Monday, October 25, 2010

Am I poor? AHAs from the concrete jungles of NY

43 million people live in poverty in the US. Sadly (but not surprisingly), a disproportionate 1.8 million live in New York City. This past Monday, I had the opportunity to put a face, name, and several amazing stories to a few of these otherwise nameless statistics. I also had the chance to become one of the statistics.

The purpose of this post is to share a few things that I learned/affirmed/was surprised by/just need to get off my chest.

But first, a little background:
The 9 other Acumen Fellows and I came into the office Monday morning with the ambiguous instructions to wear comfortable shoes and vague guidance that the day was about exploring what it means to be poor in New York. We soon found out that this entailed individually exploring the effectiveness of social services provided by New York, from the perspective of poor individuals in the city

Having written about the relativity of poverty in a global village just days before, I was extremely excited to further explore my theories; and after much internal debate, I decided this would be best accomplished by assuming the role of someone in a marginalized community. Ultimately, I believed this would encourage deeper conversations with marginalized individuals – and also force me to confront personal emotions, public reactions, societal stereotypes, etc. – in a way that I wasn’t able to during my previous two years living and volunteering in Harlem. I also believed the scenario I adopted – a recent transplant from CA who was struggling to establish himself – could easily be reality if one or two things turned out differently.

So – equipped with only 5 single dollar bills and a 2-ride metro card (i.e., no Blackberry, camera, iPod, etc.) –the 10 of us anxiously split up from our safe haven in the Meat Packing District, in hopes of better understanding poverty in NY. And after 7 tireless hours – and over 2 dozen conversations with people at places like the Urban Pathways drop in center, Holy Apostles Food Kitchen, Mainchance Shelter Home, St John’s food pantry, NY Human Resources Administration, Western Union, American Dental, a hot dog stand, a bagel cart and much more – we came back together to debrief/process with the Executive Director of the ACLU, Anthony Romero. Here’s a few AHAs I learned.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Discussions with Jacqueline Novogratz: Global citizens and the relativity of poverty

Whites often claim that Africans in South Africa were better off than Africans in the rest of the continent. Our complaint, I said, was not that we were poor by comparison with the people in the rest of Africa, but that we were poor by comparison with the whites in our country.
-Nelson Mandela

Why would you go work abroad when there’s plenty of poverty here in the US?
This is a question I’ve heard dozens of times, and – despite how tired I might get hearing it – the reality is that it's a great question. A question to which my answer has actually evolved over time. 

When I began working full time in development, I would have naively argued that there’s no way anyone could compare, say, a single mother living in the States – even in a place like the Queensbridge projects – to the HIV widows that I worked with in the Mathare and Kibera slums. McDonalds for dinner versus one meal of maize and beans every two days just didn’t compare.

But after a year in Kenya and South Africa, I came to a number of related realizations: that poverty really is relative. That Nelson Mandela was right. And that when a single mother in NY shares the same street as hedge fund billionaires, poverty to her might feel the same as poverty feels to the women in Kenya.

This past week, the Acumen Fellows and I had the opportunity to talk with Jacqueline Novogratz, Acumen’s CEO, about a number of issues, including this notion of the relativity of poverty.
We discussed countries such as Kenya, who were much happier before they were infiltrated with forces from the west that forever captured their perception of happiness. No longer was the simple idea of, say, a united family and a decent living as appealing, given that the benchmark wasn’t their neighbor in Nairobi but their neighbors in New York, North Hollywood, the suburbs of New Haven, and any other city/town on TV.

Jacqueline identified this as a phenomenon where we are all global citizens, interconnected in a world where our actions (and inactions) have infinite and often unforeseen consequences on our global neighbors.  

Mario + Jacqueline, cooking on our retreat
Given this reality, it shouldn’t be surprising that the idea of success and happiness in western culture has penetrated the developing world. What should be surprising, however, is that the information swap isn’t reciprocal. Specifically, it should be surprising (and disappointing) that although Kenya knows so much about the US, Americans know so embarrassingly little about Kenya. 

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Acumen Fund Fellowship and learning how to sing

3/10 of the Fellows at our leadership retreat
The night before my fellowship at Acumen began, I was sitting around the dinner table with my extended family in Long Island, discussing the program. About 20 bites in, I came to the sad realization that – although I’ve been openly talking about the fellowship for months now – I’ve evidently struggled to adequately explain it.

Yes, I describe Acumen as a venture capital firm that invests in social businesses throughout the developing world. Yes, I discuss our two-month training in NY that will prepare us for work in the field.  And yes, I explain how my nine months on the ground will be spent consulting for a water investment in Pakistan.

But no, I’m not sure this message is clear…

Eight days later, I was in a training session with Acumen’s Director of Business Development, struggling through an exercise from a Stanford psychology experiment called tappers and listeners. Essentially, we were to use the enormous conference room table to tap (not hum or sing) a song, while our partner tried to listen and guess the song. As Sasha debriefed, I realized I’ve been falling into the same trap many in our space are also stuck in: tapping away to a song that most others have never heard.

I thought back to the dinner table – and dozens of other past conversations – and reflected on how many people must have been straining to listen as I rapidly tapped (or banged) away to songs in my head. I recognized that if we’re ever to sing along to the same tune, I need to do several things differently: simplify the message (e.g., take out the buzz words), share more stories, and allow my passion to come through.

These are things I’m working on, and I hope that my friends will continue to give me feedback – or blank stares – until my “singing” gets better. But so that they won’t be left in the dark until that day arrives, the Acumen team has put out a great video that seems to succeed in all the areas I’ve failed.

Hopefully, this will help us sing along together…