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Transforming the Jericho Road

The Jericho Road Project links Unitarian Universalist professionals with nonprofits in struggling cities, creating a new avenue for social justice.
By Michelle Bates Deakin
Spring 2010 2.15.10

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Dan Holin and Jodi DeLibertis (Ilene Perlman)

Jericho Road executive director Dan Holin and Lowell program director Jodi DeLibertis link volunteer professionals with nonprofits that need help in one of Massachusetts’s struggling cities. (Ilene Perlman)

Dozens of women in wedding gowns are crossing an iron bridge over the Merrimack River on a September afternoon. Alongside men in dark suits, they file past the abandoned brick mill buildings that line the streets of Lawrence, Massachusetts. Children dart among them, carrying signs: “Real Men Don’t Batter,” “You Do Not Deserve to be Abused,” and “Amor Es Libertad” [“Love Is Freedom”]. The Brides’ March commemorates Gladys Ricart, a Dominican-American woman who was fatally shot ten years ago on her wedding day by her former boyfriend. The march in Lawrence also honors the thirty-one Massachusetts residents who have died from domestic violence in the first three-quarters of 2009. Although the annual march once attracted primarily Dominican women, this year it is more interracial. A state representative and mayoral candidate have joined the walk, as has Miss Massachusetts.

At the head of the somber line of women in white dresses and men in black walks Mary McAlary in a tailored white suit, wide-brimmed hat, pearls, and running shoes. McAlary is the president of Delamano, a Lawrence-based nonprofit that provides victims of domestic violence a Spanish-and-English helpline and access to emergency services. Delamano is the only helpline available to domestic violence victims in the city after 5 p.m., but after its state funding was cut, McAlary says her organization has been “living hand to mouth.” She credits much of its survival to a dedicated group of Unitarian Universalist volunteers who have come to her through an organization called Jericho Road. “We’d never be in the position we are in today if it weren’t for the help of Jericho Road,” says McAlary.

Jericho Road is a seven-year-old effort affiliated with several Unitarian Universalist congregations that matches white-collar volunteers who can donate professional services with nonprofit organizations in need. Jericho Road volunteers have assisted Delamano with budgeting, computer networking, graphic design, web design, and insurance. Two volunteers, Dave Kovner and Donna Cloney, have done all the public relations and marketing work to publicize the Brides’ March. PR professionals, their publicity has attracted TV crews and reporters from the local English and bilingual newspapers.

Kovner and Cloney are members of North Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in the adjacent town of North Andover. They have come to the walk with seven other church members, who also belong to Cloney’s small-group ministry. In a full-length wedding gown with puffy lace sleeves, Cloney hands out fliers to curious onlookers as the parade of brides snakes towards city hall, drawing spectators out of storefront markets and beauty parlors.

Delamano is only one of the nonprofit organizations in Massachusetts’s Merrimack Valley that have received assistance from Jericho Road since its start at the First Parish in Concord in 2003. Members of the Concord church, including venture capitalists, bankers, and consultants, launched Jericho Road as a new model of social justice work. The church, like many UU congregations, had traditionally focused its social justice efforts on charity work, but these members were interested in finding hands-on opportunities to create more systemic change. The Concord group has concentrated its efforts on serving nonprofits in Lowell, another Merrimack Valley community twenty-five miles north of Concord. Lowell and Concord sit on opposite ends of the demographic spectrum: The median household income in Lowell, once a prosperous city of textile mills, hovers just below $40,000, while the median household income in Concord, an affluent and historic Boston suburb, is more than $115,000.

The North Andover church started its chapter two years later, in 2005, and has concentrated its efforts on Lawrence, which, like Lowell, has suffered as manufacturing jobs have disappeared. “We’re focused on helping small, poor, post-industrial cities,” says Dan Holin, executive director of the Jericho Road Project.

Jericho Road seeks to help these cities and their residents by aiding established nonprofit organizations there. The project supplies nonprofits with management consultants, lawyers, bankers, executive coaches, software designers, and other professionals who can work with them on specific projects. “The nonprofits are on the front line in the community,” says the Rev. Jenny Rankin, a minister at First Parish in Concord. “We’re trying to help them become stronger.”

The success of Jericho Road in Lowell and Lawrence in helping nonprofits has spurred other congregations and organizations to begin replicating their work. New Jericho Road organizations are being established in two other Massachusetts cities and across the country in Pasadena, California. The work is complex, but the process is straightforward, says Holin: “We’re matchmakers,” he says, pairing white-collar volunteers with nonprofits. The goal: to enhance the quality of life by building the capacity of nonprofits through skills-based volunteering. In the process, Holin says, they enrich the lives of the volunteers, too.

A sermon by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired the name for the Jericho Road Project. In his controversial 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam,” King spoke of a “true revolution in values” that would call people to “question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.” He said:

On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

Jenny Rankin suggested the name Jericho Road to a group of First Parish in Concord members she had assembled in 2000 after hearing a repeated refrain from members that they did not feel that the church’s social action programs tapped their talents. At the same time, people wanted to engage in social action that created systemic change rather than charity work that felt like flinging coins to beggars.

“We talked a lot about the concept of teaching people to fish rather than providing fishes,” says Tony Gallo, a marketing and strategy consultant and one of a dozen First Parish members in the original brainstorming sessions. After a few years of discussions, a concept began to emerge. First Parish formed Jericho Road Project, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization independent from the church, selected a board of directors, and hired Holin as executive director.

Holin had recently relocated to Concord from Israel. He had worked for a year for the Massachusetts Cultural Council, building bridges between museums and minority communities. The Jericho Road job was also about building bridges, he recalls. “My whole life has been bridging,” says Holin. The son of an American mother and an Israeli father, Holin grew up in both countries. He wasn’t familiar with churches, Concord, or Lowell, but Jericho Road intrigued him.

He began to try to make inroads into Lowell with little sense of whether he could succeed. “It was like running around in the woods trying to find a way out,” he says. Holin launched a small marketing campaign to Lowell nonprofit groups to promote Jericho Road volunteers. To his surprise, his first request came from the largest social service agency in Lowell, Community Teamwork Inc. (CTI), which needed help creating a new strategic plan.

Holin laughs at the memory of the large request of their novice firm. Tall and thin with close-cropped brown hair and a graying goatee, he is always quick with a metaphor. “It was like a house contractor suddenly being asked to build a skyscraper,” he says. But he didn’t say no. Two Jericho Road volunteers held two days of public strategic planning meetings in Lowell and delivered a top-notch strategic plan to CTI. “That strategic plan was a credibility builder,” Holin says. “The attitude of nonprofits toward Jericho Road turned from mild skepticism to awe.”

In the seven years since, Jericho Road has become woven into the fabric of the Lowell nonprofit community. Since 2003, Jericho Road has assisted more than 125 nonprofit organizations. Last year, Holin estimates that Jericho Road volunteers provided $500,000 worth of professional help to Lowell nonprofits alone, at a cost of about $100,000. “While it’s possible to quantify the dollar value of Jericho Road’s services, it is much harder to quantify the value of their impact,” says Holin. “A personal coach delivering ten hours of counseling to a distressed nonprofit executive director may be worth $1,000. But if that counseling kept the talented director from leaving the organization, the value of the impact is far greater than the value of the service itself.”

Jodi DeLibertis can’t drive very far in Lowell without passing the door of an agency that Jericho Road has helped. The program director of Jericho Road Lowell, DeLibertis spends little time in her office, a desk in a redeveloped yarn factory across the railroad tracks from downtown Lowell. Mostly, she is driving her aging green minivan from one nonprofit to the next. “I have the best job in the world,” says DeLibertis. “My daughter says all I do is take people out to coffee. That’s about half of it.”

She joined Jericho Road in 2007, around the same time she became a member of her first UU congregation, the First Religious Society of Newburyport, Massachusetts. “I find Jericho Road and First Religious Society mutually reinforcing,” she says, as she points out Jericho Road landmarks.

Out the left window, she indicates a playground under construction that was planned by a volunteer landscape architect. She passes the Senior Center, the Hellenic Center, and the city library, all clients. “There’s the Lowell House, a substance abuse prevention center,” she says, for which a graphic designer and communications expert produced a brochure. She ticks off more clients as she drives: a Cambodian dance troupe, a center for Southeast Asian children, a legal services clinic. One brick building houses two clients: the Rape Crisis Services Center of Greater Lowell and the International Institute, which provides immigration and refugee services. She passes the Greater Lowell Community Foundation (“We did their annual report”) and the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project (“We helped recruit people for their advisory board”). For the Lowell Telecommunications Corporation, Jericho Road volunteers help set up wireless communications downtown.

DeLibertis walks into one of Lowell’s great nonprofit success stories, the United Teen Equality Center. UTEC, as it is known, is a teen drop-in center in downtown Lowell aimed at curbing gang violence. Started in 1999 in a church basement with a $40,000 budget and three volunteer staff members, the center has blossomed into a multifaceted teen center in a converted Methodist church. It serves more than 1,000 teens each year and now has an annual budget of $850,000 and nine fulltime staff. UTEC offers a culinary and catering program, a farm program, free afterschool mental health counseling, GED programs, social clubs, and political groups. The church’s former sanctuary is a basketball court, with stained glass windows casting multicolored light onto weight rooms where the side aisles used to be. (See a slideshow of photographs by Ilene Perlman at UU World's Flickr page.)

A Jericho Road volunteer architect help UTEC staff select and renovate the new space. Other volunteers have helped the center with brand strategy, legal issues, market research, web development, and database management. Volunteer Steve Kroll set up UTEC’s phone and computer systems (as he has for Lowell’s Quilt Museum, Revolving Museum, and other nonprofits).

Jessica Wilson, UTEC’s director of development, has been impressed by the commitment of all the volunteers who have given time to UTEC. “Having the ability to work with gangs doesn’t mean that we have the expertise with IT or legal issues,” she says. “But I can call Jodi for help with these things, and I can work on what we do best.”

John Conley, a First Parish member and president of the Jericho Road Lowell board of directors since 2008, is partner and co-founder of Gilliam Capital, a life-science investment firm in Concord. His first stint with Jericho Road was to advise the Lowell Southeast Asian Water Festival, an annual celebration of the cultures of the thousands of Lowell’s residents in Khmer, Thai, Vietnamese, and Laotian communities. Prior to working with Jericho Road, Conley said, he never would have found himself “sitting around a table trying to solve problems with a second generation Laotian and a Cambodian refugee trying to plan a Buddhist festival.” He has worked with people who personally, or through family members, lived through the brutality of the Pol Pot regime or the Vietnam War and have come to Lowell to find a better life. “If it weren’t for Jericho Road, I wouldn’t be able to have that experience,” he says.

“I think of the key arms of my faith as a direct spiritual experience and an active service component,” Conley says. “And this is the active service component. It’s extremely fulfilling, helping me with an itch that had always been there and hadn’t been scratched.”

When Jericho Road Lowell was first established, it concentrated on finding volunteers to meet specific request from nonprofits. As Holin and DeLibertis have become woven into the fabric of the nonprofit community, however, they have started to anticipate needs and identify broader issues that need addressing. “We’re also a nonprofit, so we have an eye-level view,” says Holin. “Because we know our clients and they are our colleagues, we build trust and talk with them about what they need.”

For example, DeLibertis used to get many requests for graphic design and marketing materials. But in talking with volunteers, she began to realize that the clients often did not have a strong enough grasp of marketing issues to know what they needed. So she offered a marketing workshop for nonprofits in 2008. Forty-five people attended a crash course in marketing, learning about market research, branding, and public relations. “Now we’re starting to get different kinds of marketing requests,” she says, “and our copywriters and graphic designers are getting used better.” Similarly, she organized a seminar on nonprofit finance in the fall of 2009.

At Jericho Road Lawrence, Executive Director Joan Kulash was hearing repeated requests from nonprofits for assistance researching and writing grants. In response she helped create a grant resource center for nonprofits in the campus library of Northern Essex Community College, with the aid of Associated Grant Makers. Prior to the center opening in the fall of 2008, employees and volunteers at Lawrence nonprofits had to travel thirty miles to Boston to use AGM’s free database.

Finding qualified board members is a common concern Holin hears. As a result, he is piloting a new program to train and place executives from area corporations on nonprofit boards. The program would generate revenue in turn for finding community service opportunities for executives.

Like the nonprofits it supports, Jericho Road Lowell is continually seeking grants to fund its good works. It relies on donations from individual and corporate sponsors, as well as private and public grants. In October, it received its first federal grant, a $150,000 award through the Compassion Capital Fund aimed at organizations that provide social services to low-income communities. In the grant world, money often follows money. So DeLibertis is hopeful that with one federal grant under their belts, more federal money will follow. “It opens up a new world of opportunity for us,” she says.

The North Andover church started the Jericho Road Lawrence program in 2005 after the Rev. Lee Bluemel heard Dan Holin describe the Lowell program at a large church conference. “What attracted me to the model is that it appeals to people of all political bents—Green, Democrat, Republican,” says Bluemel. She finds that it has gotten a new sector of the congregation involved in social action at the church, notably more men than had previously participated in the church’s social justice work.

Members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Reading, Massachusetts, have recently joined the North Andover church in volunteering at Lawrence nonprofits.

In June 2009, a new Jericho Road chapter was launched in Worcester, Massachusetts, a partnership between the First Unitarian Church of Worcester and the city’s First Baptist Church.

This year, a new Jericho Road chapter is being introduced in Lynn, Massachusetts. It is the first chapter to spring not out of a UU congregation, but out of a secular organization. Its volunteers are employees who work at a General Electric facility in the city.

“UU churches are a good launching pad for Jericho Road affiliates,” says Holin, but they’re not the only one. He is also careful to note that even though Jericho Road springs most often from churches, it is not a traditional faith-based organization. “We’re borne out of a church, but our values are humanist. People in all kinds of organizations that Jericho Road serves can relate to that,” says Holin. “We have no faith agenda, and we don’t proselytize.”

Jericho Road’s first offshoot outside of Massachusetts began in the fall of 2009. Jericho Road Pasadena was launched from the Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church of Pasadena, California.

The Pasadena church, like First Parish in Concord, is a large church. Pasadena has 760 members; Concord has nearly 800. A church needs a large membership base to generate the number of skilled volunteers to serve a nonprofit community. That’s why smaller churches, such as North Andover (370 members) and Worcester (450), have found partner institutions. Holin says that a Jericho Road affiliate also needs a cluster of urban nonprofits within a thirty-minute drive and a funding community that can support the work.

To support future Jericho Road sites, Holin has developed a “replication manual” and workshops to help new groups get started. Jericho Road Lawrence operates as its own independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The other chapters, in Worcester, Lynn, and Pasadena, are affiliate sites of the Jericho Road Project, which has grown to four full-time employees and an annual budget of $420,000.

When First Parish in Concord established the Jericho Road Project, all of its volunteers were church members. As word has spread about the group, however, volunteers with no connection to the church have joined from the community at large. Rankin believes that is an opportunity. “People hear about Jericho Road and then they hear about our church,” she says. “Then they have a better understanding about what Unitarian Universalism is.”

Even with outside volunteers joining Jericho Road in increasing numbers, however, Holin believes that the church and Jericho Road will always be intrinsically linked. “We are the church’s spawn,” he says. “And they’re in our DNA.”

On the last Sunday in October, members of First Parish in Concord have gathered for worship in a social justice service focused on Jericho Road. Katharine Esty, one of the founding board members of the Jericho Road Project, calls the congregation to worship. She recalls a time, before Jericho Road, when she volunteered with other church members to paint an apartment for a woman with disabilities in low-income housing. Esty’s painting skills were poor, the woman criticized the group for being too messy, and Esty found herself wishing she could volunteer her strategic planning skills instead.

A few years later, after Jericho Road was established, Esty was able to do just that. “When I reflect on my life,” she tells the congregation, “being part of the startup of Jericho Road is one of the high points of my life.”

From the pulpit, First Parish’s senior minister, the Rev. Gary E. Smith, recalls the words of the sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. that gave its name to the Jericho Road Project. Smith tells the story of the Good Samaritan, who helped the man who was robbed and beaten on the Jericho Road. “I’d never heard the Jericho Road story in the way King described it,” Smith says. “I’d never considered the road itself and what it stood for.”

Dan Holin and Jodi DeLibertis look up from the pews. Founding board members, current board members, and volunteers are there, too. Downstairs, DeLibertis has set up a table for coffee hour—stocked with pastries from a Brazilian bakery in Lowell—to entice new volunteers.

Smith invokes the early Universalists, who ushered in a faith centered on building up a blessed community in the here and now, rather than focusing on an afterlife. Jericho Road’s work fits squarely in the tradition, he says, in its concern for others. “Do we love our neighbors as ourselves,” he asks, “so our neighbors can be fed and loved and share in the joy of community?”

“Moving down the Jericho Road is high-risk work for us, because we are the mighty and the rich,” Smith preaches. “The work of justice remains. We are building a beloved community, and all must be included.”

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