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A Game Changer: Highlights of REDF’s 2019 Partner Retreat

Flying into Boston last Monday to be with many of the most transformative social enterprises in this country, I felt a sense of anticipation that grew as REDF’s 2019 Partner Retreat got underway. I can only offer a taste, in this short piece, of the feast we had. But I hope you take away a sense that what’s happening is more than the growth of a sector or initiative or program.

Instead, employment social enterprise is a whole new way to push the horizon beyond what’s typically considered possible for everyone involved, and for our society. The approach exemplifies how employers can and must do more to dramatically improve the lives of the talented, ambitious people they hire, including those who are striving to overcome great hardship. To counter the prejudices and systems that have for too long been a barrier that stops people with so much to offer from making their mark on the job and in the community.

Every day we read in the paper of economic inequity, racial discrimination, and the despair that often accompanies addiction, mental health problems, homelessness, and incarceration.

The systems meant to address these problems seem inadequate, even broken. Too small and under-resourced, or too siloed off and behind the times to really make a difference.

Each day we visited one of the three ESE’s that have been part of REDF’s Boston portfolio: More Than WordsUTEC, and Roca. These social enterprises serve young adults striving to overcome a variety of tough challenges including poverty, gang-and court involvement, homelessness, foster care, young parenthood, cultural barriers and disconnection from school.

Their visionary leaders and the incredible people that work in each of these enterprises have together developed courageous, path-breaking models.

A few takeaways from each site visit:

  • More Than Words. The sense of ownership is palpable. The young people who run the online book-selling business taught us how the business runs, and what their lives and aspirations are all about. As they led the tour, they pushed us to try out tasks that make up the complex logistics of this successful business. The gorgeous, spacious storefront downstairs sells books and other social enterprise-made products to the public and includes a high-demand event space that leverages more revenue, while exposing the affirming, work-oriented culture to people who otherwise might know nothing about social enterprise, or the young people who work there.
  • UTEC. Dozens of staff and participants greeted us with high fives as we entered the beautiful renovated church in Lowell that houses UTEC. The space itself, we learned, was historic and connected to the mission. It had been a stop on the Underground Railroad, and the mutiny of African people who escaped from the Amistad (this ship which was bringing them to slavery) also organized there. We toured through the woodshop (where products are made for Whole Foods among other customers), and the catering kitchen and café. UTEC’s special sauce is how they engage and prepare the young people that work there to be policy advocates. They fight to reduce discrimination, lower barriers, and eliminate economic disincentives while promoting positive policies that help them and their neighbors thrive. UTEC youth host local candidate forums on-site in addition to learning how to do high-impact community organizing.
  • Roca. Roca has fully adopted a deep set of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) tools to significantly enhance the impact of their social enterprise and other work-oriented programs – along with their relentless, persistent approach that is crucial to helping the young people they reach in the streets to deal with the severe trauma that most of them have experienced. We all participated in restorative justice ‘circles’ that, for a couple of hours, replicated the circles that Roca leads that can go for several days, bringing people from different gangs, other youth and sometimes police together to address some of the community’s biggest challenges.

This work is hard, exceptionally rewarding, and critical. And it is having an impact. REDF made a data presentation on a wide array of mounting evidence that illuminates the positive results, while also stressing the need to do more — particularly in fine-tuning the approaches so that results are more ‘sticky’ – and empower even more people to stay employed for the long term, and build the skills that lead to greater economic mobility.

Everyone attending the Partner Retreat bonded around their shared experiences and planned and plotted for partnership and growth in the future. We agreed that to continue to grow this field will require:

  • Talent – building a pipeline to work in and run these enterprises as generational change happens; and to drive diversity throughout, with a real effort to bring people with lived experience into leadership roles as well as people of color who are involved in social enterprise and adjacent efforts.
  • Capital – developing a full spectrum of public and private funding that start-up, growth and mature social enterprises can reliably and transparently access; and
  • Technical Assistance – providing capital and pertinent advisory services to early and growth-stage social enterprises across the US.

The 150 employment social enterprise leaders, who traveled from across the US to convene in Boston offer a different vision for the future of work. They represent 63 revenue-generating business that provide a unique blend of paid, on-the-job training and supportive services in industries that range from manufacturing and construction to food services and pet treat production. They are providing a host of compelling examples that show how to dramatically improve the odds for the individuals they serve. The essence of the employment social enterprise movement is a whole new, un-siloed blend of business and human services, behavioral health, workforce and economic development, social justice and economic mobility. For three days, we gathered to learn and form bonds that will help us push this growing field to an even higher level.

I left Boston feeling energized, inspired, and hopeful, as defined in this quote by Salvadoran writer Manlio Argueta, “Hope also nourishes us. Not the hope of fools. The other kind. Hope, when everything is clear. Awareness.”


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