The Giving Season: From Charity to Community

A note from board president and ONE Good Deed founder Laura Hale

It’s the giving season: that time of year when people are asked to reflect on what they have and to share with others. It feels good to give. Writing a check or sending a toy off to a drive feels great when you think about all the joy it will bring others. It feels good when stories of anonymous donors and viral gofundmes flood social media. I’ve shared several myself. But the deeper I look, the more I find that they all have one thing in common: there are those who give charity and those who receive charity. Those who give are compassionate, and those who receive are grateful.  People with more are “generous” and “kind hearted” while people with less are described as “impoverished”, and “needy” and “less fortunate”. Which would you rather be? It’s very well-intentioned, but there’s no room for complex humanity and dignity in this version of charity. Nothing changes when the season is over. There continues to be “us” and “them” and it’s clear which side is held in higher regard.

I speak from experience as someone who has been the recipient of charity, and as someone who has spent most of my career working in nonprofits that give charity. When I was in crisis, living in an unheated basement apartment I could barely afford with a roommate who skipped out on me during one of the worst Vermont winters in decades, I was expected to be humble.  Everywhere I went for assistance I was expected to tell my very personal story at the drop of a hat and be visibly embarrassed that I needed help. I was supposed to be small and quiet while people with more resources than I had picked apart my situation and pointed out the mistakes I made that they knew better than to make themselves. It was humiliating. My right to privacy went out the window. Even when the help I received wasn’t actually helpful and left me in a worse situation than I’d been in, I was expected to be grateful. I felt worthless and utterly alone. The whole process was made to break me down when I already felt broken.

During my years working in social service organizations, I saw those same dynamics at play on other end of the charitable giving spectrum. Overworked and underpaid staff members vented about the clients that just couldn’t get it together. Meetings were held to discuss cases where all the intimate details of a family’s life were picked apart without them in the room. Staff were exasperated by the people they served who wouldn’t just follow instructions or required too much hand holding.  It was unprofessional to socialize with clients so there was little chance to see the client as a whole person or break down the stark power imbalance. While every single staff member I worked with was a caring and dedicated person, very few of them had faced any of the issues that the people they were serving faced. Funders constantly asked for more data points, success stories, inspirational photos, and return on investment. People were quantified and measured and reported on and organizations relied on the funding to keep the doors open, so there was very little incentive for change. A deep desire to help kept staff pushing forward, but the voices of the people being served got lost along the way.  They were expected to be grateful for what they were getting, even if it wasn’t what they really needed, just as I had been. They were expected to be “fixed” and sent on their way. No one wins with charity. Charity keeps people separated.

Community, on the other hand, brings people together. It recognizes the inherent value of all its members, regardless of their resources, and encourages reciprocity. It replaces the spectrum of superiority and shame that charity uses with one based on connection. Community is empowered people who are lifted up for who they are and not what they have. Community is people who support each other as equals and are there in times of celebration and crisis. It is, essentially, relationship.

When I started the ONE Good Deed Fund 4 years ago, my mission was simple.  I wanted to facilitate people being kind to each other. I wanted to give out easily accessible micro-grants to people who wanted to do something nice for a neighbor and didn’t have the financial means to do it. I wanted to encourage people to think about the folks around them and hold events that invited all sorts of people to come together and get to know each other. I wanted to build community. And in a lot of ways the fund and those of us involved with it have accomplished a lot. We’ve given out thousands of dollars, brought neighbors together, and have held dozens of events in the Old North End neighborhood. But one major barrier I continue to struggle with is that people are afraid to talk to each other. I’ve had so many people submit grant requests and expect that we’ll do all the outreach while they remain anonymous. When I’ve shared that the point is that they build a connection and do that work with our support, a lot of people have backed out.  It was too overwhelming to reach out to someone they didn’t know very well, even if they really wanted to. Fear keeps up separated. Sometimes it comes from very legitimate experiences of ongoing prejudice and violence. But quite often, it’s a lack of experience and fear of rejection.

This dynamic hit home when I helped out with a friend’s event a few years ago. She had worked for months to put together a multi-course meal for people who were experiencing food insecurity and asked me to help serve food.  In her plan, as we’ve all seen so many times before, volunteers served and guests, who had been identified as “in need” to be invited, received. When I asked her if she had considered giving everyone an opportunity to participate in some way, she looked horrified.  She and I spent hours talking through how she felt that it would impose on people who were already overburdened and that she had a lot of negative ideas about what people outside of her social circle were capable of. I told her about how hard it was to live with lowered expectations of my own abilities when I was seen as “in need”, and after a whole lot of discussion, we redesigned the event so that everyone there was welcome to share in some way.  A lot of people helped serve food and clean up, some folks set tables, and one woman led us all in a song she had learned a kid. We all sat side by side and enjoyed each other’s company and an eight year old sitting next to me told me jokes for a full half hour to my utter delight. For a couple of hours we were all equals. But we all walked out into a world at the end of the night that didn’t see us that way.

So what do we do? How do we get away from charity and toward community? How do we get to the place where no one suffers from a lack of basic resources and support, or is dismissed because of who they are? How do we get to the place where people step in and lend a hand before someone hits a crisis point simply because they know and value that person? What’s the path to a world where we embrace what makes us different as what makes us priceless? First I want to acknowledge that this is not the way most of us live and the shift isn’t always easy. But we have to start somewhere and keep trying.  It takes practice, and it can be challenging and messy to figure out how to connect with the people around you in a transformative rather than transactional way. It takes each one of us noticing our own assumptions about other people and questioning where those assumptions come from. It takes stepping away from the roles we are most comfortable in and re-imagining what we are each capable of. And you can start with small acts. Say hello to your neighbors, even if you’ve lived where you are for a long time and feel awkward that you haven’t interacted before. Especially if you don’t face prejudice and violence because of who you are, this is your chance to step up. If you’re not up for knocking on someone’s door, leave a note for them introducing yourself. If you’re in a community where homes are close together, spent time outside and greet people as they walk by.  Make time to really listen to people when they share their experiences with you. Believe them. Treat their sharing with you as the gift that it is. If you’re someone who is in a position of traditional authority in your community, notice who is missing from your meetings and events and think long and hard about why. Ask questions and be willing to make changes to include those who aren’t included and empower them to be a vital part of your process. Go places where you haven’t before and broaden your social circles. Learn to recognize all the talents and gifts that people have to offer far beyond their financial means. Apologize when you mess up and try again. We won’t move forward and toward each other if we keep living in a divided society. At the end of the day, we’re all in this together and it’s up to each one of us to create a place where we all thrive.

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