In Conversation: An Interview with Mohona Siddique of The Aspen Institute
Mohona Siddique recently joined the Economic Opportunities Program at The Aspen Institute. Mohona’s work focuses on economic mobility and job quality for low- and moderate-income workers and encompasses topics within workforce strategies and the future of work. Prior to joining the Aspen Institute, Mohona was the executive policy specialist for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry where she oversaw policy initiatives related to the future of work and workforce. She has held roles at the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, where she managed the civic consulting practice, spearheading research and consulting projects related to workforce and economic development. Fourth Economy’s Sally Guzik spoke with Mohona to learn more about her background and to hear her thoughts on how economic developers can rise to meet the challenges of the current moment.
SG: What do you believe to be a top priority for economic recovery and resilience planning?
MS: Improving job quality will be critical to our nation’s economic recovery. The pandemic has shown us that America has a jobs problem. We watched women leave the labor force to bear the uneven burden of childcare. We watched workers of color face higher rates of illness and mortality due to occupational segregation.
We watched low-wage and essential workers struggle to access adequate benefits like paid sick leave to keep themselves safe. The quality of our jobs contributed deeply to the scale and scope of the human and economic loss of the pandemic, and improving those jobs will help get us on track for recovery.
SG: How is collaboration central to your work? What actions create the space for new ideas?
MS: Collaboration is central to driving economic development and improving the individual economic mobility of the folks that are beneficiaries of this type of work. In our line of workforce research, we take a community-driven approach.
At every stage of our research, we work in close partnership with individuals, communities, and other organizations both as thought partners and collaborators—we are tremendously focused on hearing from workers themselves. To give an example, we have an applied research partnership called Reimagine Retail. This slate of research brings together workforce organizations, workers, and employers. With assistance from workforce organizations, employers hear directly from their frontline workforce about the types of job quality changes they want to see in the workplace. Employers, with support from the workforce organizations and the resources they have available, then implement these changes for better worker and business outcomes. These types of partnerships help us create spaces for shared learning, and areas to experiment with new ideas that push the envelope and drive change.
SG: What inspires you and your work in this role and previous roles you've held within economic development?
MS: I strongly believe that the field of economic development, and more specifically workforce development, feels urgent in the moment we are living in. In the face of incalculable human and economic loss, we have an important opportunity to rethink the systems that govern our working lives. For me, this urgency has fueled my work over the past couple of years and has inspired a renewed commitment to building an inclusive economy. I’m optimistic that this will lead to lasting changes that working families and individuals need.
SG: Where do you believe capital and resources can catalyze positive change for communities?
MS: Resources are an important piece of the puzzle as we focus on economic recovery and catalyzing positive change. In my line of the workforce and economic development research, I’m particularly interested in how our rebuilding efforts will improve the lives of workers across the country. Federal, state, and local funding and policy will play an important role in improving job quality and advancing economic mobility in the years to come; it will ensure that proper investments are being made to create good jobs and ensure greater economic mobility and stability for workers. I think this should be a central goal of our economic recovery and rebuilding efforts, and can drive real change.
SG: What have you found important in moving ideas to impact?
MS: One of the ways we move ideas to impact at the Economic Opportunities Program at Aspen is by building collaborative learning communities to drive systems to change. We bring practitioners and thought leaders from workforce development, healthcare, the restaurant industry, and more together and collaborate to influence their fields through shared learning, and amplification of ideas. I’m really excited to be working on one of these such programs: our Job Quality Fellows program, which launched this week. Our fellows will work together over the coming year to strengthen and expand the availability of high-quality jobs in our economy, with a particular eye toward labor organizing and workforce development intersections.
SG: If you could share one thing about yourself you don't get asked or wish you'd have more opportunities to share, what would it be?
MS: My husband and I recently abandoned our big city Philly life for life in a small, Central PA city: Harrisburg. I was so nervous about the move, as I’ve lived exclusively in America’s big, diverse, bustling cities. I was raised in D.C., and have lived in Boston, Philly, and Austin. But this particular move has been a transformative experience. It has challenged my thinking, forced me to build bridges, and reshaped how I approach the issues we tackle in the field of economic development. I hope everyone gets to have a similar transformative experience in their lifetime.