A Passion For Pink Slips

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"These days, I want to do what makes me happy. It's not about the money anymore," Edwin Duterte explains as we're talking over chilled sangria in a Pasadena bar. Edwin was laid off from commercial real estate in January 2008. The 39-year-old moved back home to live with his parents this year after paying rent became difficult. With savings depleted, his now-unaffordable health insurance will expire this month. Despite his personal circumstances, what makes Edwin happy these days is doing what he can to help other unemployed people find jobs.

On a day when people across the United States barbecued with family, I joined the hundreds of unemployed who attended pink slip parties organized in California, Florida, and Nevada. Small clusters of people slowly sipped their discounted cocktails, talking over a din of habanera music at the brightly mod Bar Celona in Pasadena. "Labor Day has no meaning when you're unemployed. It's just a Monday that nobody else works." explains Edwin, who launched PinkSlipMixers.com in August 2008 and now organizes regular events, such as Monday's network of Labor Day parties.

Edwin has no sponsors. The events charge no admission. It costs nothing to register for the website. Organizing and promoting events, managing the website, and recruiting volunteers to help with his mission is a full-time endeavor. One could say the job pays less than nothing, since Edwin finances any expenses with his own dwindling resources.

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"I went from $100,000 to $0 income. I did have $50,000 in my bank account. Now I have 89 bucks," Edwin tells me. Despite bleak finances, the fissure this recession wreaked on his life has helped Edwin achieve a more profound sense of happiness because it led him to discover newfound purpose for his life.

"I feel like Caine from Kung Fu, who wandered the country looking for his brother. I'm wandering the country looking for my passion," Edwin explains. "I think I have a passion to do social media or PR, which is so not what I've been doing for the last 20 years.... I started the pink slip parties from one event. Now it's a national movement." Edwin uses multiple social media platforms--Twitter, Facebook, MySpace--to promote his events. Monday's seven gatherings in California, Florida, and Nevada were linked via webcams--more than 5,000 logged into the website to watch them streaming live.

Edwin would like to eventually find sponsors for Pink Slip Mixers, but in the meantime, building the movement helps develop a skill set and track record of success completely different from what he did for two decades in commercial real estate. His independent initiative, self-discipline, and follow through would make him an outstanding candidate--IF there were any jobs to be had. But what really drives Edwin to continue is the community of unemployed he brings together. Even if recruiters don't turn out in droves--which is understandable considering the current state of the job market--pink slip mixers can be cathartic for the unemployed, who find new friends, connecting with those enduring similar struggles.

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It's people like Craig Inouye. Laid off one year ago from his marketing position at Deluxe Corporation, Craig first attended a pink slip mixer just to see what it was all about, and now volunteers to help Edwin organize once-a-month gatherings in California. "It's a great way to meet people and build relationships," Craig explains. Since losing his job, Craig has kept his free time occupied by doing volunteer work at the LA food bank and elsewhere. Helping out with pink slip mixers, Craig says he is following the guidance set by Edwin: "It's all about trying to pay it forward and helping people."

Licensed CPA Cynthia Lee needs a kind of help that goes beyond simply meeting people and building relationships. Laid off in March from her position as a salaried consultant to a major corporation, six months into fruitless job search has Cynthia wondering if training in a new field would improve her chances: "But right now I need money before I can seriously think about that. Right now I need to make sure I don't lose my house."

Cynthia also needs to make sure she can continue supporting her disabled father, who lives in an assisted care facility. "I can't afford to be depressed," she says. "I pray a lot. That gives me the strength to help keep me going."

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Ed Berry admits that sometimes he gets so depressed that he finds it hard to get out of bed. But with his ailing mother living in his house, he can't allow himself too much time for self-pity. "I never thought I'd be unemployed this long," the 53-year-old healthcare IT systems specialist tells me, now eight months after he was laid off. "I know my age is a factor," he says. Prospective employers can hire someone younger with less experience for less money, Ed explains, and the bottom line dominates those decisions these days.

On the advice of another mid-career unemployed friend he met at a pink slip mixer, Ed has taken some creative steps to obscure his age. "On my resume, I took the years off of my college graduation. Leaving that right up front--you've already dated yourself," Ed explains. He could obviously never hide his age if a prospective employer wanted to evaluate him in person, though he hopes the little strategic deletion will up his chances to land that all-important interview.

Edwin Duterte is living with his parents in San Jose, couchsurfing when in Los Angeles for events, bumming rides, borrowing money, hoping his health holds after his insurance expires. Still, his pursuit of happiness has become helping people, while learning skills of a new age trade quickly becoming his passion.

Edwin's ingenuity of thinking beyond the professional setback of sudden unemployment, and using the break as an opportunity to re-invent himself and his life reminds me of DJ Eclectic of Forest City, North Carolina, who launched a potentially-lucrative deejaying business after being laid off from the budget-crunched local college. For those using their job loss as a period of self-discovery and independent initiative, Edwin can relate: "This is their do-over. I'm definitely going through a mid-life crisis and looking to start over."

"I think being laid off definitely made me realize that there's other things than waking up at 6 o'clock and being home at 7 at night. There's just a lot more things that I'm missing."

For the foreseeable future, Edwin will be looking for those things through his growing network of events: "I've made a commitment to keep organizing pink slip parties until the recession ends."

If you'd like to host a Pink Slip Mixer in your own city, write Edwin@pinkslipmixers.com.From top to bottom: Edwin Duterte, Craig Inouye, Cynthia Lee, and Ed Berry.

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Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer, and book editor who specializes in national security, terrorism, and war. She also writes for the food blog Feed The Masses. More

Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer and book editor based in Washington, D.C. She specializes in editing books about national security, terrorism, and war, but writes for a broad array of publications, including the popular frugalicious foodie blog Feed The Masses. She is working on a book based on her Recession Road Trip project for TheAtlantic.com.
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