No Perfect Engagement

There is no perfect engagement…helping those in need never “looks” how we think it should, it never “feels” like we think it should, it never “works out” like we think it should. Helping those in need is not about those that help, success isn’t defined by “us” as much as we try to make it, success isn’t always obvious. It affects us and that is okay.

This is a significant statement and it is easy for me to feel the weight of it. But when I step back I can see the freedom in this statement, and that is where I want the focus to be.

They say perfect is the enemy of good, and I think that we carry this thought into our service of others. In that though we miss the point of serving. Serving is defined as “a helpful and supportive follower”. Not the leader. In our service of others, we do not have the right to define success for them, that is their responsibility. Our job is to listen, assist, and encourage them. This is hard, really hard, and that might be the point. All of us who spends our days in the service of others have experience, we have seen so many different ideas played out by those we work with. We see patterns and pitfalls, we see the barriers before they arrive, we see the storms coming. I think it is incredibly well intentioned that we want to protect, shield, and guide those we are helping, because after all we love them. But how many times have you learned a life lesson by having someone stop you short of the mistake? How receptive are you to feedback at that point? I do think there is a balance here, and it is okay to prevent damage where we can, but we must be careful to leave our personal feelings or agendas out of the equation.

We must remove the bias from our help. We must remove our personal agendas from our help. It is not about us, it is about them. I think that if helping is done correctly we are elevating the ideas of those we are trying to help, we let them define success, and we worry later about how that fits into a grant report. Can you imagine how this might reshape the landscape of helping others?

Something has to change, because for the amount of money that is spent on helping, the problems should be solved a long time ago. I think we are often in the wrong by determining the success. I also think in doing this we place undue pressure and prestige on those who serve. We unintentionally elevate the status of the helper over the one who is being helped. What would happen if we let those who were being helped determine success? I know this sounds complicated but bear with me. There is freedom in this thought. I have often spoken about the dangers of being in an “expert” seat, there is a danger in having all of the answers. Because you stop learning and growing. If you are the expert in all things housing, how receptive will you be to ideas shared by a homeless man about housing? If you are the expert on solving the potential problems of our returning populations, are you going to listen to the returnee as she is coming back to the community after 10 years in prison? There is a pressure to deliver results when you are the expert, and it is almost impossible to not cause damage when your outputs are more important than the people.

There is a lot of research coming out now about how often “helping” is causing significant damage in communities. Maybe it is because of who is bringing the ideas to the table? What if we elevated the voices of those who are being helped? What if we learned together?

I get no credit for the story I am going to share as it happened before I joined Urban Alliance, but I believe it illustrates the point well.

Urban Alliance built relationships in the community for 13 years prior to starting the Momentum Urban Employment Initiative. In fact, the entire organization started with the singular goal of building relationships in the community. We existed to communicate that everyone is valuable, and to show that we are going to come to you. No agenda, no script, and no pressure. We had all experienced the power of a relationships in transforming our own lives, and we knew that a solid relationship was the best foundation for helping communities in removing suffering. Many of those who served early on as volunteers were members of the faith community, and they would often ask residents if there was anything they could pray for them about. Through this question, we heard trends, we heard common asks, we heard fears and hopes. But there was no action. Not because there were not solid ideas by the teams, but because the goal was not to create, it was to allow a portion of the population to be heard.

Through relationships, our founder got to know a leader of a notorious gang, and these two became friends, not overnight but they became friends. Over the course of 5 or 6 years, neither one can agree on how long it took, through the personal relationship this gang leader stopped his gang related activities. There was a ton of effort in this by both sides, but I believe that there was mutual love between the two.

Not long after this gang leader left the gang, he turned his attention back to the neighborhood, on the streets he used to run, to help his friends. He was encouraged by his new path, by what happened through the friendship with the founder and became a volunteer with the grassroots organization.

He knew the neighborhood, he knew the pain, he knew the discouragement, he knew what happens when one is hopeless, he knew what needed to be done. A year later he came to the then Executive Director of the Urban Alliance with a thought. That thought became the Momentum Urban Employment Initiative.

His influence did not stop there, he heavily influenced the creation of Momentum, ensuring it was responding to the needs he heard and experienced on the streets.

I am sharing this long story because there is something powerful here. I get asked often how we achieve the results we do, or how the programs and initiatives stay on track, and every time I point back to how it was created, why it was created, and who influences its evolution. It was never about us, it was about meeting the needs of the community, it was about their voices, their issues.

Now we have built a program that is blowing the doors off programs around the country, but at every step we can point back to why the program exists, who is most important in the equation, who it is about, and who identifies how success should be measured. The staff at Urban Alliance are merely facilitators of the work the community asked for.

There are a lot of things I want out of this, the freedom of working this way, the risk mitigation when it is not your idea, the fear of going down roads that are uncharted, and maybe most importantly what happens when one relationship is your only goal…

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