Empowering People to Work Depends on Inspiring Change

In the spirit of Goodwill Industries Week, a time when Goodwill® celebrates the power of work, I’d like to take a break from my usual focus on the week’s pressing issues in order to consider important lessons we can learn from Goodwill’s origins.

In 1895, Goodwill’s founder, Rev. Edgar J. Helms arrived in Boston’s south end. As was common with tenement communities during the Progressive Era (1890s-1920s), the neighborhood was overcrowded and unsanitary, and unemployment and underemployment were stubbornly high. Just like today, residents faced cultural differences, high poverty and political division.

I imagine at times Helms may have felt small, insignificant and powerless to tackle the deep-rooted social issues that he experienced there. But despite the odds, he had the audacity to strive toward making a difference in people’s lives. He started collecting used and unwanted household goods from affluent households in Boston. The donations were repaired or repurposed, and sold.

The proceeds were used to pay wages to people who were engaged in the work of turning the donations into revenue. And by 1902, through a combination of vision, faith, leadership, luck and the involvement of others, the first Goodwill agency sprung up to empower people in South Boston to improve their lives through the power of work.

The self-sustaining model caught on and spread to other communities across the nation, resulting in a positive impact that could only have exceeded Helms’ wildest dreams. In 2012, approximately 6.7 million people benefited from Goodwill’s services, and Goodwill raised $4.89 billion in its retail, commercial services and other social enterprises. More than 219,000 people were placed in jobs, including more than 112,000 people who worked for Goodwill. Collectively, these workers earned $3.62 billion in salaries and wages and contributed to their communities as productive, tax-paying citizens.

That’s Goodwill’s (albeit unfinished) chapter in an inspiring and broader story. It’s striking that other charitable icons – Volunteers of America (1896), Big Brothers Big Sisters (1904), Camp Fire (1910), Catholic Charities (1910), and Girl Scouts (1912) – have similar stories stemming from the Progressive Era. These iconic agencies, each with a long history of taking on the deep-rooted social challenges despite the odds, now make up the backbone of the nation’s nonprofit sector.

And we’re needed now more than ever. Government resources are shrinking. The income gap is widening. Poverty is still pervasive. Unemployment is high, especially in high-poverty communities. And the political landscape is polarized. Just as it did for Progressive Era pioneers like Helms, our success depends on vision, faith, luck and leadership.

And the involvement of others.

As individuals, we may feel too small, insignificant and powerless to address deep-rooted challenges that affect our communities. Yet involved individuals can and will collectively write the next part of this story.

If you would like to join the growing community of people working together to take on today’s pressing social issues join Goodwill’s Legislative Action Center.