More Than a Quick Fix

There are times when I am not answering phones, not trying to get the attention of a room full of children, and not trying to make sure all of the items in our food bank are stocked up for visiting families. Sometimes in these in-between moments, I have conversations with men and women who are passing through our office in conjunction with a group, service, or event that they are hosting for community members. I value these conversations because they are my link to the larger picture of what we are all trying to accomplish: we are trying to make a way for families living in poverty to overcome obstacles in their lives.

I believe that it takes investing in relationships with individuals to affect deep-seated change. Right now, we offer services to keep people afloat. We provide them with food, gas assistance, and referrals to services that we cannot directly meet. We host support groups for victims of domestic violence, for parents of pre-schoolers, and in a distant way, we even host NA/AA meetings. People can come to our office when they feel like they’re drowning, and we’ll give them what they need to stay alive.

But, as good as living is, I want to be able to do more than this. I don’t want people to simply float; I want them to swim, and to do it with joy. There are issues with this system. Perhaps the two most obvious ones are that some people simply use our services as part of their daily living and they never break out of using this cycle of services that are designed to be temporary. The other is that there is no requirement for people to give back in exchange for everything that they receive, a condition that makes charity easy, but perpetuates a power relationship between the haves and the have-nots.

We need to design a system where people are able to say thank you for the help they receive by giving back. Whether it’s volunteering, offering a skill to assist someone else ( one reason I’m in love with the idea of Time Banking), or offering a donation back to an organization in some form or another, there needs to be a way for people who are receiving public assistance to give back. There’s also this really cool model called Asset-based Community Development¬†that involves using the strengths of a struggling group to build up the entire community. There’s a woman from my hometown who is enthusiastic about it, and I would love to see how a week at her Non-profit works, because I believe that she’s onto something fantastic.

Our problem right now is that even though these services are offered, people aren’t seeking them out, and they’re not investing time and energy into reaching out for these groups that have been brought into the community for the purpose of expanding the opportunities available to them in this country. As an AmeriCorps member whose time in this city is limited to less than a year, I don’t feel like I can bring about the type of lasting change in deep relationships that I believe in, because I won’t be here to sustain it. If I try to start it and cannot sustain it, I don’t know who would, and based on what I’ve seen of others’ efforts, I don’t even know if families would latch on. In any case, what we’re doing is not enough. It perpetuates the system of poverty, and even though we’re doing little bits to improve kids’ and families’ lives, they still will end up behind.

How do you change the nature of a system where inequality is an inherent element of the system succeeding? How do you get people to believe in a cause, and how do you alleviate the stress of poverty on an individual, a family, or a community?