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How One Community Got Together To Tackle Unemployment

A group of people stand in a half circle with their hands clasped.

Neighbors band together to support one another through periods of unemployment.

The idea

Feeling down and out after searching (and searching, and searching…) for a job? Why not get together with neighbors or friends for constructive dialogue, fresh ideas, and renewed energy?

In my small hometown in Maryland, a group is doing just that. Karla*, a consultant in search of a full-time job, began meeting twice a month with her husband and two neighbors, all Boomers who had been laid off within the last few years. They call themselves the Dream Academy. In Karla’s words, “We are only four people yet have a surprisingly different set of needs,” so their conversations ranged from compassionate pep talks for the most depressed member of the group to more specific negotiation advice for another member who was fairly far along in an interview process.

Why we’re adding it to the Idea File

This idea is cheap, easy to replicate, and needed. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “the length of time the jobless spend searching for work before finding a job increased from 5.2 to 10.4 weeks between 2007 and 2010, edging down to 10.0 in 2011.” Ten weeks is about how long our former coworker Diana spent searching for her new job in Boston, but we know that not everyone is so lucky. Diana received tons of emails and comments from readers, some of whom have been out of work for years. I wonder what would happen if those readers began checking in regularly, encouraging one another and sharing resources.

“I think any time a community of even a small number forms around an issue or a cause or a concern, everybody in that community gains something,” says Karla. “Conversations we have with ourselves only keep us stuck; conversations stay alive when you share them with other people. The conversation around ‘how can I find a job in this economy when I’m over 50?’ is not a very empowering one, especially when you only have it with yourself and there’s a lot of reinforcement for it in the media. It really helps to surround yourself with people who believe in you and believe you have something outstanding to offer. Which, of course, we all do.”

How you can replicate it

  • Find people to meet with. For the Dream Academy, four members was a good size. “It enabled us to have a very substantive conversation about each member’s needs while still only taking about an hour – which was what each of us felt we could spare. Sticking close to an hour makes it feel like an opportunity rather than an imposition,” says Karla.
  • Keep it low-maintenance. What time and day is best? Will folks need to figure out childcare? Searching for a job is taxing enough; make it as easy as possible for your fellow job seekers to participate.
  • Consider group dynamics. Are you going to “require” that people attend meetings, or will the group be flexible? Will you set one scheduled meeting time per week or month, and if not, should one person take the lead on scheduling? Will you take turns being the time keeper to make sure everyone has a chance to talk about what’s going well and what’s getting them down?
  • Find a space. Is there a room at a public library? Will people be more comfortable speaking freely inside someone’s home? If you sit at a coffee shop, will everyone feel pressured to spend money on drinks?
  • Stay open-minded and celebrate successes. Though the Maryland group named themselves the Dream Academy, one member, Joe, came to the group feeling anything but dreamy. “He was very down about his prospects,” says Karla. “He’d lost his job as a teacher with the school system and was about to go for what he was viewing as a dead-end ‘informational’ interview with a principal at a nearby high school. We all urged him to go into this meeting with a much more open mind about what might happen.” The next day, Joe called to say he’d gotten a long-term job as a substitute teacher, with the possibility of a promotion to full-time. This was wonderful news for Joe and it also boosted morale among the whole group.

I look forward to hearing how things progress for the members of the Dream Academy and for the group as a whole. Once they’re all employed, maybe they’ll continue to meet to offer one another informal coaching and mentorship (like the group Trista Harris describes in this post). Or maybe they’ll stop meeting but give each other an extra wink when they run into each other in the neighborhood and ask, “How’s work these days?”

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by Julia Smith

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