Sowing the seeds of employment through social enterprise

Mark-Cullen-Head-Shot_606x544Our guest blogger this week is Mark Cullen, Canada’s best known gardener. Mark connects with more than 2 million Canadians each week through his weekly gardening segment on CTV and his numerous books and online postings. He’s passionate about helping Canadians grow organic, healthy produce—and with his well-known sense of social responsibility—Mark actively participates in local, provincial and international developmental and educational programs. He is a volunteer spokesperson for SHARE Agricultural FoundationCanada Blooms Flower and Garden Festival, and the Composting Council of Canada. He is also a long-time friend and supporter of United Way Toronto & York Region. This includes the Toronto Enterprise Fund (TEF), a partnership between United Way and all levels of government that funds social enterprises providing individuals facing barriers with training and work opportunities. The following article, which has been edited and condensed, originally appeared on April 18, 2015, in the Toronto Star.

As I strolled into the boardroom, a stranger to this place and its people, I had no idea that the person who sat across from me had been living with serious challenges for many years.  Mental illness is like that.

Outwardly there are often no signs of the struggles in one’s past.  The evidence of a history of disabilities lies buried.  The symptoms are often clear enough: homelessness, joblessness, and, sometimes an inability to get up in the morning or to face another human being that day.

All I knew for sure was that I had been asked to join a meeting of professional gardeners. These people tend plants for a living and, at some point in their past, most of them were seen as unemployable but now work in a business that was born in the world of social enterprise.

I know something about running a business, as I have been doing it for a few decades.  But ‘social enterprise’?  That was a new one to me.

By definition, a company that employs marginalized people and is supported by a not-for-profit funding partner like United Way is called a social enterprise.  United Way’s TEF annual report explains, “TEF funds enterprises that connect people facing employment barriers with job training and work opportunities. Since its inception in 2000 TEF has funded 45 social enterprises, which have collectively employed and/or trained over 2,500 people. Currently we provide operating grants to a portfolio of 15 enterprises and seed funding to two.”

It was the good people at United Way Toronto & York Region who first introduced me to the idea a couple of years ago.  As I learned more about the concept, I offered the benefit of my business experience to them and they asked me to meet ad-hoc with Parkdale Green Thumb Enterprises (PGTE), a landscape maintenance company in the west end of the city.

Maggie Griffin has been responsible for running PGTE for over 11 years.  While she manages a business and deals with the usual challenges of dealing with suppliers, customer relations, and government interventions, her life is complicated by the fact that she employs people considered unemployable by many.  Imagine hiring a staff that consists of people who are at risk of homelessness, have struggled with living in poverty, addiction issues and/or mental illness.  Strike that suggestion, it is impossible for most of us to imagine it.

I like PGTE for a few reasons.

First, social enterprise just makes sense.  As Maggie says, “What people really want is a home, a job, and a friend.” Working in an environment that respects your human-hood can give you dignity that is hard to find in the hard scrabble, competitive world of “business as usual.”

Secondly, PGTE engages people in paid positions where they can experience the miracle of the healing power of plants while on payroll.  As one employee who did not want to be identified said, “The social aspect of Parkdale Green Thumb gave me the courage to apply for the job. Starting back to work was the single greatest leap forward toward living a full life again.  I was exercising, socializing and feeling productive. With each day I gained more confidence.  This has led to other employment, new friends, and a plan for the future.”

Today PGTE specialises in the installation and maintenance of plantings in business improvement areas around the west-centre core of the city.  They do not own a truck or cars for transportation so employees travel by TTC.  Last year they spent just over $6,000 on fares to get their people around to various jobs.  Knowing how much it costs to run a car for a year, this sounds like a good investment to me.

Should you be sitting on a street car someday when a couple of people wander on with hedge shears and a watering can in hand, you just might be witness to the Green Thumb work in progress.