Friday, August 26, 2011

Create Common Good

Last week in Oregon we learned about the importance of ending hunger before it begins, through increased job opportunities and training. This week, we visited Create Common Good in Boise, Idaho, which is doing just that for a particularly vulnerable population – refugees.

Show, don't tell
According to the UN definition, you are a refugee if you are unable to return to your country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.  Only about 1% of those in refugee camps are resettled into a host country, and then typically only after many, many years.  If selected for resettlement to the US, you are assigned to one of 10 voluntary refugee resettlement agencies, each of which places refugees close to one or more of about 40 cities across the country.  That agency is responsible for finding you a place to live, finding a health care provider for you, and arranging for other support services such as English classes and training classes.  The US government provides financial support to states for this process.  However, within 8 months, you are expected to be self-sufficient!  That’s a tall order, and many refugees need additional help. 

Tara Russell, CEO (Chief Experience Officer) and founder of Create Common Good, explained that refugees come to the US with a huge range of backgrounds.  Some were professionals in their home countries, have resources and connections in this country, and know English.  These refugees usually adapt quickly, and have a support network to help in times of trouble.   But on the other end of the curve are those who have few skills that translate easily to this culture.  They may not know any English.  They may not know how to read or write (in any language) or use numbers, and may have a second-grade education or less.  They may not know how to interact with others in employment situations.  And they may have been severely traumatized by their past life experiences.  These are the refugees that Create Common Good targets with their programs.

Create Common Good’s programs are divided into four areas:

This is the heart of the program.  Their job skill and language training courses work on job-specific simulations in which the instructors show how to do the actual tasks that would be expected in specific jobs, along with site visits to employer partners in the area to try them out.  Tara said, “We believe in show, don’t tell, which has been shown to be the most effective way for our clients to learn.”   Therefore, all classes teach by showing and working alongside the instructor, teaching the English words appropriate to the job as they go along, and then reinforcing the skills and language as the clients practice.  For example, if a group were working on janitorial skills, the instructor would show the participants how they’d be expected to mop a room, but would also teach them the words “mop,” “pail,” “detergent.”  The clients would mop the room and practice “this is my mop, this is my pail” with the teachers as they worked.  They might then go to a worksite to try out their new skills.  Also included are social and job skills, such as showing up on time every day, suitably dressed, making eye contact, and interacting appropriately in the workplace.  As clients learn, their confidence and resilience build, which helps in other areas of their lives.

Create Common Good’s teaching approach is very systematic, so they can track what each client has learned.  Classes have a maximum of 12 students and 2-4 instructors, and were developed in-house to fit their clients’ needs.  As clients progress, the instructors determine where they excel and what jobs would best fit them.  They take students to interviews, and are able to say things like “In 8 weeks, she’s gone from being able to do only this, to now being able to do these new things.  Just think what she’ll know after a few weeks of working here!” 

Everyone in the organization rejoices each time another client gets a job.

Devi Kharel, Head Farmer
Washing fava beans we'd just harvested
Create Common Good operates a beautiful organic farm on 5 acres of land donated by Eastwind Community Church. This provides another venue to help refugees with training and paid work opportunities.

We spent a morning at the farm, where Devi Kharel, Head Farmer, an agricultural expert and refugee from Bhutan, put us to work harvesting cilantro and parsley, and helping others harvest fava beans and mustard greens. Trainees were harvesting tomatoes, red, white and purple potatoes, basil, and other fresh produce. All produce was washed and prepared for delivery. Today, some went to CSA members (people who’ve bought shares of each week’s fresh produce from the farm) and some was sold at a stand at Dunia Marketplace.

All sales and deliveries are handled by Tyler Smith, Director of Farm Sales, Food Culture and Outreach, with the assistance of one of the trainees working on the farm. Other produce from the farm is sold to a wholesale partner and local restaurants, used in Stir and Create programs (see below), given to those in need including the refugees in the programs, and donated to the Idaho Food Bank and other partner agencies. 

Tyler Smith, Director of Farm Sales, and assistant
deliver baby bok choy to a customer
Create is the newest of Create Common Good’s programs.  Its goal is to create products to sell, providing training and job opportunities for refugees.  The current focus is on what Create Common Good has at hand, which is food.   Last fall, they made a variety of products such as pickled beets, hash brown potatoes, pureed pumpkin, and vinaigrettes made with herbs from the farm.  Now they’re refining their offerings to be more culturally-infused, including artisan foods such as kasundi and mustard-green pesto.

Create Common Good is hoping to expand to broader local and regional markets in order to provide additional employment opportunities.  To reach a large enough size to make these efforts viable, they would like to expand to a commercial kitchen.  

The fourth area of Create Common Good’s training programs is culinary training. Tara took us to The Cathedral of the Rockies First United Methodist Church , where we entered the large kitchen that they’ve made available for Create Common Good to use full time at no charge. There we met Create Common Good’s Executive Chef, Brent Southcombe, and Apprentice Chef, Awot Haile, a refugee from Eritrea. What a great pair these two make! Brent is an award-winning chef from Australia who heard about Create Common Good at a church meeting just when he was feeling called to reach out and train immigrants in culinary skills. He was able, through the efforts of Create Common Good and volunteer legal help, to move to Boise in short order this past spring. He’s running the culinary program to train refugees. They’ve had 3 classes so far, and have a 75% placement rate for their graduates.

Brent Southcombe, Executive Chef (left)
Awot Haile, Apprentice Chef
Tara Russell, Chief Experience Officer
To help raise funds, they cater special events.  And on most Wednesdays they put on an international dinner inspired by the food cultures of the refugees in the training programs.  They use food from the Create Common Good farm as often as possible.

What difference does Create Common Good make?  In the words of Tara, “We believe that economics is often the first domino that leads to holistic transformation in the other areas – more kids in school, domestic violence decreasing, and emotional and mental health improving.  Employment brings dignity, security, peace of mind, and safety to the family, so we see a lot of other great things happening, once there is a stable job that is building a runway to self-sufficiency."

Create Common Good is definitely helping refugees make this transition!

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