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.
Work Each Day to Become Unnecessary for Future Generations
My job as the CEO of Women’s Bean Project is to create a vision for what the world will look like when we are wildly successful, then enlist others to come along on the journey. During my tenure (16 and a half years and counting), I have come to the conclusion that the best way for us to have the greatest impact is to focus our energy on two things:
- Grow our operations to create the capacity to hire every woman who needs us. If we are going to have a significant impact on our community, we must reach a tipping point where every woman who would like to change her life has the opportunity to do so.
- Then, for each woman we hire, provide services so effective and far-reaching that she is the last in her family to need us.
During my tenure at the Bean Project, many times I have met women who come from the same families. We have hired a woman, then her aunt, cousin, sister, daughter. This is often a reflection of intergenerational challenges families face once they are in poverty. On the one hand, I’m thrilled that multiple women in the same family have enough confidence in us to refer other family members. We just want to ensure that once we have served these women, in 20 years we won’t be needed by the next generation. To accomplish this will require each woman hired by the Bean Project to create lasting behavior change.
Isabel Sawhill, a Brookings Institute scholar, discussed the behavioral aspects of poverty in some of her published work. She makes the case that changing one’s monetary situation is not the only key to breaking out of poverty. While money can alleviate the conditions of poverty, behavior change is required to create lasting change. A job can solve the immediate monetary stress from poverty, but other skills and behaviors are needed to break out. For example, once must stop showing behavior that works against social norms. While it can be challenging to create long-term change when one lives in a community where few men work, most women are unmarried and on welfare and dropping out of school is common. Though making change can be next to impossible without role models for what that change might look like, it is necessary to break out of poverty.
When women come to the Bean Project we hope to help them become role models for their families and communities by displaying the skills required to get and keep long-term work, knowing how to communicate effectively, understanding their emotional triggers that get in the way of maintaining positive behaviors. Essentially, they must be motivated to learn, act and then keep doing all the things that will help them be successful and break the cycle.
Several years ago a woman name Jazzmine arrived at the Bean Project ready to change the course of her life. She’d grown up with drug dealers and users and with no examples to follow. With no role models for employment or even a mainstream lifestyle, it was not surprising that Jazzmine began to follow the example of the rest of her family. After becoming justice-involved, Jazzmine was fortunate enough to be assigned a case manager who gave her food for thought: Who said that she had to repeat the behavior of her other family members? Why couldn’t she be the one to break the cycle? I remember Jazzmine saying what motivated her to create change in her life was this comment from her case manager. Change has to start somewhere, why can’t she be the one to do it?
Jazzmine successfully completed the program and went on to a job. Though her life has not been without challenges since she graduated from Women’s Bean Project, I believe that she will find her way. More importantly, I am confident that if Jazzmine ever has a daughter, she will not need us because Jazzmine will break the cycle.
As long as we are needed, Women’s Bean Project will exist in the community, ready to help women create lasting change by learning the job readiness and life skills needed to get and keep employment. I merely hope there will be a day when we are no longer needed because we have effectively solved the problem we set out to address. That is my vision for our future.
Written by Tamra Ryan, CEO