Lee Bowes of America Works, on the Quest for Jobs

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I SPENT most of my childhood in Boston. My parents were liberals who were very involved in social causes. My four siblings became artists. One brother, who has died, was a painter, and a second one still is. The third one writes, and my sister is a musician. Starting around the age of 9, I took private violin lessons and sang in a choir. Then in high school, my sister and I took a trolley after classes to a music conservatory for additional lessons.

When I enrolled at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, I continued singing and I played in the school orchestra, but I wanted to follow a different path from my siblings. I acted somewhat like a diva when I was involved in music, and I always felt better about myself when I was giving back. My parents had instilled in us the value of helping those less privileged. In high school, I tutored inner-city students in Roxbury, Mass., and read to children at Boston Children's Hospital who had birth defects. In college, I lived in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles to conduct research for my thesis.

I majored in sociology, graduating in 1973, then spent a year at a nonprofit that counseled young probationers and ran educational programs for them. I left to attend Columbia University for a master's in social work. I took a course on social policy with Sumner Rosen, an economist friend of my father's from his days as a leader of a teachers union, and he became my mentor. He taught that work should be the central social policy as opposed to giving people handouts. That strongly influenced me.

After graduating in 1976, I worked for two years in a government jobs program that placed low-income and long-term unemployed people in jobs, and in 1978 I got a job as executive director at another nonprofit that found jobs for hard-to-place workers. While there, I received a Ph.D. in sociology from Boston University and met my future husband, Peter Cove, a co-worker.

Welfare recipients told us that they wanted to work instead of receiving benefits. Armed with calculations, I was able to show municipal governments that we could reduce the welfare rolls by finding jobs for these clients. But when we raised money from private companies to offer these workers temporary-to-permanent jobs, the government viewed that as a reason to pay us less. I had to convince them of the error in their logic.

Not all of my father's liberal views wore off on me. Over lunch with him one day, I mentioned that I'd had to fire a few employees at the nonprofit. He said that if he could, he'd fire me for doing that. I said, "But Dad, these were no-show workers." He said they probably had a good reason for not showing up.

Peter and I married in 1984, and he left the organization that year to start America Works, a welfare-to-work, for-profit staffing agency that relied on state grants at the time. In 1987, I left and joined Peter there as C.E.O., and we expanded our services to other workers, including veterans, former prisoners and the mentally and physically disabled. I've since assumed the title of president as well. We have five offices in New York City and nine others around the country.

Our sister staffing agency, America on Demand, provides services at a higher level and employs workers with more skills. I'm also the C.E.O. of this company. In 2005, Peter founded yet another organization, the Work First Foundation. He's an adviser to America Works and America on Demand, helping to formulate policy and further our mission to effect social change.

As told to Patricia R. Olsen.

employment

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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