Courage and Humility

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The sweet sound of a friendly dispute trickled down our office hallway one recent afternoon. David was trying to give Project Return the credit for the great new job he’d just gotten. We argued back, very convincingly, that it was he – his worth, his honesty, his preparedness and motivation – who had won the day. We know David, and we know what he had done so well, well enough to get that job: he summoned his courage but led with humility, he owned the shortcomings of his past but focused on the goodness of his future, he understood what experience he lacked but imagined the ways in which his abilities and strengths are transferable and can possibly prevail.

After all, he had survived prison and he had survived the virus. Beyond that though, he must’ve heard from almost every direction that there was nothing to hope for and no way to win. Nevertheless, he powered forward when the weight of the world was against him. Overcoming adversities that are difficult for most of us to imagine. Facing fear and contempt – not to mention exclusion, and dearth of opportunity – that would undo most of us, especially when we layer in the pandemic of systemic racism and intergenerational oppression.

We at Project Return had been as unprepared as anyone for a pandemic. There was one week, back in mid-March, that felt like one of those slow-moving nightmares, as we strove to find our footing and be the best version of our organizational self for the crisis at hand. Our continued work on the frontline is nerve-wracking, and worse. We had to build out resiliency in ways we had never before thought of.

Like David! Taking deliberate steps, against the odds, to fend off and outpace disaster. In fact, we are inspired by David and so many others, as the adversities continue to roll toward us unrelentingly. We remind ourselves that we were built for this moment. Our work, Project Return’s entire mission, our very essence, day in and day out, has always been about overcoming nearly insurmountable odds. Like David, we have imagined how these abilities – these strengths and experiences that comprise who we are – are transferable and can possibly prevail.

Not unlike the nightmare of mid-March, the dual disaster of pandemic and recession continues to be a constant threat. We worry nonstop about keeping each other safe, meeting our people’s needs, and getting them employed. I am surrounded by a team that is humbled by this virus but facing it with courage.

It’s helpful to take stock of what has gotten us to this moment, from mid-March to the start of July. There is the quantifiable: 16,757 prepared meals we’ve provided, 3,930 masks we’ve distributed, 76 participants who’ve gotten new jobs, tens of thousands of dollars in housing assistance we’ve imparted to people who were one blink away from being out on the street, roofless. There is the uncountable: smiling eyebeams of kindness over the ridge of a facemask, encouraging words that express “I believe in you”, comradery between coworkers, resolute commitment to the work combined with religious adherence to safety strictures. There is the structural and programmatic: hammering out successive versions of our COVID-19 Preparedness & Response Plan, building virtual and mobile versions of job readiness class, circling around to strategically plan and reestablish performance goals. There is Project Return’s day-to-day labor (of love!): outfitting participants for work, getting new businesses on board so that we can meet their workforce needs, generating more and more employment and housing through our social enterprises. This is work that needs doing – with courage and humility – for people who need work.


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