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. They will also highlight how we continue to inspire and be inspired by the women in our program while they are working with us and long after they’ve launched.
Pearl #2: The Dignity of Work
Empowering vs. Mitigating
A couple of years ago I had an experience that taught me a lesson which has stayed with me. We had just hired a large group of women and our team was helping several of them address their basic needs, such as access to healthcare, transportation and housing. As the women were adjusting to their new routines and taking care of their immediate challenges, one woman, Gracilee, stood out. Gracilee is petite, with a bright red, close-cropped afro. Like several of her peers, she was in crisis and at risk of dropping out of the program right away. You see, Gracilee was homeless; she’d been living on friends’ couches for months. Her temporary living situations always turned out poorly, as witnessed by the most recent one with a man, that turned abusive. She found a new couch, but left her belongings until she could find something more permanent. Unfortunately, on her first day of work, the former roommate threw out everything she owned, leaving her with only the clothes she was wearing.
After learning her story, our program manager took Gracilee to the store to buy the basics, like underwear, so she could continue coming to work until she received her first paycheck. The day after the shopping excursion I was walking past Gracilee, when she touched my arm to stop me, look me in the eye and say, “Thank you. No one has ever been kind to me before. Thanks.”
“What I heard in that simple phrase was that no one had ever seen Gracilee as an asset to the community.”
I found I had to take a deep breath to maintain eye contact and accept her gratitude without crying. I was overwhelmed by the enormity of her statement – “no one has ever been kind to me before.” What I heard in that simple phrase was that no one had ever seen Gracilee as an asset to the community. Likely she’d always been viewed instead as a liability that needed to be managed or mitigated. The result for Gracilee, or frankly, for any woman who comes to the Bean Project with so little, is their loss of dignity.
With Work Comes Purpose
Human dignity is not a function of wealth. Dignity is created through purpose, intention and outcomes – outcomes you have helped to create. Dignity gets created by having something to show for your efforts, being able to point to the results and know you had a hand in the results; that it was not handed to you. When I think about it, that’s the power of a job at Women’s Bean Project and the power of work in general.
The power of work means waking up every day, ready to earn your way. It involves going to work every day and feeling utilized and valued. Feeling a sense of purpose. We know this from our own experience at the Bean Project. When our business is busy, the women in the program come to work each day excited, focused and feeling purposeful. Often the paycheck they receive for their work hours is the icing on the cake.
Employment is More Than a Paycheck
A paycheck is tangible evidence of the power of work. It allows the women we serve to know that when it’s time for dinner, it was their efforts that put the food on the table, that bought the shoes their child is wearing, that paid the rent that keeps a roof over their family’s head. There is no dignity in welfare. Welfare is not a substitute for work. Dignity lies in earned success. And work is about more than making a living. It’s fundamental to human dignity, to our sense of self-worth as useful humans.
Imagine becoming dependent and trapped in an environment that saps rather than builds dignity. Imagine feeling disempowered to make any kind of positive, long-term change, or living a life with no feeling of self-efficacy. Imagine never experiencing kindness. Now, imagine finding a way to overcome all of those limitations through employment.
A Foundation Built Upon Dignity
This idea, the dignity of work, remains one of the primary lessons we have learned in our 30 year journey. It is the foundation upon which Women’s Bean Project is built, the super power of the Bean Project. We help women help themselves by learning the skills they need to gain dignity through employment. We know it works because every day we get to see transformation that occurs because of this power. With the experience and skills women learn at the Bean Project they are able to get and keep employment, support their families and serve as role models.
For 30 years the prospect of gaining or regaining dignity through work has allowed women who walk through our doors for the first time say, “Today is the day I begin to earn my future.”