For Amazon, being part of the local community is as important as being in the community

For Amazon, good partnerships come from effective community engagement, which the company has made a critical element in the development of its new headquarters location, HQ2, in Arlington, Virginia.

The goal is to identify “hyper-local organizations that are operating at the neighborhood or community level and are aligned with some of Amazon’s priorities,” said Brian Kenner, Amazon’s director of public policy and community engagement. “Then, we really like to listen and support them.”

Kenner pointed to its partnership with the English Empowerment Center,  a nonprofit offering English language courses. He said it exemplifies the type of community engagement that Amazon has focused on during the development of the Metropolitan Park campus, which began welcoming its first employees this spring.

“It’s less about Amazon taking the lead and more about us really finding great organizations and supporting the initiatives that they have,” Kenner said. “Over the past couple of years, we’ve tried to make sure that we’re weaving ourselves into the community.”

Building on relationships in the community

Roopal Mehta Saran, executive director of the English Empowerment Center, first connected with Amazon during a community nonprofit roundtable a couple of years ago — before ground had broken on HQ2. “Since then, we have stayed in touch and continued to share updates on what we’re doing,” she said.

During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nonprofit center shifted from 100% in-person language classes to all-virtual classes. As in-person classes resumed, Saran said many students expressed interest in continuing to take classes virtually — some because of childcare limitations, some because of transportation issues and some for other reasons. What became clear was that some students would not be able to continue without a virtual option.

“We were in a position where we were going to be standing up two full programs, both an in-person program and our virtual program,” she said. “But we needed the funding to be able to do that.”

Because of its ongoing relationship with Amazon, the center reached out to explain the situation. “We are currently very much actively holding both in-person and virtual programming, with about a third of our students taking our classes virtually, which we absolutely could not have done without the support of Amazon,” she said.

As an example of how the center’s programming impacts her students, Saran likes to tell the story of David Milton.

“He came to us working in construction, and he knew that if he could learn English, he had someAmazon opportunities to get some better jobs. And during his time with us, he completed his roofing inspection certification,” Saran said. “And one of the lines that I love is that he shared with us that for so long, his tool bag contained a hammer and a nail gun and a level. And now, his tool bag contains an iPad and a thermal camera.”

The language of leadership

Kenner said that Amazon lives by a set of 16 Leadership Principles that have become in essence the language of the company. Recently, Amazon added two new leadership principles, one that “really speaks to our community engagement work,” he said.

That new principle — “Success and scale bring broad responsibility.” — notes that although Amazon started in a garage, today it is a much bigger company and that creates responsibilities — “a responsibility to leave things better than the way that we found them,” Kenner said. To do that well, he said, Amazon considers it critical to provide financial and resource support to organizations in the community.

That way, Amazon can “give them the opportunity to continue and maybe even grow and expand what they do,” he added. “For us, those leadership principles are helpful in everyday situations.”

He also touted the importance of education equity. “Having an opportunity to support organizations that are really thinking about meeting learners where they are is incredibly important.”

Saran said the English Empowerment Center could not do the work it does without volunteers. Last year, she said, the center benefitted from more than 500 volunteers who did more than 21,000 hours of service. For those who want to help, the center holds training regularly.

Volunteer  opportunities — ranging from teachers and class aides to office and event volunteers — can be found on the center’s website. And Saran added, “Many, many, many of our volunteers are not bilingual.”

As part of HQ2 grand opening events, Amazon will host a free Met Park Community Day on Saturday, June 17, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The event will feature a farmer’s market with more than 50 local vendors and neighborhood restaurants, and 14 small businesses located on the ground floor at HQ2. It will also include live music and a local DJ, the Arlington Art Truck, a kid zone for family fun activities and, of course, Amazon’s famous Banana Stand.

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