Dameion King, program graduate + Hard Skills Development Specialist at Rubicon Programs in Richmond

Lunch with Leaders: Rubicon Programs

A quick bite with Jane Fischberg + Rob Hope

Every month, we invite an inspiring leader or two from our grantee portfolio to join us in the Tipping Point Cafe. Our “Lunch with Leaders” series is an opportunity for our team to hear directly from those on the ground in the fight against poverty, what they’re most excited about, and what keeps them hungry to do more.

After 40 years of preparing low-income East Bay residents for employment, Rubicon Programs, led by Jane Fischberg, President + CEO, and Rob Hope, Chief Program Officer, came to an inflection point. While Rubicon places over 650 individuals in jobs per year, the organization was painfully aware that rates of poverty have not changed much since Rubicon’s founding, and in fact, the gap between people who have the most resources and those with the fewest, has multiplied. Jane and Rob spoke candidly about Rubicon’s self-examination process and aspects of the new Rubicon program model designed to reverse this tragic trend.

Q: You’ve made incredible strides within the East Bay community. Why are you reevaluating how you define success? Do you think you can impact more people?

A: What we see now is that people will come to us homeless and unemployed and we help them get a job and a roof over their head, but a year or two later, they come back without that job or home. Or, their kids come back through the door, asking for the same support we offered their parents. We’re focused on pushing the narrative in the field beyond this idea that a job is enough for somebody to get out of poverty. We have to start unpacking what somebody needs after he/she secures a job that will enable them not just to be okay for a while, but to actually make sustainable movement forward.

Additionally, about 80% of our funding is from public sources and some of those sources are fairly prescriptive, meaning we need to follow certain stipulations on who and how we serve. That can impact the kind of services each of our locations offer. We wanted to get away from looking different in different places (serving the reentry population in Richmond, for example, and those who are homeless in Berkeley), so that we can serve anyone who walks through the door and meets our target demographic. We wanted to be more unified.

Q: What did you decide to do and what will it take to achieve this vision?

A: We opted to divest $3M worth of our work with people who experience severe and persistent mental illness and concentrate our efforts on those seeking economic empowerment. Of course the former population will still need support, but there are other able organizations providing those services.

In our work, we like to talk about holding on to a “beginner’s mindset,” — a mind that is always willing to learn and think about approaching challenges in new ways. So, I think a lot of it is just shifting the mindset around how long it takes for people to really overcome such deeply entrenched barriers and experiment with how you can support them once they’ve secured a job. We need to start with the assumption that somebody is going to need support and tools for three years at a minimum to get out of poverty. If that’s the case, how do we help our programs build capacity to work with people for three years? How do we figure out what those services should look like after somebody gets a job? This is where our metrics come in.

Q: What kind of metrics will improve services?

A: We aspire to go beyond what has been common practice in the workforce development field for decades, where success is defined as job placement, starting wages, and retention. Rubicon believes that achievement across all four areas of income, assets, positive connections and wellness will equip our participants to break the cycle of poverty. While there are many effective programs for children and youth, far fewer exist to provide culturally responsive economic mobility services to adults.

We target people 25–45 years old earning less than 30% of local median income ($19,650 annually). Many face incarceration, homelessness, addiction, trauma, and mild to moderate mental illness. We measure achievement through these long-term objectives:

  • 1 year of earnings meeting the regional self-sufficiency standard
  • An emergency reserve fund equal to at least 1 month’s budgeted expenses
  • Health insurance and at least 1 annual primary care visit
  • Leadership in family and community through service and civic participation

An individualistic, “bootstraps” narrative has dominated anti-poverty policies and programs in America for generations. Independence, in this context, typically refers not to self-determination, but to self-reliance. In other words, you are not successful unless and until you can stand on your own, with no help from those around you. This notion is pure fiction. There is not a person in our country who has achieved financial stability or wealth without the benefit of social connections.

Q: How do you ensure you’re meeting the needs of the community?

A: Unfortunately in our field, organizations tend to tell people what is wrong with them and what to do to “get better.” We don’t take that approach. Instead, we enter the conversation trying to better understand what the person is really going through, what they value, how their relationships and networks operate, and what sort of cultural considerations are important. This helps inform how we structure our programs. We also prioritize getting a lot of input from our participants, and our whole staff, which comes from diverse and varied backgrounds, including those whose lives resemble our participants.

Graduates from Rubicon’s Stepping Stone celebration, March 2016

Q: How has Tipping Point played a role in Rubicon’s evolution and how can we get better at serving you?

A: For so many reasons, we wouldn’t be where we are in our journey without Tipping Point. Because you know us so well and have been supporting us for so long, you’ve encouraged us to think deeply about how to move the needle on ending poverty. We get funding from all kinds of foundations and government agencies and the reality is that, as an industry, we are stuck in a one-year cycle. The vast majority of funders measure outcomes and fund programs annually. It becomes this sort of self-perpetuating thing where programs like ours then optimize to provide services that will yield the best outcomes at the end of one year so that come grant renewal time, we get more. With Tipping Point, it feels like a great opportunity to break outside the yearly box and start tracking people who go through our programs not only in what they accomplished in the first year, but what happens to our graduates five years out and beyond.

Visit Rubicon’s website to learn more about its approach and success.

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