Anchored in Change: Anchor Institutions Learning Cohort

Laura Bond

On a typical day, 24,000 employees report to work at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. Buzzing, cosmopolitan, and massive, CU Anschutz houses more than a dozen healthcare schools and centers including the University of Colorado Hospital and Children’s Hospital Colorado, two of the highest ranked medical facilities in the United States.

Thirteen years ago, the views in North Aurora were quite different. Rich in history, culturally diverse, and eclectic, the area was also one of the most economically challenged neighborhoods in Metro Denver, with high rates of poverty and low unemployment and average wages. The university’s move from central Denver to the neighborhood brought excitement about opportunity as well as concerns: Would opportunities extend to residents, too?

Today, the sprawling, 230-acre campus drives $2.6 billion in economic activity per year and is Aurora’s largest economic force. As part of an intentional effort to invite residents into the life and success of the campus, and to stem the tides of displacement and gentrification that so often accompany the development of low-income areas, CU Anschutz is reaching into the community in an attempt to build a workforce that meaningfully reflects and helps the neighborhood where it sits.

"We have an opportunity to do a lot of good, transformational work by leveraging our resources and the talent that's here to better people's lives."

Increasingly, jobs on campus are being filled by residents of North Aurora, the neighborhood that surrounds the campus. There are jobs for people at every level of skill, education, and experience: Researchers, physicians, administrators, and instructors as well as dental assistants, caterers, cleaners, laundry services managers, and drivers.

“Moving to this campus has been a transformational journey for us. We’re very proud of what we’ve created and the services that we provide to our community,” says Lilly Marks, Vice President for Health Affairs for CU Anschutz. “But what became clear was that while we’ve created a mecca, a health city, in many respects it has a moat around it. It’s been helicoptered into one of the most challenged ZIP codes in our entire state.

“We have an opportunity and really a responsibility to be more than this epicenter for health care,” she continues. “It isn’t enough if we weren’t improving the health status and the life status of the people in the community surrounding us.”

Karen Howard's life status improved when she took a job at CU Anschutz, and so did her commute. She used to drive from her home in Aurora to jobs in Wheat Ridge and Arvada, which added hours and stress to her already busy life as the mother of two. In late 2015, Howard entered the Healthcare Bridge training program and later found a full-time job as a technician in a busy lab on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus that logs 300 patient visits a day. The work is steady, the pay and benefits are good, and the drive is about five minutes in either direction.

“I’ve worked in healthcare for about 25 years, but I’ve always worked outside of the community I’ve lived in,” says Howard. “To be right here in my community and have this opportunity, it’s incredible. It has changed my life in ways I can’t even believe."

“It’s been a challenge,” she adds, “but I welcome the challenge.”

Like many of the approximately 300 locals who have received job training and other employment help on the campus over the past three years, Howard found her position through the CU Anschutz Community-Campus Partnership (CCP), which connects people in North Aurora to opportunities and also seeks to reduce common barriers to their success.

The CCP helps residents connect to resources including GED and ESL classes. Through the partnership, skilled workers like Howard can take steps on an upward career ladder, with advanced training and support for job placement at the University of Colorado Hospital, Children's Hospital, and other institutions on campus. 

Funded in part by The Denver Foundation, the CCP network includes the City of Aurora, Aurora Public Schools, community-based organizations, neighborhood associations, and resident leaders. Like a tree, it has deep roots in the community and limbs that extend in all directions: The CCP finds people with valuable skills and lived experiences and connects them to jobs they otherwise might not have known about. It identifies pockets of potential as well as need. And it plants seeds for the future of North Aurora by encouraging promising Aurora high school students to pursue careers in healthcare.

This emphasis on local hiring has helped to boost the local economy and increase the median income in North Aurora. In some areas, local hiring has increased by as much as 90 percent since the 2010 Census. In the area to the west of the campus, it’s increased 40 percent. According to Vice President Marks, CU Anschutz has seen many benefits from hiring local people, too.

“We’ve realized that the most profound contributions we can make to the community are to educate and provide a pipeline to jobs with salaries that are higher than the mean salary in our community and that come with benefits," she says, "and also to identify jobs we want to fill by specifically going out and prioritizing the recruitment of people in our community.

“It’s been a real opportunity to do good to help us do well," continues Marks. "We have learned how much you enrich your workforce and community by diversity, by different perspectives. Having workers who understand the cultural differences and the racial differences and are able to relate to the population we serve, to understand their needs and their challenges, has been a true enhancement of the education our own students get."

The Denver Foundation’s investment in the CU Anschutz Community-Campus Partnership is a cornerstone of its work in community wealth building, which helps communities become economically strong and retain their assets and resources. Community wealth building is driven by strategies including local hiring and local procurement of goods and services, ideally in partnership with an “anchor institution” – which can be university-hospital developments like CU Anschutz as well as sports venues, government centers, churches, museums, and corporate centers.

"Typically, these anchor institutions don’t consider the economic impact they can have on their surrounding neighborhoods, so we are encouraging them to think differently about that,” says Patrick Horvath, The Denver Foundation’s Director of Economic Opportunity. 

In its work with CU Anschutz, the Foundation encouraged leadership to “think about the robust hiring program they could have if we could align the skills in the community with the needs of employers on the campus,” says Horvath.

Marks is a member of The Denver Foundation’s Anchor Institute Cohort, which launched in 2016 and includes leaders from University of Colorado Denver and Regis University among others. (See sidebar.) The cohort helps Marks and her team envision how anchor work might evolve at the institution she leads. Some next steps include outreach to Aurora's growing population of highly skilled immigrants and refugees, many of whom worked as doctors, nurses, and medical specialists in their home countries.

"To be right here in my community and have this opportunity has changed my life in ways I can't even believe."

“We have a whole community of people here who really see the opportunity and broader responsibility we have for changing lives and improving lives,” says Marks. 

“We have an opportunity to do a lot of good, transformational work by leveraging our resources and the talent that’s here to better people’s lives. Not just their health status, but the status of their whole lives.”

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