In this episode Christina Fowler, Executive Director, talks about the impact of the Saint John Learning Exchange at a systems and individual  level. Christina shares with us how learning, knowledge and the accreditation that comes with that the Saint John Learning Exchange is able to lift people out of poverty. 

We’ve been able to proudly say, after the five year study that, for every dollar spent in The Learning Exchange, there’s an $8 return to our funders. It’s a very unique opportunity to be able to quantify socially, because we know and we feel it in our hearts every day with the learners and we see it and we have so many good news stories, but we’re also actually able to say to the taxpayers of New Brunswick, your money is well spent in this wraparound organization, and the impact is felt not only with our learners but it’s felt throughout the generations.

Christina Fowler, Executive Director

Transcript of Interview with Christina Fowler

Jenelle:
Today, we have with us Christina Feller, Executive Director of The St. John Learning Exchange and you can learn more about The Learning Exchange at stile.org. Christina, I’ve been following your career and The Learning Exchange for probably over a decade now, and I’d say it’s quite unique for many reasons, but the most interesting has been the fact that The Learning Exchange has built their own social enterprises, and in fact you have, I think, four businesses that are supporting your mission and provide the organization with sustainability. Can you tell us a little bit about the organization, its mission, and your role within it?

Christina Fowler:
I’d be happy to. I’m the Executive Director of The Learning Exchange and I’ve been…I guess, almost 16 years I’ve been with the organization and it’s been an amazing journey and experience. I started out working for government and I feel like I spent more time in government trying to kind of get around the policies and trying to support the learner. Moving into the nonprofit sector, I was able to put my talents to work better, because in our sector, it’s kind of make your own destiny. It’s a freedom seeking type of job and you put your innovation hat on and you try to lead from the ground up.

Christina Fowler:
The Learning Exchange is over 35 years old, and when we started quite a number of years ago, it was a very traditional organization, very focused on literacy and reading and GED and those types of traditional things, and we’ve expanded and grown a lot over the years. We’ve doubled our staff, we’ve created amazing businesses and it’s just been really thinking and listening to the learners and trying to figure out what works best for them in a changing market and a changing economy, and knowing that we need to provide a multitude of services to individuals, a menu really, of services, because people are unique and you have to try to figure out what works best. And so, we moved our business lines to more workplace essential skills or skills based learning. We moved it almost into what we call project based learning, and I’m so very proud of the projects that we do, and we do things like sewing projects and we have a pantry that provides food to learners, because food security is a big issue.

Christina Fowler:
We have a hydroponic greenhouse on the roof of the beautiful building that we’re in, and we really try to figure out how to do adult learning in a very different way, so that the learners feel a part of it, so that they lead things and they’re able to test their skills and one of our main focuses has been on soft skills training. That’s one of our lines of business, because when we work with employers, they tell us, we can train people on how to do the tactical things. How to use the cash register, how to do all the things that you need to do, but what they really need help with is helping people communicate better, think critically, lead work in a team, and in all our projects and in all our classrooms, we really have this base where each learner participates, and we really try to figure out how we can build those intentional soft skills to help people get, but more importantly keep jobs.

Christina Fowler:
Our lines of business have expanded from GED to skills training to soft skills. We help people get their adult high school diploma. We also help connect people to the workforce through workforce coaching, through job development, connections with employers, and all of that is done in a very intentional wraparound way. Our learners really, we’re so proud of them and we really try to provide a connection. If I was to sum up what we do, it’s really helping people build confidence and really feel a part of something and really understand that they can do it. We just try to support the best way we can all the time. And I call our organization, a wraparound organization, because each layer builds on what we do.

Christina Fowler:
We moved from a very traditional model, where we used to have what we call cohorts and we’d try to recruit 12 people and then you’d have eight start and five finish, and I’m really big on what’s the biggest bang for our buck, what’s the best return on investment. We flipped our model so that all the classrooms are continuous intake. Learners can start when they need to. They can build the skills that they actually need to build. If they don’t need to be in a 12 week program, because they just need to work on communication or teamwork, that’s what we do, and that’s a real flip of a model. It’s a very nontraditional model. Our social enterprises, again, we have been ever growing and changing with those. We built them off the side of our desk and the intention with them was to build the job skills that learners would need in a work environment, a trusted, a safe work environment, so that we could help them retain jobs.

Christina Fowler:
We hire our learners when we have the revenue to do so and 90% of this staff that are in the social enterprises are former learners, and we’re so proud of the fact that all of them have moved off of income assistance. They’ve bought cars, some have bought homes and we feel really proud of that. We’re kind of going through a wild time right now with the businesses, but we know that things will improve and we’re super proud of the staff that we have there.

Jenelle:
That is an incredible impact metric, to have 90% of employees have been your past learners that are now working in the social enterprises. And to your point, not only is the service and delivery and the approach quite innovative where you’ve moved to the wraparound organization, it’s become more holistic and more individualized, but what’s even more interesting about the social enterprises is that you’re literally taking the skills that you’re teaching in the classrooms and through your service delivery and employing it in the real world. You’re giving them employment and it’s almost like completing the circle and delivering upon your social mandate, which is really, really interesting. I know you’ve implemented a fairly robust tracking system for measuring your impact. Can you tell us a little bit more about, or maybe provide some other statistics or metrics that you feel really highlights the learning exchanges impact?

Christina Fowler:
We’ve worked really hard on our tracking and our data and about five years ago we started a journey. The federal government had provided us a five year contract, and what I say about that contract is, it gave me an ability to breathe a bit, because in our sector, sometimes we’re trying to figure out, where can I find my salary for admin or executive director and things, and that contract really helped us be able to have enough staff to build these businesses to build our metrics.

Christina Fowler:
Kind of a funny story within the social enterprises, when we started, as any social entrepreneur, we were, “let’s do whatever it takes”, but at one point we had lost all of the staff, and I was out cleaning, and my coordinators were out cleaning, because we had…cleaning houses and it was just such a funny thing to know that you might have a title of an Executive Director or of Social Enterprise Director, but at the end of the day, you have to do whatever it takes to keep your businesses alive. That attitude and that “can do” willingness that I have and I try to lead the team with that, and all of my team members have that part of them that are like, we know this, we have a product here, we know we have something that works and we’re going to do whatever it takes to do that. We’re in a very different position right now within the social enterprises, because we’ve been able to grow them so much.

Christina Fowler:
We had support from the feds from the United way and now the businesses stand on their own two feet and we’re really quite proud of that, but as far as the outcomes and the tracking, we, five years ago started a journey on a social return on investment analysis with an evaluator from Calgary, and it was an amazing experience to be able to actually look at social return, because it’s hard to quantify stories. It’s hard to say the value of someone walking into a classroom and not being able to look up or look you in the eye, and then a year later after being in our programs and working in our businesses they take on a position to be the head chef in the Stone Soup Catering company.

Christina Fowler:
It’s hard to quantify that in numbers, but the return on investment analysis has allowed us to do that. It’s allowed us to effectively track barriers, practical barriers, long lasting barriers. It’s allowed us to track the value in demonstrating soft skills. We’ve been able to proudly say, after all of the five year study that, for every dollar spent in The Learning Exchange, there’s an $8 return to our funders. It’s a very unique opportunity to be able to quantify socially, because we know and we feel it in our hearts every day with the learners and we see it and we have so many good news stories, but we’re also actually able to say to the taxpayers of New Brunswick, your money is well spent in this wraparound organization, and the impact is felt not only with our learners but it’s felt throughout the generations.

Christina Fowler:
It’s felt throughout individuals that go to work and then, their children see people going to work and going to school and setting that example and part of what we do is working towards breaking the cycle of poverty, and how you do that is instilling confidence and helping people set goals and helping reduce barriers and support individuals in that journey, from classroom, from skills based training, from adult high school diploma to sustainable full time employment. It’s not an easy journey. Trying to move yourself up and out of poverty takes tenacity, It takes support. I always equate it to almost a mine shaft where you’re trying to dig your way out and you fall back down as things happen, as barriers occur, but we’re there as an organization in partnership with other organizations to be able to hold their hand and pull people up out of that mind shaft and continue to support them even on the job and in post-secondary. An integral part of what we do is the coaching and that support and that ability to navigate through systems and the ability to support people wherever they need it.

Jenelle:
The narrative you were just speaking to about the impact of the organization at a systems level, but also at the individual level and being able to, through the service of learning and knowledge and of course the accreditation that comes with that, able to lift people out of poverty. Can you share with us a specific story that you believe highlights the impact of The Learning Exchange?

Christina Fowler:
There’s so many stories and I have so much pride in what we do. I think that the two team leads in our social enterprises, their stories are quite extraordinary. Our team lead within Stone Soup, who manages our cafe and does a lot of catering and has a team that she supports, her journey, it was a jagged journey for her and she was with us getting skills training and working through trying to get her GED. She’s still really trying hard to get her math while she’s working with us and we accommodate that as an employer and support that.

Christina Fowler:
She’s an individual again, that I can remember when she walked in, she was shy and wouldn’t even look up from her piece of paper when she walked in, and just with the confidence and support and being in different classrooms and setting goals and achieving goals, we helped her find employment at a BNB and then continued on with her, and she made her way back to us and now she’s a team lead and it’s amazing to see the progress of individuals when they feel like you care and that they feel kind of part of a part of a family.

Christina Fowler:
Our team lead within VOLA, her story is pretty amazing. She battled through an illness and she was in our skills training program, and again, she worked her way up with us, started cleaning and then we saw spark in her, and she’s the team lead within VOLA and they manage teams and they manage contracts and they have employees that they’re driving out to all kinds of caterings and all kinds of cleanings and they figure out how to do it. They use their critical thinking skills that we worked on with them and they have the support of a social enterprise director that really works on the ground with them, because I really feel in our organization that we’re all in this together. It’s just figuring out people’s talents and understanding, what do you love to do? What are you good at? We’re always looking for that potential within our learner pool and we always look at all of our learners first in the companies that we’ve created. We do a lot of short term placements in our businesses. We get to gauge, is it something that the learner likes to do? Is it something they want to do long term?

Christina Fowler:
We want to help them build their resume, but there’s so many stories and people are really moving forward, and like I said, when you can be proud enough to say that you’ve built businesses that hire people and now they’re no longer on assistance, and I can remember one of our learners actually saying, “I’ve been off income assistance for six months and I’m never going back”. And when she said that to us, we know that what we’re doing works, and we know that just by that one statement alone, you start to break the cycles of poverty, because she’s saying, I’m not relying on a system anymore. I’m actually working and I’m not going back, and so to me that kind of says it all.

Jenelle:
It’s incredibly powerful and it’s such a good anecdote for the services that are being delivered and then the final impact that is the result of humans feeling more confident and being able to sustain themselves, is an impressive outcome, for sure of the organization. What can we expect to see from The Learning Exchange over the next year and what are some of the big goals—

Christina Fowler:
Some of our big goals have been to really look critically at our funding model. Really analyze where’s the impact and how can we streamline our funding. Really look at, how do you fund based on outcomes, and we’ve been working with different government departments on an innovative funding model where you can really look at the barriers of individuals and what does it actually take through coaching to help those barriers get and keep a job. Outcomes based funding is a flip, because you’re paying for the outcomes of the organization. It’s selling so it’s kind of an interesting business model. Traditional funding is more, this is the pot of money that we have and we funded along those lines, but going after and selling your outcomes to fenders and really critically looking at the return on investment of our wraparound organization.

Christina Fowler:
A lot of our learners come in with four plus barriers and those barriers can range anywhere from criminal record to mental health to over a year gap in employment, retention issues, and we’re still able to move those individuals into part time and full time employment with support, and we figured out a way to work with those learners and to achieve the outcomes that we think are fairly significant. Another project that we’ve been doing is working with youth on the adult high school diploma and coaching with intensive case management support with another organization in our community, and that project, it’s been amazing. The results have been amazing with the learners really wanting to achieve their high school, not their GED, but their high school so that they can have that, lowered our age a bit and we now work with youth from 16 plus and we’ve been working with the school district locally and they’ve been an amazing partner, and having youth and being able to reach them sooner than 25 or 30, and they’ve been through more barriers and more things.

Christina Fowler:
It’s quite incredible to be able to adapt your curriculum and really figure out, how do we help learners in a different way, younger and get to them younger. We’ve even adapted, say the English curriculum to include drivers training, getting their permits and incorporating that into an English credit, and so I admire the work of all of the team members that I have to just figure out how to be innovative and to figure out how to use our community in a way that you call people in, you call volunteers in, you figure out whatever it takes to move the youth along, because all of our learners really are vulnerable and they need that support and we have the ability to navigate through to help them get that support.

Jenelle:
That sounds like it’s a big year both in terms of looking at the operations of the organization and the social enterprises that are supported under it, as well as in the service delivery and expanding your reach is exciting and wishing you so much luck this year as you roll those new programs and models out.

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