‘PathWay’ to opportunity

Joe Kenner greets me at the door of the Greyston Foundation’s Yonkers HQ like a hotel manager welcoming back an especially valued guest, or a pastor receiving a long-absent, esteemed parishioner. Truth is, I’ve never met the guy before, but that doesn’t supress Joe’s innate enthusiasm.

I’m barely inside the door before he ushers me into a conference room — a classroom by any other name, reconfigured for Covid with fewer desks and Perspex screens between them — to talk me through Greyston’s PathMaking training programs, its pioneering Open Hiring policy and, well, the whole Greyston story, actually.

Founded by Zen master Bernie Glassman in 1982, Greyston is a social justice enterprise that supports the disenfranchised and those who ordinarily face rejection, by teaching various job skills and offering real job opportunities. And in addressing poverty head-on, Greyston benefits individual lives and communities. No background checks are made; no questions are asked. “If you want to work, we’ll train you,” says Joe, intoning it almost like a mantra.

Greyston offers employment and no-cost development programs entirely free of charge to anyone in need, which means battling against systemic inequities and advocating for a level playing field for all, regardless of their pasts. At the Greyston Bakery, the original core concern, a workforce of around 65 people produces 40,000 pounds of baked goods every day, for companies like Whole Foods and Ben & Jerry’s, giving a whole new meaning to the expression “flour power.”

Back in the conference classroom, an associate spies Joe and rushes over to show him examples of the new certificates, hot off the press, which will be awarded to program graduates. These certificates, or “proclamations,” are beautifully designed, but their worth is far greater than their swirls and curlicues, representing as they do a genuine, nationally recognized qualification — and therefore a passport to a job. “For a lot of people,” says Joe, “this is the first time in their life that someone has really celebrated them.”

PathMaking courses usually run two weeks. As long as you will commit to attending from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Mondays through Fridays, explains Joe, then anyone can join, regardless of age or circumstances. And, if after starting, participants find they can’t continue, for whatever reason, then that’s not a problem. “We don’t judge you on the way in and we don’t judge you on the way out,” he elaborates. “Just come back and start again when you’re ready.”

But stay the short course — security guard training, say, or building and construction trades safety, or certification from the National Retail Federation — and your chances of walking out of Greyston and into job will soar. Everything comes with a credential that graduates can take anywhere. “Just give somebody an opportunity. That’s all they need,” Joe reiterates.

Certificates duly admired, we move to the back of the large foyer and sit down to continue talking. Joe, sunny and smiling behind his Greyston-branded mask I sense, looks youthful and spiffy in a navy suit and a pale-blue and white candy-striped shirt. He first came to the nonprofit sector after 15 years on Wall Street, working with names like Chubb Insurance, Lehman Brothers and PepsiCo, serving out his time in corporate America. Then he bailed, acutely aware of the need to “give back.” He was appointed deputy commissioner, Department of Social Services for Westchester County in 2014, before coming to Greyston, in 2018, as vice president of programs and partnerships. Then, eight months ago, he slipped into the CEO’s shoes. Born in Sleepy Hollow (“North Tarrytown, as we called it then,”) now living in Port Chester (where he is a former trustee and deputy mayor of the village,) Kenner is a graduate of Williams College, of the University of Oxford and of Pace University. He is a practicing Christian. All of which serves him in his role at the helm of Greyston.

What’s next for the organization? “My goal is to see Open Hiring replicated wherever we can. We just need to continue to tell the story but tell the story with compelling data.” (Open Hiring, capitalized, and as promulgated by Greyston, is a registered trade name.) A regional hub, in Rochester, New York, is already offering Open Hiring through CleanCraft, a cleaning company owned by Greyston board member, Ty Hookway, and other companies and major businesses in Vermont, Pennsylvania and California have joined the march. The Body Shop, whose American headquarters is in North Carolina, has extended opportunities to 500 people, implementing Open Hiring in its retail stores across the U.S.A. and Canada this season. As a result, productivity “has gone through the roof.”

And it’s not just national, but international. “We work with a foundation called “Start” in the Netherlands, who are taking a similar approach to us,” Joe says, adding that “13 different companies in Amsterdam are doing Open Hiring as we speak, ranging from manufacturers to bakers.”

Wherever Open Hiring is practised, local nonprofits are needed to provide all of the necessary  support services. These, it quickly becomes clear, are key, because you can’t begin to train and employ people without addressing all sorts of wider issues, such as housing, health, childcare, drug dependency, parole — all of the challenges, whatever they might be, that could prevent a willing applicant or employee from showing up for work. In Yonkers, Joe says, the Westchester Jewish Community Services organization (WJCS) has proved a terrific nonprofit support partner.

As for the compelling data, “we’re unlocking a lot of economic potential.” His mission is to prove that Open Hiring means higher profitability and massive savings in public assistance money (emergency housing, hunger alleviation, correctional costs and the like,) while the income that’s generated will at some point be taxable. This all contributes to a healthy economy, a total win-win situation for the employer, the state, the community and most important, the individual.

“It works. We know it works,” Joe adds, “because Greyston has been doing it for 40 years.” And with that the interview is over, though not, I hope, my association with this compassionate, forward-thinking and ever so gracious Greyston CEO.

 

A VIRTUAL FEAST

Best-selling author, founder of The Chef Jeff Project Relaunch, and someone who embodies Greyston’s mission, Las Vegas celebrity chef Jeff Henderson is hosting a virtual holiday cooking demonstration to benefit Greyston’s PathMaking programs. You’re invited to tune in on Nov. 16 at 7 p.m. when Chef Jeff will introduce you to his family’s traditional cornbread dressing as well as a delicious dessert featuring Greyston brownies and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream — two treats that are even better together. He’ll also share his thoughts on eating well, giving thanks, and supporting Greyston’s tireless efforts to build a more inclusive economy, one person and one job at a time.

For more, visit greyston.org. To shop Greyston Bakery’s amazing brownies online, visit greystonbakery.com.

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