Little Company, Big News, plus "Why Refugees?" (part 3)

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Little company, big news: we expect a mention in the New York Times this week.

Hilary Greenbaum (see blog at http://6thfloor.blogs.nytimes.com/author/hilary-greenbaum/), a reporter for the New York Times Sunday Magazine interviewed me and Geoff a couple weeks ago for her “Who Made That?” column. The column explores the origins of a word or invention or concept such as a push lawnmower, the rubik’s cube, artificial snow. This one will, presumably, explore granola. We haven’t seen an advance copy, so no guarantees on more than a mention, but she’s assured us it will show up this Sunday on March 25.

This could be a huge break for us—and at a perfect time, just as we enter the break between winter and summer farmer’s markets and have needed to decrease hours for employees. Plus, we are in the process of making some important structural decisions about our future (including growth strategy and the possibility of creating a non-profit); a boost like this could help provide the data we need.

While we are the tiniest of companies, we are increasingly confident that we’re pioneering an effective and efficient model for improving the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our country. And if we can figure out how to do this, we could enable other communities serving refugees to adapt or replicate our efforts. Little steps towards big goals. For our fans spread out around the country and the globe, maybe someday you’ll find refugee-made granola at your local farmer’s market.

Finally: I’m determined to finish up our Why Refugees? series (This is part 3, so skip down in our blog for earlier entries):

One reason we are so captivated by the mission of mobilizing refugee employment, is because we’re convinced that refugees represent a strategic “bridge” or “on-ramp” community. Assisting them can have a positive ripple effect on the wider community.

Some specific reasons:

Open: While refugees are uniquely unfamiliar with America and western culture, they are also uniquely open to relationships with people from diverse backgrounds. Consequently they create an entry point for suburbanites, urbanites, students, and faith communities to put aside ideological differences and preconceptions and get involved in the inner city in a context that is refreshingly free of fear or blame. Let’s face it: the poor and the wealthy don’t often cross paths socially. Preconceived judgments (or bad experiences or resentment) and sensitivity abound on all sides. None of this can or should be swept under the rug—but neither is it a good starting place for change.

Refugees have a gift for cutting through all those barriers by simply opening their doors and welcoming a relationship. And in doing so, they make impoverished communities far more accessible. If a wealthy suburban family becomes close to a refugee family, they suddenly have an opportunity to see the world with a new set of eyes—the neighborhood, the stores, the school system, the employment system, the welfare system, the healthcare system. Without anyone preaching or rebuking or arguing a new opportunity to see and empathize and learn opens up. This, in turn has a way of eroding fear and inviting a deeper sensitivity to the struggles of all at-risk populations.

Inspiring other at-risk populations: Individuals from other underserved populations tend to recognize and empathize with the challenges facing refugees in a way that can enable them to reassess their own resources. So far, our initial attempts to integrate native-born Americans or other immigrants into our granola work has been encouraging. One example: part of our deal with Amos House (the social service agency/homeless shelter/soup kitchen where we make granola) is that we always employ one of their culinary education graduates. Our employee last year was a former resident of Amos house, and a grandmother—and (I love this fact) we were one of her very first employers—which gave her something in common with refugees.

It worked out great. We had some huge laughs driving home through South Providence at midnight—with an African-American, an Iraqi, a Burmese, and a Burundian in the car, wondering what the cops would think if they pulled us over. She taught me a lot. She knew when to stop me from confronting a gang of local teenagers; and the refugee employees modeled a way persevering and living frugally, and working towards goals that, I believe, helped her. Last year she moved to California to live with her aging father. She now has her commercial driver’s license and is driving a truck all over the US. A few weeks ago she called me from Arkansas. She and Evon still stay in touch. Next time she drives through Providence we’re going to have a little reunion. You get the idea.

Pioneering new models: Creating on-ramps to employment specifically for refugees could equip us with a successful model that could be adjusted to impact other at-risk populations (particularly immigrant populations with minimal education and English skills). Sometimes people question the narrowness of our project. But our goal in focusing our efforts initially on refugees is ultimately to have a broader impact.

An invitation: Refugees are settled in Rhode Island as part of our government’s humanitarian efforts to assist the world’s most vulnerable. I once heard a philosopher posit that our community is only as strong or deep as our concern for the most vulnerable among us. I think there’s truth in this. To put it another way, the quality of hospitality and concern that our society extends to refugees is a reflection of the vitality of our community—the way we know and see ourselves. And if their biggest need is work, then hospitality involves creating work.

Not that the way we “are” or “see ourselves” needs to be static either. Acting to help creates opportunities to change. In other words, if you or I get involved in enabling refugee employment, it could influence the way you or I think. It could revitalize our thinking about work itself. A lot of us tend to see work as the opposite of rest or leisure or what we want to be doing. This in turn, can incline us to think that people who don’t work are lazy or unmotivated. But what if work itself—even entry level work—is (or could be) dignifying, life-affirming, a gift, a right? This is one of those little thoughts that’s changing me.

What kind of granola blog is this anyway? First begging, then prayer, then preaching. Hmm. Maybe I need a big bowl of oats. Maybe I need to get some sleep.

Thanks for reading.

Keith

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