Reflections on 2018 and Hope for 2019 – Carla Javits, President and CEO, REDF

2018 Was a Tough Year
There is no denying it: 2018 provided a seemingly endless and disheartening blizzard of unsettling news. The recent intergovernmental report on the impact of climate change. The closure of the federal government. Rising anti-immigrant fervor despite the evidence of the positive impact immigration has on our economy and society.

Meanwhile, continued tragedies arise daily from gun violence; racism, poverty, and the economic divide continue their grinding effects; two million people remain incarcerated in US prisons; hundreds of thousands are homeless; Americans’ life spans are falling, due in no small part to the opioid crisis; high costs and uncertainty dominate our healthcare system; and so much more. It’s daunting.

Despite this, as we start off the new year, I believe it’s essential to keep our spirits high so that we have the strength and optimism to stay engaged with one another and continue the fight for a better future.

There is Hope and Progress
We can take heart from the inspiring example of the 100 new members of the incoming US Congress (42% women) and 10 new US Senators (50% women) who were motivated to run with the ideas and skills to win. A record 21% of Congress is now comprised of people of color, and the youngest new member is 29 years old.

Change happens because, as these newly elected officials demonstrate, we are shown a different vision of the future – one more compelling than the world we live in today. As people absorb new values and a new way of looking at the world, our behaviors change. As we do things differently, norms shift.

Just one example – the bipartisan First Step Act, signed into law at the end of 2018, is a major reform to US prison policy. The effects are real. It will reduce sentences, ease mandatory minimums, provide incentives for rehabilitation, and enable people to serve their sentences closer to their families, impacting the 180,000 people in federal custody. Similar reforms are still needed for the two million others who are in state and local prisons and jails. And much more attention needs to be given to reducing barriers to employment and increasing the incomes and assets of those striving to end the cycle of homelessness and incarceration.

The Power and the Promise of Social Enterprise
REDF’s work to employ those who are returning home after periods of incarceration or homelessness and the efforts of employment social enterprise leaders across the US aim squarely at creating a ‘new normal’ that rights some of our current wrongs. Instead of judging people by the worst moments of their lives, the local activists and entrepreneurs REDF works with envision and create businesses that open up jobs and provide support and training to people who are otherwise on the margins – offering them a chance to change their lives for the better. They focus on the potential all people have to contribute. And they fan the flames of respect while opposing discrimination in all its toxic forms.

What we’ve found is a new way to expand the circle of economic and social inclusion. A huge number of people are successfully emerging from lives of hardship and struggle determined, equipped, and strong enough to overcome what for many of us would be paralyzing circumstances.

The energy of the inspiring people creating, working in, and providing financial backing to these social enterprises reflects the reality that when we come together, we are able to do what once seemed improbable, or even impossible. Government, investors, and consumers are taking notice.

Success in Numbers
In 2018, REDF and our social enterprise partners across the US embraced the value and potential of 7,308 people who had been incarcerated or homeless. These individuals are moving forward because of their initiative – and because they had access to jobs and the right kinds of support and training. In 2018 alone, they earned more than $40M in wages. They were more stable in housing and less likely to return to prison. They were better able to care for and support their children, participate in our communities, and take an active role in civic life.

These social enterprises generated more than $130M in earned revenue, making this model more sustainable than most others and reducing the need for long-term government or philanthropic support.   

This is what we can achieve when we set our minds to it. Now is the time to double down and do more.

It’s Time for Change
Government has a chance to jolt tired bureaucracies and practices into the 21st Century. Elected officials can spend less time squabbling, and more effort creating policy frameworks that allow for radical progress. Set objectives well-informed by the impacted communities, provide the right kind of resources, and get out of the way so that the dedicated people who work for government and implement programs locally have the leeway to do their best work. Nothing that needs doing is done only by government, and nothing is done only by the private sector. A compelling example is LA:RISE, a public-private partnership that has helped almost 1,700 people get jobs in Los Angeles’ social enterprises. Let’s find a better way to create a future that works for all people.

In philanthropy and the social sector, we need to set clear and realistic objectives that we’re willing to invest in achieving. We must push ourselves harder to learn and improve based on results. We must open up instead of being insular, so there is more transparency and accountability to the larger communities we serve.

Below the surface of the dysfunction, people are demonstrating tremendous, positive energy and strong results. Let’s excavate the gold mine of humanity and opportunity in 2019.