FareStart’s New Chief Program Officer Envisions More Employment Pathways Out of Poverty

July 18, 2022

Carlin Llorente (he/him) joined FareStart as Chief Program Officer in January. He comes, most recently, from Washington STEM, where as Director of Strategic Partnerships he worked on equitable career pathways across Washington state. Six months into Carlin’s new position at FareStart, he sat down with us to share stories about his own pathway and his thoughts about the future of FareStart’s job training and employment programs.

You joined FareStart during a time when many organizations are reassessing how they approach their work to realize their mission. Is FareStart undergoing a similar transition with its job training and employment programs?

FareStart’s vision, mission and values remain steady: we work to lessen poverty, alleviate hunger and help people thrive over the long term.

As FareStart’s Chief Program Officer, my team and I are responsible for FareStart’s job training and employment programs as well as wraparound social services like housing and substance use treatment— everything students need to transition from surviving to thriving.

Innovating is not new to FareStart, but over the past two years, the organization has adapted and evolved in ways that would have been unimaginable pre-pandemic. The program team shifted from in-person training to an e-learning program, which focused on self-empowerment and employment skills that can be applied in the food sector and across industries. The virtual training programs were so successful that we’re keeping them as we bring back in-person programming.

Rooted in our new strategic plan, we’re deepening our commitment to personal stability, economic mobility and food security. I see us living into our ideals by:

  • Personalizing support for our students, meeting them where they are in their journey and acting as their partner along the way.
  • Providing more pathways to higher-wage jobs that break cycles of poverty.

FareStart is in a very strong position to benefit the community in the generations to come. I’m excited about what we can do together from here.

Before we dive deeper into your vision, share a little about the time and place you grew up. Do you see any connections with FareStart’s vision, mission and values?

FareStart values the lived experiences of students and staff—seeing these experiences as resources one can use to build a future. I’ve never worked anywhere where I felt more confident in bringing my experiences and full self to the work.

Like many of us, I grew up in a loving and complicated family. 

My dad’s an immigrant from the Philippines. Through the GI Bill, he was the first in his family to go to college and then medical school to become a doctor. Real American Dream stuff. His U.S. Army service took us all over the world.

And because of his own life experience, he struggled, he had a spectacular midlife flameout. He ended up losing it all and going to prison. He’s been stable for a long time now, and I’m so proud of him and how he’s continued to move forward no matter what.

My mom was a teacher, now retired from the Clover Park School District. We’ve always shared an interest in education and the power of learning to change lives. That’s been the focus of my own career.

When I learned about an opportunity at FareStart, I was intrigued. The more I learned about the organization and the work, the more excited I became. FareStart is about starting wherever you are and providing learning opportunities and a supportive community where people can create their own pathway toward a brighter future.

I’m reminded of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s talk about the danger of a single, simple story. Like all of us, I’m shaped by a broad range of experiences. For me, that meant experiencing both material middle-class stability and economic disorder and scarcity. Close family relationships marked by connection and safety; others marked by incarceration, mental illness, suicide and substance use disorder. 

My life is a tapestry, and I am so fortunate to get to bring all these experiences to make my work better every day.

Was food a memorable part of your childhood?

Yes! My childhood and my life today. I come from families where gathering around a table is a big thing. Filipino feasts—daylong occasions with dozens of family members, very liberally defined—have always been one of my favorite things.

I grew up cooking for my family and my skills are fine, but these days I really love the hosting and hospitality part of gathering. My wife and I make a good pair. She’s got hundreds of cookbooks and an endless curiosity for ingredients, techniques and flavors.

FareStart understands the power of food to connect people and build communities. That resonates deeply with my own experience. It’s another reason I’m so glad to be here.

Along with feeding the hungry, FareStart trains youth and adults to thrive in culinary careers, to gain stability and economic mobility. The restaurant industry looks different now than before the pandemic. So do a living wage and housing prices in King County. How will FareStart respond to changing community needs?

FareStart is always going to feed people—it’s core to who we are. We will always honor culinary and hospitality career pathways. And we’re going to create a bigger impact for more people by looking to the broader food system. 

FareStart will train people for careers that help them move towards a living wage and eventually family-sustaining wages. Graduates of our training programs will start in FareStart kitchens and food-based social enterprises, gaining skills that will serve them in a diverse economy. Pathways to jobs of the future are a powerful tool in disrupting poverty. 

As Baby Boomers and older Gen X’ers retire in bigger and bigger waves, it will open up so many opportunities—across industries—where wages are good, benefits are good and people can sustain themselves and their families. 

It starts with food. Think of the food industry as a set of circles. At the very center would be small, locally owned, farm-to-table fine dining. Then you have the restaurant layers around that, including national chains. FareStart historically focused on training students for restaurant work in these two circles—and we’ll continue to do so—but if we’re going to maximize our impact and live into our mission, we’ll have to look more broadly. Think of it as “food plus.”

The next circle out includes jobs making and serving food in non-restaurant settings: hospitals, schools or corporate cafeterias. Then food processing such as canning and freezing, warehouse work, packaging, transportation moving food from farms, and grocery direct to restaurants. You also have refrigeration, installing and fixing stoves, and building kitchens and food environments.

These food-system jobs represent tens of thousands of poverty-busting, family-sustaining career opportunities. Workers get living wages, family-friendly schedules and pathways for advancement. 

This is where FareStart is heading. It’s going to take a lot of creativity and partnerships. I don’t yet know where people are going to get their forklift training, for example. But I’m confident that one of our partners, current or future, will be eager to lean in and help us make it happen. 

More pathways out of poverty sound like the potential to help more people. 

Yes! FareStart aims to train people in greater and greater numbers. We want to engage with people for longer and help them create careers that bring purpose and permanence. 

Will FareStart also look to industries beyond the ecosystem of food?

Food will remain the foundation of FareStart’s work.

So many people, me included, had their first jobs in food and hospitality—and it makes sense! 

There’s a low barrier to entry. You can participate right away and without much preparation. And you’re doing something meaningful: feeding people. People who wouldn’t be welcomed in other environments are welcome here. At the same time, some restaurants are known to be tough, even abusive, places to work – especially for women. Those things are true. And food environments are places of powerful belonging and purpose. There’s nothing more basic than feeding each other, working together and staying safe and warm.

No matter where your career takes you, you carry skills and knowledge forward. My first job was at a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop in Lakewood, near Tacoma. I recently did a service shift at our new Galaxy location, where a lot of sandwiches are being made and a lot of chicken salad is being scooped. I have to say, my scooping skills are still sharp! But seriously, I also learned how to solve problems, work with a team, work with the public, ask for help, support others and learn new technical skills. Those fundamental job skills are ones I continue to use at work and in life every day. They are the most valuable skills for students to develop at FareStart.

You mentioned a vision of personalizing support for students. What does it mean for FareStart to be a person-centered program?

Being person-centered means creating a more adaptable, flexible program where we ask questions like: How can we partner with you to achieve what you want to achieve in your life? How can we acknowledge that your journey is specific to you? A citizen returning from 15 years of incarceration, someone who’s lived unsheltered for a long time and someone coming out of substance use treatment: each person is working with different assets and has different goals. Our goal is to support people in using their lived experience, aptitudes, interests and talents to survive and thrive.

As we bring training programs back onsite, we’ll expand and diversify them. The average kindergartner and the average college graduate can name the same number of careers. We do a terrible job in this country of helping young people understand all the careers available to them. You know what your parents do, what your friends’ parents do, and what you see on TV. Let’s match a person’s interests and aptitudes to a range of wonderful and worthwhile career opportunities.

The board unanimously committed in 2020 to making FareStart an antiracist organization. You’ve been working on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) for at least 15 years. What equitable practices do you see in place today at FareStart?

Stating a value and backing it up with structure and action is very important to me. 

One of the reasons I came to FareStart is that they were very clear about putting a stake in the ground on DEI. They said FareStart is committed to being an antiracist organization. Then the organization created and funded leadership-level positions committed to support the work. Every person at FareStart has a responsibility to our DEI and antiracism practice, this work was staffed and empowered. Organizations willing to do that have a much better likelihood of transformation.

I see FareStart’s commitment to DEI, like our commitment to trauma-informed care and person-centered services, as a powerful way to deepen our commitment to our mission. We’re not doing DEI instead of what we used to do. It’s all connected.

We sometimes hear from graduates that FareStart “saved their life.” Do you see it that way? 

I couldn’t be prouder that thousands of graduates have changed their lives through our job training and employment programs. FareStart’s social enterprise businesses and programs have made a substantial difference in our community. But it’s too simple to say that FareStart saves people’s lives. 

Rather than talk about bootstrapping or who saved who, we can fairly say that FareStart provides opportunities and a community where people do change their lives. Sobriety can be maintained, families can be mended and careers can be launched. The truth is that it takes a collaboration between someone ready to change—the extremely hard work that entails—and an organization ready to meet them where they are and support their journey. The partnership is what makes such powerful transformation possible.

FareStart is beloved by the community. Some may see change as scary or exciting or uncertain.

I’m continually reminded how much the community respects FareStart and our mission. The organization and its legacy have earned the respect—and love—of thousands upon thousands of people. And it isn’t love from afar. So many people have played an active role in creating FareStart over the past 30 years, investing both time and money. It will take even more people to realize our vision of food-plus, family-wage career pathways.

The mission is the mission. The values are the values. They’re lofty. They’re high ideals. FareStart is committed to the pursuit, imperfect and beautiful—together with our community—and I’m here for it.