Inside The Working Centre: toward understanding

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Sometimes I take very few photos so that I can listen better. And sometimes I need to ponder at some length what I have heard and experienced. This story emerges from a confluence of those conditions.

Here’s the preface: There is a lot of enthusiasm in WR for our growing prosperity, particularly in the tech domain. Arguably, that corner of our ecosystem paid for a good deal of the house in which I live and for that I am grateful. Regular readers know I’m very much a tech native and this post takes nothing away from that whole engine of economic development, nor from the joys of making/hacking/exploring within that delightful playground. In my travels over the past seven years, deeper into corners of this community, I’ve made three observations and one hypothesis. O#1: The need here is far greater than I imagined. O#2: A lot of people exist well outside the tech sector. O#3: I don’ t know jack about real need. H#1: For us to be whole, we must rise together as a community. So I set out to further educate myself and sort out how I might help make things better.

In mid-July, I spent four days with folks from The Working Centre for the first iteration of their Summer Institute. If you’re not familiar with The Working Centre, they are a 33-year old organization rooted in downtown Kitchener providing services, job skills/connections, affordable housing and more to our in-need community members. They are, in my experience, the most effective street-level player in this domain, bar none. They also share many aspects of my own personal ethos around the maker movement including self-determination, supporting skill-development and creatively applying minimal resources for a common good.

The Summer Institute consisted of a series of discussions and site visits through which I gained a more comprehensive understanding of what The Working Centre is and why it does what it does. The where’s and how’s were interesting, but best of all for me was the who. Sessions and tours were led by Stephanie Mancini, Rebecca Mancini and Joe Mancini as well as Heather Montgomery. Full-timers Kayli, Nathan, Leanne and Connie spent most of the time with us. Martin joined in on the weekend. The class consisted of local people as well as some from other cities/provinces.

I became increasingly aware of The Working Centre over the past several years through several of their places/projects. The Queen Street Commons Café, shown above in an after-hours moment of rare quiet, is one of those places I frequent for great food, coffee, meetings and events.

Like all TWC (apologies for the acronym) places and programs, the Café serves a variety of purposes, none of which is maximizing profit. Ideally it sustains itself financially so that it can serve the social mission of the organization. It is a community gathering point where you can get warm, cool or dry depending on your needs. It is steered by Kayli and Amy and other full-time staff along with the help of many volunteers. For some volunteers it may be their first job, a place to learn employable skills. It may be a place to practise English if you’re new to the community. It is definitely a place to belong. The Café hosts movie nights on Fridays and sells handmade goods and fair-trade coffee. A plant-based menu is cooked up in Maurita’s Kitchen (another TWC instance) across the street and shuttled by foot to the Café all year long. Meal prices are set low to welcome all, regardless of income. While you wait for your coffee, you are as likely to see tech worker as you are to see someone carrying all their worldly possessions in a backpack. I’ve seen property developers, artists, activists, city staff and some of my favourite photographers there.

The simplest TL;DR is: go buy a coffee there and see what’s cookin’. The second thing you should know is that there is a lot more to The Working Centre than meets the eye. In four days, I felt like we had just scratched the surface. But start with the coffee.

Click through for a few more thoughts and a very modest number of photos…

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A challenge in writing this is that there is so much to tell. I’m unlikely to get it all in here, but let’s start by just listing the TWC-related places we visited in addition to the Café:
The Job Resource Centre
Maurita’s Kitchen
Computer Recycling
The Commons Studio
Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support
St John’s Kitchen
Worth A Second Look
Hospitality House
Community Dental Clinic
Recycle Cycles
The Green Door
Fresh Ground (aka 256 King East)
Hacienda Sarria Market Garden

We covered a lot of ground. At many of these sites, we heard from full-time staff who “hold the relationships” necessary to provide continuity amid the massive volunteer effort. It’s less a sense of they’re-the-boss and more like they connect volunteers with opportunities.

The number of programs and places (and this is a non-exhaustive list) made it challenging for me to wrap my head around what The Working Centre was or did. What underpins the whole thing is a desire to get people the help, support and resources they need to be self-sustaining. If you really want to learn more, you can go to their web site, or better yet read the book that Joe and Stephanie Mancini (quite literally) wrote called “Transition to Common Work: Building Community at The Working Centre”. It’s $20 well spent. Better still would be for you yourself to attend The Summer Institute. If you’re coming from a tech/biz/startup background of MVP’s, seed rounds, IPO’s, and more-is-the-goal, then this will seriously stretch your brain.

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Decision making at The Working Centre is steered by what they call the six virtues. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by listing them because they’re all on the cover of the book. They are:
Work as Gift
Living Simply
Serving Others
Rejecting Status
Building Community
Creating Community Tools

Going through discussions and seeing real-world examples of these put into practice is where things started to click in my head. “Oh… Oooooohhhhh.” You really need to come at this with an open mind. I myself come equipped from early childhood with a fairly well-established capitalistic bent. Kool-Aid stand to paper route to gas station jockey. That is tempered somewhat by my formative years growing up in a small village where tacit communal obligations were flashed in our firmware. Youthful protests of “But, why?” were often answered “Because it’s the right thing to do.” Nevertheless, I tripped over my bias several times daily through the Summer Institute.

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I came in aware that all full-time employees who have been with TWC for a few years are, roughly speaking, all paid the same. Yeah, that’s everyone, including the founders. Think about that for a second. I’ve worked in companies where the CEO was paid more than 150 times the salary of the lowest paid worker. I reckon there’s a tectonic shift in organizational dynamics when you remove salary as a differentiator. You can read Joe’s thoughts on salary here and see the pay grid here. If I’ve done the math correctly, top salaries are south of $40k.

Now, why start with money? Well, I’ve understood organizations large and small with that Watergate-era adage: “follow the money”. Doing so in this case revealed a fundamental approach they call “walking with”, which is to say that staying closer to the means of the people they serve forms an empathic cornerstone of understanding and credibility in the community. It is directly tied to the virtues of living simply and serving others. This is so strikingly contrasted for me with the more familiar world of salary negotiations, performance appraisals and the notion of a remunerative meritocracy. I’m still integrating this all in my head, not sure if I could personally roll like this, but what I’m saying is: look, this is a thing, an alternative.

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Oh, the latter photos here are from my last day at the Summer Institute, spent in the Hacienda Sarria Market Garden tended by The Working Centre. There’s Joe and Bob, Heather and Margaret strolling the paths before we started. TWC runs a program called Community Supported Agriculture which grows and sells food locally out of this garden. My family joined this year for a small weekly basket. It’s instructive to see whence your food comes. First time I ever tried chard.

The Market Garden, like all programs and places of The Working Centre, serves multiple purposes. It’s a place to learn skills, to be productive, to volunteer and to belong.

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It is at this point, 1426 words in, that I start to worry that I have been presumptuous to offer this much on that about which I know so little. You might fairly observe that the greater concern is my explicit self-aware musings in the tradition of David Foster Wallace. In the interests of relative brevity, I’ll leave the bulk of the points from my notes for conversation over beer. The goal of this post is, after all, to pique your interest in The Working Centre and have *you* do your own exploration.

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The thing I found most profound in my Summer Institute learning was the focus on people. I’m not saying that right, because it is a cliché. Instead I’ll say: the genuine goal of understanding and appreciating people, their needs and their aspirations, their ability to contribute, all while according a sense of dignity. There is a great integrity there in the even application of this understanding across staff, volunteers and the people they serve. Early on in the four days, Stephanie and Rebecca joked with us that their approach could be called “nauseatingly intentional”, meaning that much discussion happens internally, considering all implications and repercussions before changes are undertaken at The Working Centre. I know from experience that reconciling an internal consistency in an organization is extremely difficult. It is also very powerful.

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I found The Working Centre to be highly adaptive in their approach to helping people. This resonates with my own guerrilla sensibilities. To be effective, they must be flexible and creative. Part of their mandate is connecting the people they serve (they don’t say “clients”) with various governmental service providers. Those providers are often single-focused: health care, legal, housing, financial support, translation services, etc. A difficulty for those in need is that the assistance of a dozen service providers sometimes adds up to *less* than the sum of the parts. The Working Centre looks at the *person* in need and tries to figure out the best holistic way to help. Sometimes that means helping someone get a health card or showing them how to use the bus system. Maybe they need a reminder about a court date or a doctor’s appointment. Maybe they need a blanket. It seems likely that any particular individual needs help on a variety of fronts because circumstances can be complicated and effective solutions are correspondingly multi-faceted too.

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Stephanie (there she is over there under the roof), talked at length about the importance of building personal relationships with service providers, donors, vendors, employers, and pretty much anyone who can help The Working Centre help people. To get the best outcomes we all need to trust each other and that trust is helped along greatly by knowing people directly. That makes so much sense to me.

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Now I’ll circle back to my original goal: to figure out how I might help The Working Centre. Hopefully a few people learned something new from this post. Ideally, some of you are now curious enough to do your own exploration.

Thanks to Stephanie, Joe, Rebecca, Heather, Nathan, Kayli, Connie, Leanne, Bob, Margaret, Martin, Fatah, Kawthar, Caleb, Joe, Sarah, Ashley, Don, Brian, Tanya and all the other people I met on this field trip.

This is Waterloo Region.


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One Response to Inside The Working Centre: toward understanding

  1. CHAR says:

    DW, this was delightfully written. I took away lots of nuggets and I am thinking hard of “help mechanisms” that I can intersect with.
    Thanks you!

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