It’s been a tough summer for the U.S. in a lot of ways – we’re reeling from violence, the political landscape is bringing a lot of unseemly stuff to the surface and news reinforces the divided civil society we all seem to live in. But my summer as a REDF Farber intern has shown me one of many places where Americans can (and do) come together: at the intersection of public good and private aspiration. As a dual public policy/MBA student, I’m used to navigating these two very different worlds. Worlds that often speak different languages and value different things. And I hope that by being smart about both and recognizing the inherent value of both, I can work from the intersection to solve big, thorny social problems. That’s what REDF works to do – with the added bonus of helping grow this new, promising field of employment social enterprise. REDF’s mission is to create job opportunities and pathways to employment for people with the greatest barriers to work.
I’ve spent my summer supporting two of those employment social enterprises. UTEC and More than Words—both members of REDF’s new, national portfolio. Both exist to serve opportunity youth, creating pathways to employment for young people who are disconnected from the workforce and from school.
UTEC runs three social enterprises right now – a mattress recycling operation, a café and a woodworking shop. I helped them evaluate the feasibility of paint recycling: collecting leftover latex paint and upcycling it into a recycled paint product. When I visited UTEC, I met an amazing young man whose story conveyed the magic of UTEC’s “mad love” culture. He talked about making bad choices when he was younger and going to jail. He talked about realizing he wanted something different, in part through his conversations with UTEC outreach workers. When he joined UTEC, he started (like all young people they serve) recycling mattresses and moved up into the café. Now, he helps UTEC advocate for criminal justice reform at the Massachusetts legislature and plans to go to college. UTEC’s model relies on employment social enterprise to provide transitional jobs for young people. I helped UTEC’s leaders by modelling revenues and costs, assessing their capability for the new business and planning a pilot project to further vet the idea. My business skills helped UTEC make a decision about how to allocate their resources to best serve young people.
More than Words (MTW) runs an online bookselling businesses and two used bookstores. Their leadership is deciding whether to renovate and move into a new retail space. As input into that important and expensive decision, they wanted to know how other independent bookstores grow revenue and stay profitable. I interviewed independent booksellers from all over the country to provide MTW with insight into book selection and pricing, non-book revenue generation, retail layout and space utilization and marketing. MTW’s tagline is, “Helping Young People Take Charge of their Lives by Taking Charge of a Business.” During my visit, two young men gave me a tour of the warehouse space and bookstore. They described how they set monthly and daily sales goals, the steps they take to achieve them and the customer service, efficiency, and management skills they’ve developed. The shift supervisor described his career progression at MTW: he advanced from associate to partner and will soon leave the program to pursue his commercial driver’s license. Because of my work, MTW can capitalize on this retail space upgrade and learn from other booksellers’ experiences; the time and effort my work saves them will be used elsewhere – helping MTW grow to serve more young people.
I’ve seen a lot of cynicism from my fellow Americans: about politics, policy, business, and even sometimes people. I even catch myself falling into that pattern, too. But after a summer spent helping organizations that run on pure optimism do what they do even better, I’m done with cynicism. The young people I’ve met, who’ve lived through harder experiences than I have and overcome more than I have, talk about the power of goals and the importance of perseverance. To be cynical after listening to their stories is nothing more than a dismissal of all they have to teach me.
Too often, that same cynicism can discourage people from trying to make things better. My other big lesson this summer came from our President. During President Obama’s speech at the DNC, he beautifully summed up vague notions that had been floating around in my head: “Don’t boo. Vote,” he said. In other words, act. REDF is taking action—building the employment social enterprise movement and the ecosystem that supports it. It’s up to me to figure out what my life’s action and contribution will be. As daunting as that challenge can be, I’m now doggedly optimistic.