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Navigating to Our North Star: 2021 REDF Partner Retreat Kick-Off

On August 2, CEO Carla Javits opened the 2021 REDF Partner Retreat – a gathering of over 135 leaders from employment social enterprises across the country. 

We are full of joy and most grateful that you are taking precious time to participate in this retreat. We have shaped the 3 days we will spend together around the idea of camp – whether your experience is camping by a river, summer camp in the woods, or camping out on your floor in a makeshift tent or in a backyard – we hope this camp experience enables you to have some fun, take care of yourselves, deepen relationships, learn, and rejuvenate. I want to acknowledge that many people in our country are not sleeping outdoors or in tents voluntarily, but for basic shelter. Ending that reality is one of the goals of this community.

When you head ‘home’ figuratively from this camp, we hope you are emboldened, refreshed, and reignited to build for the future – our theme for the retreat.  Thank you for being here!

This is an invitation for all of us to imagine together a bright and meaningful future for employment social enterprise. This moment is so ripe to give wings to our highest aspirations, given the larger call and imperative to achieve racial and environmental justice in our country, and the broader movement towards sustainability.

We know that we have to summon a lot of emotional, mental, and physical energy for every step we take toward that better future, developing programs and diverse teams that are able to unite and act around an aligned sense of purpose. So we are also focusing our time together at this retreat on taking care of our own wellbeing and that of our teams.

We’re more than a year into a global pandemic that shut down our economy and has killed more than 600,000 Americans and more than 4 million people around the globe.  The impact on our organizations/families has been profound, and due to a host of long-term systemic inequities in health care, housing and the economy, the people we serve have been hit especially hard  – people of color, people who have been in prisons or jails, people without a place to call home, people with mental illness, addictions, refugees, and those who have suffered trafficking and abuse.

We’re moving toward recovery but with about 10 million people still unemployed.  And as we know, the people who work in social enterprises were already more likely to experience unemployment, even pre-pandemic and will have need to navigate an ever-changing economic scene as recovery continues, with uncertainty about the hiring needs and back to work policies of whole sectors like hospitality.

Over the last year we’ve collectively experienced a deep reckoning about race and racism in our public institutions and lives that was ignited by the murder of George Floyd and the resulting calls for racial justice in the US, which spurred a worldwide movement that shook us all to our roots and changed us and our organizations. Our brothers and sisters in Minnesota social enterprises were especially personally impacted, and all of you have demonstrated incredible endurance, resilience, and humanity as you push through and keep doing this vital work.

In terms of the environment, we also see the consequences of generations of destructive practices to our planet with extreme weather and fires. In fact we had thought we might gather in Portland in person this year, and had we done so, we might still have been deterred because of the smoke from the fires burning at the Oregon/CA border – among the largest in US history.

I want to acknowledge the deep impacts of the pandemic, and the realities of structural racism on this Community and the people you serve and support. There is not an easy way to move past the challenging year we’ve lived through, or to address the longstanding and deep racial, environmental, and social challenges we face.

But we are all engaged in that hard work. That is a source of inspiration to me each and every day, and this community is a well of inspiration that we can all draw from.

I know that every person at REDF and in this community is committed to supporting and learning from one another as we grapple with the hard stuff. And we are excited to work with you all to build a new set of institutions that embody mutual respect:

  • for the value and humanity of each person,
  • for the dignity and importance of the work that each person does, and
  • for the meaningful role that you, your organizations, and your employment social enterprises play in creating a community we can be proud of now, and in the future for children who are just starting out on life’s journey.

After a long hard year and a half, we are doing all we can to imbue these days we have together with a positive, forward-looking, power-building vibe. At REDF we are constantly astonished by your resilience and collective ability to move forward in the face of daunting obstacles – a mirror of the people you serve.

A few highlights of the past year as examples – I am sure you could cite many more:

  • Together this Community – despite it all – provided the opportunity to work and fulfill their potential to employ over 9K people in 2020 alone
  • Many of you took the opportunity to rethink and retool your businesses and support service programs, to identify new clients and customers
  • Some even increased employment by pivoting to do things like emergency food delivery and support for new housing programs, as well as providing training and support services
  • And almost everyone formed new relationships with business partners, foundations, donors, and government to bring in needed resources
  • And in CA the State made a major new allocation of $150M over 3 years that will create employment for more than 10,000 people in social enterprises; and the multi-sector partnership the Los Angeles Regional Initiative for Social Enterprise – is receiving more city and county support than ever before.
  • Policy change is happening because of you – many of you participate in the RESET coalition we have established, and that will continue to make all the difference in driving new resources to our growing field
  • And, of course with you we launched the REDF Community program to ensure we are able to provide ongoing support to the 150 employment social enterprises that we’ve partnered with since 2016 – which will enable us to carry on and go deeper on some of the themes that interest you most at this retreat – so please keep track of that as we’ll ask you afterwards to let us know what those topics are!

For this year’s retreat, we’re focused on fortifying ourselves with the tools and practices required to sustain ourselves while building our incredible field to have an even greater impact on people and communities. I have been engaging in the struggle for change for many decades. I have repeatedly seen that deep change happens in times like this when the challenges we are experiencing seem most daunting.

And it happens precisely because of people like you, coming together in settings like this, to renew our belief that we can drive change, and to recommit mind, heart and soul to doing the necessary work to make it happen.

Over the course of the next three days, we’re going to explore some key areas that we believe are going to be required for leading change in the years to come:

  • Better understanding what inclusive leadership looks like and how to practice it
  • Thinking beyond sustainability to what it means to thrive within your organization and for our planet
  • Seeing what trends are happening broadly in the workforce space and seeing how much agency each of us has to get involved and influence

We’re thrilled to have the opportunity to create a space for you to:

  • pause and reflect on this work
  • reunite with one another and more of our team
  • practice some self-care and really take a moment to think about your well being

We named our national policy coalition RESET – resourcing employment social enterprise together. We know that together we can RESET how business is done so that it truly benefits people seeking to build a better life for themselves, their families and communities through access to quality employment opportunities.

And we at REDF are so honored to have the chance to support all of you as leaders in the truly heroic efforts you take on every day.

I wanted to end with this from Pablo Gaxiola who we got know through his work in a local CA social enterprise where he started as a client and now runs the place. He said: “I’ve transformed from a person my family used to worry about to become a man that can be trusted,” he says. At family occasions, “Whether it is Thanksgiving or Christmas, I’m now the one that is asked to do the prayer. That’s a huge honor in my family and in my culture.” Pablo is a hugely valued colleague – I believe he is here today – not only running Reentry Services for the Silicon Valley Goodwill but an influential representative to REDF, and to government advocating for his community and for equity. While Pablo’s accomplishments are exceptional, everyone here knows of the many contributions talented people make when given the opportunity.

We talk about impact and data, business plans and operations. What gets our hearts pumping though is deeply human – everyone, everywhere should have the chance to savor and enjoy the simple beauties of a life well lived. That has been and always will be, our North Star.

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