Wednesday, January 9, 2013
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
I wanted to say thanks to everybody who attended the Celebration Dinner we had Sunday night at the office. Everybody was there, from our supporters to our workers, people from different walks of life, different social-economic statuses, and different races: many who had never once met each other before instantly becoming friends.
One of my favorite parts of the night—and I may not get this exactly right—was when one of our workers who works for the city clearing out ditches was talking to one of our supporters who is a very successful business man, and our worker announced to everybody there, “I’ve got a great job!” I think all of us felt a little jealous.
We prayed, we ate, we talked about where IES is and where we are going. Everybody has been so supportive. Thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Gillis, who provided the food and drinks. People left, I felt, with a sense of hope, unity, and mission.
“Success is relative,” T.S. Eliot says. “It’s what we can make of the mess we have made of things.” For IES, success has certainly been relative. Relative to our resources as a company, relative to where our workers are and what success looks like for them. And we’ve certainly made a mess of things at times.
But I’d have to say that last night was something more. I’d say we all stumbled through the door upon something rare that we didn’t expect, a moment when all that mess shapes up into something that’s altogether, undeniably, perfect.
Thanks for coming everyone.
Monday, May 2, 2011
I’ve been making efforts to control the highs and lows, so that this roller coaster ride doesn’t make me vomit. I know that what seems bad often turns to good, and vice versa. I know my feelings have very little impact on the present reality; they can’t change anything, and typically they aren’t even indicative of reality. Still, I don’t know how much “control” you can really have. Thoreau says something to the effect that he admires nothing greater than the man who can elevate his own life with just the thoughts of his mind. On the other hand, if you’re sad you’re sad, and I don’t know what you can do about it. Let’s not get too philosophical.
I supposed what’s important, if you’re going to be discouraged, is how you handle that discouragement. My dad tells me that David “encouraged himself in the Lord.” I think that’s right. I can think of nothing else to diffuse my own, earthly thoughts, than to say, none of this will matter in heaven. In fact, I have written on the wall of my office, “The present thoughts have no impact on eternity.” The problem is that my lowest points of discouragement actually inhibit my ability to read, and if I manage to, I think, “That’s a horse load of crap.”
I don’t know how David did it. What you do in the moment seems a lot different than the outside looking in.
A couple of other thoughts have come to me in my discouragement as well, and they have helped, and so now I’m sharing them with you. The first is that my discouragement is based on making God jump through my monkey hoops. I know I need God to make this work, and I know that to make this work God needs to be putting out so many guys by April 15, May 1, June 31, and so on. “Any God that can’t do that isn’t a God at all,” I think to myself. So, when it doesn’t happen, I throw my hands in the air, look at the ridiculous words written on my wall, and say to God, “You clearly don’t exist.”
Us, non works motivated evangelicals, consistently shove it in people’s faces that we have a relationship with God that isn’t based on how many good things we do. Yet, this is the same thing only instead of putting myself on trial I’m putting God on trial. Ultimately, my relationship with God can’t be based on what he does or doesn’t do for me anymore than it can be based on what I do or don’t do for him. This means that I can’t complain, or get discouraged, whether or not God works according to my plan. The relationship only comes from the faith that one way or another it’s for a reason and a purpose and a plan.
The second thing I’ve realized is that it is, ultimately, God’s responsibility. This takes a lot of pressure off. The worst case scenario is that this is just a meaningless search for meaning. Derek moves into a shelter…search for meaning…works day labor…search for meaning…starts a nonprofit…it didn’t work…and the story ends there. I don’t think the story would end there, but in this scenario I find myself awfully paranoid defending myself against what people will think of me, and also—ah!—against what they’ll think of God. And God clearly needs me to defend him. Ultimately, this has to either be God’s plan or a false start. If it’s a false start, just submit—for one reason or another, he didn’t want it to happen. The next try will work out better, or the one after that, or the one after that…If it is his plan, then no matter how many mistakes I make, it’s ultimately his responsibility for people to see the signs on the door and think, “maybe I’ll give them a call.”
Ultimately, everybody has to go through discouragement. There aren’t any good stories that don’t have it. Use your discouragement to be honest with yourself, learn about life, and draw yourself closer to God. Encourage yourself in the Lord. Read these words on the wall, “The present circumstances have no impact on eternity.” That should always make you feel better.
Learn to deal with discouragement the best you can, and nothing will be able to stand against you.
Monday, April 25, 2011
Thursday was the best and worst day IES has ever had.
I was dropping three guys off at a job site on Dorchester road when a landscaper called, wanting a guy as soon as possible. This meant we would be putting out 7 guys, a new record for a single day. The best day IES has ever had.
I scrolled through my phone and picked an individual who had been through our system, who I knew worked for another labor agency. I picked him up and took him to the jobsite. I told him I was excited for him because this landscaper wanted somebody everyday for the entire summer. A STEADY ticket is what every day laborer dreams of.
At 12:30 I called the landscaper to see how things were going. “Well, your guy listens to me, he does what he’s told…but he’s a little slow. But I’m going to talk to him about it.”
At 3:15 I got a call from my laborer. “This man says he needs somebody who will work faster. So I told him you’d find somebody else who will.”
“You need to finish the day for him,” I said.
“No,” he told me, “I already quit.”
The worst day IES has ever had (probably not the last).
I refunded the landscaper for the entire day, and ended up paying my laborer too, who insisted he worked a full eight hours and seemed willing to do whatever it took to get his money.
People, in general, have been wearing on me. I get lots of calls from a friend of a friend of a friend who walked by our door. Sometimes people call 4 or 5 times in a row until I pick up, at 1 and 5am, as if I were a 911 operator and their house were on fire. “Can you get me a job?” they ask in urgent desperation. I tell them how it works, that you have to come to the classes, etc. Then they say, “Where are you located?” I tell them. “Hold on, hold on, let me grab a pen.” They still need a pen after calling 4 or 5 times.
The other day a significantly overweight woman came in the office at 7am to introduce me to her adopted son. “He needs a job,” she said. I told him about the classes. “Okay,” he said. And then, “Can I use your bathroom?” Okay. He was loud and made it smell terrible. Then he sat in front of the office for half an hour and came back in to use the bathroom again. “Where did the toilet paper go?” he asked.
“We’re all out.”
Meanwhile, his other brother who had also been sitting in front of the office for an hour came in and asked me if I would watch his suitcase for him while he went to Piggly Wiggly. I told him I was leaving and it would probably be best if he took it with him. He explained he had a bad back and was going to let me watch it anyways.
One more, if you don’t mind:
There’s a severely mentally ill man that spends lots of time wandering around the front of our office. I like him. He doesn’t bother anybody. He has a grimace on his face, looks as if he’s both praying and lecturing, and occasionally comes inside to ask me for a cigarette. When he tries to leave it’s a struggle. He pushes on the door that doesn’t open, and pulls on the door he has to push. He’s too mentally ill to sleep at the shelter.
Yesterday there was a torrential downpour and it flooded Meeting Street. He yelled at the rain, getting soaked by the splashes from the cars going by. Every time a car splashed him he seemed surprised, like he couldn’t figure out how to make it stop. At one point he yelled, “A whale’s going to come out of that water!” It was the first understandable thing I’d ever heard him say, not even his name. He seemed to me like a character you might write a book about, like Moby Dick, standing there yelling at the cars and the rain and the passing whales.
I like the guy, even though he pees and occasionally spits on our front door.
People have been wearing on me, and there’s no doubt at times I’ve been rude.
IES, frankly, doesn’t have the time for all of this, in the sense that we’re after a niche market, the sliver of people who are down on their luck and want to change. We have NO PLANS to change people, teach them not to walk off jobs, poop in their potential employer’s office, or cure their severe mental illness. We only hope to be a tool to facilitate a change for those who are able and willing. The problem is that if we’re trying to be like Christ, we should be more, right? I don’t know that he tries to change us, but he never stops providing the opportunities, over and over again, for those who are willing, in infinite ways that me or you or IES never can.
For the time being, I understand my losses less annoyingly when I think about his. I call God at 1am and 5am in the morning, demanding things that really aren’t so urgent. I try to put on a good face, and then make his bathroom smell terrible. I, too, accept great opportunities only to several hours later walk off the job: “Find somebody else,” I tell him. When I stop taking advantage of his graces I’ll feel less offended about mine.
The bottom line for IES, though, is this: Either a sliver of people willing and able to change exists, or they don’t. It’s like Sodom and Gomorrah. Kind of.
Pete and I visited a nonprofit in Chicago that in the 80s and 90s essentially took over the market. They were putting for profit agencies out of business. They charged competitive prices and paid workers more. Laborers across Chicago threatened to walk off the job if their supervisor didn’t let them switch to Just Jobs. And if you can pay a drunk a dollar more while being charged the same amount, why wouldn’t you? But ultimately, they said, “we weren’t helping anybody.”
If there isn’t a sliver, our only other option is to do what they did in the 80’s and 90’s: Be just like other day labor agencies, engage in price wars and disconnect ourselves from our workers, only pay them more. We still can’t care who they are, where they came from, whether they are drunk or sober: Only that they are warm bodies, and warm bodies generate revenue.
This model ultimately says the niche of people worth saving does not exist.
I had a few beers last night with one of my favorite people, my boss at Palmetto Carriage, Tommy Doyle. We talked about IES and wondered aloud if that sliver really existed or not, and if there was a market of businesses who would care that it did. Ultimately, that’s the question we’ve come this far to ask.
I think the second part of the question is easy. Are their businesses willing to pay $1 more an hour so we can do the things we really need to do: Drug test, background check, pay better workers a living wage, and in return minimize their risk of having problems with laborers while increasing their chances of productivity? I think there are.
But the harder question is frankly, “Are there any people out there worth it?” There has to be. Otherwise, we are just another labor agency. Otherwise, other guys can’t look at our guys and say, wait a minute, it seems like some of them are getting to the next step in life. The answer is yes, even though logically, at 1 and 5 am, when I’m writing an apology letter to a landscaper, when I’m feeling taken advantage of, it’s no, no, no.
The story says God saved Lot, and his daughters. After they lost their wife and mother the tally for the entire city was only three. This time around, we’re hoping for at least 13.
Monday, April 18, 2011
The best sales calls I’ve had have come when I’ve just told the truth.
It seems though, that over the past few months, the truth is the one thing that’s faded to the background.
We’ve opened an office, put up signs, and started sending people out—a few people out. I’ve called every landscaping company in the phone book, made it to the L’s under hotels, and spent a lot of down time praying that we’ll become self-sustaining. Our guys still work for other labor agencies because we don’t have enough work for them. They say everyone at those agencies talk about us, but when they do the owners just laugh. “We aren’t worried about them,” they say.
I’ve had sales calls with businesses insisting their day laborers are paid $9 an hour, only to get off the phone and ask those laborers, and they say “no, when we work there, we get paid $7.25.” When I tell the business, “I know they get paid $7.25,” they get defensive, and I’ve probably hurt our chances of them doing business with us. What day labor agencies do is legal, and, after all, they’re giving people what they need most, a job. It reminds me more of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, people who, in hope, stretch themselves looking for work, get work, and then realize they can’t make enough money working to cover the expenses of living.
The truth is complicated on the laborer’s side, too. I am naïve, but I ultimately see people who want good things and have lost hope that they can ever have it. One of them works for another labor agency, lost his place and is storing his clothes in our office. He was drunk. I asked him a couple of times if he had been drinking, and finally he said, “yes.”
“ Yes, Derek.”
“I’ve been drinking.”
“I make $50 a day. I don’t have enough money to get my own place, and living on the streets isn’t fun. So I drink.”
Look at it like this: Either I work hard and still don’t have enough money for my own place, or I work hard and can at least afford what makes me feel better.
In our classes, one of the things I’m passionate about is showing people that look, if you manage your money well, you can make it even on this wage.
I estimate that they would make $928 a month working at another temp agency, $1088 working at IES (both are hopeful estimations). I tell them budgeting is all about trade-offs, deciding what is most important to you. If a pack of cigarettes is most important to you—$5x5 days a week=$1,200 a year, roughly—that’s fine, but you’ll need to sacrifice 2 months of rent. It’s about tradeoffs, and what’s most important to you. Nobody can tell you how to spend your money.
Another laborer sat in that class drunk. He explicitly stated that his goals were to support his family, and pay for his kid’s college education so he could die in peace (I’ve been astounded by the things people say they want). All these thoughts while he’s drunk. I think people ultimately want good things, but settle when they lose hope they can have them. That sounds like something I do, if you want to know the truth.
At IES we essentially try to say, “look, it won’t be easy, but it is possible!” and a few people are listening. I look at the extra minimum $1 we’re paying and wonder if it really makes a difference? No, sometimes I don’t think it does. I amp it up when I tell people about it, but why? The people who lose hope don’t come to work every day, or do a good job, or stay sober, and that dollar makes no difference for them because they never get it (It’s part of the Hope Fund contract to come to work, do a good job, and be drug free, and I try not to put anybody out who doesn’t meet that criteria). But for other people, it has. One of the guys has been using his $1.85 an hour in the Hope Fund to pay for most of his $90 weekly rent at the Star Gospel; that 19 year old kid just called to ask if he could put his 1$ an hour towards vitamins for his baby. The difference is hope. It’s intangible. And it’s more important than the things we hope for.
At IES, if we convey it, the people who are willing to WILL latch on. It’s the same for us: If we believe we can make a difference for these people and day labor, we probably will end up doing just that.
“When you’re in doubt, tell the truth” that construction vice-president told me, shaking my hand. “And if you’re still in doubt,” he paused, “just tell the truth some more.”
Friday, December 17, 2010
Here's the email we just sent out to a list of supporters. Donations are at just under $10,000. If you're interested in joining the cause, please mail a donation to:
In Every Story
64 Norview Drive
Dear In Every Story supporters:
I am pleased to announce that we officially worked our first job as a maintenance crew at the Coastal Carolina Fair. The job brought success and opportunities to make adjustments. In addition to what our workers would have earned working at a for-profit agency, one earned an additional $55 towards his water bill and another $45 towards his electric payment. At the same time, we are taking a step back to consider what we can do to create a culture that retains and supports our clients as well as to enhance our product so that it is truly a notch above our competitors. We are also raising money for the bare minimum to compete with for-profit agencies. Since we have had early success and our business plan is on track and its execution under budget, please think about rewarding us with your contribution.
Over the past month, $8,500 has been donated to IES. Our goal is $12,000. This money will be used to purchase a used van, create a professional website and hire an additional staff member who will deal with inside issues while I pursue business. As you may recall, one of our goals is to be self-sustaining. However, we need necessities before we can pursue larger contracts.
The future is bright. There is potential for contracts with the City of Charleston and Charleston County. Most important, our workers are excited. Please consider making a tax deductible securities or cash donation to help this business and social enterprise continue to succeed.
Thursday, November 11, 2010
The fair was absolutely crazy. It called for 3 workers a night, myself being one of them, and over the course of 10 days IES ran through 11 different workers. We were plagued with issues my guys promise “will never happen again.” Some came one day and not the next, others late and a few more not at all. One had to take care of his sick ‘old lady,’ another had to babysit his 16 and 12 year old sister and brother, and later had a church revival he promised his pastor he would attend. One fussed at me for being a minute late to pick him up, and then, once at the fair, sat on the toilet for over half an hour. One never became a worker because he got arrested on his way, and another was arrested today—payday—for first degree burglary, and his girlfriend lied to me, picking up his check without permission.
These are only my thoughts, but I think it will be healthy if I can grieve seemingly bad decisions without becoming attached to them. Otherwise, I’ll get discouraged and quit. Or, my arrogance won’t stand it, because nobody should bypass something this good for them. But the truth is I don’t know whether this is good for them or not. It may be for some and not others, or maybe not anyone. People are complicated, and I learned while living at the Star Gospel to at least try not to be presumptuous about someone else’s needs. Because when I was, I got them all wrong.
Christ knew what people needed, but it’s possible the very legs that once were lame later helped them steal a diamond necklace and run. It seems that Christ loved without condition. He could have healed only those who wouldn’t fudge his blessings, but I don’t think that’s what he did, at least not with me. I try to invest without having to control, try to give without conditions, but it seems impossible and sometimes stupid. I don't know the answers.
Other things, though, have genuinely gone well. There’s been excitement amongst the guys. The idea of the Hope Fund has been successful. One worked 55 hours and earned—in addition to the wage he would have received from a for profit agency—another $55 applied to his water bill. Another worked 45 hours and earned the same amount towards his electric bill. We didn’t get fired, and I handed out at least a few business cards. I’m taking some time to try to reflect on what went well and what didn’t, and to raise some money for what I believe are the bare essentials to give us a chance for success. Hopefully there will be more on that to come.