Relationships as wealth

March 1, 2021 - 12:00am -- Living City

Relationships as wealth
How one young woman’s care for her city permeates her work at a mission-driven staffing firm

By Sasha Ongtengco

This February I will have been with Cara Chicago for ten years. This mission-driven staffing firm helps people affected by poverty (and often the challenges of recovery, domestic violence, homelessness or incarceration) to find and keep quality jobs. More importantly, it rebuilds hope, self-esteem and opportunity for people and their families in the process.

The way I got here was totally by some divine design. During my undergraduate studies in Economics at DePaul University in Chicago, I learned more about the Focolare-inspired business model called the Economy of Communion (EoC). It was my first exposure to social enterprise, which is the intersection of markets and mission, purpose and profit.

To me, the EoC offered something beyond profit sharing; it was the transformation of relationships among people, as well as our relationship to wealth. It was a rethinking of value.

I knew I wanted my personal and professional path to focus on those values. The origin story of the EoC really aimed at those who have been excluded, who had lacked access, who were in need. Focolare founder Chiara Lubich envisioned a Gospel-based economy where no one is in need. I wrote about the EoC as my final paper in college and contemplated how I really wanted to put this into action.

After a period in one of the Focolare’s little cities, where I learned a lot about building relationships by living with people from different cultures and walks of life, I decided to apply for graduate studies focusing on poverty alleviation and development.

Since I initially couldn’t secure financial assistance for school, I decided to just start working. Soon after, a position opened up in a high-end hotel chain, which also offered a tuition-reimbursement program, so I was able to work and go to school at night.

However, I was so conflicted, because by day I worked in sales for a fancy hotel as a meeting venue to pharmaceutical companies and large entertainment agencies… one end of the spectrum. At night, I’d be in class, learning about the forces and systems that drive poverty.

At one point, I had a class project to help Cara reshape a vision and mission statement. I started working closely with them and developed a deep respect for the organization. In the years following, I stayed in touch and continued to network, while creatively navigating my sales job to make it more meaningful, like assisting nonprofits to book events at the hotel and learning more about their sector.

Eventually, when a position opened at Cara, even without any previous paid experience in the nonprofit sector or social service training, I was encouraged to apply and got hired, due the relationships in the sector I had built.

When I took the leap into Cara, I took a pay cut and lost tuition reimbursement; yet I knew I’d learn so much more on the job. I’m grateful that through my upbringing with the Focolare I had learned to dialogue, to build relationships, and to sincerely connect with people of different walks of life.

 It informed my desire to start out in community engagement, working with all the social service agencies throughout the city to deeply understand their models and create referral pipelines. As I look back, I’m grateful for my growth and to now be in a position where I can sit at the same table where decisions are made, or partner with people who can make transformational changes in their company’s hiring policies.

A few years into my time at Cara, by 2013, we saw the trickle-down effect of the 2008 recession. Job seekers had higher skills, educational credentials and fewer barriers to employment, but the recession had cleared their savings, 401k, housing, and they didn’t have a strong network — which we described as “relational poverty.” These people found themselves needing something like Cara. On the other hand, businesses also had less money flowing and many had cut costs by turning to temporary staffing for “contingent labor.”

In response, we explored a new social enterprise. We started a mission-driven staffing firm to respond to these needs in the market, and the business has grown. We now create more than 300 transitional jobs a year, bringing in about $2 million in revenue to help advance Cara’s mission.

Because our staffing service delivers on quality but is worker-forward, companies pay Cara a fee per person who goes to work (in addition to paying employee wages), which contributes to wraparound employee services: training, job coaching support, bus passes, etc. Given Covid-19, we provide hazard pay, sick pay, PPE – all that we’d like to see more profit-forward companies offer.

In line with Cara’s mission we highlight individual talents and provide data supporting their stronger likelihood of remaining on the job than the traditional hire. Cara’s end goal is long-lasting success and self-sufficiency for participants to become full members of their community.

It’s pivotal that we also seize this moment in which the pandemic is exposing inequities in “technicolor,” and many companies now desire a more diverse workforce. Cara wants to be part of the solution by supporting companies to deliver on that desire.

We work with them to encourage more equitable, inclusive employment policies, whether by suggesting a more “conviction-friendly” job description, offering more on-the-job training opportunities, cultural competency training, or flexible scheduling and livable wages and benefits.

The more talent that comes from the community, the richer the definition of talent and company culture becomes for employers.

For example, in 1994, Alton X received a mandatory life-without-parole sentence for possession and conspiracy to traffic crack cocaine. After Alton’s sentence was commuted on December 18, 2015 by then President Obama, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin suggested that he come to Cara to get his life back together after 21 years in prison.

With support, Alton found new confidence, which led him to ultimately securing a Bus Servicer Apprentice position with the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). Today, Alton continues employment there and advocates for criminal justice reform legislation.

This is but one example of systems-change work that speaks to what Pope Francis says about re-envisioning the economy, where there is a more just distribution of income and one that is led by the people who have been excluded historically.

I’m grateful to be at the forefront of dignified employment, recognizing that everyone has something to offer and an opportunity to positively impact others. At the core of it all is the value of community and our relationships.

Sasha Ongtengco leads an alternative, mission-driven staffing firm called Cara Connects, which serves individuals facing employment barriers, and fuels Cara Chicago’s inclusive employment movement.

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