The Providence Granola Project

73 Governor St. Providence RI. 401-316-1423

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Location: Providence, RI

Two guys, a bag of oats, and a dream.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Eight cylinders (and a baby)

A spark plug went out on my Volvo last week. Actually it was the $250 plastic thingy that supposedly controls the movement of the spark to the piston but the effect was the same. The “check engine” light start blinking. The warning panel directed me to bring the car to a stop and turn off the engine as soon as possible.

I made my calls to Triple A and my garage, and then sat there thinking about a guy named John Slaiger, who was a pastor (now-retired) who lived and worked in South Providence. My wife and I used to (yes, a long time ago) bring groups of Brown students for immersion experiences in South Providence. We’d sleep in the basement of John’s church and participate in various soup kitchens and building projects during the day. In the evenings we’d play cards and talk about what we were learning and John would always find a scrap of paper and teach us his “8-cylinder model” for understanding poverty.



Physical health


Mental health

Spiritual health



Something like that, only at a slant. (Shucks--community and housing are left off. Plus, I tried to change the text direction and narrow the columns, alas my html skills are deficient.) The point was that an engine needs all eight cylinders in order to function. If we are interested in empowering people, we can’t put blinders on and focus on only one “cylinder” of their lives. Well we can, of course, but it doesn’t work.

For example: suppose you help a single mother find a job. On their first day of work, the new employee’s mother, who is supposed to pick up the kids and walk them to the bus stop, gets a headache and doesn’t show. So the kids miss the bus; the new employee shows up late. She might not lose that job, but it makes for a lousy start.

Or another: Someone starts a hotel job in Newport which involves catching an early bus in the morning and returning late at night. Meanwhile, his/her teenager starts getting in fights at school. Then what? Supposing this is a refugee who didn’t arrive with a community that can support a floundering teenager--then should the employee quit their job? Any job that seems counterproductive to stabilizing the family or seems to hurt the people you most care about isn’t very attractive.

The job developers at the International Institute used to tell us that getting someone a job (even in this economy) was the easy part. The hard part was helping them keep the job. While a job might be the most crucial “cylinder” in empowering people towards self-sufficiency, it couldn’t function by itself. Job developers couldn’t afford to ignore the other aspects of refugees’ lives if they wanted them to keep their jobs. Consequently job development and education and social services had to work together.

Of course, these same cylinders affect all of us. What’s variable is how comprehensively a misfire destabilizes a person’s life. At the risk of mixing metaphors (though strangely appropriate with snow on the ground in October), it might be a bit like standing on a floating patch of ice, vulnerable to tipping over with a shift of weight in any single direction. What’s different for many below the poverty line is that the patch of ice is smaller and less stable. When my car broke down, I pulled out my iphone and informed Triple A, and my garage within 5 minutes. I was especially sweet to the Triple A call-person and I suspect she expedited a dispatch. Within a half hour the Triple A guy had already dropped me off at home, and I had borrowed my sister’s car and was on my way to pick up walnuts for our batch of granola.

A refugee on their way to a job wouldn’t usually belong to an auto club. Their Trakfones are often running out of minutes. They don’t carry Visa cards. Their language skills don’t always permit sweet-talking. It wouldn’t surprise me if a refugee in that situation just left the car and hopped on a bus—and then spent their day’s wages paying the towing and storage fee.

Returning to John’s analogy: one thing I love about it is the suggested power of 8 cylinders. In a day when most of drive 4’s or 5’s—his image steers away from pity. The spark plugs might be misfiring, but once those cylinders start working, the impact of all that resilience and those survival skills is going to be powerful. Our city needs resilience and survival skills right now and who better to show us how to use them than refugees? This is one reason Providence needs to keep settling refugees. Try getting involved in one of their lives—you’ll be surprised how much you learn.

One of the ways I’ve been learning is by watching one of our PGP employees, named Maitham Wadia, who just had a baby. The doctors knew the baby had heart problems so the C-section took place in Boston and the baby's operation was last Tuesday. Talk about resilience: Maitham came to work while the operation was going on. Happily it all went well. Maitham and his wife have no doubt that in Iraq or Syria where they used to live the baby would have died. Still the baby will stay in the hospital for a month and the ongoing stress is intense. Their solution was to bring the baby’s grandmother from Baghdad to help out for two months. It’s really no small miracle that she got a visa. My church has been helping pay for their ticket, though I have no doubt that it took most of the savings of both Maitham’s family and his mother-in-law's family to get her here.

I would like to invite you any of you who would like to to contribute toward the cost of her plane ticket by sending a check. You can just send it to my address (73 Governor Street, Providence, 02906. Please do NOT make checks out to PGP but directly out to “Maitham Wadia.” Regretfully, gifts will not be tax deductible, but it keeps everything simple.

Granola update: October was a good month. We had a positive meeting with our local Whole Foods and are working with them to get the granola on the shelf. We’re making good progress in our social media campaign (please look for us on Facebook and Twitter), which will help prepare us for a strong holiday season. We’re getting a t-shirt ready for the printer. I had hoped for a more definitive sense of whether the business is going to be able to start paying me a salary within a couple months. That still remains to be seen, but we’re at least moving forward on that hope. More on all this soon enough.

Thanks for reading (and for eating granola). As usual, we would love your comments--that's why this is a blog. I received a lot of comments via email last time--and I know some people had trouble posting here. If you have trouble--and you email with permission--I will go ahead and post your comments myself. Keith


Blogger keith said...

Nice post Keith...I like the mixing of metaphors when they actually work, which they did here. Keep 'em comin' :)

October 31, 2011 at 12:25 PM  
Blogger Janet Isserlis said...

yes. thank you for this. not sure about many things these days, but am deeply grateful for the caring wisdom and thoughtfulness of friends like you.

October 31, 2011 at 1:21 PM  
Blogger Gary Nielsen said...

Enjoying your writing, looks from the counter like I am one of 16,000+ of your readers. I am motivated to talk to Peggy about buying some granola...

October 31, 2011 at 4:27 PM  
Blogger bento said...

thanks for this, keith. send my best to maitham, would you? i'm relieved to hear the surgery went ok. keep up the good work!

November 5, 2011 at 12:51 PM  
Blogger Michael Chen said...

Really enjoyed reading this and learning about the eight-cylinder model, though I don't think I've had the chance to come across one yet on the street. (Maybe in a museum? Or one of those cars that cost as much as a house?) I don't have a good understanding of poverty, but what you described here sounds very much like a juggling act -- I imagine someone trying to move their hands fast enough so all the balls would stay in the air and not hit the ground. Or the other image that comes to mind is a set or system of levers; as you pull down on one with the hope of returning the system to its original fully functional state, another lever falls off telling you that it needs to be repaired... And the cycle just goes on and on. In some ways, poverty is like that system of levers, perhaps?

November 9, 2011 at 7:39 PM  

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