We all know Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen as the world’s most powerful central banker, master and commander of the policies that steer the $80 trillion world economy.
But Thursday in Chelsea, Mass., she was a lot more like Aunt Janet coming for a visit, spending an hour at the CONNECT social service program at The Neighborhood Developers to talk around a table with people who’ve gone through employment and financial counseling and the struggle of finding a job or digging out from a crushing home mortgage, and also asking about how the city’s overall bounced back from the sub-prime mortgage crisis.
As the leader of an organization that by federal law has a so-called dual mandate to keep inflation tame and maximize employment, Yellen seemed to relish a chance to get outside briefing books and PowerPoint presentations and talk with real people about the real challenges they’ve faced in finding jobs. She asked many questions, for example, about whether people had found too few jobs, or faced the challenge of needing more skills or training to apply for the jobs that were available.
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Those she spoke with, like Christine Torres, a student at Bunker Hill Community College, and Dimple Rana, a Revere community health worker, said it was definitely intense to talk to the head of the Fed. "I was really excited to have this opportunity, but it was very nerve wracking – I walked in very nervous," Rana said.
Torres, who’s working on finishing her associate’s degree in communications and hopes to get a full bachelor’s after that, said, "To be in her presence was a little bit intimidating, but she's very nice, and very down to earth … I thought it was really impressive that she was really interested in some of the issues that we faced in looking for jobs and employment. It seemed to me she was really interested in finding out what are the core issues when it comes to the barriers that we faced."
The back story to why Yellen came to Connect: Chelsea was chosen earlier this year by the Boston Federal Reserve Bank as one of three winners in its Working Cities Challenge, offering funding and expert support to cities looking for ways to get city governments, social service agencies, and neighborhood groups collaborating more effectively. The CONNECT program links The Neighborhood Developers, a 35-year-old housing and redevelopment organization, with Bunker Hill Community College, Career Source, Centro Latino, Metro Credit Union, and the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership.
Ann Houston, executive director of The Neighborhood Developers, said she was impressed by how quickly Yellen cut to the key challenges and issues individuals faced and in terms of what she hopes Yellen takes back from Chelsea as she is shaping and debating monetary policy, "I hope she hears that our communities are still struggling, on the rebound. We’re making real progress, but many homeowners are still underwater" on their mortgages, owing more than their homes are worth, "and communities are still working to improve."
For now, though, several dozen people in Chelsea feel like someone they knew from television and the media as "The Fed Chair" is now more like a new friend.
"She was really interested in us as individuals" Torres said, "and that was really nice to see."
With videographer Abbas T. Sadek