Last year, Detroit-based nonprofit Empowerment Plan supplied more than 5,000 hospital isolation gowns to frontline medical workers across the city. Typically, its factory, a 21,000-square-foot facility on the east side of Detroit, produces coats that double up as sleeping bags to keep people experiencing homelessness warm through frigid winter nights. Turning the factory floor into a manufacturing facility for COVID-19 personal protection equipment was not the only pivot Empowerment Plan made. The organization switched to virtual programming to provide uninterrupted educational and support services to its workers. And even though its employees — often single parents referred from Detroit’s homeless shelters — were working in coat production only about 24 hours a week, it continued to pay them full-time hourly wages to both work and learn.
Empowerment Plan provides human services as part of its “whole family” model of employment, in which roughly 60% of the paid work week is dedicated to coat production and the rest to educational programming and supportive services. These services include: moving participants out of shelters into stable housing, increasing financial stability, paying off past driving tickets and obtaining drivers’ licenses, enrolling in GED classes, finding childcare solutions and domestic violence support. On any typical day, participants can also take classes in trauma-informed Yoga, mindfulness and meditation, and leadership training.
The Empowerment Plan’s model of employing homeless people to make the sleeping bag coats for others in need is laudable enough. But the organization’s real innovation lies in this earn-as-you-learn model. Derrick Meeking, director of workforce development and programs, describes Empowerment Plan as “a social enterprise with a human services organization inside of it.”
The organization got its start when Empowerment Plan’s founder, Veronika Scott, was still a student at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. As she presented an early prototype of the coat to a homeless woman, she got pushback: “I don’t need a coat! I need a job!.” That made a deep impression on Scott, who herself experienced homelessness in her childhood. After graduating, she founded Empowerment Plan in 2012 with the mantra: “We don’t hire people to make coats; we make coats to hire people.” Since then, the organization’s mission has organically broadened, from hiring people to supporting the whole person as part of a workforce development strategy.
“We need more such holistic solutions that address multiple barriers for individuals seeking employment,” says workforce development consultant Tanu Kumar, director, Agami Consulting. (Editor’s Note: Kumar also serves as a consultant for the Urban Manufacturing Alliance, which is an underwriter for this series.) She believes Empowerment Plan’s model is especially relevant now for cities tackling multiple crises, including pandemic recovery, climate change, and demands for racial equity.
Take Amber Hinton. She joined the program in late 2018 and, within a year, worked her way up to becoming a production support and quality assurance specialist in Empowerment Plan’s daily coat production operations. In June, she moved one step closer to her dream of becoming Dr. Amber N. Hinton. Hinton now works as a dialysis clinical technician at the Henry Ford Health System while preparing for The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).
Amber Hinton (Photo courtesy of Empowerment Plan)
Hinton had already majored in biological sciences on a pre-med track at the University of Michigan-Dearborn when she fell into homelessness. “Empowerment Plan helped me at a very rough time in my life,” she says. “They always knew that my career goal was to become a family practitioner and eventually work in my own hospital. They do everything they can to see you succeed.”
Empowerment Plan has big ambitions for all of its graduates. The organization is considering enhancing its workforce development program by giving program participants opportunities to receive industry-recognized credentials, such as Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) certification and Microsoft Office and Google Suite skills.
Empowerment Plan is planning to pilot this fellowship program with 8-10 workers, confident that it will serve as a proof of concept for a viable, scalable model, not only for itself, but for other employers.
Kumar agrees. “This type of earn-and-learn model can be implemented by multiple organizations reaching a range of communities,” she says. She points to Cincinnati-based Nehemiah Manufacturing as another example. The chemical contract manufacturer provides technical and personal skills training to its workforce that is largely made up of formerly incarcerated people or those who have struggled with drug usage. “Reaching scale will require these models to be situated within an ecosystem of support partners, including community and workforce organizations, community colleges, industry partners and local government,” she says.
The Empowerment Plan team well knows the importance of functioning in an ecosystem of like-minded organizations, tapping into the specialized skills of others. For example, My Beaten Heart provides supportive services to those who have experienced domestic violence and the Dominican Literacy Center offers interested program participants a GED program.
“We are deliberate about who we partner with,” Meeking says. “Our nonprofit partners are organizations that understand the street lingo and the lived experiences of our program participants.” The organization also has dedicated case managers who schedule monthly check-ins with program participants, in addition to making themselves available for walk-in appointments. New participants are often struggling with depression arising from homelessness. They get extra support with case managers spending at least four hours every week with them in the first three months.
Empowerment Plan sees itself as a transitional employer, paying its workers $12 an hour while building skills to help them move on to middle-income jobs and other opportunities within two years. Some graduates have found manufacturing jobs in businesses like Serta Mattress and Roush Industries. Others have moved on to service-industry jobs in companies like Rocket Mortgage and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. Other pathways include fellowships at Women Who Weld (a nonprofit that trains women for welding jobs), enrolling in college and even starting small businesses.
No one who has worked at Empowerment Plan has ever fallen back into homelessness. In a labor market disrupted by the pandemic, Empowerment Plan’s employment model, which helps individuals achieve financial stability and support for their whole family, offers useful lessons. A coat can save a life, but the coats made at Empowerment Plan are transforming lives.
This article is part of “Centering Equity in Urban Manufacturing,” a collection of stories about the intersection of racial equity, manufacturing and community development as these issues relate to capital access, workforce development, land use and cultivating healthy manufacturing ecosystems. This journalism is produced with support from the Urban Manufacturing Alliance, which has released a report of policy recommendations entitled “Centering Federal Industrial Policy in Racial Justice and Community Development.” You can find the webinar we produced for this series here.
Deepali Srivastava is a writer and editor whose articles on economic and environmental issues have appeared in Forbes Asia, MSNBC.com, and strategy-business.com. As founder and president of Script the Future, she also provides editorial services to organizations.