Rubicon Programs: the movers, shakers, and changemakers

We help them harness their strengths and dreams to begin the journey to change.
– from Rubicon Programs’ 2013 Annual Report

Rubicon offices in Richmond, CA.

Rubicon’s office in Richmond, CA.

The success of any program or organization relies heavily on the people who make things happen. And for Rubicon Programs, nonprofit provider of integrated housing, training, employment and mental health services (510.235.1516, 2500 Bissell, Richmond, CA 94804), there is no shortage of talented, motivated, and compassionate people. My good friend Jane Fischberg, president and executive director of Rubicon Programs, opened a window for me into her world and her big-hearted colleagues who provide so much support to the disadvantaged and disenfranchised people right here in our local communities.

Porschea gives two thumbs up for the services Rubicon provides for the local communities.

Porschea gives two thumbs up for the services Rubicon provides to the local communities.

Porschea Brown: a ‘bright, shining star’ with a ‘small bit of hope’
Porschea Brown, financial coach at Rubicon, went to college in Washington, DC, and was expecting to stay there, but the Richmond native found her way back home. As a girl, Porschea used to walk by the Rubicon office every day, although she didn’t know anything about the organization. As a young adult and concerned citizen, she began attending city council meetings, in particular the re-entry solutions group meetings, and met Rhody McCoy, director of Rubicon’s Economic Empowerment for Contra Costa County. She even attended these meetings when she came home on school breaks. Impressed by her dedication and commitment to the issues and the community, Rhody, who today calls her “a bright shining star,” invited her to volunteer at Rubicon. By then, she had already researched the nonprofit and likewise was impressed by its programs.

Porschea’s main concern was incarceration rates, particularly in her hometown. She was interested in Richmond’s realignment program for the re-entry population – the population she wanted to work with and for whom Rubicon was providing services. As a financial coach, Porschea provides income support, tax preparation, credit rebuilding, and financial counseling. Although she meets with clients to address their financial issues, oftentimes she is involved with discussions about their health concerns or what’s going on in their homes. “It’s holistic; we don’t just deal with people as it relates to their finances,” she explained. “As my supervisor has taught me – and I can see how there’s truth to it – everything affects your finances.”

Rubicon staff member offers help to a client (photo credit: Pat Garvey).

A Rubicon client comes in for his appointment (photo credit: Pat Garvey).

Porschea’s goal is to become the next Justine Petersen, the late former social worker and pioneer in community reinvestment in St. Louis who helped low- and moderate-income families purchase their homes through partnerships with local banks. “She took this for-profit attitude to work with banks, but the purpose and the goal was to work with a nonprofit and assist low-income people to become self-sufficient,” Porschea explained. Her interest lies in providing resource dissemination around credit issues for marginalized people – being the source for financial services, or, as she described it, “the walking 2-1-1 for nonprofits.”

Being from Richmond, Porschea noted that if she doesn’t personally know the people who come through the doors she knows someone who knows them. “There’s a small bit of hope in me that [tells me] something’s going to turn around for them,” she said. Although recently engaged to her boyfriend who lives in Washington, DC, and anticipating a move back there at some point, Porschea was quick to declare, “I’m not finished here yet.”

Porschea and Rhody are a dynamic duo for Rubicon (photo credit: Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover).

Porschea and Rhody are a dynamic duo for Rubicon.

Rhody McCoy: paying dues through community development
Before joining Rubicon in 2010, Rhody had held a number of positions working on behalf of underserved populations. In San Francisco, he was site manager for a vocational program for at-risk adults. He made a “slight career change,” moving to the City of San Francisco Private Industry Council, where he was a contract specialist, in charge of a health program for African-American men. “I really got excited again about working in the community and having a bigger role than just running a program,” he said. “It was really about community development.”

That work led him to Urban Strategies in Oakland, led by Dr. Garry Mendez, Jr., executive director of the National Trust for the Development of African-American Men and well-renowned for his re-entry program development. Rhody went into San Quentin to work with “lifers,” putting together curricula on how to improve themselves, make use of the skills they learned inside, and develop relationships with community organizations. “It was just so innovative – incarcerated men were concerned about the community and developing systems,” he said. “It really motivated me to do this kind of work.” When Rubicon was looking for a re-entry program manager, Rhody interviewed with Rob Hope, chief program officer, who worked with Dr. Mendez. “We really resonated [with one another] and spoke the same language,” he recalled.

Rhody finds a lot to smile about in his work (photo credit: Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover).

Rhody finds a lot to smile about at Rubicon (photo credit: Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover).

Rhody doesn’t have far to look for what motivates him every day. “I have a lot of dues to pay; I feel I owe a lot of people some things, and it starts with my family, my children, my immediate family, and the community at large,” he said. “I’ve been blessed and privileged, and I had a lot of opportunities – some I’ve taken advantage of and some I didn’t. I have a lot to give back.” His motivation is nurtured by the relationships he has developed and continues to develop with the people who come to Rubicon, and by knowing that the organization and his colleagues are like-minded and have the same goal. “We focus on why we’re here,” he said.

Even when he endures difficult, “gut-wrenching” times in his line of work, Rhody is committed to having fun. “There’s a lot of resiliency in the people who we work with,” he explained. “Regardless of external things, their internal motivation just helps them hit the milestones when they get the support that they need.” Coming out of the recession, Rubicon has put up record numbers of getting people back to work. “The labor market changed significantly,” Rhody pointed out, “but people were still getting jobs due to the resilience of the staff and the people who come through those doors.”

Sarah Williams: celebrating small victories in a ‘very long journey’
Staff attorney Sarah Williams graduated from UC Berkeley School of Law with the desire to work in public interest or social justice after conducting expungement proceedings, getting first-time offenders’ record of criminal conviction dismissed from the state or Federal repository. She came to Rubicon when a former supervisor of hers from the East Bay Community Law Center told her about the nonprofit’s legal services. After working under a school-sponsored grant, Sarah was hired in July 2012 to lead the federally funded Promoting Advances in Paternal Accountability and Success in Work Program (PAPAS Work). What drew her to Rubicon was its model of tying in legal services with its other programs, whereas most legal services organizations are standalone. “I can provide services as part of a team,” she said. “There are a number of people working with one individual – they’re all here.” A client’s coaches for career, parenting, and financial issues are all under one roof, communicating with one another.

Rubicon's Sarah Williams and her dog, Oscar, who is a fixture in her office.

Rubicon’s Sarah Williams and her dog Oscar, who is a fixture in her office.

The re-entry population is difficult to serve, Sarah acknowledges. “It’s a very long journey,” she said. But there are victories to build on. Sarah worked with one determined client who was a driver for Domino’s Pizza but wanted a career. She helped the woman file paperwork to get her probation terminated, her felony reduced to a misdemeanor, and then the misdemeanor expunged. Her client had the support of her probation officer and career coach, and Sarah helped her write her letter to the judge. “She was young and made bad choices,” Sarah explained, “but she has done nothing but good since.” Motivated throughout the process and “setting the bar high” – getting probation terminated early is a difficult feat – Sarah’s client was “thrilled” with the outcome and now feels that she has “a much fairer chance to move on from her mistake.” She has since applied to the Stride Center (1212 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94612, 510.234.1300), a nonprofit social venture working to empower economic self-sufficiency for individuals and communities in the San Francisco Bay Area, with the goal of becoming an IT specialist.

Sarah reviews clients’ California criminal records, or RAP sheets, to determine their eligibility for an expungement down the road. While some may have to endure a few years of probation, she noted that “the promise that there is a light at the end of the tunnel is an incentive [for them] to keep doing what they’re doing.” For clients who have recently been released, the victories are small but important – showing up for workshops, making an appointment with a coach, figuring out transportation to make the appointment, getting the first job. It takes working hard, doing the right things, staying in touch, and more. “I tell them, ‘there’s no magic wand that’s going to make your past go away,'” she said. “People have to live with mistakes they’ve made, but there’s a way to move beyond them. We try to give a message of hope.”

Sarah credits her mother, who was the first in her family to go to college and became a lawyer who represents unions, with instilling in her the belief that “you can do good as a lawyer.” “Growing up seeing her help people so much really made me feel like I can go to law school and it doesn’t have to be all about making money,” Sarah said. “It can be about making a difference in people’s lives – using my education and my privilege in a positive way to make a difference in somebody else’s life.”

Another Rubicon client whom the nonprofit organization was able to help (photo credit: Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover).

Another Rubicon client whom the nonprofit organization was able to help (photo credit: Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover).

Editor’s notes: My profile on my good friend Jane, president and executive director of Rubicon Programs, will be posted Friday, April 4.

If you would like to make a donation to Rubicon Programs, click here.

Rubicon Honors 2014, Rubicon Programs’ annual gala, is set for this Saturday, April 5th, 6pm 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 and a table of 10 is $2,000. You can purchase your tickets here.