It was the third time she came to visit me in my office. At 5:30pm, I could see her smiling face through the window in my office door.
“Are you busy?” she asked in heavily accented English.
Although I was, I surprised myself with: “Not really, come on in.”
Amina* had been coming to me intermittently for the last few weeks to ask for advice on her job search and even for help applying to a position. Despite the fact that she was applying to wash laundry at a hotel, I was stunned by her credentials and her tenacity. Sitting at the computer, going through the endless application questionnaire, I learned that she was very entrepreneurial. Already, in the decade she has been here, she had begun two businesses: a coffee shop and a food shop. I shuddered at the prospect of owning my own business – and navigating American culture and its lumbering and inefficient systems of bureaucracy are almost innate to me.
Amina, like so many other East African refugees, can speak enough English to get by, but is at a middle school level of reading and writing skills. Hardly knowing how to use a keyboard, Word, email, or Google, she is ‘pre-literate’ in computer skills. She is like many of the refugees who come to East African Community Service seeking help with a job application. Often what that help looks like is an employee creating a resume, translating every question, navigating to the online application page, creating an account, and filling out one or more lengthy applications.
I am not the only person to take some time out of my work day to help a person apply to a job: everyone, including the Executive Director, has helped a few people with job searches. Noticing this time-consuming trend, I started telling people I would put together an application workshop. I put together the initial plans: I would recruit volunteer translators from the community, as well as a few volunteers skilled in internet navigation and Microsoft Word. Excited about my idea, I brought it up to the Executive Director. He looked at me thoughtfully, and said “if that’s what you want to do, you can do it.”
Encouraged, I brought the idea up to a co-worker, and saw my plans come to a screeching halt. She acknowledged the community need, but cautioned me that I was opening Pandora’s Box. It boiled down to the fact that, if I were to host a resume workshop, I would suddenly have to accommodate an enormous onslaught of jobseekers. I was told that news would spread so quickly, and I would become “The Job Person.”
And I know it’s true. East African Community Services is located in the community center of a government-subsidized community housing complex. Everyone is here because they need a job, or at least a steadier job. As a small community based organization with employees who are already stretched thin, we cannot support a program with such high demand. At least, not yet.
I am not giving up my hope to start an employment program. I will be bringing it up to the board at the strategic planning workshop, I will be keeping an eye out for funding opportunities, I will be exploring creating an internship opportunity so as not be the sole manager, and I will be calling similar ethnic organizations to explore best practices for an employment program in the Rainier Valley.
The moral of the story is that, in between organizational capacity and community need, there is always a gap. It’s hard to know my exact role within that gap – and I think I will have a long career trying to find out just that.