to make sure people are actually being placed, they’re in jobs where they can put food on the table and take care of the family?

Sam: I was up watching representative John Lewis’s procession today in DC and I want to ask you this, given your experience, like the phrase, good trouble. What kind of good trouble should we be getting into if we’re leaders that are trying to create a more inclusive, more equitable workforce? What are the things that you would say to leaders out there?

Shavar: Of course John Lewis has such a great model and people should remember. He was first arrested and sent to prison because he just wanted to use a bathroom at a bus stop in Jackson, Mississippi that was for white people. So he just wanted to pee and just peeing in a certain type of bathroom was subversive. 56 years ago, not even that long ago, right. This is the early 1960s. And then of course he was most famous for being beaten brutally for simply walking across a bridge saying black people should be able to vote in the South. Which I would argue is just the fundamentals. To be able to actually use a public restroom, and not be discriminated against because of the color of your skin, or to actually be able to cast a ballot in the country that claims to be the most successful democracy in the world. What I think that means for us today, when it comes to inclusion, are any of us in positions of authority, who are hiring people who are purchasing goods and services from vendors, you got to have a diverse workforce, right? And, and if you don’t, it’s probably a reflection of implicit bias. I think most human beings are good people and want to do the right thing. There are some who are just explicitly and consciously biased against people of different races. I think more often than not, it’s more than the implicit unconscious bias, and there’s a lot of research that speaks to that. I just deal with the fact that as Americans, we grew up in a culture in which these biases are just there. They just baked in there. I mean, the reason why not even 60 years ago it was so problematic for John Lewis to use a restroom that wasn’t designated for him was because of course the whole cultural idea was these black people aren’t going to be right. That was the whole point. That was the point for slavery. Right. They’re not even big, so they can be enslaved. That was a point for racial apartheid and segregation, and Jim Crow up until literally 1970. I mean, this was legal in this country until the Fair Housing Act of 1968. It was because these are different types of people. So when you have that just kind of in the groundwater, none of us should feel, you’re going to have these biases. Likely we’ll have them all types of people have, sometimes people get very defensive. It’s just kind of groundwork. I’m an honors graduate at Duke University academic scholarship. When I was walking around campus, people never thought I had an academic scholar. I can’t count how many times, Hey man, what do you play? Right? Because they’re just images in our culture about who should be doing what, and so the point is if we want to be inclusive, we first have to do the work of anti-racism within ourselves and within our organizations. There are all types of tremendous consultants who can help organizations with that and then as we’re doing that work, you just have to look at who you are hiring. Are you hiring in positions of power and authority? Where are you buying your goods and services from? Right. So it’s not just who you hire, but who are your vendor relationships? Where are your lawyers? Where are your accounts? Who provided your professional service? And if you’re looking around and you’re not seeing equity in that, you probably got some work to do in terms of anti-racism because what’ll happen is when you don’t do the work, it can be easily rationalized and say, well, I can’t find people, which just they’re there, people just can’t see them oftentimes because these biases will get in the way. And then the last thing I’ll say about the great thing is when you do the work, you’re actually going to be a better organization, right. You’re going to, your work is going to be better, right. I would argue one hand is the right thing to do, but maybe even more importantly, you just want to be better. You’re going to be better. My grandfather used to always tell me this story. My grandfather played in the Negro leagues and some story about how he saw Josh Gibson and Jackie Robinson, because at that point, people may or may not remember at that point, the thought was, well, these black people just aren’t smart and strategic enough to play baseball at a high level. So that was the idea, right? They just can’t do it. Which again is unsurprising when you have the racial history of black people. You know, brand trickery brought in Jackie, in part, not really because he was trying to be some bold person and he’s like, I’m going to go win games. And this kid, Jackie Robinson is one of the best players I saw. And of course, Jackie quickly comes into the league and comes in, being paid, that is what champions do. And so part of it is, you know, I don’t even make the appeals in terms of some ethical claim, although I think that is there. It’s like, you want to win, there’s all this talent right out there. And I do think sports is an interesting space because a lot of bias can play out there, no question, but at a certain point, it can be just so obvious how good people are that it’s hard for the biases to deny, you know, greatness. Although, you know, they still play a role. And it’s like anything else, right? If you only recruit from the state of New Jersey where I’m from, you’ll get certain talent and if you recruit from the country, you’ll get more talent from the world. You get even more. And if you got, you know, 35% of the population in terms of people of color, that you’re not recruiting from, you’re just going to be worse off. So you have to decide, do you want to be the best, or do you want to be less than the best. 

Sam: What is your hope for the future of work?

Shavar: That’s a great question. Yeah, my real hope is that the future of work, transforms or supports, you know, transformational innovations,, in our world, that enable people to live better lives, whether it’s transformations in healthcare that now that allow people to live longer, whether it’s other types of interventions that just improve the quality of life of human beings. Right? So one, I just hope work is connected to a better quality of life and better living for human beings. Right? So that’s number one. It was beyond just owners of companies making money, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s also what we do in the labor market, what companies do, and what employers do actually makes our lives better. And then secondly, that the future of work happens in a way that the average human being in this world can find work that’s fulfilling for that person. And that enables that person to carve out a quality life as that person will define it. And for me at least, they are able to purchase the fundamental goods and services that I believe human beings should be entitled to some shelter, the ability to access healthcare when they’re sick, although I also think that, you know, not argue, but you shouldn’t have to purchase that. That should just be a guarantee. You know, the ability to, you know, put some food on the table for your families, be able to have some recreational ability to just enjoy. So really for me, that work is connected to making people’s lives better and that everyday human beings can find work that’s fulfilling and, you know, economically rewarding for them.

Sam: Shavar I mean, this has been, I took a page of notes here, man. I really appreciate you sharing your points and having you with us today. Thank you. 

Shavar: Thank you. My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Topics Discussed: Education, Racism, Future Leaders, Future of Work, Civil Rights

Dana Safa, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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