By Sandhya Subbarao for NY City Lens
You may have succumbed to their decadent, all-natural brownies at Whole Foods, or, if you have eaten Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream, then you have tasted them. The brownies, baked by Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, are delicious.
But Dion Drew, 36, likes them for other reasons; he owes them a lot.
After dropping out of high school in 1996 to become a crack dealer, Drew had several encounters with the New York State penal system that lasted anywhere from a few days to a few months and sometimes even longer. For seventeen years, growing up in southwest Yonkers Drew’s life was dictated by the rhythms of his street life. It was the only life he knew.
When he turned 24, Drew spent four years at an upstate prison. This gave him time to reflect on his life. “I thought I simply cannot keep doing this to my mother,” he says. “I have spent so many years causing her pain and taking from her. Now it is time for me to give back.”
That was the last time Drew was behind bars. In 2009, at 28, nine months after his release from prison, Drew’s meager savings were exhausted. He had endured many hopeless interviews, and he still couldn’t find employment. He became desperate.
“I needed the money. If they had not called me back, I would have gone back to dealing” – Dion Drew
“I was going to wait for another day,” he says. “I needed the money. If they had not called me back, I would have gone back to dealing.” But they did call. Just as he was about to give up, he received a callback from Greyston Bakery and accepted a job offer.
Greyston Bakery is located in the neighborhood where Drew grew up. It was formed in the early 1980s to give the disenfranchised a shot at a meaningful life. The organization’s motto is, “We don’t hire people to bake brownies; we bake brownies to hire people.”
In the 1980s, Yonkers had one of the largest homeless populations of any city in America and too many of its streets were littered with crack pipes and drug users. That is precisely why the bakery’s founder, Bernie Glassman, a Buddhist monk with a doctorate in Applied Mathematics, decided to establish the organization in southwest Yonkers.
Glassman believes that having a source of income directly affects an individual’s dignity and self-esteem and that being employed provides a pathway out of the vicious cycle of poverty and crime. Glassman’s philosophy is the reason that Greyston has an open-door hiring policy: If anyone walks through the doors of the bakery wanting a job, then that person is either given a job or put on a waiting list to be called later. There are no background checks or any kind of pre-screening. The bakery employs roughly 180 people. Many of them were formerly incarcerated, or were homeless, or drug users. The goal is to equip all employees with the skills they need, so that they can go on to lead productive lives.
Mike Brady, the Chief Executive Officer at Greyston, puts it this way: “We don’t judge anyone’s past. We look at their future potential.” Brady is a strategy consultant and was the founder of the technology company FAST Search and Transfer, which was bought by Microsoft in 2004. At some point, he says, “I realized that it was important to make a contribution to society.” He was on the Board of Greyston before becoming the bakery’s Chief Executive Officer in 2010.
Brady wants to use the power of business to address social issues. Transitioning back into society after spending time in prison is difficult. “A life change is hard, particularly in an environment where bad choices are easily made and second chances are hard to come by,” he says, speaking of people like Drew who are caught in the quagmire of inner city life and come to Greyston Bakery to find a job.
Once hired, Greyston employees go through a rigorous apprenticeship program, and are evaluated every two weeks, for a whole year, before being promoted. Drew has been promoted four times since joining Greyston. Today he trains newcomers, works with the R&D department and does anything else that is needed. He says he is part of the middle management. He shares a strong bond with some of his colleagues, some of whom have had similar experiences.
Dressed in his white Greyston Bakery uniform and cap, Drew speaks confidently but humbly about what a job at the bakery has done for him. “A year ago, I was asked to make a speech in front of a crowd, including the Mayor. For me, to stand in front of the Mayor and to be treated like an equal and not some guy on the street is one of the proudest moments of my life.” Now Drew is 32. He says he grew up around rap artists and loves rap music. He laughs as he admits that his favorite song at the moment is the one by the artist, Aloe Blacc. “It goes ‘Well, go ahead and tell everybody, I’m the man, I’m the man, I’m the man; this is my world.’”
Drew lives with his girlfriend and the couple has a three-year-old daughter, Brooke. “I always wanted a daughter,” Drew says “if I’m not working, I’m home spending time with her and my family.” His face lights up when he speaks of his daughter.
Drew makes roughly $30,000 a year, a little more than minimum wage. His girlfriend, who works as a school-bus monitor, splits living costs with him, but she has two children of her own. Keeping up with his expenses is a struggle. He spends half his income on rent. Then there are utility bills, living expenses, childcare costs and insurance.
“I put in a lot of overtime hours because I don’t want to get tempted into making bad choices,” Drew says “Greyston means everything to me. It has helped me find a purpose, stay focused and become patient.”
The bakery is just one part of the Greyston Foundation. The profits it makes goes toward funding a number of non-profit ventures that the foundation is engaged in, including, job-training, low-income housing, childcare, after-school programs and comprehensive HIV healthcare. According to the literature published by Greyston, in 2012 the bakery produced 4,680,000 pounds of all-natural brownies in order to pay a total of $1,188,620 in salaries to its employees. The results: a tax-contribution of $197,422 and a saving, by Greyston’s calculation, of $1,081,368 to Westchester County for the reduction in recidivism resulting from employment. And it has given people like Dion a new life.