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Renita White

Of Color Inc. — Chicago, Illinois

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Photo by Stephen Voss

​We provide one-stop-shop services for people in Chicago who need help finding stable jobs and housing so they can thrive. Our trauma-informed counseling and employment readiness training set them up for success, as do our connections with companies and housing opportunities. Since we started in 2020, we’ve served about 350 clients a year, most of whom are now in good-paying jobs and permanent homes.​​

The problem I’m trying to solve

​​Over the decades, Chicago’s South Side, where I grew up, and many other city neighborhoods have been severely disinvested by government and business. Today, close to 50 percent of residents in some areas are not in the labor force, while many who do work receive wages that keep them below the poverty line. ​​Even when services are available for housing or employment, residents often don’t know how to access them. Job stability is also a problem because people haven’t been taught skills like showing up on time or negotiating conflict with coworkers. Our research revealed that more than half our target population has lost employment at some point due to these issues.

The moment that sparked my passion

​​I learned to value community service from my grandparents and parents, when I saw them letting unemployed patrons run tabs in the family grocery store even though they knew they’d likely never see the money. I spent my entire career in nonprofits, helping large agencies expand their offerings. But I always felt these agencies could be doing more, and as an executive, I was removed from the people we were serving. ​​As I drove to work, I’d pass long lines of Chicagoans outside food pantries and job centers, even in the bitter cold and snow. I knew I could use my skills to help these people more directly.

What I wish other people knew​​

Nobody wants to be unemployed or unhoused, and with assistance that meets them where they are, nobody has to be. ​​People can do great things regardless of their education or experience. Our clients are smart and eager, but they often feel lost and afraid after the system beats them down over the years. One man we recently helped was a 60-year-old veteran who’d become homeless and unemployed. Within a few months, we helped him secure a job and a home for himself and his wife. He thanked me, but I was silently thanking him, because watching people reach their potential is so rewarding.​​ The people we serve are not only Black and brown. I named my organization Of Color because that includes everyone, including white people.​​

​Why my approach is unique

​​Our staff members are all trauma-informed to be able to meet people where they are, especially our community of veterans. We also come from the community, with some staffers having the same lived experiences as our clientele.​​We teach clients the soft workplace skills that help them get and keep a job, like interviewing, handling conflicts and engaging with people who are different from them. Then we work with our 100 employer-partners or certification programs to help clients land good jobs, and our housing assistance connections for support to which they might be entitled. We are there with clients throughout the process, and even after they reach their goals. ​​Most importantly, we don’t turn away anyone who walks through our doors, even if our grant stipulations — such as for homeless young adults or for veterans — don’t qualify them. We believe that having housing and a good job is a human right. ​​

Advice to others who want to make a difference

​​Never give up on your dream. There will always be barriers, but there are also ways to get around them. For me, my mental limitation was the biggest barrier to getting started, since I had a good job and was making a lot of money. But I knew I was unhappy, so I finally believed enough in myself to take the leap.​​ And don’t be afraid of hard work. My grandparents taught me that, because even though they were proud to own a business, they had to put in tons of time and effort to making it a success.

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