SBRC ENTREPRENEUR SPOTLIGHT: Justin Beene, Bethany Christian Services and Building Bridges Professional Services

SBRC ENTREPRENEUR SPOTLIGHT: Justin Beene, Bethany Christian Services and Building Bridges Professional Services

Every day, we go to work.

We might work a 9-5, 5-9, or 9-9, but we spend the largest chunk of our time awake at work. That only increases as we get older.

It’s hard to ask questions about the nature of work when we’re swimming in it every day; what it’s for, what it means to us, and what it should mean. But if you start asking those questions, you can come to some interesting conclusions.

One person who asked those questions and came back with some very interesting answers is Justin Beene.

Beene grew up on the southeast side of Grand Rapids, near Wealthy and Diamond. Growing up with an African-American father, a Caucasian mom, and four siblings, he developed a keen awareness of the racial and economic gaps in our community. Through his education, he sought to learn how to bridge those gaps.

Beene began his college education at Western Michigan University in social work and then went on to earn a master’s in Social Work with an emphasis in Management of Human Services at the University of Michigan. He then combined this education in social work with a theological foundation, studying Urban Ministry Leadership at the Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. Currently he’s working on a Doctorate of Entrepreneurial Transformational Leadership for the Global City.

While he was continuing his education at the University of Michigan in 2006, Grand Rapids was having a terrible summer. There was a rash of shootings, the victims of which were primarily of African-American men. This hit close to home for Beene, as many of the victims were connected to the caseload of his brother, Marques, a probation officer on the Southeast side.

In response, the Beene brothers realized was that the community needed more jobs for young people. So along with his brothers Marques and Nathan, Beene began employing area youth to pick up trash in their neighborhoods. It was simple enough work, but anyone with a job can tell you how transformative work can be, especially work that engages you in your own neighborhood.

After his graduation, Beene was hired as the Youth Program Supervisor for Bethany Christian Services here in Grand Rapids. One of his responsibilities was finding employment for about 30 kids in the program. As Beene explains:

“That was in 2007-2008, and that was pretty unthinkable to find 30 high-risk youth jobs. At one point, youth employment was 40% in certain neighborhoods. So I said to Bethany ‘Hey, I got this thing on the side that I’ve been doing with my brothers.’ And we slowly started trying to make the two things work, one providing social services but also conducting an enterprise where we wouldn’t just pick up trash but would cut grass, do landscaping, and provide fee-for-service to pay the students.”

This program, now called “Building Bridges Professional Services,” is a social enterprise that maintains over 400 properties in the Grand Rapids area. It has a quadruple bottom line; in addition to profits, his business concerns itself with social, spiritual, and environmental impact. It now occupies a 120-year-old building in the Madison Square neighborhood, which the youth in his program helped to renovate.

This facility, “The Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation,” houses not only the landscaping business, but also all of Bethany’s youth development programming: a pilot coffee shop called “Rising Grinds,” and “Youth Build,” which helps teach youth the construction trades. Justin’s team is even exploring creating more jobs through ethically-sourced products like coconut oil and coffee.

By any standard, the model is impressive. A total of almost 2,500 students have gone through the program since Beene started. This year, he expects to train an additional 400 kids, and another 50 in Detroit. On top of all that, “Building Bridges” turned a profit of $20,000 last year and shared some with its employees.

Beene cites the success of the hybrid model to his staff, especially his leadership staff:

“I think the biggest thing I can celebrate is that we have 5 leadership staff and none of them have left. We add one every year. One guy’s been with me for 8 years, one for 7 years. A lot of times, people don’t stay in the work for that long, and you lose that historical perspective, as well as the connections they’ve made with students and families. That’s made us very strong, to have that continuity.”

Beene also notes that what is most important is a culture of affirmation; that’s the biggest thing that our young people often lack, and the most important aspect of the model as a whole. As he goes on to explain:

“The biggest thing is that so many young people have not been affirmed in who they are. The way I see it, every person has extreme dignity, and they’ve been endowed by their Creator to have skills and great creative capacity. Different people have different innate skills, but I think the biggest thing for me is that we look at everything through a strength-based approach, saying ‘let’s look at what you have, let’s look at what you’re passionate about, and let’s affirm that.’ In that [kind of a] space, young people blossom.”

Beene has been educated in social work, theology, and business, but has found his calling by bridging the gaps among people, communities, businesses, nonprofits, and churches. In Madison Square, it might seem like he’s creating something wholly new. Instead, Beene explains:

“It goes back to the original question of ‘what is business for?’ I believe that business is for the common good. It was never designed to create wealth for only certain individuals or classes, but wealth is for the advancement of whole communities and nations. We see business and work as a transformative gift. People are designed to work, to be co-creators in shaping our universe—and that’s a good thing. Business helps build character and perseverance, it helps young people learn how to solve problems and get a reward for a job well done. When we’ve been robbed of that opportunity, or we don’t take advantage of an opportunity, then we miss a part of what we were originally designed for.”

Yet there are many wounds that still plague Grand Rapids, deep racial and economic injustice that go far beyond individual responsibility. Social enterprise is a mechanism to begin to heal those wounds. Beene has made it his life’s mission to further that kind of work. He is confronting those wounds head on, diving into the pain so that we might stop the transmission of those wounds and transform them into hope for the next generation.

As we work towards that change, Beene by no means suggests we stop giving. But he does suggest that we start hiring, training, and exploring cross-sectoral solutions that work to create equitable wealth and opportunity.

You can hire Building Bridges Professional Services through their website here