A few nights ago I was watching the Oprah show. The topic was a report on America's poor. She called them invisible. She featured special reports by Anderson Cooper, Maria Shriver, and her best friend Gayle King. Oprah also went out into a poor community about an hour from her ritzy downtown Chicago home. The show was not one of those where Oprah introduces someone with a problem then waves her magic money wand and gives them a new house. If she did provide financial assistance to any of the interviewed families, we viewers did not see that. Oprah's objective was to introduce us to some of America's poor people, get us angry about the situation, and leave us with a call to action to make a difference in wiping out poverty in America.
Sometimes we need to see things to see things. Scoble had such an experience last week as he covered John Edwards' presidential campaign announcement:
Then, looking into New Orleans. I still am processing the devastation that is there and the poverty. I haven’t done enough. If that’s the only thing I learned this week, that’d be enough. I feel powerless to do much, cause I can’t take the time off of work right now to go and help rebuild houses and I don’t have extra cash right now to donate. I feel mighty guilty about that, though. It sucks that I haven’t done more.
As someone who thinks about breakthroughs a lot, I could not help but ask - as each story unfolded on Oprah - what could they do (or someone do) that would produce a breakthrough for this family?
Some of the answers were provided - some people were making progress because of a caring social worker, because they made connections with the right people, or because they had tremendous tenacity and hope. Even so, most were in need of a breakthrough - or several.
On the show, Oprah made the point that the poor often can't recover from mistakes or errors in judgment like the rest of us can (the privileged - those middle class or richer). I think this is true. We all make mistakes, but when you are living on the edge, sometimes small mistakes can mean the difference between having a home and being homeless. Buying new clothes for the new school year or having no winter coat. Having enough food or going without dinner. And sometimes the mistake or unfortunate circumstance is not of their making - e.g. Katrina.
Oprah acknowledged that some people have the attitude that poor people just need more drive and assertiveness. I will admit that I used to believe this too. I used to think that poor people were poor because they were lazy or unwilling to do what it takes to be self-sufficient.
I believed this until I started working with women on welfare in New Mexico. Now I believe that drive makes a big difference but that it is much more complicated than this. I spent time helping women get back into the world of work. What an eye-opener! These women were all single mothers. Most did not have their high school diploma. Most were in abusive relationships. I remember two women whose lives changed me forever.
The first, I will call Angel. She was soft and kind and eager to make her kids proud. She was 18, had two kids, her first child was born when she was 15. She started 8th grade, but never finished. Angel was so far away from being able to get a GED that it broke my heart. Her boyfriend routinely took away her food stamps, bought meat, then traded the meat for drugs. Angel and her kids did not have enough to eat. She never used a computer, never had an email address, and had no idea what she could do with her life. But she came to the job training program and her GED training most days - sometimes missing because her boyfriend took her bus pass. She lived in a family of welfare recipients where she was encouraged to have more kids so that she could get more public assistance dollars.
The second woman I will call Sally. Sally was in her mid twenties and had five kids - five kids. She finished 9th grade but then quit because she got pregnant. She did not have her GED, but was studying and would get her GED within a year. Sally wanted to be a police officer. She had been a member of gangs and she saw what they did to wreck communities and she wanted to be a part of the solution. Like many gang or ex-gang members, she had a teardrop tattoo under one eye. It would be a while before she could apply or even be considered for police officer training. The numbers did not add up for Sally. She had five young children. If she got a minimum wage job, she would be cut off public assistance. But there's no way she could support five kids on minimum wage. If she stayed on public assistance, she received food stamps, inexpensive rent, and some financial support. This allowed her keep a roof over their heads and to feed her family. With a minimum wage job, she would not be able to afford food and rent for a family of six.
In all, I worked with 20 women in New Mexico and there were several success stories - people who moved forward toward self-sufficiency. Sadly, neither Angel nor Sally were among them. The holes they were in were too deep for them to climb out of and no ladder long or strong enough was lowered into their holes to help them out (New Mexico public assistance allowed them to live in the whole, but not get out).
Sorry for the length of this post, I am coming to my first point...
Point 1: Poverty is everywhere and there are likely many more poor families in America than we know. The circumstances that cause families to fall into poverty are likely caused by mistakes no worse than those we make every day. But because these folks are already on the edge, their mistakes have much worse consequences.
Point 2: Breakthroughs occur as a result of connection, drive, and some luck.
David Zinger did a wonderful post called, The Brotherhood of the Rope. In the post he discusses the difference our choices make relative to others and the power of taking care of each other. Here's a snippet:
The Brotherhood of the Rope refers to the psychological, social, and spiritual connection that mountain climbers share. At times, climbers are physically knotted together for safe passage.
In 2006 there were 2 powerful incidents during the spring climbs on Mount Everest. One climber after reaching the summit, ran into trouble after his summit. The next day 40 or more climbers trekked by him to summit the peak without stopping to rescue him. A week or so later another climber, in a similar situation, was rescued by 3 climbers (Mazur, Brash and Osborne) who aborted their summit attempt to assist the climber in need.
Sir Edmund Hillary was angry that 40 climbers had not lived the brotherhood, instead choosing to achieve their own summit.
I remember this story as the leader of the group that stopped to save the second climber's life lives here in the Pacific Northwest and his story was broadcast on TV.
40 people walked past the climber in need and continued to their own summit. The climber in need died. Before we cast a judgment on these 40 hikers and postulate what we think we would do in this situation, let's relate this to other situations. I think many of us (I include myself) walk past people in need like this every day. We may not physically walk past them - but we are aware they are there.
For America's invisible poor (or the world's), many of us are no different than the 40 climbers. And perhaps that's OK. I don't want to project any particular value set onto you.
But I think that for many, once we really think about it, it's not OK to keep walking. It does not feel good or right. Even so, many of us are unsure what to do about it.
Oprah made a point of saying that she prefers to support efforts that help educate people. She believes that education is one very powerful answer to escaping poverty. That's her emphasis.
I realize now that my chosen emphasis is on helping people get jobs and helping people generate breakthroughs. My work with women in New Mexico occurred about 10 years ago, but I just signed on to chair a committee for Dress for Success that will help clients who are unemployed or underemployed. This is an area that I know - jobs and hiring.
Not being one of the 40 who walk by means more than giving to charities and attending a few meetings, I think. We all have areas about which we are passionate and/or that we know. Maybe it's raising kids, maybe it's healthy food preparation, maybe it's education, or maybe it's planting urban gardens.
In his new year's post, Kevin Eikenberry is encouraging people to become a mentor. I think that's a great idea. Be a mentor or do something to make this world a better place. Many of you already do a lot of great volunteer work, I know.
Point 3: We have an opportunity to notice when we are being one of the 40 who walks by someone who needs our help.
Point 4: We contribute in unique ways and have the opportunity to use our special skills to make this a better world.
How this all relates to breakthroughs. Being a breakthrough catalyst means taking "help" deeper. If we want to catalyze breakthroughs, the most important question that we can ask is - for this person/family, what could I/we do that would make the great difference and help them experience a positive breakthrough? Here are a few concrete examples:
Help: Serving meals at a food bank.
Breakthrough catalyst: While serving meals at a food bank, engaging with people in a way that makes a bigger difference. Getting to know someone and taking the initiative to do something (a conversation, a phone call, offer information, etc) that enlivens their hope and chances for success.
Help: Volunteer at Dress for Success monthly meetings.
Breakthrough catalyst: Taking the time and energy to get to know one or more of the clients and taking the initiative to do something that will best help her/them move forward.
Do you see the theme and distinction? Help is great, by the way. I don't want to discourage anyone from helping someone else. If we want to catalyze breakthroughs, we need to ask the question and then act.
Question: For this person/family, what could I/we do that would make the great difference and help them experience a positive breakthrough?
And then act.
I get the sense that this is what Oprah did in choosing to do this show on America's poor. She knew that she could make a greater impact by showing us what poverty in America looks and feels like and encouraging us to become part of the solution. If she did a show with three poor families and then gave them each new houses, we would not be so compelled to act. Oprah came to the rescue.
There are likely hundreds of small ways that we either become the one who contributes or one of the 40 who walk by. Elections, our neighborhoods, local issues, daily win-lose scenarios. Who's losing?
Point 5 is really a question. What would happen if more people asked the breakthrough catalyst question and then acted?
For this person/family, what could I/we do that would make the great difference and help them experience a positive breakthrough?
Here's something I can do. If you are still reading this post, you might be my target audience for this project. I have this program that I call Two Weeks to a Breakthrough. I believe in the power of this program and will offer it to a group of up to 15 people for free. There's a catch:
I will offer the program to 15 people who want to have a breakthrough (or many) related to philanthropic endeavors and projects. In other words, this group will experience breakthroughs in ways that contribute to the world.
If you are interested in participating, send me an email at lhaneberg AT gmail DOT com with your name and what you want to do for your project or initiative. I will send you more information, but here's a few more details:
- The program will begin late February, exact date TBD based on the participants.
- The program is conducted largely by email and a few phone calls and will cost you nothing except time and energy and heart.
- Anyone in the world can participate as long as they can speak and write English, have daily access to email, have a phone or Skype if international, and can dedicate 30-60 minutes a day for 14 days to achieving amazing results.
Although your project for this special program must focus on nonprofit/philanthropic work, rest assured that the techniques you learn will enable you to generate better results in other aspects of your life. And this process will be fun! Let me know if you are interested and I will send you more information. You can read more about past programs (will be similar in format) here.