The importance of Work to our identity

How often do you hear this? “Hi! So, what do you do?”  That is the question we are often asked at parties, by neighbors, or on forms.  What we do defines us in society.  It gives us a foothold.  Absent that foothold, who are we? 

In Trieste, I witnessed the commitment made to facilitate opportunities that would contribute to a person’s pursuit of meaning.  I was told, “people have a right to wake up in the morning and have a sense of purpose about their day.”  But — of course!   However, we don’t do a very good job in the U.S. of making this happen.

As we dream about what might be possible to change in Los Angeles, I’ve been trying to school myself on the world of work – supported employment, life skills training,  vocational preparation and the like.  The pilot we are envisioning for Hollywood incorporates  a commitment to creating work opportunities for people living with mental illness.    I was daydreaming with Dave Pilon, our intrepid consultant who drafted the MHSOAC Innovations proposal,  and I told him about a place I remember from the early 90’s, Corporate Cookie.

Corporate Cookie was known for cookies that incorporated multiple ingredients. Paul Barry was so devoted he took a job at Mrs. Field’s Cookies to learn the ins and outs of the cookie business to prepare for the launch of Corporate Cookie.

“When I was working at the California Association of Realtors, there was this store on Wilshire Boulevard,” I told him.  “It was called Corporate Cookie and we would go there after lunch and get a cookie and a coffee.  When we’d have a staff meeting, we’d pick up a dozen cookies.  They were amazing.”  But I also told him that we knew, intuitively, that something was different about Corporate Cookie.  Sometimes the service could be a bit slow, or the behaviors a bit eccentric – but the quality kept the business humming.

It wasn’t until about a year after it opened, that I saw an article in the LA Times that discussed the Corporate Cookie model.  The workers were people living with mental illness and this was a grand experiment succeeding at 3111 Wilshire Boulevard.

When Dave Pilon told me that he knew one of the originators of Corporate Cookie, I was thrilled!  Could we consider bringing this back to Hollywood?

So earlier this month, we set up a lunch.  I invited along two of my Hollywood colleagues from The Center in Hollywood, Rudy Salinas and Devin Blake.  We met for lunch with Paul Barry who drove up from Long Beach and regaled us the story of how Corporate Cookie was born almost 30 years ago. 

In the space of this blog, I want to capture some of what Paul shared about the philosophy of putting people to work.  So here are four truths shared by Paul for consideration when we implement work opportunities in Hollywood in our pilot.

FIRST, Work gives people an opportunity to practice a life not defined by their illness.  As Paul would describe it, when he would meet with potential hires, he would tell them that there were three things he was going to do for them: 

  1. Pay them for the hours they worked
  2. Give them a monthly evaluation so they could learn and improve
  3. Provide authentic work experience (no fake work)

In return, there were three things he expected of them:

  1. Show up on time, clean and groomed, whether they feel like working or not
  2. Do what your boss tells you to do
  3. Leave your illness at the door

As Paul recollects, when they did the hand-shake, indicating agreement to these expectations, “there emerged a non-disabled mutual respect.”    As he describes it, “they knew I was hiring them because I needed them, not because they had a mental illness.” 

SECOND, Making a profit is not the goal.  In the case of Corporate Cookie, the responsible agency, Portals, had a grant from the Department of Mental Health and Vocational Rehabilitation.  Without this grant, Portals would not have been able to expend the capital to find the space and implement the requisite tenant improvements to make it attractive and appealing to customers (which it was).  They had to compete in the marketplace – so everything about their establishment had to be quality. 

Now, let’s be clear. They made money.  They were quite successful. But what was also accomplished was that people who otherwise had no other option to pursue purpose in life had a job to which to go. They earned income and paid taxes.  They reduced their dependence upon Social Security Disability Income (SSDI).

THIRD, People are capable of more than we give them credit for.  This is an age-old mantra of the psychology of family systems.  If you have a mother or father who tells you over and over that “you will not amount to anything,” what incentive is there to prove them wrong?   Similarly, Paul suggests that our policies and “protections” afforded to people with mental illness represent the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”   With this mindset, he says, “we are too often trying to protect people from life.”  Ouch. Convicting. 

FOURTH, Work is not about curing the illness; it’s about expanding the wellness.  Honestly, that doesn’t need further elaboration.

Our policies and protections afforded to people with mental illness represent the soft bigotry of low expectations. PAUL BARRY

If you live long enough, it seems like there is a through-line that connects the memories of your life.  I feel like I re-kindled something hearing about the origins of a business for which I was a customer in 1990.  And somehow, I feel we are going to do this again in Hollywood.  Corporate Cookie may not be the best name for 2020, but I have a feeling that Corporate Cookie Part II is on the horizon.

After lunch in at Farfalla in Los Feliz, posing for a photo. From L – R: Paul Barry, Kerry Morrison, Rudy Salinas and Devin Blake

Postscript.  What happened to Corporate Cookie?  They were doing just fine as a business, but then METRO came in and changes occurred to those businesses that were located in the zone where the Wilshire/Vermont Subway station would be built.  Corporate Cookie was relocated to West Los Angeles, and Paul Barry went on the create a similar bakery business at The Village in Long Beach. 

11 thoughts on “The importance of Work to our identity”

  1. I agree, work is an important part of making a life. The current system often needs to focus on perceived deficits in order to justify (fund) services, and then to retain services. Unfortunately, however, the focus on perceived deficits often becomes the primary focus, whether spoken or unspoken. The focus on deficits is often deeply internalized and in time, people often come to believe they can not work, or that it would negatively impact their healing process. And there is, at times, the very real concern that benefits would be lost as a result or working, and that can be terrifying. Often people think work is something that, if it should be pursued at all, should be done once an appropriate stage of “recovery” has been achieved. From my experience, work can often LEAD to healing and people need to be inspired to want to work, supported in developing skills to find work, and then continue to be supported to retain work. Getting a job is often easier than retaining one, when also managing health challenges. Great blog, Kerry, and I’m hopeful for Corporate Cookie Part II!

    1. Kathleen – let’s do it! So appreciate your point of view on this, and let’s collaborate when we get this pilot up and running in Hollywood to show what is possible!

  2. This makes so much sense—common sense. This idea excites me Kerry. I hope to see Corporate Cookie 2 in the not too distant future.

    1. Clare, I hope Paul is reading this! I agree. We hung on his every word at lunch. I will find an opportunity to bring him to Hollywood to talk to a wider audience about his philosophy of work and the Corporate Cookie story.

  3. Your blogs are wonderful. I appreciate in this blog highlights that the work is to benefit the worker. Much work activity takes the form of ‘peer support’. I agree peer support benefits the provider of it, but it is being positioned as benefitting the recipient, something that has not been shown to be true. Great blog.

    1. DJ – thanks for these comments, and I think much credit goes to Paul Barry for articulating so well this orientation to he nature of work. It’s not a social program – it fills a business need and the workers experience the authenticity of that burden. Similar to what I learned in Trieste — there is no “fake work.” Everyone sees through that, particularly the person doing the work! I am excited about what might be possible if we can bring this model to the Hollywood pilot!

  4. Thanks Kerry. This is so exciting and I can’t wait to see what you build in Hollywood as I know it will be an excellent template for other cities.

    1. Thanks for all your encouragement Stacy. And its going to take a village – a huge village – to pull this off! Let’s talk about what piece you might want to work on!

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