Community Group Uses Employment to Help People Climb Out of Poverty

Chronicle of Philanthropy
September 04, 2019

By Jim Rendon

The Red Hook Initiative is trying to change that. The 17 year-old organization helps young people in Red Hook graduate from high school and get jobs or go to college. It advocates for transportation and public safety. It even has a community farm. But its most innovative effort is remarkably simple: hiring.

The organization hires more than 125 young people from the neighborhood to work the farm, to be peer educators and counselors, and to set up and maintain a neighborhood Wifi network. Some of them go on to join the organization’s permanent staff of 50, also largely hired from residents who live in public housing there.

“If you live in Red Hook, you are going to be better equipped to identify and solve problems than people from outside the neighborhood,” says Jill Eisenhard, founder of the Red Hook Initiative. “Young people can design and lead programs and get paid for what they are providing.”

To help more people of color rise into leadership roles, the organization launched the RHI Institute. Each staff person gets 30 hours a year of paid professional development time. Eight employees under the age of 30 can join a fellowship program where for 20 hours a week over nine months they are paid to work with a mentor and develop skills like professional writing.

The organization has a $25,000 grant to help some workers overcome a barrier that holds them back from continuing their education, such as a delinquent student-loan payment or child-care costs.

This has helped employees build the skills required for career advancement. One employee recently left the organization to become the director of another group. Eisenhard was sad to see her go, she says, but “no one can stand in the way of that kind of professional growth.”

And when a former program participant became a manager at RHI, others in Red Hook took notice. “Three of our high-school students applied to the college she had gone to,” Eisenhard says. “That’s not an accident.”

Many community-based groups hire from the populations they serve. But David Greco, CEO of Social Sector Partners, a consultancy that helps strengthen nonprofits, says similar groups he works with in Los Angeles can barely afford to pay their staffs. “Are you really funding equity when everyone is getting dinner at the food bank?” Greco asks.

Eisenhard has tried to avoid that problem by boosting pay. Since 2015, the lowest wages the charity pays have risen from $9 to $16 an hour, usually staying a dollar or more above minimum wage. (Young people in the youth employment program earn $15 an hour.) Today about a quarter of the permanent staff makes $16 to $20 an hour. The rest earn more.

It hasn’t been easy. The organization lacks a reserve fund and endowment. Upper management may get smaller raises. “We’ve made the choice to fundraise for this, and when we can’t fundraise, we’re putting our general operating support there,” Eisenhard says. “If we are valuing our employees, let’s just make it happen.”

Jim Rendon is a senior writer who covers nonprofit leadership and fundraising for the Chronicle. In June, he wrote about the challenges that nonprofit leaders of color faceEmail Jim or follow him on Twitter.

Shared with permission from the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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