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Interview: Gary Field on why Career Gear focuses its outreach on men – and why that’s good for women, too

, ,    /   Aug 23rd, 2010Interviews

At 32, after a two-decade battle with drug addiction, Gary Field walked out of a rehab center and shortly thereafter discovered a passion for helping others. Field began working as a social worker focusing on mental health care in New York City, but he grew frustrated with the limitations of the system.

That led him to establish Career Gear, which provides social and business skills training to men on public assistance. More specifically, the men earn clothes when they complete the program. Field, who recalls scraping together $50 for a suit to wear to a job interview, told us how his struggles helped him to understand a problem that others often overlook.

Dowser: What drove you to found Career Gear?
Field: It started in 1998, when I was working full-time as a social worker.  There were many organizations similar to Career Gear that helped women transition back into the workforce, but no organizations that were helping men.  My male clients would come to me and ask me for support, and I researched and researched and researched, but there was nothing available.

Is your work inspired by personal experience?
I’m a recovering addict.  At the age of 32, after coming out of a rehab program, I realized that I wanted to be a social worker. I had no college degree, so  I enrolled in Manhattan Community College and eventually went to NYU. When I was going through this transition and trying to find employment, one of my issues was that I didn’t have any decent clothing.

Aha – this must be the origin of Career Gear’s tagline, ‘A suit – a second chance.’
Exactly. Had an organization like Career Gear existed when I needed it, it would have made a huge impact upon my life. So in essence, I’m now helping people who are where I was 15 years ago change their lives.

Has it been difficult to convince people that an organization that works just with men is not only worthwhile but necessary?
One of the things I heard for years from foundations was, ‘We like what you’re doing, but we only give money to organizations which help women and children.’  And my argument was always, ‘We are helping women and children—by helping men!’

If you help the women and children who go back to a community where the men aren’t working, the community is never going to heal. So we are helping women and children because we’re helping men become more self-sufficient so they can help support their kids.  We were the very first organization to start doing this for men, so it’s been a struggle to fundraise.

Why, exactly?
If you consider our society a patriarchal one, which I do, it’s a lot easier to help women. It’s a lot harder to feel the same way about a man.  ‘Guys should be able to take care of themselves, pull themselves up by their bootstraps.’

We’re starting to see a shift. In our third year we got a letter from a foundation with a smallish check.  They said, ‘We think your work is admirable and very progressive,’ and I was like, ‘Progressive?’ I didn’t think it was progressive at all.  I was just trying to address a gap in services.

How did you get the very first Career Gear group off the ground?
I contacted colleagues at workforce development organizations and said, ‘Hey, we just want to try this out, what guys should we work with?’ They helped me find the first 20 guys for the program. And I’d been talking to Esquire magazine about Career Gear. Esquire reached out to their contacts, who donated 20 new suits, watches, pairs of shoes, soup to nuts.

What it was like working at Career Gear in the early days?
At that time I was still working my full-time job. We didn’t even have an office space. The New York Times wrote a story about us, and then we got a call from a guy who was running an AIDS program in New York City. He said, ‘Hey, if you guys need office space, I’ve got some I can donate.’ So we moved into the basement of his program. I would go there Saturdays from 10 to 2 and Wednesday nights from 6 to 9. We were all volunteers.

So at what point did you sign on full-time to Career Gear?
I got an Echoing Green fellowship to do it. It was about $12,000 a year less than what I was making, but it was my dream.

What is your current role in Career Gear?
I’m founder and director of development.  There’s a new executive director, who was my number two guy.  One thing that I always felt was necessary in order for Career Gear to be truly successful was that I have to be able to walk away from it so it can change and grow. I’m really open to other ideas and bringing new stuff to it. I’m great with vision, I’m halfway decent with strategy, but please don’t make me ever do a spreadsheet or write a report – I’m horrible with that stuff.

Clients are normally referred to Career Gear through other agencies like homeless shelters and job training programs. You don’t accept walk-ins, do you?
No.  The building we’re in – in lower Manhattan – has got heavy-duty security, so if you’re not on our list you actually can’t get up to our offices.  But we’re on the Internet, we’re in the phonebook.  If somehow you heard about us and you wanted our services, we would do a brief assessment, and then we would refer you back to one of the organizations we work with.

But what we really want to know is that somebody is invested in himself. It was a line in the sand we had to draw, because otherwise we’d have a line around the block of people interested in getting a free suit.

Well, aside from dressing well, what skills are you giving your clients?
These guys have mainly graduated from hard skills training programs, so they know how to run a computer. But not only do they not have interview-appropriate clothing—they have horrible soft skills. They literally don’t know how to shake a hand and look somebody in the eye. We do a lot of soft skills training and interview coaching so that when the guys go out to interview they can actually get the job.

Learn More:

Do you have a favorite facet of your job?
The work that is most meaningful to me is our employment retention and life skills professional development program.  We partner with professionals around the community and they lead workshops on a variety of subjects.  The program gives our clients access to information that they would never be able to afford anywhere else.

Like what?
Time and stress management.  We also provide community building time where the guys get to connect. Other topics are health and nutrition, cooking, exercise and meditation techniques, and budgeting. Most of these guys have just been trying to stay alive. This is eye-opening for them.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Photo: Career Gear

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