Retaining Black Talent: Khadesha Gordon, Styles L. Hutchins Fellow, City of Chattanooga

Retaining Black Talent: Khadesha Gordon, Styles L. Hutchins Fellow, City of Chattanooga

In the 1920s Chattanooga’s 9th Street was a music-filled hub of commerce and entertainment for the black community. Nicknamed the “Big 9,” and now named Martin Luther King Boulevard, it was simply the place to be – morning, evening, and all the times in between. But times change, and by the 60s “brain drain” was in full swing in Chattanooga. Young professionals were leaving the city for better opportunities elsewhere. Graduates from the University of Tennessee Chattanooga (then University of Chattanooga) were more likely to move away than settle down near their alma mater.

Where Do All the Grads Go? 

Fast forward to 2020. Chattanooga’s now historic renaissance has changed the tide. Many graduates choose to make a home in Chattanooga, and professionals from all over the world are choosing Hamilton County as the place to grow their careers. However, when one looks under the surface, we see that not every demographic is growing. While white and Latinx young professionals are finding success here, black college graduates are leaving…and few black young professionals are moving to Chattanooga to take their places.

This is a problem because millennials are our next great generation of leaders, workers, and consumers – and 44% of millennials are minorities, according to Brookings Institution’s Millennial Generation Report. Chattanooga’s future will be shaped by how well we attract and retain diverse millennials and the even-more diverse post-millennial generation. 

Enter The Styles L. Hutchins Fellowship. The Hutchins Fellowship was created through a partnership between the City of Chattanooga, Urban League of Greater Chattanooga, and the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce with the aim of understanding why diverse, talented individuals choose cities and a goal “to create a plan for Chattanooga to become a city where diverse talent can prosper after college and thrive as professionals through opportunities for upward economic mobility.” Benwood joins Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, Unum, and Macelllan to fund the fellowship in service to Benwood’s commitment to encouraging inclusive economic opportunity in Chattanooga.

More Than a Job

Khadesha Gordon is an inaugural Hutchins Fellow. She is a junior Political Science major with plans to attend law school. She explains that after graduating from high school in Chattanooga, she was eager to leave. “None of my friends want to be [in Chattanooga],” she says. “They say ‘there’s nothing for me to do here’.”

Through her work as a Hutchins Fellow, Gordon learned how other cities are addressing the friction between work, connection, and lifestyle. “We surveyed UTC students and researched why black professionals are moving to Houston, Charlotte, Atlanta, and Augusta and found that choosing a city is about more than just a job. Black students are looking for cities with strong black professional networking and social/cultural inclusion.”

Other characteristics in millennial cities of choice include ease of commuting, affordable housing, and a distinct sense of place.

“The three main challenges that black graduates experience as they consider whether to stay in Chattanooga are mentorship opportunities, inclusion in cultural life in the city, and representation within leadership,” Gordon says. She has run into these challenges herself. “I want to be an attorney, but there are very few black-owned law firms in the city. I want to find a professional mentor and there simply aren’t many.”

She also points out that a large percentage of black UTC students work 30-plus hours per week in addition to going to school, and millennials overall face more difficult financial situations than previous generations. “Companies should stop doing unpaid internships,” she recommends. “A paid internship will make it more realistic for students to participate.”

Changing Chattanooga for the Better

The fellows have identified four key areas of emphasis for Chattanooga to explore in order to make progress retaining black talent. These are:

  • Reimagine East MLK as a cultural hub through the establishment of a cultural overlay district.
  • Develop marketing strategies and centralized resources supporting career placement of diverse graduates.
  • Implement transit improvements as both long- and short-term solutions for mobility and access.
  • Strengthen and expand diversity, equity, and inclusions efforts at UTC.

The next Hutchins Fellows will be charged with recommending a path forward for implementing these strategies. Gordon hopes that young people passionate about diversity and inclusion will continue to be part of the conversation. “Just us talking about this is important,” she says. “Before I wanted to leave Chattanooga as soon as I finished my degree. Now that I know that the City has prioritized retaining black talent, I want to come back after law school and be part of fixing the issues.”

Her vision for Chattanooga 10 years from now includes being able to smoothly commute from downtown to Brainerd; safe, fun places for her daughter to play and go to school; and established, strong professional minority business networks, which are currently in their early stages being nurtured by the Chamber, the Urban League and Hunter Museum.

“I’m looking forward to building our community,” she says. “When I think about a city to call home, I look for community more than anything else.”

Learn more about The Styles L. Hutchins Fellowship and watch a video of the 2019 Fellows’ reflections at Applications for the fall 2020 Fellowship cohort will open in summer.