Community Group Uses Employment to Help People Climb Out of Poverty

Chronicle of Philanthropy
September 04, 2019

By Jim Rendon

The Red Hook Initiative is trying to change that. The 17 year-old organization helps young people in Red Hook graduate from high school and get jobs or go to college. It advocates for transportation and public safety. It even has a community farm. But its most innovative effort is remarkably simple: hiring.

The organization hires more than 125 young people from the neighborhood to work the farm, to be peer educators and counselors, and to set up and maintain a neighborhood Wifi network. Some of them go on to join the organization’s permanent staff of 50, also largely hired from residents who live in public housing there.

“If you live in Red Hook, you are going to be better equipped to identify and solve problems than people from outside the neighborhood,” says Jill Eisenhard, founder of the Red Hook Initiative. “Young people can design and lead programs and get paid for what they are providing.”

To help more people of color rise into leadership roles, the organization launched the RHI Institute. Each staff person gets 30 hours a year of paid professional development time. Eight employees under the age of 30 can join a fellowship program where for 20 hours a week over nine months they are paid to work with a mentor and develop skills like professional writing.

The organization has a $25,000 grant to help some workers overcome a barrier that holds them back from continuing their education, such as a delinquent student-loan payment or child-care costs.

This has helped employees build the skills required for career advancement. One employee recently left the organization to become the director of another group. Eisenhard was sad to see her go, she says, but “no one can stand in the way of that kind of professional growth.”

And when a former program participant became a manager at RHI, others in Red Hook took notice. “Three of our high-school students applied to the college she had gone to,” Eisenhard says. “That’s not an accident.”

Many community-based groups hire from the populations they serve. But David Greco, CEO of Social Sector Partners, a consultancy that helps strengthen nonprofits, says similar groups he works with in Los Angeles can barely afford to pay their staffs. “Are you really funding equity when everyone is getting dinner at the food bank?” Greco asks.

Eisenhard has tried to avoid that problem by boosting pay. Since 2015, the lowest wages the charity pays have risen from $9 to $16 an hour, usually staying a dollar or more above minimum wage. (Young people in the youth employment program earn $15 an hour.) Today about a quarter of the permanent staff makes $16 to $20 an hour. The rest earn more.

It hasn’t been easy. The organization lacks a reserve fund and endowment. Upper management may get smaller raises. “We’ve made the choice to fundraise for this, and when we can’t fundraise, we’re putting our general operating support there,” Eisenhard says. “If we are valuing our employees, let’s just make it happen.”

Jim Rendon is a senior writer who covers nonprofit leadership and fundraising for the Chronicle. In June, he wrote about the challenges that nonprofit leaders of color faceEmail Jim or follow him on Twitter.

Shared with permission from the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Red Hook WIFI Business Profile: Red Hook Native and Self-made Real Estate Owner, Humberto Lopes

In 2014, RHI’s Red Hook WIFI was among 11 innovative technologies selected by the New York City Economic Development Corporation’s RISE program to expand Red Hook WIFI to include local small businesses impacted by Superstorm Sandy. Business owner and longtime resident Humberto Lopes is excited about the expansion and is set to receive a solar-backed WIFI hotspot at one of his properties. As a lifelong resident of Red Hook, Mr. Humberto Lopes’ first job was delivering groceries to all parts of the neighborhood. While not his focus at the time, young Mr. Lopes’ first job was actually his entry into the real estate industry. We recently had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Lopes about his Red Hook roots.

How long have you been in Red Hook? Did you grow up here?
“For 54 years I have called Brooklyn home.” Born to Puerto Rican and Portuguese parents Humberto is all Red Hook. “I attended P.S. 29, I.S. 293 and John Jay High School.”

What is it that you love about the neighborhood?
“Being born and raised here I saw a lot of different examples of beauty in the neighborhood. I always valued the diversity of the residents who live here. Even with the challenges we all faced during the crack era in the 1980’s I still saw the neighborhood’s beauty and the potential.”

How did you get into property management?
“My first property was 57-59 Wolcott Street. It was a construction company called H.L. General Contractors. I had to wait until I was 18 to legally incorporate my business, but mind you, I have been working in construction since age 12 as a handyman. My first truck was purchased at an auction. It had the words HUM and Roofing on the side. I felt like it was a sign. People started to notice my truck and asked if I did roofing. I said of course and just like that, I had a major roofing job that I completed in 3 days with just one other person. I earned $1,800. Today a job of that size today costs several thousand dollars.”

Talk a little bit more about the 1980s. How were you able to grow your business?
“I stayed when many people left. I knew it was important to help rebuild and redevelop my community. I stand here today as the second largest property owner in Red Hook.”

Through your continued support of RHI, it’s clear that you are committed to Red Hook and its well being. In what other ways do you give back to the community and its residents?
“In total, I’ve brought approximately 75 small businesses into the neighborhood. These businesses bring revenue, jobs, and needed products/services to the community.
I purchased buildings all throughout Red Hook and offered affordable rent to those who otherwise would have not been able to find a stable place to live or to operate their business. I’m also responsible for bringing the first private school (BASIS Independent Brooklyn) and a number of artists to Red Hook. As someone who grew up in the neighborhood, it’s important to me that I continue to make a positive impact on the neighborhood.”

Thank you for your support of the Red Hook WIFI network and for allowing us to install on your rooftops. What does this network mean to you?
“All my projects have a community benefit. Opening my doors to RHI, and other local businesses are examples of my commitment to the entire community. It’s not about me helping me. It’s about how does this (business, non-profit, etc.) help my community? By creating opportunities for organizations like RHI, I visually began to see how many more people I was able to help with the resources I could provide.”

Introducing Red Hook Farms

Brooklyn’s largest urban farm, located in Red Hook, Brooklyn, is now a project of Red Hook Initiative. For the last sixteen years, Added Value has operated two farms in Red Hook, grown hundreds of tons of organic produce and provided a homegrown classroom to educate thousands of youth. Red Hook Farms is vital to our bounty of community resources.

Why is RHI expanding to include urban farming? RHI is bringing farming into our portfolio to hone a model for urban gardening, youth empowerment and sustainable, community-led food production. 

Moving forward as Red Hook Farms, we will:

  • Offer meaningful jobs for Red Hook youth;
  • Create leadership and educational opportunities;
  • Provide a safe space to gather, learn, and grow; and
  • Increase access to locally grown organic produce.