Interviews with purpose-driven leaders who are dedicated to helping others and making a positive impact in the world.
September 19, 2023
Ethan Hemming | Warren Village
TELL US, WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT DO YOU DO?
My name is Ethan Hemming and I am CEO of Warren Village. The mission of Warren Village is to provide opportunity and support for single parents in Denver who are coming out of homelessness or intergenerational poverty. We have learned this works best with a two-generation (2Gen) housing embedded model. We’re serving the parent and the child in one location with wraparound supportive services and a safe nurturing environment. We have been doing this for 50 years.
HOW DID YOU GET HERE?
I spent the first 20 years of my career in public education, leadership, and management. I ran a state agency for the state of Colorado that authorized charter schools. I worked for Denver Public Schools for many years and held different leadership positions. Quite frankly, I was looking for a break at that point and took some time off. I don’t know if you believe in randomness, but this position opened exactly when I started my sabbatical. I didn’t have a background in housing or running a nonprofit. I felt it didn’t make sense. But I just followed the opportunity and went through a four-month interview process. In the end, it was meant to be. Things aligned. I have never been happier in my professional career than in the seven years I’ve been here. Not to say it’s easy, because it’s not. There are challenges, but you never waver from that compass of what we’re doing. Interesting journey, for sure.
WHAT DO YOU STAND FOR? WHY IS THIS WORK IMPORTANT TO YOU?
I think the work is important because we’re really focused on individuals who are unique. Single parenthood is very challenging, regardless of your economic strata but when you layer on folks who are BIPOC, and coming from the lower end of the economic spectrum, they’re very vulnerable, and yet high capacity and high strength because they’re single parents – they’ve managed to navigate the world so far. I think it’s so important because we’re focused on them. Like all of us, they bring assets and they bring weaknesses, but they have great potential. I think what’s important to me, or if there’s a single thing that I stand for, it’s that everybody in our society has capacity and strength. Not everybody has opportunity. I think that is the distinguishing feature, not inherent capability. That’s what we’re here to unleash. We completely reject the notion of a charity. We reject the notion of asymmetry, but we acknowledge asymmetry exists. There’s power asymmetry and gender asymmetry, but we try to break that down as much as we can in our little world and provide opportunity. Our belief is that opportunity can set people onto a different course.
WHAT IMPACT ARE YOU MAKING?
We are in our second year of a strategic framework that is very quantifiable. But I think we need to remember that the qualitative stories are just as important. We measure success by these individual stories. We promote these stories and share them in our newsletter. We encourage residents and alumni to come talk to founders and our donors at events so they can see the human side of the story.
Yet we still need to demonstrate quantifiable impact, and that’s where the strategic framework comes in. It has five dimensions, which relate to the scope of our work and our world. For instance, dimension two is about the programs. We do adult programming for parents, which can be mental health, communication, or a volunteer-led class. Programming can help them move towards self-identifying goals. We look at folks through a couple of lenses, like where they can go when they leave us. Or whether they made progress in education toward a degree or certificate. There are a lot of indicators we use in our measurement. They’re different levels of relative importance to folks, but we use all of them because we’re a learning organization. We check our data constantly, reflect on our failings, and celebrate our successes. But it is all quantifiable. Through that framework, we can see how we measure success, which is about the capacity to earn more money in terms of a more stable and fulfilling life for the adult.
We operate a licensed Learning Center on-site for ages six weeks to five years, so for that dimension, our assessment tool is called Teaching Strategies GOLD. It’s all about readiness and being on track for kindergarten, ages zero to eight is where everything happens in your trajectory set. We want to intervene early and in a way that helps people not be behind before they start. Then we have dimensions purely about the organization and our brand. We target how many media stories we get during the year and our financial goals. We’re a nonprofit, but we’re a business before we’re a nonprofit because we have to run a positive bottom line. We spent a lot of time fundraising and stewarding the money in a way that’s good.
WHAT (OR WHO) INSPIRES YOU TO DO THIS WORK?
Professionally, it is the residents and alumni. It is the faces of those we serve. I walk across the street to be inspired. It could be a little kid having a tantrum, who then recovers because we use Conscious Discipline. Or it can be a resident when I hear their story. That’s what really inspires me. We get to do this work for them and with them. Then, of course, on the home front, my wife and my two kids inspire me to get up every day. We’re trying to make a better world that they’re going to be a part of.
WHAT’S YOUR VISION, YOUR BIG DREAM FOR THE IMPACT YOU WANT TO MAKE?
It’s about empowerment and strength, and building a stronger community that is more equitable, where geography and race don’t define your future. That’s the big picture. When you get into something specific, the vision right now is opening the Warren Village at Alameda campus. We just broke ground last week. We’ve been working on that for more than three years now with the complex financial model, acquiring land, getting a developer, and all those things. The vision right now is opening in December of 2024 with 112,000 square feet, two buildings, 89 units, and a learning center. I have other dreams that are pie in the sky, but right now that’s the singular focus. And keeping the existing organization running strong at the same time. I tend to focus on Warren Village at Alameda just because that’s where a lot of energy is going. It fits with the new Mayor’s strategy for serving more homeless individuals and bringing people into a state of better empowerment in our community.
WHAT CHALLENGES ARE YOU FACING?
They’re internal and external. One of the present internal challenges is hiring and retaining quality staff. It’s very hard to attract and keep preschool teachers for our Learning Center. That is a huge barrier for us. We find it in other segments of the organization, but mainly it’s there. A big challenge is the environment we live in. I cannot find any sort of connection between rent prices and any other economic indicator. It’s unhinged. It’s not just our residents, it’s our staff trying to find reasonable housing to live or buy a home. It’s not happening. Fundraising is hard work. It’s hard to raise $4 million every year and increase it by 6% or 7% every year. We have a great community and amazing corporate and individual foundation supporters, but that’s a huge barrier. Workforce and hiring and helping our folks get a good job that is living-wage ready. That’s a challenge in Denver. Those are probably the big challenges.
WHAT’S ONE THING YOU WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT YOUR CAUSE AND/OR THE WORK YOU’RE DOING?
I think that takeaway is, number one, we create opportunity for those we serve. And we represent opportunity for those who want to serve. That’s the unifying factor. We’re community-based with tons of partnerships, whether it’s other nonprofits or corporations. Individual volunteers want to be here, they want to be a part of something that’s beneficial to society and is making a measurable impact. I think people also just want to be a part of something bigger, something that’s making change that inspires them. They see a connection to some family that’s going to be so much better off and they had a hand in that. I think there’s such an increase in our society, regardless of which end they are on the political spectrum, of people are getting dissatisfied with things and they can come here and feel good about positively impacting people.
HOW CAN OTHERS SUPPORT YOU OR YOUR CAUSE?
If you don’t know about Warren Village, the most important thing is to learn. I think once you learn about what we’re doing, you might find a way to get engaged. That could be volunteering, it could be touring, it could be sitting down with us to understand what our model is, it could be connecting us with a partner. Or it could obviously be a financial donation. But I ask people to start with our website and see if they get inspired because there’s a lot of good going on in Denver. We might be the right fit for you and might be where you want to serve and lend support.
At Orapin, we believe those who are working for the greater good should be known, supported, and celebrated. We help purpose-driven organizations transform their random acts of PR into a strategic, consistent approach that generates greater awareness and impact. If would like to be featured in INSPIRED IMPACT™, reach out to email@example.com.