Changing lives for the better, that’s what Leah Lonsbury, Founder and Executive Direction of Just Bakery of Atlanta, does everyday with her mission-driven purpose. We’re delighted to share her story in our Community Spotlight.
It’s not possible for anyone, no matter where you’re born or how your life has unfolded, to cover basic expenses working full-time for minimum wage
Leah Lonsbury – Just Bakery of Atlanta
Tell us a bit about your background and what led you to create a mission driven bakery.
I’ve worked in a variety of fields, but I have always wanted to find a way to work at the crossroads of feeding people and making change. These are two important parts of how I want to be in the world and interact with my larger human family. I started out teaching high school English/Language Arts and went to graduate school at Emory just a couple years later. Those were very important, formative years for me, and I grew into a different understanding of the world and a network of friends and colleagues who are out doing life-changing work in the metro area. When my family returned to Atlanta after living in Wisconsin, I taught at a high school that was full of first generation and immigrant students. Many were undocumented and faced tremendous challenges. I also had the privilege of heading up my faith community’s efforts to sponsor a family that resettled in Decatur in 2017. Through getting to know, love, and walk with them, I became more familiar with the work of the International Rescue Committee and the need for creative vocational alternatives that provided living wage work and opportunities for our newly resettled neighbors.
We love your impactful tagline for Just Bakery: Eat Well. Do Good. Change Lives. First, tell us how Just Bakery became the name and where the mission to serve refugees first began. How long has Just Bakery been operating?
When I was living in Madison, WI, I got to witness the good work of Just Dane, a nonprofit working alongside underserved populations to create a more just and equitable community for all. Just Dane formed a Just Bakery in Madison that is a short-term, educational program and is free for individuals returning from incarceration. It was the first time I got to see an organization using the marketplace creatively to make change. My friends at Just Dane encouraged me to focus on bakery and get started here. Our partner population, landscape, and programming are different, but we work in the same kind of pathways as Just Bakery in Madison.
When I was working with the new American family my faith community sponsored through the International Rescue Committee, I was sitting in the lobby of the IRC, waiting for a meeting, and watching the job listings scroll on a tv there. There were very few options, and for many newly arrived refugees, the only viable one was to commute 1.5 hrs one way to work long, hard, and potentially dangerous shifts at a chicken processing factory in Gainesville. This reality and the need for other job options stuck with me and really took up residence in my thoughts. When some funding was made available through my church, I applied and received a grant that made Just Bakery of Atlanta’s 2017 start possible.
We understand that one element of your mission is to create new opportunities for refugees by providing a living wages. Elaborate more on the overall goal and/or potential opportunities that may come from their time and training with you.
Just Bakery of Atlanta’s end goal is to open doors towards economic stability and security for new Americans as they move through the longer term resettlement process and rebuild home in a new place. It’s not possible for anyone, no matter where you’re born or how your life has unfolded, to cover basic expenses working full-time for minimum wage.
So, we start everyone at $15/hr and move up from there. It’s a start. We’ve cleared some of the usual hurdles towards employment that many resettled refugees face too. There’s no education or experience requirement to work with Just Bakery of Atlanta. An individual just needs enough functional English to stay safe and learn to join our kitchen family. Everyone learns on the job and is paid for their training. We offer instruction and support for each trainee’s ServSafe certification either as a Food Handler or Manager. These certifications transfer to future opportunities across the food industry. We’re working on a partnership with Georgia Piedmont Technical College that will provide a vocational pathway consisting of ESL classes geared towards hospitality, GED support if needed, higher and continuing education coaching, a paid apprenticeship with Just Bakery of Atlanta, and a nationally recognized diploma. Our pieces of this new partnership will be made possible through a food truck we’re building out at the moment. We’re really excited to grow the number of new American partners we can work with through this program and see all the amazing things they’ll do as a result.
We’re currently looking for a new Head Baker and Instructor. Bhima, one of our first two new American trainees who worked her way into our Head Baker position, recently let us know that she would not be returning from maternity leave. She’s moving with her husband and new baby to Ohio to be closer to her parents and open a new restaurant with her brother. Stories like Bhima’s let us know that we’re on the right track. Just a few months after Bhima moved into our Head Baker position that came with guaranteed additional hours and a raise, she purchased a used car to get to and from work safely and independently. Just a few months after that, Bhima and her husband purchased their first home. This was also a first for Bhima’s extended family that resettled from Nepal about 18 years ago.
A couple months ago, I had the opportunity to sit on a panel convened to have a conversation with the Assistant Secretary of State and the Senior Bureau Official for Population, Refugees, and Migration about the work of resettlement on the ground in the Clarkston area. I was lucky enough to get to sit by Joyeuse, who worked and trained with Just Bakery in 2018. She’s now a nursing student and works as a nursing assistant at Emory. She’s hoping to return to her country of origin, the Democratic Republic of Congo, after her education is complete, so she can provide midwifery and medical services in a region where almost none are currently available. I run into Joyeuse at all kinds of gatherings put on by the International Rescue Committee where she’s speaking about the challenges new Americans face in GA and the contributions they’re making every day.
How do you go about selecting your staff? Are you partnered with an organization that assists refugees?
We work with the International Rescue Committee to bring on new trainees. We’ll also soon be working with Georgia Piedmont Technical College’s Adult Education Department as we expand our shorter term training and apprenticeship programming.
There must be waves of emotions that occur for anyone that has been given this opportunity to work at Just Bakery. What have you observed or what has your staff shared with you?
Our kitchen family is a steady, dependable crew full of resilient and remarkable human beings from all over the world. They show up, work and train hard, and do it again the next day. I had a conversation with San last week while she was measuring dough and shaping bread. San used to gather firewood to earn enough money to buy food for her family while living in a refugee camp. She’s now a junior at Agnes Scott University studying political science and world religions, and she’s been featured in the New York Times. When we talked, San mentioned she’s also started studying Arabic. It’s an easy addition, according to San, because she spent some time working with migrants in Turkey and now has a working knowledge of the language. Most of our staff family speaks 5 or more languages. They’re students, parents, artists, and dreamers. They’re also faithful friends and community members who are always giving back.
You sell your food items through online orders, scheduled pick-up locations, and pop-up shops. Do you see a brick and mortar location in the future? What have you found to be the most successful means of selling and connecting with new buyers?
Part of our mission is to build a more diverse, connected, and compassionate community, so mixing and connecting in the wider community is really important to the whole of what we do. Our in-person market and pop-up sales are always our most successful. I’m sure that’s because our customers and supporters are always eager to get to meet and know our staff family members. Our own retail location would multiple those opportunities and solve a number of operational headaches for Just Bakery of Atlanta. It would also easily and quickly at least triple the number of our new American partners, and that impact would ripple out to their families and communities. Having a storefront where customers could gather and find us regularly and reliably would build our sales that support our nonprofit aims as well. It’s definitely a part of our strategic plan, and we’re always on the hunt for our own space.
Where do you hope to see the direction go for Just Bakery in the future?
Just Bakery of Atlanta needs its own storefront for all the reasons I shared above. It would mean exponential growth and impact for us, and that’s a big part of my hope for the work we do together.
Leah, how you serve changes the direction of lives. Thank you for all that you do. How can we support your mission?
Thanks. Help us spread the word and grow our sales to support our nonprofit commitments and our new American partners.