Throughout the year, our blog series “Pearls: 30 Lessons Learned on Our 30 Year Journey” will be featuring lessons we’ve learned as an organization throughout the past three decades. These “pearls,” as we call them, illuminate how we’ve survived and thrived for 30 years.
We Can Adapt Without Mission Drift
The Start of What We Are Today
When she decided to start Women’s Bean Project, Jossy Eyre was doing her internship for her Master of Social Work degree at a daytime homeless shelter for women and children. By design, the shelter served women who were unemployed and needed a place to go during the day when the nighttime shelters were closed. Jossy witnessed that while the shelter kept the women safe, it didn’t help them make lasting changes in their lives that would improve their ability to get AND keep employment. She had the idea that if she could teach women to work by working, that would be the cure for poverty.
It was the fall of 1989 and Jossy noted that many of her friends were eating beans for health reasons (Jossy was in her late 50’s when she had returned to graduate school). Based on this observation, Jossy invested $500 of her own money to purchase beans and put two women to work making Ten Bean Soup to sell during that holiday season. This simple idea was the beginning of the social enterprise we are today.
Influential Societal Changes
In 1989, George HW Bush became president and announced a proposal to spend $7.9 billion more in the War on Drugs, contributing to a dramatic increase in incarceration of women and the length of sentences for drug offenses. The sitcom Seinfeld started that year. The Berlin Wall was brought down.
Not until later, in 1996, was the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, colloquially know as Welfare Reform, introduced, which effectively removed millions of people from the welfare roles, leaving those with significant barriers to employment.
Additionally, since 1989 Denver’s population has grown 31%, changing the social landscape and needs of all residents. While Jossy’s original view of how to help women was very focused on addressing homelessness through employment, today we see homelessness as a symptom of the myriad issues the women we serve face that prevent them from being able to keep a job.
Evolving, Yet Remaining True to Our Mission
Despite the changes we’ve seen in our community and across the country, we have stayed true to our original mission to change women’s lives by providing stepping stones to self-sufficiency through social enterprise. What we know today about the effects of poverty on the brain, how to coach women to achieve their goals and even how to make delicious and nutritious food products has evolved. As a result, as an organization we have evolved as well. Introducing new products and semi-automation are examples of how we’ve grown and changed through the years. Offering only services focused on how to help the women we serve overcome barriers to employment is another.
The How Has Changed. Not the What or Why.
As always, we remain committed to helping women with the most significant barriers to employment learn the skills they need to move into the economic mainstream with jobs. Sure, how we approach the challenges the women we hire face has changed through the years. But what we do and why has not. Shifts in our society over the past 50 years may have required responsive updates to our approach, but have not fundamentally affected our core belief that employment is the key to changing the trajectory of the women’s lives. We have learned that though the Bean Project must evolve and adapt, our mission and purpose can stay the same and still be effective.
Written by Tamra Ryan, CEO