September 30, 2021

Director at Covenant House New Jersey Discusses Generational Poverty and More

Dana Safa

1Huddle Podcast Episode #59

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Jim White, Executive Director of Covenant House New Jersey. Covenant House provides comprehensive residential care and related services to help New Jersey’s youth who have suffered from abuse, neglect, abandonment, homelessness, and human trafficking build a better life for themselves.

On this episode of Bring It In season two, White sat down with 1Huddle’s CEO Sam Caucci and discussed generational poverty, training young people, and leadership.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 


Below are some of the insights White shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “Leaders don’t have the luxury of whining.”
  • “We have to be optimists. Leaders have to be positive, we need to be able to get excited during the darkness.”
  • “If you want to work in this business world, you’re going to have to change some of your values or the way in which you see the world.”
  • “We have to be empathetic and be part of that tooling, part of that training, part of that paradigm shift.”
  • “Can employers become empathetic with our young people?”


Sam: Let’s kick it off. I think Jim, maybe a good place to start would be, can you share a little bit about your background and what brought you to Covenant House? 

Jim: Yeah, sure. So, this past February was 39 years when I first came to Covenant House as a young kid out of college. I grew up in a wonderful home and got the message that we needed to give back. I decided I would give one year of volunteering and I fell in love with the work. And so I stayed at Covenant House as a full-time volunteer for a few years back in the early, early 80s. And then, I have an MBA, I went to Wall Street for a few years and I was getting up often with the Sunday Scaries and realized that my passion and my vocation was really working with Covenant House. 

I went back to Covenant House after a few years on Wall Street and got my MSW and then I just dedicated myself to the work of Covenant House and working with homeless runaway and trafficked young people. 

Sam: What would surprise somebody out there who maybe is not as up to speed with the challenges of poverty today or homelessness or what’s happening? What would be some information that you would typically share with folks? 

Jim: Yeah, thank you. I know that you’re on this and 1Huddles on this, but I think one of the things that I see, you know, that there’s a divide and when you’re dealing with people with what’s called generational poverty, they have a different kind of mindset on certain values that if we’re going to employ them and help them, we have to be at least sensitive to the realities that they come from.

And as employers, I know that you have an end in mind of getting the right people in the right seats to do the job, but if we’re going to really try to tackle this divide, we’re going to have to tool our people up, but the organizations are going to have to have a little understanding of where they come from and work collaboratively to get them to that stable space.

You know, generational poverty, what does that mean? It’s really about young people who grew up in generations of poverty. And when that happens, they often have a different mindset, and what we’re working with our young people on specifically at Covenant House is to help them understand if you want to work in the business world, you have to have a value of time. Let’s just take time as one example. 

And so as an employer, and as Covenant House, we’re working with young people to understand you can’t be there at 9:15, you gotta be there at 9, and yet their relationship to time can be different. So we have a lot of work to do there and I feel that’s on Covenant House, but another one is if you understand they come with a different paradigm, often our young people want to just get a job so that it can pay a bill. We have to change their paradigm to add value and to get excited about adding value. You know, you’re a CEO, you, you want somebody to come in who can add value, and we have to teach our young people to get excited about adding value.

So, that’s a real challenge for employers today. I know that we encounter people like you with great hearts and spirit and are willing to meet us. So we have to kind of educate the employer and we really have to work hard with our young people to get them to understand that if you want to work in this business world, you’re going to have to change some of your values or the way in which you see the world, regarding time as an example. 

But also to challenge that, the employer is one of things you have to look at is helping and meeting our people around just transportation, for example, or other challenges that they have. Our organization’s willing to go a little beyond, here’s the job application, fill it out. Are you willing to kind of come down the escalator or the stairs a little bit and empathize with our young people and again, not to become social workers, but to become empathetic. And as you start to do the training for our young people, really address some of these issues that you would assume people would know. And you can’t assume it because our young people who’ve grown up in generational poverty may not know. They may not have had people in their community leaving at seven o’clock to go to a job. They may not have seen that. 

And so how do we get them to assimilate into the structure of a workplace? So that’s really a challenge for all of us. It’s a challenge for those people who live in poverty, they need to tool up and be willing to kind of embrace, for example, time. And the employer has to kind of be empathetic and be part of the learning. I know that that’s what you guys do so well, is the training, nine o’clock is important. You gotta hit the bell. So that’s just one of the things that I think as we look at this and try to create and meet at the divide, we have to tool our people up and we also have to be empathetic and be part of that tooling, part of that training, part of that paradigm shift, if I can say, for people who live in or who have lived in poverty. 

Sam: Sure.

Jim: That was a lot. Did I overdo it? 

Sam: No! I mean, you nailed it. 

Jim: That’s the challenge, right? 

Sam: It’s a lot. It makes me think about, and this is just thinking about it today, obviously, there’s a lot of talk about President Biden’s new infrastructure package, and there’s an argument about what is considered infrastructure. And one of the arguments being made is it’s no longer just bridges and tunnels, it’s human infrastructure. How do we make sure that we have an infrastructure that can lift people up and provide people with opportunities? If you have childcare challenges, that’s going to carry over. It’s like when you clock in, there’s still stuff that you’re carrying into work.

I want to ask you, are there any specific recommendations or great success stories you’ve seen on how companies specifically and corporate leaders, many of which are saying they’re trying to create more equity and more access, are there any specific recommendations that you would have for a leader out there that says, I believe in this, but where do I start? 

Jim: Thanks for that. I think what has to happen is that the handoff between social service agencies and employers is too wide as well. And there has to be an overage  to working collaboratively. So we have not been as successful when a company says, Hey, send us five of your young people. It’s when they kind of come to us or we go to them and create kind of an onboarding that sets them up for success. 

A lot of our people need a little bit more of a runway. And if the employer’s willing to kind of come to town, if you will, or we’re able to go to your house and kind of work collaboratively on how do we get them so that the work experience is not a foreign planet and try to assimilate them in a more thoughtful way, clearly the company has standards and we, as nonprofits, have to respect that and see that as a priority, we can’t bend standards.

And I’m not saying that to be clear, what I do think is value and we’ve seen it add value is when a group like 1Huddle and Audible, by the way, who came to us and we kind of did a co-creation of onboarding, and then also what we did was we didn’t, for some of our young people who wouldn’t make it in that industry or that particular job, we didn’t put them up for failure. For our young people and for our workers, if they fail, it’s really hard to get them to try again and they do, and we have to try, but you can imagine how that failure can almost be overwhelming.

And so we want to try to mitigate that. And how do we do that? We come together and we co-create an onboarding that is a little longer, perhaps maybe it’s a two day training or maybe it’s an orientation period, or it’s you work for two days in an internship, but kind of lengthen that and then as an agency wrap around and provide our gifts, which is connection and intervention and support, along with the organization’s gift, which is an opportunity and kind of marry and work that together.

And then maintain the standards of the company because we don’t want companies to walk away from us, and we’ve had that. So that’s really where I think we have a real opportunity to synergize. It just can’t be a handoff. It has to be a walk together as we bring them onboarding into the organization.

Sam: Why wouldn’t every company take you up on that? 

Jim: Good question! Let’s ask the listeners! Now I think, well, you know, it’s an investment. It’s an investment. And I think for us, we’ve challenged organizations to say, we know you want to help. We know that you want to help people in poverty, and 95% of our kids are kids of color. We want to provide them access out of poverty, and I think companies want to do that. 

And I think, not to dump it on the companies, I think we, as nonprofits, need to re-imagine and create that partnership as we move forward. We’ve been lucky. We work with Accenture and they’re really helping us too, and, and it’s, it’s kind of innovative, right? It’s how do we create those bridges? And I think why they don’t, the answer might be it’s an investment. It’s an investment, is one. And I know that we’re not going to be successful with all, but we’ve experienced some wonderful successes as we’ve partnered with this longer term onboarding process. 

Sam: How do you interact with, I guess, the state, local, federal government? How are they doing? As voters or individuals, how should we be thinking about the role of government in the work you’re doing? 

Jim: I’m not sure I’m the right guy to ask for that. I think the government is trying to provide some financial support. I think the dial is going to change when organizations, companies, re-imagine or work collaboratively. I think government mandates, I think governments are trying to do it, and I appreciate and applaud their efforts. And funding is important, right? We need to support our team to hire people who can help.

But I like to lean a little bit more on the corporations. I think they’re in the driver’s seat. They’re the ones with the jobs. They’re the ones who know what they need. Sometimes we get these, our young people get trained by these agencies or operatives, and then there’s no job at the end.

And so we’re kind of just, what are we doing there? You know, it just makes me kind of scratch my head. And they got three certificates. Great. You know, what have we got? We got three certificates. So not to diminish that. I mean, well, maybe. I mean that the real challenge is that real job that we can get people onto.

So I think that the government’s trying, I think we’ve got a new dawn a new day and that’s exciting, but, I think that the rubber is going to hit the road when corporations get committed to this and become some of the thought partners on how to do it. 

I mean, look at the innovation that you guys do. We use your tool for our young people and it is helping them to learn. It’s engaging them, yet it’s bringing them along. So anyway, That wasn’t a great answer for the government.

Sam: I don’t know they deserve one. They might not deserve it, so it’s fine.

I want to shift to you, Jim, but it’s hard to explain what a sleep-out is, although you all have to do it every day, so maybe that’s not accurate. But when you really experience it, it’s super powerful. And I was able to attend one right before the pandemic. And, um, I want to ask you about leadership from your seat, as someone who lead from the front, with the Covenant House in Newark and through all of these events into a global pandemic, watching as your organization has been on the front lines and had to shift and had the staff and had to grow. I’d love to ask you your personal philosophy and perspective on leadership.

Jim: During these, I’ve been doing this for a very, very long time and when the pandemic hit, it felt like freshman year. I was like, wait, I thought I knew how to do this. Right. So that was a real challenge. And as we all know, challenges, opportunities, and a couple of things from my perspective on leadership, what I tried to do was inspire my staff, right? To say, Hey guys, this is going to be a real challenge. We’re taking care of over 150 kids in shelter, who aren’t compliant, but what I said to them was, and I hope it was inspiring, and I think it was, I said, we were built for this. We know despair. We know fear of the future that we’re experiencing. We know because we see it in the eyes of every kid who comes to Covenant House. They’re always frightened of the future. They’re always fearful of what’s going to be next. And we know that and we see that.

And the way to counteract that is to be together, to come together and to be in unity. As we work in community, some call it team, I call it community, to work collaboratively and work together. So I think leadership is to inspire. I also would say this to the leaders too. You don’t have the luxury of whining.

You can’t woe is me, oh my god  I don’t know. And the rules kept changing, you know? It was very humbling. I said, okay, I’m going to mandate everybody get a vaccine and they go, yeah, you can’t do that. I go, oh, okay. Erase that,  just kidding. The challenge, tt was the moving target and was hard, but I do think that we don’t have the luxury of whining.

I think that we have to be optimists, especially in our business, leaders need to bring in positive energy into the room. You can go have your tears wherever you need to have them. But when you come to the aid to the work, you have to bring your best self. People are counting on that. And these are our opportunities to really step up and provide.

So I think that as leaders, we have to get excited about this opportunity in the darkness to be positive and to be a light and to bring people together. So to the leaders that work for me, I say, there’s no whining. You know that sign ‘no whining’ with the red star. That’s the sign, man.

This is when leadership demands us to be a positive force in the organization as we go forward. And then to be humble. I was in three meetings a week, one with the state, one with the local and one with our Covenant House internet on COVID. And there was a real humility, and yet, an uncertainty.

And I think that in leadership, we have to have that humility. And I think I’ve said I made a bad decision. Like what times in the last year and a half than I’ve ever said in the last 20, like, whoops, we’re going to change, we’re going to pivot. We’re going to make a different decision. So I think humility is core as well. 

So those are two things. And then the last thing I think is, for us, a real challenge is how do we speak true to our mission? And yes, respond to COVID. I mean, basically for a long period of a couple of months, we were just COVID protecting. I felt we were off mission a little bit, trying to move kids to stable living environments. We were just trying to keep everybody safe. So I think flexibility would be another one. But for me, I think the commercial would be no whining. Suck it up. You’re in charge. They’re paying you. You’re getting paid to be the leader. Step up now.

Sam: You totally saw companies whose leaders got tested and some leaned in and some leaned back and we saw it with a lot of companies when they made decisions on who do you furlough? Do you lay off? I was talking to companies that said, we lay everybody off for the minute it happened. And I’m like, well, that says something, doesn’t it, if that’s your knee-jerk reaction, those workers are going to come back. At some point, they’re gonna come back and they’re going to remember how you treated them at that moment. 

Jim: So true. And for me, what I experienced was in trying to communicate and communication obviously is essential, because that old telephone game and what can be misheard, and then somebody read an article online that says the information was just all over the place.

So picking who we were going to trust and who was going to be the the science that we were going to trust was a challenge, I think as well. But also setting up the state saying, Hey guys, we’re gonna do the best we can. Information is changing. We’re going to share it as much as we can.

And when we started to move into getting the vaccine, it was about being in dialogue and not mandating, and so that required a ton, and continues to, about communication and relationship and emotions are so high. Tensions are so high. We have to be sensitive to that and deal with that as well.

Sam: Last question, Jim. Talking about the future of work and hope. What’s your hope for the future of work? 

Jim: Well, I’m excited about it. Again, I have to read for my own hymnal here. I said that we have to be positive. So I am excited about it because I think that companies and organizations like yours and others are asking the tough question, which is how do we come back?

And we learn from organizations like yours and others. We’re watching, and as nonprofits, we don’t have the dollar investment to think through a lot of these things. So I think we’re watching about coming back, but I also am really excited about the movement towards racism and really excited that we’re taking that on. And we haven’t really come up with a clear plan for it, but we’re suffering it. And what I talk about with our staff and how we build going forward, we have to suffer the losses. And it’s often the suffering of missing kids that makes us. 

Like, we’d started a program with kids who had mental health. We were losing kids with mental health. They were becoming part of the adult homeless population. And so what we did was that hurt us when we saw that and it moved us into action to repair and to come up. So we have a program now in Montclair, New Jersey for kids with mental health. So I think we’re suffering it, and that is a good thing because I think it’s going to move us as a nation and as companies to be responsive to this thing that we are pained by. I love it that we’re pained by this. This is a good thing because it’s going to move us into action. We have brilliant, bright people, and I trust that the corporations are the best and the brightest, and will put their shoulder power to this and we’re going to see the dial move. I’m really excited about it because for so long in my long history here, kids have not had access to the education and opportunities that they so rightly deserve.

I hope we continue to suffer this for a period of time and let it move us into positive action.

Sam: Jim, thanks for your time.

Jim: Thank you brother. See you Sam. 

Topics discussed: Poverty, Leadership, Homelessness, Human Trafficking, Training, Workforce, Jobs, Tech, Innovation, Government

Dana Safa Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle