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Let’s Honor the Salt of the Earth

Salt of the earth” is a phrase that comes from one of the most famous public lectures of all time. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used it to describe his followers — fishermen, laborers, and other regular working people. Today, this is how we describe people whose down-to-earth goodness we witness in their daily labors is refreshingly not tied to their prominence on social media or the size of their bank account.

On Labor Day, I often reflect on the fact that just about all of the people who lead the employment social enterprises (ESEs) that REDF has worked with over the decades, and the people they employ, are aptly described by this phrase. Visionary social entrepreneurs who put shoulder to the grindstone by starting businesses that provide jobs, skill building, and opportunity to talented people who might otherwise be excluded from the economy because of systemic equities and barriers like experiences with homelessness or incarceration. Employment social enterprise employees whose hard work holds up the economy, many doing the behind-the-scenes work without which our lives would be diminished, and even unsustainable.

REDF and the social entrepreneurs we partner with know that when offered opportunity, people striving to build a better life and overcome employment barriers demonstrate strength, resilience, hard work, and loyalty –often because of the very circumstances they’re working to overcome.

They are the salt of the earth — as we mark this Labor Day, here are three ways to support them, and truly honor and celebrate the dignity of work:

1) Move from Neglect to Respect

Since the pandemic began, there has been more talk than usual about treating frontline workers better and paying them more — two clear markers of respect — because we desperately depend on them. While some salaries are inching up, employers continue to complain about the thin pipeline of workers.

If we move beyond just talking about better treatment and higher pay for those on the frontlines to actually doing it through policy and practice change, we may discover that tangible signals of respect lead to a surge in job applicants and worker productivity.

We can also express respect with our dollars. Since 1997, the 200+ mission-driven businesses REDF has invested in have employed over 73,000 striving individuals, while the companies have reinvested $1.1 billion in the people they employ; employment rates and incomes have risen. As individuals, we should seek out these businesses and prioritize buying their products and services. And as a society, we should demand that the government invest in them and provide incentives for them to succeed. The national Resourcing Social Enterprise Together (RESET) coalition is making headway in getting new language into the federal infrastructure package and other legislation to make sure that ESEs and the people they serve are prioritized. Legislators need to hear from constituents that we care about this! Let’s voice our support and help give all workers — and those seeking to return to work — the respect and opportunities they deserve.

2) Create Real Inclusion

On the heels of the nation’s most recent racial justice awakening, many workplaces are at least talking more about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Fostering equity and real inclusion would mean that the employment rates of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and white people would even out. And this would also be true for people who have returned home from incarceration, experienced homelessness, or have disabilities or chronic health conditions. We are miles from that.

Companies are still putting up impassable roadblocks that eliminate many qualified workers from competing for jobs — from excluding those with a record, to making formal credentialing a litmus test while devaluing on-the-job experience. And when companies do reach a more diverse workforce, unfortunately many of those workers find that company culture and practice do not actually back up their rhetoric around “inclusion.” If they are “included,” they may still be made to feel like they don’t actually belong.

But change is brewing and leading companies are taking note. Corporate leaders like Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase are drawing our attention to “second chance” employment and policies to support and include the millions of people who come home from incarceration each year.

An important step to change narratives, culture, and practice is to invest in employment social enterprises, their employer and service partners, and other initiatives that provide jobs, training, and support to prepare overlooked talent for good jobs. By recognizing and showcasing their talent, we can overthrow the stigma and prejudice that too many workers still face. And we can eliminate arbitrary and counterproductive barriers to employment that are holdovers from another era, and not worthy predictors of performance. By putting real inclusion to practice and purpose, ESEs can show our broader economy the way forward.

3) Invest in People and Renewed Mobility

Between the pandemic and artificial intelligence, jobs and the skills they require are evolving at lightning speed. And the evidence is clear that the American Dream is threatened by what’s become a fixture of this new economy: the people who have the lowest incomes and least assets, especially those without a college degree, are increasingly stuck in poverty with little opportunity to move up — even if they work hard.

Lifelong retooling is an imperative. The most competitive employers of the future will provide resources and access to skill building, training, and education to their entire workforce. The employment social enterprises that REDF supports are pointing the way, by providing frontline workers with a wide array of on-the-job opportunities, incentives, and encouragement to learn and build skills, with the chance to progress at their own company, or elsewhere.

The more we invest in overlooked talent, the more families and communities will access the economic mobility they need to grow and thrive — and the more equitable and prosperous our society will be as a whole.

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The sense of dignity we give to the “salt of the earth” should be no less today than it was in times past. To live up to that meaning, we must recognize the value in each other, extend opportunities to all, and invest in the enormous potential of all people.

To treat people with respect and humanity is to share in the knowledge and power that we can all rise together.

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