As part of our celebration of Pride Month, we interviewed The Workers Lab’s Chief Executive Officer Adrian Haro to learn more about the organization’s recent accomplishments, what it means to lead an organization with majority people of color and LGBTQ staff, and the importance of investing in LGBTQ-led worker innovations.
What are you most proud of in your time leading The Workers Lab so far?
Surviving! We’re still kicking, and I think that’s something to be proud of in and of itself. You know, when I took over, we were in a leadership transition, then the pandemic, and now we’re in uncertain economic times – and look at us, we’re still here doing some of the most important and innovative work for and with workers in the country, I think. And that’s testament to the resilience and commitment of my small but mighty team. It’s easy to forget that The Workers Lab is still a young organization with an incredibly radical purpose, which is to question and challenge everything. Our work is not for the faint of heart. To be an organization that has survived and thrived with this purpose is amazing. I’m thankful and proud of our team members - both present and past - who got us to this point.
Are there any other highlights in your tenure?
During these crazy times, we’ve succeeded in putting out timely, relevant work. Among the highlights for me are:
- The effort to create The Workers Fund during the pandemic. We created this fund to support workers that were being left behind by government programs. They needed our help almost more than anyone. It was a challenging endeavor but it was important and essential at the same time.
- The Income Passport we developed with Steady during the pandemic was also huge. It was timely, relevant, and cutting edge in that it supported a group of people, gig workers, who needed a technology solution to simplify their ability to secure public benefits, like unemployment, at a time when receiving timely payments could make a huge difference in someone’s life.
- I’m proud of so much of the work we’ve done with innovators, but in particular, two come to mind. Our work with the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program, which provides career support and workforce training to formerly incarcerated firefighters and those currently incarcerated in California’s Conservation Camps who are interested in careers in the Wildland and Forestry sector. FFRP was developed in direct response to the growing need for wildfire-related personnel, and they’ve done some amazing things. The Driver’s Cooperative also comes to mind. Historically, it’s hard to find great examples of co-ops that have scaled successfully. The Drivers Co-Op is providing great opportunities for drivers in New York and beyond. I’m excited to see how this project continues to grow. Lastly, I’d call out Los Deliveristas Unidos, a group in New York that is organized around fair working conditions and living wages for the City’s delivery workers. After years of organizing and fighting, they just had a huge win in securing minimum wage for delivery workers, who had previously been paid well below minimum wage. Delivery services have historically charged exorbitant fees to customers for the delivery service, but those fees have not made it into workers’ hands, so this is a huge step on behalf of these workers.
- I also think our Gig Worker Learning Project is one of the most important bodies of work happening for workers right now in this country. We’ve done it as a labor of love, despite confusion about this issue, the politics around it, and it has the power to change this country – from one that serves only some workers, to one that serves all workers.
What has been the most challenging part of your role?
Myself! God, I can’t tell you how much I’ve had to overcome doubt and anxieties about my ability to do this job. I’ve had a handful of core supporters (Dr. Carmen Rojas, Eddy Morales, my mother, and God) to thank for getting me into this role. And I’m grateful because I have figured out a lot about myself as a leader and director of this organization. I have discovered the kind of person and leader that I would never have discovered had I not jumped off the cliff into this job. It’s made me so much of a better person.
The Workers Lab is led by People of Color and LGBTQ staff. Why is that important to you?
Two big reasons. First, it’s really cool that The Workers Lab is a place where you can come to feel free to be the most-est version of whoever you are, and we will embrace you, encourage you, help you. I feel really proud that we’ve made this a place where people can relax about who they are and just focus on doing incredible work for workers. It makes the work and the process easier and more fun.
Second, because we are here as we are, it makes our work, our programs, and our investments that much more authentic. More than the fact that we are all part of some minority, we were all raised by workers and that kind of ethos transcends race, gender, sexual orientation – whatever. It goes to a set of values and an important frame of reference about what people deserve and how they want to be valued and treated at work. We’re clear that, at the core, working people are operating within a society where racism, sexism, and capitalism are alive and real – that doesn’t have to be radical, it just has to be true and it is. So, there is no negotiating any of that when we go to make a grant, start a new project, do whatever. We automatically start from the same place, the same understanding, and that’s a real gift in this day and age. It’s a privilege to say “I understand. I have been there. My parents have been there.” It makes the work easier to do. And the result is a body of work that is more real, responsive, and reflective of what workers go through / think about on the day-to-day, which is important to making sure our innovation stays true and centered on workers.
Why is it important for The Workers Lab to support and serve POC and LGBTQ innovators?
One of the greatest things about TWL is that it is one of the few places, if not the only place, where someone who looks like me and is like me can come to get free and flexible dollars to explore new ideas for workers. It’s the reason why we exist. They aren’t getting the chance anywhere else.
There is nowhere else that is giving dollars for high-risk, high-reward experimentation in service of working people. You can argue that that’s happening in the VC world, but that kind of innovation has its limits when it comes to being truly about workers. We are the premiere national alternative to that model of investing. And that’s so important and needed because our people deserve the chance to try, test, experiment, succeed, fail, learn and grow – all of it — just as much as the other guy. We want to open the door of innovation to everyone, but most especially to innovators who live and work where workers live and work.
These kinds of innovators are deeply embedded in their communities. They have the trust of workers and know what they really need. I know from the get-go that by and large, the things we will consider have been created in a way that is responsive to the communities they are designed to serve. We have found a way to make this kind of investing a bankable bet – it’s unique and important, and I’m proud of it,
If you could share one piece of advice with someone who is thinking about a potential innovation, what would it be?
Get ready for it to be hard. Hard but worth it if you approach it with the right mind set. You know Brene Brown says something like “if you’re going to set out to do anything creative, the only guarantee is that you will get your ass kicked.” And she’s right, let me tell you. I know what that’s like. Creativity, Innovation are a double-edged sword. It sounds cool and fun, and it creates an impression that the work is always cool and fun. But it’s important to know that if you’re doing it right, it will be hard and uncomfortable work. The real work of innovation is is exciting, but it’s also uncertain, often cash-strapped, and riddled with failures and lessons learned. So it’s really important to ask yourself the “worth” question before you get going: “Is this thing that I know is going to be really challenging worth the hassle?” If the answer is “yes,” go for it with everything you’ve got. And if the answer is “no,” then don’t!
Under Adrian’s leadership, The Workers Lab has completed some amazing projects and learned from a wide range of investments. To make continued investment in worker-centered innovations, please support our work by making a donation today.