Fighting homelessness one brownie at a time

The late Yonkers Zen master Bernie Glassman transformed the way we see homelessness, joblessness – and fudge brownies.

The next time you polish off a tub of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream, put aside your guilt. 

Instead, raise your spoons to the outstanding legacy of Bernie Glassman, the vibrant, cigar chomping, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing roshi (a Japanese honorific title) who revolutionized the way southwest Yonkers combats homelessness. Glassman — who passed away Nov. 4 at age 79 — achieved that feat through an unlikely mix of Zen spirituality, social activism and gourmet brownie baking. (You read that right.) 

Glassman, a Zen master, was galvanized in the early 1980s when he learned that Yonkers had one of the highest homeless rates nationwide. In 1982, he founded the now widely admired Greyston Bakery, named after a building that housed his spiritual community in the Riverdale area of the Bronx. Initially, the bakery was founded to provide jobs for 35 monks and students from his practice. But Glassman had a better idea. He wanted to extend viable jobs to Yonkers’ poverty-stricken inner city where residents struggled to achieve self-sufficiency but had no first rung to get there.

Greyston Bakery’s innovative “Open Hiring” model was critical to Glassman’s effort. It meant no résumé and no background checks. Incarceration and homelessness became nonissues under this no-questions-asked approach to hiring. And, still today, applicants simply put their names on a list and jobs become available on a first-come, first-served basis. 

They have a saying at the bakery, “We don’t hire people to bake brownies. We bake brownies to hire people.”

Greyston’s headquarters — which houses its factory and offices — is still in a gritty Yonkers neighborhood overlooking the Hudson River. But the company’s beneficial influence on the community is unparalleled.

The open-hiring employment model did what Glassman hoped it would do. It broke barriers, created equal opportunity and became an inspiration to business owners around the world. In 1989, Greyston became the brownie supplier to Ben & Jerry’s. Its fudgy brownies can also be found in the company’s popular Half-Baked flavor. Recently, Greyston expanded into Whole Foods Markets. At the Ridge Hill location, it has pride of place at the checkout counter as well as its own space on the shelves. The factory reportedly churns out around 35,000 pounds of the rich and creamy brownies a day.

That growth was a result not only of Glassman’s business acumen but of his Buddhist spiritualism.

He began holding “street retreats” in order to witness, first-hand, the suffering and lack of dignity experienced by the homeless community. During the ’80s and ’90s, Glassman would often live for a week at a time with the homeless on the streets of Yonkers. This allowed him to bear witness to the barriers the community faced. The act of “bearing witness’ is a main tenet of the Buddhism he practiced. 

Glassman soon realized that creating jobs wasn’t enough. He needed to help remove the many obstacles to success he had observed in the community. Profits from the bakery sparked creation of The Greyston Foundation, sometimes called the Greyston Mandala, which grew to be a sustainable network of for-profits and nonprofits that address supportive needs such as jobs, housing, community gardens, quality child care and medical assistance.   

Glassman believed in the interconnectivity of everything; that combating suffering and insecurity affects the well being of society as a whole. The Greyston Foundation continues to do just that, a few blocks away from the Yonkers bakery. 

Glassman came from what he called a Jewish/socialist family in Brooklyn and credited those beginnings for his activist spirit. But his verve and willingness to fight were never at odds with his more introspective, contemplative side. 

Though he began his career working as an aerospace engineer, he was eventually drawn to Buddhism as a life’s mission. He went on to become a pioneer in the American Zen movement and a social and spiritual visionary. 

Glassman started teaching Zen in 1967, eventually becoming one of the dharma heirs of Taizan Maezumi Roshi, a Japanese Zen Buddhist teacher and lineage holder in several Zen traditions. Upon Maezumi’s death, Glassman was given charge of his worldwide sangha (Buddhist community).

In 1980, Glassman started the Zen Community of New York in Riverdale, where he sought further to integrate his spiritual training with his innate drive for social activism. It is a blended approach often labeled Engaged Buddhism. The bakery and foundation were born from that effort.

Once Greyston reached an operational mode that satisfied Glassman, he moved on to co-found the Zen Peacemaker Order, an interreligious Buddhist association that holds activism as another guiding principle. He continued his bearing witness retreats, taking practitioners to sites of tragedies, including the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau.

Glassman wrote several books but gained prominence in 2013 with “The Dude and The Zen Master, “an edited transcript of a four-day conversation that took place between Glassman and actor Jeff Bridges about the Zen-like attitude of Bridge’s character in the cult classic film “The Big Lebowski.”

Thanks to Glassman’s legacy, and under the leadership of CEO Mike Brady, Greyston continues to create roads forward for its employees. It has initiated an effort to work with companies that may not yet have adopted the open hiring model but have agreed to hire veterans from Greyston. It’s an effort that continues to send Greyston veterans up the ladder of success and makes room for others to come through.

As Brady said in a tribute to Glassman, “Bernie’s unwavering belief in the potential of all people had the ability to remove bias in organizations around the world.”

Thanks to Glassman, for those organizations and for the workers who come through Greyston, success never tasted so sweet.

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