Service is the rent we pay for being. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time.
– Marian Wright Edelman, American activist for the rights of children and disadvantaged Americans, and president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund
My friend Jane Fischberg and I have known each other for more than 22 years, when I left my managing editor position at a B2B publishing company to work as an administrative assistant for Lutheran Social Services (LSS) in San Francisco, where she was the administrative director. At the time, I was contemplating going back to social justice work with a master’s degree in nonprofit administration or social work but was advised to work for a nonprofit before making the career change. In the end, I didn’t return to grad school or stay very long with LSS, though two things remained constant from those days – my friendship with Jane and my desire to somehow keep my hand in social justice work. I have always admired Jane for her work and dedication, but in all honesty it was stepping into her world at Rubicon Programs that I gained a greater understanding of her and the largeness of her heart, leaving me humbled and in awe – and proud to be called her friend.
Leading Rubicon Programs and making a difference
In her professional life, Jane has always worked for social justice organizations, though she has been with Rubicon Programs (510.235.1516, 2500 Bissell, Richmond, CA 94804) the longest, 17 years and running. The primary reason she came to the nonprofit was because she felt that Contra Costa County, especially West Contra Costa County, had few high-capacity community-based organizations, unlike San Francisco. “I continue to feel that that’s true, which helps make me feel like we can make more of a difference,” she said. Rubicon’s multi-disciplinary approach of combining services appealed to Jane, as well as the organization’s size – not so big that she feels like a “cog in a machine” nor so small that she feels the organization is “just a mote of a solution.” As president and executive director, having worked her way up from various leadership roles, Jane says she has been “honored to be in a position where” she “can have an influence.” Not surprisingly, Jane has been honored because of her work, having been named a Woman of Distinction by the East Bay Business Times and recognized as a Distinguished Alumnus by the San Francisco State University’s MPA Department.
Jane finds motivation from the people who work at Rubicon. “We’ve got a great team of people; our staff is incredible,” she enthused. She is equally inspired by the stories of the people the nonprofit serves. While much of her work deals with the abstract – developing appropriate program models, theories of change, and strategies to meet funding gaps – tangible touch points such as the monthly graduation for clients who complete the financial opportunity center workshops give her work meaning. “They’re inspiring,” she said. “Meeting program participants and hearing how we’ve had an impact on their lives makes it all worth it.”
To get into the workshop, clients attend information sessions and intake meetings and then undergo review board meetings. In the comprehensive and intensive workshops, clients begin a learning process that includes understanding their attitudes and behavior about money and credit, addressing legal barriers to employment, encouraging and promoting pro-social behavior among them as a cohort, developing behaviors that will be constructive on the job such as conflict resolution with peers and employers, and developing interview skills through mock interviews. “Graduation is just the beginning,” Jane added. Upon graduation, clients are paired with an individual career coach who will help them develop a personalized plan and job search. Homeless clients work with a housing placement specialist. The staff attorney works with clients who have been involved with the criminal justice system, as well as provides credit report and consumer law support. People participate regularly in Rubicon’s job club – a “power hour” in a Starbucks-like environment to share job leads aggregated from the internet.
While workshops can only accommodate a certain number of people, Rubicon is still working with clients who have come before and begin working with people who are coming in. “The numbers grow geometrically, so we designed our program to work with people for three years because we know there isn’t going to be a quick fix,” Jane explained. Rubicon experienced what was called the “In and Out Burger” syndrome of getting housing and a job for a client who then returned after a year. “We began looking at this model – the financial opportunity center – working with people over a longer period of time,” she said. “The idea is that hopefully over time people will need less and less support so you can take in more people.”
Facing challenges head on
Many nonprofits struggle to raise funds and are especially hard hit during a recession. But for Rubicon, according to Jane, it’s always been difficult to secure donations, regardless of the state of the economy. The population Rubicon serves is not as universally supported as, for example, animals needing rescue, young children, or the environment, all of which are also important to support, Jane added. Rubicon has been fortunate to secure public contracts that are renewed year over year; however, while the amount of the contract never increases, costs obviously do. “We need individuals to support us so we can continue to meet our costs and to keep up with the increasing demand for services,” Jane explained. Last year, approximately 250 people who came to Rubicon for services couldn’t be served because of the set number of slots for workshops. That number has increased year over year, with a 20 percent increase alone from 2012 to 2013.
Having to adapt and find solutions to the impact of public policies is also a challenge. Whatever belief people may harbor about welfare reform, Jane pointed out that the reality is more children are living in poverty than ever before. That fact coupled with the mass incarceration of people of color, especially men, and its impact on families and communities have made being a child and being a single parent in our society harder than ever. “After welfare reform, people got jobs – low-quality jobs – and many are still living in poverty due to foregoing income assistance benefits,” she pointed out.
As far as Rubicon sees it, three segments of society exist: those who will never support the population Rubicon serves, those already on the bandwagon, and those sitting in the middle. “Connecting the dots and telling a compelling story” to the latter group is critical. Rubicon is conducting a public education campaign leading up to its annual gala that focuses on its service to individuals, many of whom have children. “When we help the individual we help the children and the families, and when we help the families we help the community,” Jane explained. “So it’s in everyone’s best interest to help that individual because it will impact them.” When the individual succeeds, the whole community succeeds because streets are safer and children in schools receive more consistent parenting and are in supportive and non-chaotic homes, and more of them live with their parents as opposed to being in foster care. Instead of laying a guilt trip on people, which she points out simply doesn’t work, the campaign is designed to appeal to people’s “enlightened self-interest.” Smiling, Jane noted, “That’s my job.”
Our reason for being
Coming from “a place of privilege,” Jane never had to worry about basic needs. Growing up in Massachusetts, the seat of the Kennedy political dynasty, she nevertheless most admired Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, who represented New York’s 12th Congressional District for seven terms, from 1969 to 1983. “She fought against all odds and broke so many barriers,” she said of the educator and author. The Vietnam War also made an impression on Jane; she found a diary she had kept as a child that contained several entries about her student teachers going on strike because of the war. As she grew up, she saw more and more inequities in the world and came to believe that “if you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem.”
Jane walks the fine line of ensuring that her son, Eli, knows what her and her husband Dan’s values are but not “hitting him over the head with it.” Now a sophomore at Berkeley High School, Eli volunteers at the annual gala and has participated for the past three years with Soccer Without Borders, an Oakland, CA-based international organization that was set up to provide organized soccer activities for children in refugee camps. In the U.S., the organization provides organized soccer opportunities for refugees from abroad and other children who have scarce resources. Oakland Unified School District funds the local Soccer Without Borders’ summer soccer camp, where Eli serves as a coach, for kids in foster care. “He likes sports and working with kids, and we encourage that,” Jane said. Seeing her son grow up with good values and whose “heart and mind are in the right place” has made her a proud parent.
Being a part of the solution includes being philanthropic. While Rubicon receives Jane’s most generous gift, she also gives to other causes she cares about – protection for wildlife and domestic and farm animals, and other organizations that move people out of poverty. “I really do believe in giving back and I feel like a life of not giving back is not fulfilling,” she said. “I’ve always felt the reason for living is to be of service, so that informed what I’ve always done.”
Editor’s notes: If you would like to make a donation to Rubicon Programs, click here.
Rubicon Honors 2014, Rubicon Programs’ annual gala, is set for tomorrow Saturday, April 5th, 6 to 10pm at the Oakland Rotunda, 300 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland. Last year, more than 2,000 children in the East Bay were positively impacted by the work Rubicon Programs did with their moms and dads. This year, Rubicon Programs has set a goal of raising $200,000 to change the lives of 2,100 children who are most in need in our shared community. At the gala, come enjoy live music, wine reception, butlered seasonal hors d’oeuvres, sit-down gourmet dinner and dessert, and the live and silent auction. Individual tickets are $225. It’s not too late; you can still purchase your tickets here.