At Cara we have a professional clothing standard rooted in all of our core values: Motivation, Affirmation, Structure, Community, and Intentionality.
“The only time I had ever worn a suit was when I was going to a funeral…” – Pierre
Dress code standards are oppressive. I can speak to that first hand, as can anyone who’s donned a wonderfully neutral-toned and over-laundered school uniform or the unstylish and mildly fragrant logoed polo and khakis combo you wear when waiting tables at a bar and grill. On your bus or train ride you can feel eyes judging you and piecing together their story of your life and exactly where you’re going to spend your day and what you’ll be doing there. There’s no room for the very human need for self-expression or creativity.
Unless, that is, you’re permitted a piece of flair or two – and oftentimes that allowance makes the experience even more demoralizing. Nonetheless, dress codes serve a purpose and are a part of our reality. At Cara we have a professional clothing standard, but not to instill a notion of uniformity, in fact quite the opposite. We root our clothing guidelines within our core values: Motivation, Affirmation, Structure, Community, and Intentionality. And through this, we are actually inspiring and motivating participants to unleash their full potential.
“I never imagined I’d ever have to wear a suit every day, but I found strength in it.” – Jose
As an organization, we’ve had an evolving relationship with our dress code. Our policy has adjusted over time to respond to our community and avoid the marginalization of anyone. We’ve actively questioned our own collective bias about body shapes, cultural observances, and gender-binary expectations. A dress code itself is one thing, but it’s how a dress code is administered and upheld that makes all the difference between empowerment and control. You can get a write-up for being out of dress code at Cara, but we literally have the solution in-house through the professional clothing rooms at our campuses.
These clothing rooms are continuously stocked through generous donations, the hard work of our operations team, and partnerships like with our amazing friends at CD One Price Cleaners. If we don’t have your size, we’ll come out-of-pocket to get what works. Our commitment stands that if we include a policy in our structure, we want everyone to be set up for success and growth, and not punishment. Whether they already own professional dress attire or not, we want everyone to have what they need in order to stay motivated in their journey.
“I put on the suit and I look in the mirror and feel so much more confident about myself. It brought my swag back!” – Phillip
At Cara, we work to alleviate poverty, but not just a poverty of assets. We also seek to alleviate the poverty of esteem that develops within a person who has been excluded for too long. No one is going to walk into an interview confident and prepared if they aren’t comfortable in their deportment.
When you’re dressed for success, you walk out into the world and suddenly it looks so different. Our participants time and time again tell us how they get viewed differently on their morning commute, how people in the neighborhood will smile as they walk by, and how they feel a part of the downtown hustle and bustle – all because of how they are dressed. I feel proud to be a part of this vibrant community of peers when guests often comment that they can’t tell who’s a participant from who’s a staff member.
“The first time I put on a suit, I looked in the mirror and saw a boss looking back at me. I walked out the door with my head held high and the world looked so new.” – Corneisha
A shift from focusing primarily on what’s inappropriate to what’s most appropriate has afforded us clarity in why we intentionally foster this practice. Conformity is not the aim here. It’s gaining the advantage in the outcome. As you get called up for a day-of interview, being already dressed-to-impress and all ready to go allows for time to prepare for the upcoming conversation rather than running home for a blazer.
I was lucky enough to have won lottery tickets to last night’s performance of the musical, Hamilton. Think if a cast member somehow had their wardrobe come up missing. They’re professionals and the show would still go on with a different costume, but they would likely be thrown off their game.
I can remember several times when someone would ask me something like, “But I’m going out for a job in a warehouse! Why would I need to wear a suit at the interview?” My answer, and the answer of many of my colleagues, was essentially that we want you to wear an outfit that inspires confidence. That’s not just the perception of confidence, but the inner confidence, pride, and sense of preparedness that can come along with something as simple as buttoning up buttons. Plus, we guarantee you will be the best-dressed person in that room and make a powerful first impression.
Bob White is the Chief Program Officer of Cara. A graduate of the University of Michigan, Bob served as the owner-operator of an automotive aftermarket business before entering the non-profit world.
Our CD One Clothing Drive is running now through March 31. Donate your business attire to any of the 34 Chicagoland CD One locations to help get our motivated job seekers suited and booted. Click here to learn more!