What Does Progress Look Like?

Bob White

“At Cara we celebrate all instances of progress, understanding that the journey in the right direction is just as, if not more important than, a final destination.”

The journey of one year of employment: Forward movement through some amount of space over a period of time. Progress is quantifiable and yet, without the proper context, one instance of progress seems inappreciable compared with progress viewed over a longer trajectory.

Real progress isn’t just a straight line forward. If you look up-close, it looks like a scribbly line that twists and loops – some steps forward, some back, and a few sidesteps. There are some steps downhill and some uphill. Sometimes you’re standing still at the bottom of a hill wondering if you have what it takes to start up the incline, not knowing what the vista will look like once you’re at the top.

One single morning can require a huge effort, a span of just a few hours getting the kids safely off to school on time, lunches made, school forms signed, ready to seize the day. How much effort is one adult exerting just to accomplish that single feat before heading off to work? How much resistance is that one person moving through in their environment or in their mind? How much effort is required of the community network around that individual just to get that one thing done? How about one month of doing that?

What about twelve?

At Cara we celebrate all instances of progress, understanding that the journey in the right direction is just as, if not more important than, a final destination. We don’t just measure job retention for a month, or three, or six. We’ve made the intentional choice to walk alongside people though one full year because life doesn’t just happen over a few weeks or months. Life’s cycle has four seasons of all sorts of changes, setbacks, and successes, large and small.

The twelve month calendar unites us all, and seasonal cycles persist even in areas where temperatures aren’t as dynamic as in others. If someone secures a job in April and support is only built-in for a few months, there’s no continuity when school starts in the fall or when utilities fluctuate. The financial terrain of a year undulates through holidays, taxes, and new apartments. Ninety days on the job is indicative of ongoing success, but it’s important for us to follow through for twelve contiguous months of walking alongside a person without any connotation of hand-holding.

“At Cara we celebrate all instances of progress, understanding that the journey in the right direction is just as, if not more important than a final destination.”

We’ve consistently noticed a phenomenon akin to the concept of compound interest where at a certain point maneuvering through turbulent waters, achieving goals begins to get easier and easier, exponentially. For some that moment is indeed a few months in, and for others it happens later, but we voraciously hunt for it.

The point isn’t just to cross some sort of arbitrary finish line, merely surviving through a year’s challenges. The goal is to extract the most from the twelve months of engagement. The finish line celebration is a reflection of not enduring, but navigating all of those challenges with peer support, unearthing profound lessons and galvanizing new habits that will continue to yield even further growth beyond that year.

Our value proposition to employer partners includes introducing candidates who’ve committed themselves to a leadership development journey and that they’ve demonstrated that commitment within our framework of transformative learning and workplace competencies.

Another component is that our team of coaches engages face-to-face with those candidates regularly for the full follow-through of one year to crystalize learnings together, real-time and in concrete contexts. The result is excellent overall one-year retention with the same employer – a value that benefits the company’s bottom line, and ideally shifts the company’s perspective about what’s not only possible, but is actually advantageous within the scope of inclusive employment.

Together, all sides of the relationship play integral roles in the strut-by-strut dismantling of the structures and assumptions that perpetuate systemic poverty. We invest our time, our care, and our collective expertise through all manner of hurdles, like the morning scramble to get the kids out the door, managing physical and emotional health, or overcoming bias.

A ripple effect radiates from those instances, those nodes of progress, fundamentally improving families and communities. If you stitch that all together, a movement coalesces that benefits us all. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years talking about how organizations like ours exist for ‘individuals affected by poverty,’ but it’s become clear that, directly or indirectly, there’s not a single one of us who’s not affected by poverty. All of our lives are intertwined in our common human struggle, and our experiences of life will be interwoven in our collective victory.

Progress looks like two things: It’s the churning struggle of isolated micro-wins and it’s also the zoomed-out composite of people connecting and moving forward together.

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.