The Third Law
I like things to be in compartments. My sock drawer displays each pair folded into thirds and filed according to color. My spice cabinet is alphabetized. Chaos is fine as long as I can assess the situation, develop a plan and put things in order relatively quickly.
Putting things in order relatively quickly was exactly what I set out to do when I became CEO of Women's Bean Project in 2003. Women's Bean Project—or the Bean, as it is sometimes called–is a place where chronically unemployed and impoverished women come for a second chance in life. Most of the women who arrive at the Bean Project have never held a job longer than a year. They are convicted felons, recovering addicts, victims of domestic violence. Many were teenage mothers and high school dropouts. They come to Women's Bean Project for a chance to create new lives out of the rubble theirs have become.
Founded in 1989, the Bean Project is an anomaly in the business world. It is a business, one that packages and sells bean soup mixes and other food products to stores across the country. We also have a business that makes handmade jewelry. But tucked inside these businesses is a human services organization designed to provide a safe and accepting work environment where impoverished women can learn the skills required for gainful employment.
When I was hired as CEO, the Bean faced several daunting challenges. The year before it struggled through a financial crisis that almost caused it to close. While the board and an interim director kept the doors open with various emergency measures, including releasing most of the staff, the problems that led to the crisis had not been addressed. Armed with two science degrees and a 15-year career in business marketing, I felt qualified to tackle those challenges. My focus would be on increasing sales and marketing, boosting production, cutting costs and raising profits. I could do this, I thought. No problem. I was excited by the potential.
I couldn't have been more naive.
What I didn't recognize were the human challenges involved in running a business whose employees were the neediest among us. I hadn't thought about why our employees might not have held a job for longer than a year. I had no idea that even if a woman tried with all her might to change her life, there were powerful forces pushing back on her attempts to change. The culture I stepped into at the Bean Project couldn't have been more different from my own white, middle-class, suburban upbringing--a fact I soon confronted.
During my first week at the Bean Project, in an attempt to learn the business, I was working on the bean soup production line with a woman named Fadilah. Because we were standing so close, I started asking questions to break the ice and become acquainted. "How did you end up here, Fadilah?" I asked, while scooping beans from staging bins into long, plastic sleeves.
"When I was 14, I started selling drugs,” she said. “It was fast money, easy money. Everyone I knew was using, so I could sell to them and support my son and my little brother." Fadilah was 14 when she had her son, while she also was caring for her ten-year-old brother because her mother was one of Fadilah's drug customers.
While listening to Fadilah, I thought about what I was doing at 14. I had just started running track and my 4x200 relay team qualified for a national meet, in West Virginia. It would be my first airplane trip and I was able to go without my parents.
"Didn't you want your son to grow up in a better environment than you, with your mom using and you being surrounded by drugs?" I asked, as though there had been a menu of choices, and Fadilah had chosen selling drugs over, say, going to the high school prom or taking AP English. I'm embarrassed now, but this is how I thought back then. I thought people who got in trouble with the law were bad people who made poor choices. People who committed crimes and took drugs got what they deserved. If we could catch them and lock them away, our communities would be safer, crime would decline and drug use would decrease.
As someone who grew up with a lot of opportunity, I believed that anything was possible in America. Therefore, poor people, unwed teenage mothers and high-school drop outs clearly were responsible for their own misery since they hadn't taken advantage of the choices available to them. I believed that if we worked hard, society worked with us to help us succeed.
I believed that Fadilah had consciously chosen one life over another. In reality, the only choice she made was survival. She chose to make the situation work for her based on what she knew. She had no one in her life to help her see that selling drugs would lead her down a path of destruction, and eventually take her away from all that she held dear.
It was easy for me to think this way because I had never met any of the people I judged so harshly. I was a well-educated but clueless white girl who led from the head, not the heart. I believed that life is a manifestation of the choices we make. Conveniently, all my choices were condoned by my community.
My perspective changed the moment I set foot inside Women's Bean Project and met the women we employed.
I met Chalina, whose mother introduced her to cocaine when she was 12 and then kicked her out of the house because she perceived Chalina as competition for boyfriends. Chalina landed on the streets to fend for herself until she was 18 and arrested and incarcerated for drug manufacturing.
I met Waseme, who struggled with PTSD from a street assault and suffered from a debilitating bipolar disorder. I watched firsthand as she cycled from being a delightful, bubbly young woman to someone who couldn't get out of bed when she didn't have the money for her mood-stabilizing medication.
I met Sharifa, who at 21 was charged with first-degree murder for killing the fiancé who had been beating her for six years. Though convicted of involuntary manslaughter, she received an extremely harsh 26-year sentence. After serving seven years, the judge released Sharifa, asked if she had learned her lesson, and sent her to the halfway house, her home while she worked at the Bean Project.
Slowly, but steadily, I learned that the circumstances faced by our employees were not because they had chosen incorrectly, but because they had no role models for employment, no one pushing them to stay in school, no one discouraging them from getting pregnant as teens. They were disenfranchised from the community in every sense. Most were victims who had been further victimized by drug sentencing laws, cultural prejudices and human services systems that dehumanized them. In short, I learned that it’s society that holds certain women back.
But I also learned about something far more moving: the resiliency of the human spirit. I met countless women at the Bean Project who faced and overcame insurmountable odds. They taught me that it is possible to confront and overcome fear and shame and lack of self-worth. I have seen how difficult --but necessary--it is to stare adversity in the eye. And despite setbacks, because setbacks always occur, a path to a new life can be created. I have seen for myself the value and impact of a woman believing she is worthy of a better life.
When I began writing this book, I thought the question was, "How do we do what we do at the Bean Project? How do we change lives?" But I began to see this wasn't the point at all.
Newton's Third Law of Motion says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Applied to physics this means that for every force there is a reaction that is equal in size, but opposite in direction. For the women at the Bean Project, this means that even as they try to create new lives for themselves, by doing just what society asks of them--get a job, pay taxes, support their children--there are a myriad of forces that conspire to push back against their progress.
These opposing forces exist in our biases and prejudices against felons, addicts and welfare recipients. They exist within the human services systems that cut benefits while a woman works to create a foundation to decrease her dependence on just those services. The forces exist within the corrections system that creates barriers to success and demeaning methods for keeping convicted felons in line.
In truth, society is not entirely to blame because I also have seen these women work against themselves. On the brink of success, they self-sabotage through passive-aggressive behavior, relapse or other choices that return them to prison. Low self-esteem makes it hard for them to believe in their worthiness for employment outside of the Bean Project. Their addictive backgrounds stand in their way of finding healthy, productive strategies for dealing with life's challenges.
Families also are a force working against women at the Bean. The codependence found in a household mired in addiction can undermine even the most committed recovering addict. In a family life where chaos is the norm, the creation of a calm, orderly life is elusive. Women whose parents were addicts don't know what a "normal" childhood is, and often re-create dysfunction in their own families ranging from poor parenting skills to drug use and criminal behavior. By the time they come of age, their kids are poised to make the same mistakes, pulling their mothers down with them.
The Third Law has even affected me. As CEO of Women's Bean Project, I lead a system that exerts pressure on these women to change. In return, opposing forces from the women have caused me to change. I have moved from a hard-hearted, business-focused woman to someone who wants--no, needs--to know each woman's story. Fundamentally, in ways I never could have imagined, I have changed.
Although I didn't know it at the time, I had many prejudices when I walked through the doors of Women's Bean Project. But it was more than that--I had little awareness of those prejudices, how they'd formed and why. I had never really thought about what I believed because my beliefs had never been challenged. While getting to know the women of the Bean I got to know myself. With this new awareness I've found compassion and understanding. I have developed an ability to empathize with women on a level I would have never thought possible.
I used to believe the world was black and white. Right or wrong. Good or bad. Today I understand there are thousands of gray shades in between. It was one thing to judge women who I'd never met. It has been something else entirely getting to know these women one by one, to look into their eyes, and feel the pain in their stories. With this awareness, there is no room to judge. I have cried for joy with the women, as proud as any mother of their accomplishments. I have felt deep sympathy for their trials, often driving home at night wondering if there were other ways I could help. I have mourned their losses, hugging my own children while reflecting on the children they lost. I have also felt anger, disappointment and sadness when women at the Bean make choices that take them backward.
When I first meet women who come to Women's Bean Project, I see anger and hurt. I see closed-up women who are afraid to imagine anything better for their lives. And yet, they arrive at the Bean Project hoping for a chance, that maybe this will be the program that changes everything. The women at the Bean have nothing left to lose and their lives to re-gain.
The stories I most want to tell are those of the women themselves--women who, against all odds, have turned their lives around. Too often, they buy into the notion that society puts in front of them; that they aren't good enough–-to be hired by an employer who will care about them, to earn enough money to finally move off of assistance, to have a life they and their children can be proud of. At times like this, I want to grab these women by the hand, pull them along and show the world the women I have come to know. The women in this book have taken what life has presented them, some of it their own making, much of it not, and created a mess that they are working to correct. My hope is that by sharing their stories of struggle, survival and, sometimes, triumph, I will give these women a voice. By illustrating our communities’ social ills, I hope to draw out the compassion required to support these women. Finally, it is my hope that this book, by illuminating the cycle of poverty and chronic unemployment, might stimulate readers to act differently, hire differently, vote differently, and give differently.
This book is a story with no end. There will always be chronically unemployed women, a system that works against them, and opinions and attitudes that undermine their success. In the same way that women at the Bean Project become empowered to take responsibility for their actions, so can we, as taxpayers and voters, begin to take responsibility for our influence on the laws and policies that trap individuals and families in some of our societies' most intractable intergenerational social ills.
Chapter 1: Whac-a-Mole—Facing the pressure to change
It was June 2003 and I had just been named CEO of Women's Bean Project. I was sitting at my desk, wrapping up some loose ends at my former job when the phone rang. It was the deputy director of the Bean Project calling on behalf of Maude, the production supervisor. At the time there was no production manager and Maude was responsible for all aspects of manufacturing. The deputy director was letting me know that they had received a big order—one that would much-needed sales revenue, and, while she knew they didn't have enough beans to complete the order, no one had any idea how many more beans were needed. Could I come over and help figure it out?
It seemed odd. How could they have gotten through 14 years of operations as a bean soup manufacturer without knowing how many beans are needed to make a bag of soup mix?
I drove to the Bean Project during my lunch break and sat down with the Maude and the deputy director at the end of a long conference table. Maude smiled a lot. Her long hair was pulled back from her large, round face and gathered up in a hairnet; she'd just come from working on the production line. Both women leaned forward, waiting for me to begin, so I rapidly reverted to basic algebra. "For every fifty pound bag of beans, how many bags of soup can be created?"
Awkward silence. No one knew the answer. I could see in Maude's blank look that she was very much over her head. I knew Maude was a program graduate and I later learned that, while she excelled at supervising and communicating with the program participants, she had poor reading and math skills, possibly the result of a learning disability. She didn't have a high school diploma or her General Equivalency Diploma (GED). I was told that earning a GED wasn't a realistic goal for her; she didn't have the capacity.
We didn't accomplish much during that lunch hour. I tried to help them figure out how many bags of beans they needed to order, but I don't think I was very useful. After I went back to my office, they were so desperate to ensure they had enough beans and so anxious about spending money that they sorted the beans from the seconds bin.
The seconds bin is a large, round industrial container, resembling a janitorial trashcan. Whenever a bag splits during production or a soup mix is made incorrectly, the beans are poured en masse into the seconds bin where the beans get mixed up into a collage of colors. Though the beans and spices are the same, soup made from the seconds bin are sold at a discount because they do not contain the beautiful, earth-toned layers that are a distinguishing feature of Women's Bean Project's soups.
A few months into my tenure at the Bean I discovered there were calculators that enabled someone to plug-in the number of finished units of soup needed, subtract what was on-hand, and calculate the required raw materials. Even if Maude had known they existed, I'm not sure she would have had the ability to use them. One problem solved while the list of other issues grew. I began writing in a notebook all of the challenges the business faced, even if I didn't have a solution. I thought of it as my "worry book." I reasoned that as long as my concerns were documented in the notebook, I could set them aside until there was time to fix them or a solution was found. It didn't take long before I realized the notebook was going to have many entries and my job was going to be much more challenging than I'd thought. I only hoped I was up to the task.
I was attracted to Women's Bean Project because I thought the business was intriguing. How fascinating, I thought when I first learned about the organization. They make soup and they help women. I wondered how the two could work together, but loved the idea nonetheless. The notion that the better the business performed, the more women could be helped enhanced my interest.
My involvement with the Bean Project began about eight months before I became CEO when I was asked to volunteer on its sales and marketing committee. My introduction to the Bean Project was a meeting with Judy, the acting CEO, and Susan, the board chair. At the time, I didn't know enough to ask why there was an acting CEO. It didn't occur to me that perhaps there were some issues and I was too inexperienced to know what questions to ask.
I was hooked after my first visit to the building. When I approached the two-story, iron-red brick building for the first time, I noted its historical significance. "1928 Denver Fire Department Station #10" was embedded in the brick above the three bay doors out of which the fire trucks once rushed toward their rescues. The ivy-colored entrance door sat under a miniature awning, creating a quaint entry.
Inside, I was welcomed by the aroma of cumin, curry, oregano and the other fragrant spices used in the gourmet food products. I was lucky to arrive on a day when they were baking oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. The scent of the freshly baked cookies wafted from the kitchen and blended seamlessly with the spices. I made a mental note to stop at the retail store on my way out to make a few purchases.
As I walked across the first floor to the stairs, I noted the positive vibe and good-natured energy coming from the women working on the food production line. Their laughter combined with the din of the radio and the rhythm of beans being placed, one scoop at a time, into packages. As I walked past, I was greeted graciously by program participants. They seemed to be trying to ensure that every person who entered Women’s Bean Project knew how special it was.