By Brenlee Coates
Neechi Commons, a community-owned restaurant, supermarket and artist market in the North End, just celebrated its second year of operation.
Receiving the Excellence in Aboriginal Business Leadership Award last year, positive response surrounds the co-operative that gives hiring priority to Aboriginal youth and area residents, while helping to foster the neighbourhood’s economy and revitalization.
The concept itself is a noble one, but a hard one to put into practice.
General Manager Frank Parkes has been fielding questions about inner-city hiring from all over the world since guiding the organization through its successful preliminary years.
The business complex, located at 865 Main St., is deliberately positioned in a community that faces tough socioeconomic problems and barriers of employment to offer them opportunities.
Since opening, some 50 jobs have been created, with most of the jobs being granted to people who live a stone’s throw away from the building.
Many of the community members face challenges with literacy and numeracy, many have addictions issues prevalent in their families, some have intellectual or physical disabilities, and some are even transitioning out of homelessness.
But every person who walks into Neechi Commons has the chance to secure employment.
“We’re an organization of second chances and third chances and fourth chances. But we’re also an organization of first chances,” says Parkes.
“We look at someone with no experience and go, ‘OK, let’s go. You start tomorrow.’”
Many of the new hires at Neechi have no previous cash handling experience, a fractured work history, a lack of formal education and very little training. Even the number of people without driver’s licences presents a unique conundrum for the organization’s catering department.
“There’s a tremendous skills shortage,” says Parkes. “(Neechi) will rise and it will fall on its own merits. Because of that, we had to start developing a disciplined workforce very quickly.”
Getting there was a journey: “I have to rely a lot on hindsight in my line of work,” begins Parkes. “The challenge of inner city is one of those things that is tough to prepare for.”
High staff turnover in the beginning was sometimes due to terrible hardships in their lives. “Chances are if they’re working in the store and they’re stable, someone in their family is unstable,” says Parkes. “Many of the staff have experienced significant tragedies. This organization has seen its share of sadness.”
But the community at Neechi Commons has risen up. Recently, a fundraiser for MLA for Point Douglas Kevin Chief’s participation in the CEO Sleepout was held there, bringing several business leaders and government officials to the restaurant likely for the first time.
The staff stood by proudly after a seamless breakfast as Chief spoke words about the establishment and its success stories of people transitioning out of homelessness. “Everybody in here is a success story, actually,” says Parkes. “To me, that’s where the best joy in the job lies.”
Staff at Neechi are often seizing an opportunity for secure employment that might otherwise be unavailable to them. “They don’t have the price of admission, so you’ve got to create a gate where they can get in,” says Parkes.
Sense of pride
There is an overriding sense that staff members are proud of their place in the organization and the work they do. “Motivating the staff is really about showing them their potential, and showing them there is no ceiling,” says Parkes. “The next general manager is already here, and that’s the philosophy you have to have… Believe in the people that you have and start investing in their training immediately.”
But the focus isn’t just on keeping staff at Neechi – it’s staff growth, generally. “When you’re working, you’re on the high ground. It’s a lot easier to get a job when you’re already working,” says Parkes.
Neechi does most of its own on-the-job training, though community partners have contributed financially and provide consultation. Parkes is a successful Aboriginal businessman, who has an impressive work history in the military, aviation industry, and in business. After shifting gears to a job transitioning youth out of incarceration, he wanted to continue in his role as a mentor. “I was told as a kid not to tell anyone I was an Indian,” says Parkes. “We need role models, we need mentors, because I had mentors.”