communities

After the Storm

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This was the second time I had been part of a relief mission after a storm. The first was over half a lifetime ago. I had just finished my junior year of high school and received an invitation to participate in some cleanup and restoration work in the southern tip of Florida.  There, a community had been hit by a fairly powerful hurricane, nearly a year prior, and crews were still being dispatched to help with the ongoing efforts. I don’t remember any of my youth leaders discussing what to expect, and maybe they didn’t even know.  However, I’m sure I carried in my own expectations based on the values and messages I’d picked up along the way about what it meant to help.

There is a lot I could say about our experiences, however, one stands out in my mind.  We had been informed that we would be helping in a neighborhood that was being restored and that we would be assisting by painting a house.  About ten of us, all white middle-class teens, were dropped off at a small home in a Latino community. The home appeared to have been there way before the storm.  It was made of concrete block with all concrete floors and open windows (no glass). As we scurried to begin our assignment, I noticed family members wandering around, as if strangers in their own home.  I had been conditioned to think that the family would be “grateful” for our help, but here we were and it all felt awkward. We were quickly loaded up with paint cans and began painting the exterior of the house.  My friends seemed unphased as they were eager to get started. Like most teens in similar situations, their focus was on each other. So, they began painting the house, painting one another, and basically goofing off.  This time, however, I was in my own zone, walking around bewildered at what was happening. I then wandered in the living room and came face to face with the Matriarca (mother). We locked eyes for what seemed like an extended period of time and a deep shame and sadness came over me.  

In that moment I realized that the issue at hand was not a storm, but chronic poverty and injustice, and the remedy was not a few gallons of paint. In fact, I didn’t have the words to put to it, but I realized that we were somehow contributing to the problem.  

Did anyone ask this family what they really needed?  Was anyone’s dignity considered in this process? Why did a group of kids from Ohio need to come to Florida to do what the residents had the capability to do, and probably much better?  Was this really about them….or about us?

Please don’t misinterpret my statements to suggest that service doesn’t matter or that “people should just take care of themselves.”  Quite the contrary. It’s an honor and a responsibility to come alongside people in need, both near and far. Rather, I’m suggesting that HOW we serve matters. This includes the actions we take and the position of our hearts.

Nearly three weeks ago our Dayton community suffered devastating storms.  Many of us have already had the opportunity to serve our neighbors and will continue to have opportunities to serve over a long period of recovery. As we do, I offer up a couple principles to help guide our actions.

Listen first and don’t assume to know what others need. Listening includes giving up preconceived notions of what people may need, asking how you can be of assistance and paying attention to the material, as well as the psychological and spiritual needs of others.  

Respect and defer to local leadership.  Outside relief can be a huge asset because of the manpower needed to mobilize and resource such efforts. However, all relief and recovery  efforts should be accountable to, and in lockstep partnership with, indigenous leaders inside neighborhoods impacted.

Lastly, do WITH instead of TO or FOR others. Tragedy can break down neighborhood and other invisible barriers that divide us.  As we do, let’s not miss the opportunity to cultivate new friendships that extend beyond the needs of today to the gift we have of each other.  

Marlo Fox, Executive Director, Think Tank, Inc.

To learn more about Marlo's work, please visit thinktank-inc.org


More Than A Place to Lay My Head

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A couple weeks ago I spent some time in Portland. I had heard and read about the accelerating state of homelessness in Seattle, Portland & other West Coast cities, but this is the first time that I had seen it at this level with my own eyes. I am embarrassed to say that in the moment I found myself going back & forth between staring at the roadside tent camps and just wanting to look away - pretending this wasn't happening to real people in this beautiful city.

You see, most of the time poverty & its effects are not so visible to many of us and poverty manifests itself in a variety of ways.

However, there are a few lessons that we can draw upon from Portland’s battle to combat homelessness, that serve as an illustration for all of us working to fight poverty in our own communities.First, we must acknowledge that the issues are always more than what’s on the surface. Some of us may have been conditioned  to think that such circumstances arise because of personal failures on the part of those affected. Yet we know that individuals working full-time in low-wage jobs in Portland are paying up to 80% or more on rent alone. In order to understand the forces contributing to  poverty, we must be willing to see the big picture, while listening to those affected without judgment.Second, sometimes good intentions backfire.  County Commissioners serving the Portland area made a bold move to promise every homeless individual a shelter.  However, their no-turn-away sheltering policy proved to be more than the city could handle and ended up drawing people in need of shelter from other counties and other states, exacerbating the issue.  We can’t always anticipate the unintended consequences of our actions, however, we know that all too often our helping actually hurts.  That’s why it is so vital to include many voices in the solutions, from those with power and resources to those directly affected by the issues.Finally, relationships are key. - There are many critical services in our communities that meet people in their state of crisis and provide relief.  Yet as we move beyond crisis management to address the root causes driving poverty, we realize how vital a network of supportive relationships are. Many who find themselves on the streets experience great isolation, and do not have access to people with the resources and committed presence to ensure their wellbeing.   We believe that it takes more than a program or charity to create transformation in the lives of individuals and communities impacted by poverty. That's why we place our focus on building relationships across economic lines.Think Tank is over a decade old now.  When we started Think Tank, we recognized that there were thousands of people and organizations on the front lines of poverty alleviation, but very few were coming alongside these helpers.  We knew that we had to be champions for them, and to ask the hard questions about how our helping was benefiting, or hurting people living in poverty. Additionally, we believed in working to ensure that people with lived experience in poverty were center stage - influencing the direction & priorities that our communities embraced.  We recognize that we have not been exempt from imposing help that has hurt or charging ahead with solutions without first stopping to listen to the voices and leadership provided by people who have experienced poverty.  This is why we value our relationships so much. Relationships developed across economic lines are the heartbeat and discipline that keeps us working together for the good of our communities.  This season, I encourage you to take some time to:

  • Recognize that poverty is more than what you may see on the surface. Be quick to listen rather than judge.

  • Offer a word of appreciation to those that labor day in and out to fight the root causes of poverty in your community.

  • Think about how you might take a step to build a relationship with someone experiencing material poverty.