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.

Community Breakfast on April 28th

We are thrilled to announce that instead of the ONE Spring Fling we’ve hosted annually in the past four years, we will be hosting a free community breakfast on Saturday, April 28th from 10 – noon! More details to come, but we can share that our goal is to bring people from all backgrounds living in different parts of Burlington together and give them the chance to get to know each other, and leave feeling a deeper connection to our community.

Clean Up / Clean Out Event June 24th

Saturday, June 24th
10am – 2:30pm
Sustainability Academy, 123 North St, Burlington VT
Paved lot next to the playground
Entrance on Murray St.

Join your Wards 2, 3, and Central District City Councilors to clean up and clean out! If you have trash and other household items that have been cluttering up your home, yard, or neighborhood, this is your chance to get rid of them for free. Bring them to the Murray Street entrance to the Sustainability Academy where Murray and North St intersect between 10am and 2:30pm on Saturday, June 24th and you’ll have access to dumpsters from Casella Waste, and recycling hauling thanks to CarShare VT’s truck and volunteers.

If you have questions, would like to volunteer, or need help getting items to the dumpsters, please contact:
Laura Hale

If you have household goods that are in good shape, ReSource VT will pick them up for free Monday through Friday. Call (802) 658-4143 x19 to schedule a pick up.

2017 ONEderful Award Winners Announced

Thank you to all who submitted nominations for the ONEderful Awards we’ll be giving out at the 3rd Annual ONE Spring Fling on 4/8! We are thrilled to be able to celebrate this year’s ONEderful Award winners Bonnie Acker, Mellisa Cain, and Carol Ann Wooster.  Why are we so excited?  Because they are fabulous people doing fabulous things in the Old North End.  See what their nominators had to say:

“Bonnie is the “Gardening Queen” in the Old North End. In addition to her gorgeous artwork that adorns many walls in the ONE, Bonnie has spent countless hours designing, planting, and maintaining vegetable and flower gardens at the Integrated Arts Academy. Many an early morning finds Bonnie weeding, watering, and nurturing at IAA. During harvest, neighbors can stop by and taste a sweet berry or fresh bean. Bees happily buzz around the flowers, gathering nectar.

Manuka, a junior in high school, stopped by one day with her father to thank Bonnie for the fresh food they’ve gotten from the gardens. Through sign language and Manuka’s translation, her father was describing his gratitude. Because of Bonnie’s gardens, a neighbor with a 3-year-old has decided that she wants her own garden now. Thank you, Bonnie, for sharing your skills and your excitement about getting fresh food to so many!”

“Mellisa volunteers for every possible thing I know about in the neighborhood. She is nonstop in her commitment to the community. She does the community dinners, she does rights and democracy, she organized a vigil against the election, she volunteers with neighborhood teens. She goes and she goes. She is a total champion.”

“What does Carol do for the Old North End? The Sunshine Free Library— a continuation of always giving! I’ve known Carol for 20 yrs. At Burlington College we collected & distributed art works by community members in a book for free. She is constantly stepping out in her community to help make people feel loved, appreciated, and have their unique gifts be seen & celebrated. She is a champion of the MS walk, having navigated this disease for many yrs herself. Even with her own struggles, she reached out to let neighbors know they have support in rough times, like when I had cancer. She is someone who has lived in & loved the ONE before it was popular to do so. She shares her respect & love of her neighbors w/out basking for fanfare so I think it would be wonderful to give her some.”

New Neighborhood Project and Event Grants Available

After much planning, we are pleased to offer grants for neighborhood projects and events in the Old North End.  This new funding option was created to meet a need we see in the community for individuals and small groups who want to improve their neighborhood and bring people together, but aren’t part of a nonprofit and don’t have access to traditional grants and fundraising.  Grants of up to $250 are available on a rolling basis.

What we fund:

  • Neighborhood projects spearheaded by individuals and groups in the Old North End
  • Neighborhood celebrations and events that bring Old North End residents together

What we do not fund:

  • Projects outside of the Old North End
  • Projects run by nonprofits and businesses (exceptions may be made for very small groups – please contact us)
  • Events that do not primarily benefit ONE residents
  • Events for which there are multiple sponsors

More information and applications are available on our funding page.

First Annual ONEderful Award Winners Announced

Thank you to all who sent in nominations for our first annual ONEderful Awards to honor Old North End residents who make the neighborhood a better place through their volunteer work.  We are thrilled to announce this year’s five recipients:

  • Megan Humphrey, a long-time ONE resident on St. Louis St. and volunteer who has been a great friend to her neighbors and given her time and resources to several causes including the community gardens, the Old North End Arts Business Network, the Ramble, and her own organization H.A.N.D.S (Helping and Nurturing Diverse Seniors);
  • Jess Hyman, a resident of N. Champlain St, who has gone way beyond her work with the VT Community Garden Network to support gardening efforts in the ONE as a volunteer and has been a constant champion of Green Up Day, H.A.N.D.S, and The Ramble;
  • Karl Lukhaup, who took it upon himself to reach out to his neighbors on Russell St. when drug dealing became a problem and spearheaded a neighborhood response based in community connections;
  • Sean Melinn, also on N. Champlain St, who has given hundreds of hours of his time to volunteer for Bike Recycle VT, the Old North End Arts & Business Network, and the Ramble, and is a constant presence in the neighborhood; and
  • Rosie Senna, a life long Old North End resident on Lafountain St. who is affectionately known as “Auntie Rose” to generations of kids and has made caring for neighborhood families her life’s work through the VNA Family Room and her every day interactions with her neighbors.

We will celebrate them and the difference they’ve made in the Old North End at this year’s ONE Spring Fling and hope you’ll be able to join us!

Nominate Someone for a ONEderful Award!

We love to celebrate the good work that is going on in the Old North End!  If you know someone who has made the neighborhood a better place, we welcome you to nominate them for a ONEderful award.  This is non-competitive, and everyone who meets the criteria for the award will be recognized at our ONE Spring Fling on April 23rd, 2016 and receive a free ticket to attend.  To nominate someone for a ONEderful award, please download our nomination form as either as an MS Word .doc file or a PDF, or fill it out online.  Nomination forms are due by Monday, April 11th at 5pm.  The award criteria are:

  • The recipient must live in the Old North End of Burlington, VT (defined as the area between Pearl Street as the southern border, North Willard Street as the eastern border, Manhattan Drive as the northern border, and North Avenue as the western border),
  • The recipient’s actions make the Old North End a better place to live and work, and
  • The recipient does this work as a volunteer.

Nominate someone today and come to our ONE Spring Fling to celebrate!

Let’s Create a Wall of Kindness!

Have you heard of the Wall of Kindness movement in Iran?  To help homeless in many cities around the country, people have put up hooks on designated walls where anyone who has extra warm clothing can leave it and anyone who needs it can pick it up.  (read more about it here).  Given the needs in our own community, we’re exciting about the possibility of starting a Wall of Kindness here in the Old North End.  We’re still in the very beginning planning stages of this project are looking for folks who would like to help organize.  We’ve scheduled a community brainstorming meeting on Thursday, Feb. 11th from 6 – 7:30pm at ONE Arts Center at 72 N. Champlain St. in Burlington and all are welcome.  If you’d like to join in, contact us and we’ll keep you in the loop!