Welcome to the Frontlines of the Battle Against Poverty

Those are the words used to welcome my group of W&M students from W&M’s DC Summer Institute to DC Central Kitchen.  A week later, I am participating in the battle against poverty via my new internship as a Program Assistant for DCCK’s Culinary Job Training program.  C.J.T. is a 14 week program which gives the unemployed, recently incarcerated, the homeless, and other people who face employment challenges culinary job training and other skills so that they may secure gainful employment.  During the tour, our host, the Director of Development (Fundraising) spouts off a lot of numbers:

It costs approximately $40,000/year to imprison someone.  The national recidivism rate, the rate at which people who are released from jail get arrested again, is about 68% over three years.  The recidivism rate of DCCK’s Culinary Job Training program?  A mere 2%.  Program cost is $10,000 per student, and 90%+ of students secure employment after graduation.  Many graduates work for DCCK after graduation earning full benefits and a living wage of $13+ per hour.

My first week has come to an end.  It began with the standard introductory type material and activities, but I quickly gained a set of projects to work on during the second half of my first day.  Within the organization, I work almost exclusively with a team of seven other employees in the Culinary Job Training “Division.”  Everyone on my team is interesting, helpful, and is skilled in their role.  On the team are two culinary instructors, including one who gained fame as winner of a Gordon Ramsay reality cooking show, a social worker, an outreach specialist, an employment specialist, an empowerment therapist/mentor, a recruiter/administrator, our director, and myself.

What I’ve learned working four days in non-profit is that we operate just like any other business – there are superiors and stakeholders to report to and make the strategic decisions that guide the organization; there are same weekly status type meetings, there are the same organizational divisions (management, operations, production, development, etc.); there are the same constraints of cost, strategy, board approval, meeting targets/quotas, etc. which guide management’s actions.  What’s the difference then?  The mission.

A private company is concerned with making profit by selling something.  We distribute prepared meals to homeless shelters, schools, and other organizations – we feed people and kids.  We run a program to help give people who others have deemed failures a second chance at life.  We provide fresh produce to corner stores in food desserts.  We run Campus Kitchens, in which the DCCK model of converting donated and “recycled” food into sustenance is replicated across several college campuses.  DCCK uses food as a tool to improve people’s lives.  Through some innovative strategy, they started a catering business and developed contracts to provide food to local schools.  These operations fund over 60% of our costs.  We are a good definition of social entrepreneurship.  Our work changes lives in a meaningful way.

Wal-Mart might save you a little money compared to other retailers.  Exxon might provide the fuel you need to get to work.  Samsung & Apple might provide hours of entertainment and convenience in your daily life (then sue each other over rounded corners).  But, the existence of a company like DC Central Kitchen is nigh irreplaceable, whereas, in my opinion, if Wal-Mart, Exxon, Apple, or Samsung went out of business, six months later you would be just as satisfied with the product of one of their competitors.

DCCK’s mission matters, and it’s something an employee is connected to immediately just by the way the space is set up.  Due to space constraints, many of the business-end offices are located in the same facility as the production (where the food is prepared).  You have to walk through gobs of volunteers, who donate their time/work to help DCCK achieve their mission, just to get to your office in the day.  Everyone that I have talked to has a background that ties them to the people we are trying to help at a personal level, where the heart rules, not on a business level.  Although I’ve only been here for four days, I can tell that the people on my team are genuinely concerned with each person’s success.  They all know each student’s name and background.  They are emotionally invested in their growth and success.  Try finding that in any other company.  It actually reminds me of some of my favorite professors at William & Mary.  Considering the background that many of the program entrants face, I believe this type of relationship and investment by the employees into the students is a key factor in the success of the program and the students.

My boss gives me great autonomy.  On my second day of the job, I only spoke with her a few times as I was busy working on projects that had been assigned to me on my first day.  One of those was a statistical analysis which 4 or 5 other people had worked on in the past.  The work was inconsistent with no continuity and questionable objectives.  I fixed those things and provided a platform that would enable automatic statistical calculation and graphing with clear instructions on how it worked and how to use it.  This impressed the boss so much she showed it to a higher up.  He later came to tell me “well done” and hoped I had time to work on other projects for the organization.

On my first day I was invited to happy hour by a co-worker who had spoken to me a total of five minutes.  One has made a particular effort to show me the ropes and get to know me.  Another who I work in the same shared space with for most of the day regularly engages in conversation.  On Friday, one of my co-workers took the time to thank me for the work I had already done in my short time there.

The work culture is very amicable, open, and mission-focused.  The leadership style of my boss is one with great autonomy, sincere support, and a direct communicator.  I think the small team size works well given the current scale of the job training program with specialists making up most of the roster.  One guy has only been working there for a month, but it’s like he has been a part of the crew since day one.  I don’t think that would be the case with a bigger team or different culture.  From the leaders we spoke with during LCE, I think my boss is most like Colin from Acceliprise due to the high autonomy and focusing on the composition of the team, but I imagine our work culture is more like the one that Michael Powell described.

Questions:  What is the culture like at your internship?  What type of leadership styles do you see being employed?  Are they effective?  Do you work with a large group of people or on a smaller team like me?  Is a small or large team better and why?

Categories: Community Engagement & Service, Student Blogs
  1. Sarah Duska
  2. Mark Bland
  3. Amanda Warwick
  4. Daniel Reichwein
  5. Daniel Reichwein
  6. Daniel Reichwein

Comments are currently closed. Comments are closed on all posts older than one year, and for those in our archive.