An Interview with Jen Brothers, CoFounder of House of Bread

What is House of Bread?                                                                                                 House of Bread is a non-profit providing job skills training and mentoring to formerly incarcerated women through baking and selling bread. In addition to learning basic kitchen skills, the women in the program receive ServSafe food handler training, develop marketing and customer service skills, and partner one-on-one with mentors in the community who shepherd them through a job search and resume-building process. The students attend weekly classes, interface with the public through selling bread, work with their mentors, and receive an educational stipend. Each session culminates with the ServSafe certification exam, a mock interview clinic staffed by local business professionals, and a graduation ceremony.  

The non-profit was formed in January of 2017 and launched its first session in September 2017. All baking occurs in a community kitchen. House of Bread will open a community center in September of 2018, where additional group programming and community meals will allow graduates, volunteers, and community members the opportunity to meet on an ongoing basis.

Framing the problem in a way you can have impact is key. What is the problem you’re trying to solve? While our initial aim was to reduce recidivism rates through providing job skills training and mentoring to formerly incarcerated women, it quickly became clear to me that narrowing the relational gap between women who’ve been incarcerated and those haven’t in our community is our core purpose. We won’t have a system that works for all of us with the gap as wide as it is right now. When women come out of incarceration, the only relationships they have are the relationships they had before they went in and now they’ve got a record.  That record is a significant barrier to where they can live, their employment opportunities, their parental rights.  

They have all these barriers and we—those of us who’ve not experienced incarceration—keep those barriers in place because we don’t know each other. We fear each other. Yet when you get to know these women, they are generous and kind. They aren’t scary. They want to live better lives, yet they don’t think this is possible. And in many ways this is true as long as we maintain the status quo. We need to change our minds so they can change theirs. And when we get to know them, we want to do just that. We can help break down barriers so they have room to build new lives. 

Clarity of purpose drives design and decision-making. What core purpose has served as a compass to you? How did it influence your design? As I was trying to figure out design and aims of the program, I spoke with a formerly incarcerated woman who said, “I need people like to you to show you’re not ashamed to be seen with people like me.” Everything crystallized for me in that moment.  I thought: that’s so doable. We’re not a rehab facility.  I can’t do that. But I can be with you and introduce you to other women who will be unashamed to be with you. And together we can figure out how to connect you with the resources you need. We can do for you what we would do for our friends, our family, our children—if they were in need. That’s how we’re going to start to address this challenge.

That clarity drove all sorts of other decisions: everything we do pairs a student with a volunteer and students interact with multiple volunteers at various points throughout the program. Our students bake with volunteers. We sell at bread stands rather than in stores so that we can stand with these women as they talk with the community about the bread they bake.  The mentoring program is all about 1:1 meetings with mentors who help them prepare for a job and build a resume. The mock interview skills clinic brings business owners into the process, the very people they think won’t give them a chance. We’re trying to take the fear out of these daunting tasks by giving them partners to work with along the way. And the partners are transformed through the process. One business owner shared his surprise at how low our students’ self-esteem was. He was shocked at their lack of ability to promote themselves, and I thought,  ‘Exactly. That’s what I want you to see and realize.’ The shame they carry is a heavy blanket. They have a lot of work to do, and we can help lift some of that shame.

Relationships are the currency of leadership. How have you seen this play out in your work? The problem of poverty isn’t a lack of resources. It’s a lack of relationships with people who can help you find a way out of what looks like a dead end. So many of the privileges I’ve experienced are because of my relationships. People who either wanted the best for me, believed the best in me, or were willing to give me a chance and had the capacity to do so. I want the women in our program to have greater access to the privilege of relationships that will make their lives better. I also want those of us who have not experienced incarceration to be changed through our relationships with these women. They are strong. They have weathered many storms and have found a way to go on. They carry wisdom and a perspective we need to know and incorporate into our lives and into the decisions we make.

As a human being, I know what it feels like to have regrets, to feel ashamed, and to try something new. The women we work with face incredible self-imposed barriers: the shame they carry that makes them believe no one will give them a chance.  HOB creates a pathway for those of us on the outside to give them that chance. This project is as simple as coming alongside women who are carrying shame and guilt and saying, ‘You don’t need to carry that anymore.  I’m willing to believe the best in you and to introduce you to other people who can help you find a new path’.

​Meeting people where they are is a core tenet of working adaptively.   How have you used that concept?  A lot of the tenets of adaptive leadership line up with pieces of the faith I carry. Working adaptively is a big ask. It’s a countercultural model, but I think people of faith already have some countercultural underpinnings.  When you pair that countercultural practice with the theory, the possibilities that emerge are tremendous. If your bigger purpose taps into your faith identity, or however you make sense of your life, you have more reason and are better able to access your own capacity in a more powerful way. I know that religion has been used to shame people. This is a way to remind people of what we as people of faith can do: to pull people close who are in need. 

Adaptive thinking requires people to question their own assumptions.   What assumptions have you had to question along the way? So many of our attempts to deal with social issues involve developing institutions.  We identify a group of people responsible for providing services to those in need, which lets all the rest of us off the hook.  The community doesn’t feel responsible for the problem and yet we are the ones with the capacity for making social change.

House of Bread isn’t an institution. We’re a container for relationship-building and training for the sake of helping women carve out a more healthy, successful, and free life. What makes us different is the intimacy at the center of our approach. We’re all touching the problem; we’ve all got our fingers on the problem. What I’ve found is that tons of people care about this problem—so many more than I would have guessed.  Before starting this project, I had two pieces of data: 1) I knew no one working with previously incarcerated people; and 2) I was told that we wouldn’t be able to get the volunteers we needed to work with this population. 

Yet, we have more volunteers than we know what to do with. We have funding. People line up to buy our products. People are very interested in what we are doing and want to be involved. We actually have everything we need to solve the problem.  And what’s remarkable is we have had all of these resources all along. What we didn’t have was the relational bridge. All it took was a few people willing to cross that bridge first for everyone else to follow.

The work of leadership has nothing to do with titles and expertise. Of all the people on the planet, why you?  Because the idea found me. I’m not an expert in drug rehab. I have no prior experience working with incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people. But I was trying to figure out how to activate myself and my faith community to meaningfully address an adaptive challenge. I heard about this group in Northern Virginia providing job skills training to women through baking, and I thought, we can do that here, but we will do it in a slightly different way. We will activate a community, and I knew I couldn’t do that on my own. I wasn’t going to start until I knew I had partners with significant investment to make this happen. Partners who said, I want to take this piece, and I want to take that one; and when they said this, there was a fire in their eyes. Once I found those partners, I knew we were ready to start.

Kansas Leadership Center believes, “Leadership begins with you and must engage others.” How did you work to engage others? The idea took root in my imagination as I realized baking and bread is a symbol my faith community knows well. As I started to talk to people about it, they became excited and they started to talk to others about it. That’s when I realized people’s attention and emotions were engaged in a way I hadn’t seen before. 

The thing about engaging others is that once they are engaged, you need to make room for them to add their imprint You need to be able to change your mind. I had the blueprint and I knew what I wasn’t willing to give up when it came to programming, but everything else was negotiable. Some of our best structural decisions did not come from me; they came from my partners. And sometimes those ideas required me to renegotiate a loyalty, or take a courageous step I didn’t feel ready to take. And when we experienced conflict, I had to hold clear to my core purpose. This project isn’t about me, and I cannot use it for the sake of building my ego. Getting clear on that distinction makes it so much easier to make room for other perspectives, other ideas.

Change is incremental in time and monumental over time. How do you assess impact on a daunting adaptive challenge? I am often asked how we measure our success. It’s overwhelming for me to assure that everyone gets a job and turns her life around. We want all the women to get a job. We do everything we can to make this a reality. Obviously, that’s not going to happen for everyone. And yet, if each student has an experience of interacting with volunteers, regular everyday people who believe the best in them and don’t see them through the lens of what they’ve done, I know we can at least offer that: a different experience from what they’ve had so far. And I believe that if we keep at this, eventually we will make progress on this adaptive challenge. Our community will look different as our hearts and minds are moved through the relationships we build.

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