We Don't Live in Amarillo

Moving websites is just like moving--you find all your old stuff in a new place and think it's okay... but as soon as you look closer, it isn't.   In this blog, paragraphs now appear randomly and some links lead nowhere. Pictures have disappeared.  Sometimes the whole midsection to a post is carved out and gone.  I'll eventually get it back in working order, but it's going to take time.  I even signed up for my own RSS feed and got a middle of the night republishing of a June '12 posting I haven't touched.  A life of it's own, I guess.  This post, from November '12 had completely disappeared.  I hunted it down from the Providence Journal, who had kindly published it as an op-ed, and decided I'd stick it right back on top for all our new visitors who have probably never read it.


Last summer, I started a nonprofit. I took up long-distance jogging to deal with the stress. I took up listening to a podcast for entrepreneurs (while jogging) for some inspiration. Yes, nerdy, I know.

These entrepreneurs on my jogging podcast (put out by Stanford University) seem like fun people — driven, curious, nerdy in a very charming way. They seem to do a lot of improvising, not taking "no" for an answer, and scouring the universities for brilliant software engineers. There’s always a lot of talk about opening offices in Los Angeles or Stockholm.

And it’s not like they are socially or morally tuned out. This month Inc. Magazine (which I read for some non-stress-related inspiration) featured a woman who is turning raw sewage from outhouses in West Africa into eco-friendly pellets that sell for $200 a ton in Europe. Another podcast speaker has created a bottled-water company that devotes all profits to engineering clean-water sources in the developing world.

One thing these entrepreneurs don’t seem to talk about is job creation. They follow a similar formula: come up with the idea/technology, develop a superior product, outsource production to wherever it can be done the most cheaply, then grow like wildfire by hiring “the best” people.

Which leaves me — usually bent over in my backyard at the end of my jog — asking, “But what about the ‘non-best’ people?”

I work with international refugees who have recently settled in Providence. Most don’t speak English. Many are not literate in their own language. None are familiar with the American job system. Most live precariously, struggling to get a foot into the job market. As much as they love Providence, some aren’t sure they will stay.

This month, Inc. broke the silence about job creation:

“But I never think about how many jobs the business will create. I care about whether the business can be viable. I care about its growth prospects and profitability. I care about the amount of debt it has and how well it manages its receivables and payables. I care whether customers are happy with its service. Of course, I care about the morale and well-being of its employees. But the absolute number of them concerns me only as it relates to staffing needs. Indeed, I constantly search for ways to maximize the productivity of the people we have, rather than adding to head count.” (Norm Brodsky, “Why job creators don’t like creating jobs,” Inc., November 2012.)

In business terms, this statement makes sense. But I can’t help wonder why Norm or one of these entrepreneurs couldn’t make entry-level job creation the subject of innovation. Who is going to be the innovator of basic, entry-level jobs?

I realize, of course, that job creation is a problem far bigger than refugees. But one particular thing at stake for us is whether places like Providence can continue to be a refuge for the world’s most persecuted people.

Sure, our government can decide to welcome refugees. We can grant them legal-resident status and expedite their path to citizenship. Social-service agencies can do the heavy lifting to find them housing, get their kids into school, provide access to medical care and English classes. Refugees can even promise to take any job they are offered.

But, especially in our current economic climate, the average hiring manager doesn’t interview a refugee and see the “best person.” She doesn’t see resilience or pride in surviving the worst the world has to offer or a determination to work hard. She probably sees someone who can’t speak English and might get lost riding the bus.

My solution has been to start a granola company.

Is granola the answer? Even to me, it seems a bit preposterous, but in many ways it’s working. Our model of on-the-job training can equip refugees with the confidence and cultural literacy they need to enter the job market. We are now selling an affordable consumer product that, with every purchase, carries the potential to bridge the gap between refugees and their community.

The nonprofit I started, Beautiful Day, will be an umbrella for businesses (like Providence Granola Project) offering on-the-job training to refugees. We hope to open a kitchen incubator to accommodate the skills and interests of entrepreneurial refugees. Right now we make granola. Next year it could be Burmese spices or Iranian pickles or Nepali ghee.

Okay, just stare at it for a couple minutes.  It's amarillo.  It moves.  It can make your head hurt a little.

Okay, just stare at it for a couple minutes.  It's amarillo.  It moves.  It can make your head hurt a little.

The other day, I spoke with Erneste Ntahondereye, one of the pillars of the 200-plus strong Burundian refugee community that has made Providence home. Erneste complained about all the Burundians moving to Amarillo, Texas, to work in the meat-packing factories. He’d gone to visit recently and was appalled. Parents were working, but refugee children were staying home or dropping out of school. There were minimal social services. He thumped his skull. “Their heads,” he said, “empty, empty!”

I felt upset too. How many resources have we already poured into making a home in Providence for refugees? The Burundians have done especially well here. They’ve developed their own leadership structures. They’ve joined churches and built gardens. They secured authentic Burundian drums and have a drums ensemble that educates their children about their cultural heritage.

I suppose I feel the same way about refugees that high-tech entrepreneurs feel about hiring the “best” people. If you don’t understand why, then you should spend an afternoon getting to know one of them. Visit the Iraqi family I just helped welcome from Damascus. Meet a survivor of Burmese ethnic cleansing or the genocides in central Africa.

Granted, settling refugees is a costly humanitarian effort. But refugees also enrich our lives. They bring resilience. They bring an inspiring work ethic. We need their hope and understanding of freedom. After years of being warehoused in camps and forbidden to work, most consider work — any work — a huge privilege. They aren’t moving to Amarillo because the work is easy or the pay is great. They’re moving to work.

Is a granola factory the solution? I suspect not, but until one of these bright Stanford entrepreneurs finds a better one, we will keep using it to provide crucial on-the-job training. Along the way we’ll continue to decrease the state’s welfare burden and build bridges between diverse communities.

yellow-cow

A kitchen incubator will let us help refugees experiment with their own business ideas, which could improve our state’s economic environment. Ultimately, we hope the models we come up with could be transferable to other communities settling refugees (maybe even in L.A. or Stockholm) or with other populations trying to find work.

I’ve got nothing against Amarillo. But we don’t live in Amarillo. And we shouldn’t just sit here and watch refugees move away. If it’s important to have a role in welcoming the world’s most persecuted people, then we need to get entrepreneurial about creating more entry-level jobs right here in Providence. If we can figure that out for refugees a lot of people will benefit.