The Impact of Story

“Storytelling can change a room. It can change lives. It can change the world.”  

–Gwenda Ledbetter

Last Monday night, over 500 people came together as we gathered at_dsc6649 Gotham Hall in New York for Fedcap’s annual Celebration of Work gala. Assembled were board members from our family of agencies as well as our friends, partners, supporters and staff.  I love this night each year as it is a time to pause, reflect and celebrate the work that we have done to change the lives of those with barriers to economic well-being.  This year, the gala proved to be one of the most powerful evenings in our agency’s history.

We chose to reflect on our work through the power of stories and we launched the Power of Possible Stories—an initiative through which we can tell hundreds, even thousands of stories and in the telling of the stories, change people’s lives.

Three remarkable people stood before the crowd and shared their narratives of untold hardship and survival, and of their ability to overcome unimaginable odds to ultimately thrive and flourish.

The stories told that night were not pretty. They did not follow an easy formula that was comfortable to hear. Instead, all three told stories involved gut wrenching pain and loss. Miriam Adler, a survivor of the Holocaust described fear in a way that I suspect many of us cannot imagine. She recounted first-hand what it was like to experience the loss of her family and the fear as she woke each day wondering if it would be her last.  Steve H. told his story of what it was like spend 19 years in prison, and Niki S. grew up to survive her mother’s mental illness, physical and sexual abuse, ravaging addiction and a life on the streets.  Undergirding these tough stories, told in stark beauty, was a thread of courage and the intensity of family love and the success and joy that followed perseverance.  _dsc6728

The testing ground for courage is often those troubled times during which our true strength of character is revealed. What we witnessed last Monday night was extraordinary strength of character. The things that happened to the people we heard from could have happened to any of us. Hearing their stories—and the many stories of those we serve—connects us to them in ways that nothing else quite does and inspires hope that the future can be different than the past. Hearing these stories inspires us to act, to make a difference, to change a life.

I will talk more about the Power of Possible Stories in the blogs to come.

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

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The Assumption of Greatness

I have spent a lot of this year thinking about the concept of equity.  It has been my observation that too often, disenfranchised groups internalize a limiting narrative and a sense of “less than” rather than one of possibility and optimism.

Changing that narrative is both a public and personal imperative.  In the simplest terms, when you believe that achieving a dream is possible…when you believe that you have options and choices success seems within reach . . .and positive action follows.  When people believe in themselves they usually act!

But telling people that there are possibilities is not enough.

Significant change must occur at an institutional and practice level.  Part of our work here at Fedcap is to ensure that each and every day we promote and embody aspirational thinking—among ourselves as well as instilling this belief in those we serve.  But equally, and maybe more importantly, we need to find a way to expand access to people who promote aspirational thinking.

In 1931, writer and historian James Truslow Adams coined the terdream-the-impossible-seek-the-unknown-achieve-greatnessm “American Dream” which he defined by this statement: Life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement regardless of social class or circumstances of birth. I am convinced that it is not just those who have been left out of the American Dream who have internalized a sense of limitations.  I sometimes think it may be those of us who are doing the “serving” who also limit our aspirations for ourselves and for others.

In other words, whether we are talking about people with disabilities, people who have been subject to generational poverty, or the previously incarcerated, what “society” or “helpers” or schools believe shapes how we help and how hard we push those we serve and how we define potential. Those of us in the practice of helping, teaching, mentoring and supporting must examine our own beliefs, challenge them critically, and be ready to flip the orthodoxies we assume so that we, too, are willing and able to change. And, as our thinking changes and evolves, so will the systems with which we interact will begin to shift as well.

We all must fundamentally believe everyone can achieve greatness.  Greatness is not necessarily defined as something huge and momentous. Sometimes greatness and change can come incrementally but still yield seismic shifts. For example, the very act of having a college savings account—even less than 500.00—makes a child three times more likely to enroll and four times more likely to graduate from college?  Why? Because the savings account makes a young person believe that college might be possible and attainable.

I wonder what would happen if our helping systems were designed not as a safety net to catch–but as a trampoline to help people soar.  What if they were designed not merely to keep people from falling through the cracks—but to build a solid foundation for success— a legitimate pathway to greatness.  What if every system presumed and assumed greatness—for everyone?

What would that take?  What kind of rethinking, restructuring, re-imagining would be required?

What are your thoughts?  How can we shift the paradigm to assume greatness for everyone?

 

Making a Difference by Giving -and Saying- Thanks

In 2013, the John Templeton Foundation conducted a survey of 2000 people on the nature of gratitude. In the survey, the respondents suggested that they were least likely to express gratitude at work than anyplace else in their lives. And yet, 93% of respondents 12-2-14-gratitudesaid that “grateful bosses” were the most likely to succeed.  All of the respondents suggested that saying thank you to colleagues made them feel happier and more fulfilled, yet only 10% actually said thank you out loud.

I suspect there are many theories out there about why only 10% don’t express gratitude out loud, but I am going with the theory that gratitude is a good thing—it boosts morale—it makes people feel good about their effort—and it is the right thing to do.

In that spirit, and in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I wish to express my thanks.

Every day, I have the privilege to interact with people who inspire me.   Our Board of Directors  are committed to our mission of manifesting the power of possible—the power of economic well-being—for the people we serve.   They each bring a unique perspective to our work.  I am challenged and inspired by them, and am grateful for their input, their dedication, and their leadership.  Thank you Fedcap Board of Directors.

And every day I have the privilege to interact with tremendously smart staff who challenge me, wrangle through issues with me, surprise me with their innovation and skill at problem-solving, and overwhelm me with their dedication to our mission.  Our staff is far and wide—and while I don’t get to see them every day, whenever I visit one of our sites, I am so proud of the quality and integrity of our work that is united under one clear vision. To the Fedcap staff—all of you—I offer my sincerest thanks for the work you do every single day—and often night—on behalf of those we serve.

To our funders—city, state and federal agencies, foundations, corporations, family anthanksgiving-cornucopiad individual donors—you know that we couldn’t do our work without your vision, your resources, and your remarkable philanthropy.   Without you, there are tens of thousands of people who would be living without hope, without a future, and without a healthy legacy to leave behind. Without you, we simply wouldn’t be. Thank you.

And, finally, I offer my thanks to the people we serve. Every day I am inspired by your courage, your perseverance, your resilience, and your spirit. If there are ever days when I am tired or overwhelmed, it only lasts a moment as I think of each and every one of you who has broken through barriers that have now become a fabric of your past. You are what keep us all—Board of Directors, staff, funders, and partners—coming to work every day, stirred by your remarkable willingness to seek and accept help—and to contribute to a greater society. Thank you for giving me a reason to get up every morning and to work hard to make a relevant, sustainable impact.

To all of you, I wish you a very happy Thanksgiving.

Thank you.

 

A Call to Thrive: Being Needed and Finding Connection

“If one lights a fire for others, it will also brighten one’s own way.”  13th c Buddhist saying

On November 4, the New York Times ran an article entitled Behind Our Anxiety, The Fear of Being Unneeded, co-authored by The Dalai Lama and Arthur C. Brooks, leader of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, and author of The Conservative Heart.

In the article, the authors suggest that even though things are improving slowly for people in countries that have been shrouded in hunger and illiteracy, those living in the most industrialized countries—the U.S., Britain, and the countries of Europe—are experiencing levels of anxiety and hopelessness never before felt.

The authors posit that the root cause of this existential hunger is a failure for people to feel useful to others. Those who are giving something of themselves are more likely to feel happy, and, statistics show, to live longer.

Our experience here at Fedcap points to a similar finding. This concept of being needed and, ultimately, finding connection are parts of what drives our staff to keep working in the midst of fast deadlines and often overloaded workdays. We are lucky as we experience the gratification of being needed on a daily basis. And, as we support others in finding economic well-being, we are opening up ways for them to feel more secure, so that, in turn, their own hunger to be needed can be met.

The New York Times article sparked a lot of discussion among my colleagues. It gave us a new angle through which to consider the success of our programs. We talked specifically about our ReServe program, which directly addresses a sense of usefulness for individuals aged 55 and older who may have determined that they want to shift the pace of their workaday lives and focus on helping others. ReServe gives them a vehicle to serve, to feel useful, and to make connections—as dementia coaches for families with a loved one living with dementia, as success mentors, helping foster children get ready for jobs or higher education, or through working with at-risk students who need extra support as they go through school.

As I think about the ways that our organization—or any organization—can help its staff to feel useful, I am struck by one immutable fact: it is only through action and connecting directly with others that we will help satisfy the pangs of uselessness. Conversations are important to raise awareness, but action is where the cure comes. Action can be as subtle as paying really good attention to others—an act French philosopher Simone Weil called “the rarest and purest form of generosity,” or it can be as bold and direct as creating a system or policy or process or structure that brings people together to solve a problem.  In these days of increased social media and technology that allows us to work remotely, finding new ways to connect directly can be more of a challenge, but a challenge well worth solving.

Today I am thinking about the actions I can take that will support connection and usefulness in myself and on behalf of others. What will you do to inspire others’ usefulness? How will you recognize the gifts of others, as the article suggests?

As always, I welcome your thoughts and opinions.

Here is a link to the NYT November 4 article:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/04/opinion/dalai-lama-behind-our-anxiety-the-fear-of-being-unneeded.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FBrooks%2C%20Arthur%20C&action=click&contentCollection=opinion&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=collection&_r=0

Transforming Lives through Story

Stories show us how to bear the unbearable, approach the unapproachable, conceive the inconceivable. Stories provide meaning, texture, layers and layers of truth. – Joseph Campbell .

In my job as CEO of a large nonprofit, one of the critical pieces of my work is making sure that we measure the impact of the work we do. Twice a year, in the name of transparency, we present a release of our financial health to our stakeholders, vendors, funders, and interested community,  demonstrating that we are responsible stewards of the resources entrusted to us.  In addition,  we pursue the tracking and analysis of Metrics That Matter  –metrics that reflect our efficacy in changing the lives of those served.   These numbers in part  tell the story of the work of our agency, and they are effective tools in helping us manage and measure our progress toward our mission of eliminating barriers to economic well-being.

Our “numbers” story serves a very important purpose. But underneath every single number  lies the individual stories of people whose lives are transformed by the work we do. These stories are what keep all of us coming to work each day.

The stories of the individuals whose lives we touch connect us. They show us a world beyond our own—a world where we get to walk alongside another, seeing things from a lens that is different from our own. They give us what the poet Mary Oliver calls the “sustentation of empathy”—an ability to see a truth different from our own, but equally as valuable, as poignant, as full of hope and fear, experience and triumph as the narratives of our own lives.

When we hear the stories of those we serve, we remember why we do the work we do. We hear about the defining moment in people’s lives where they were transformed by hope, by mentorship, by recognizing that a dream could become a reality. Part of our work at Fedcap is to  understand the narrative of each life.  The narrative gives us the reasons why, it helps us inspire hope, and it helps us strive to a life—and often a generation— that is transformed.

At the end of November, we will be hosting our annual celebrating our Celebration of Work Gala.  This year, we are honoring stories of perseverance and ovestoryrcoming tremendous adversity.   We will hear from individuals who have risen above life-defying odds to go on to not only survive, but to thrive and to go on to inspire others.

At Fedcap, we are about transformation, about hope, and about the power of possible.

Each night I think about a story that I’ve heard, a life changed. And while I am always thinking about what we can do next, I rest easier knowing that there are new narratives being created every day. Every one of us has a story worth telling—our story is what gives our lives meaning. What’s yours?

Disability is Difference: What’s next?

Disability is a natural part of the human experience…

–The Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act

Those nine words that begin the preamble of the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act represent a huge paradigm shift in the way we view people with disabilities—and barriers—to self-sufficiency. To parse that phrase even more clearly, one might simply say: everyone is different. Not exactly a revolutionary concept, yet somehow people with disabilities and barriers have had to fight for their rights over centuries-old stigma and misunderstanding. People with disabilities—and barriers—it appears, are seen as more different.

We’ve come a long way since the days of laws like the “Ugly Laws” that were passed in the American colonies in the 1800s and not fully repealed until 1974, when the city of Chicago took the laws off their books. In shocking language, the Chicago Municipal Code Sec. 36034 stated, “no person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed to be an unsightly or disgusting object or improper person to be allowed in or on the public ways or other public places in this city, or shall therein or thereon expose himself to public view…” These laws were echoes of many, many years of prejudice, widely accepted not just in the U.S. but all over the world. We all know there are many horror stories of how people with disabilities were treated—and mistreated—throughout history, which is of course why laws, like the Brown v Board of Education, the Architectural Barriers Act, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and The Americans with Disabilities Act exist today.

Conditions for people still vary from state to state, for example, not all states have embraced full employment for individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities. Those states that have report story after story of individuals who were once believed unable to work in the competitive workforce  living lives they had not dreamed possible.

What of the future? It is only within the last sixty years that our legal landscape has helped alter how society views those of us with disabilities. Yet the prejudices still linger. People still see individuals with barriers or with disabilities—or differently advantaged—as the “other”—as “them,” not as “us.” There is an inherent prejudice that exists, which I believe is based in fear—fear of the unknown. Unless we are able to place ourselves in another’s skin, we cannot begin to understand what their life is like. What will it take for us to lessen our fear, lessen our “unknowingness,” and ultimately to accept that we are all different, indeed.

I look forward to the day when we just think of ourselves, all, as different. Is there a seismic shift that needs to happen, or do we continue with chipping away at expanding the existing laws? How do we inculcate change in our culture that extends beyond the laws? What is one thing that we can do today to help move our momentum forward at warp speed?

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

Imagining Great Expectations

Start with the children and teach them that the value of a human being is not in their ability to carry a football or dunk a basketball, but in the quality of their humanity.

–Richard C. Senelick, MD

National Disabilities Awareness Month will be over at the end of October, but the “awarenessdisabilityawarenessmonth” doesn’t stop, nor does our capacity to imagine the possibilities for those with disabilities as we strive to eliminate barriers that interfere with their economic—as well as social, psychological, and emotional—well-being.

In 1999, the Supreme Court upheld the Olmstead Decision, which called for the provision of community-
based services for those with disabilities, thus desegregating them from places like sheltered workshops, non-inclusive classrooms, and isolated group homes. (For more on the Olmstead decision, see https://www.ada.gov/olmstead/olmstead_about.htm.)

We’ve come a long way since the Olmstead Decision. Pioneers in our communities, schools, and workplaces are discovering how important and enriching it is to include individuals with disabilities in the places where they live, work, and go to school. Adults for whom expectations were once low are now discovering the fulfillment of a job well done, a living wage, and ongoing contributions to their communities. And, each year, states wrangle through legal decisions that expand the Olmstead Decision, broadening the definition of accessibility and openness.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was a breakthrough milestone in civil rights history.  Both it and the Olmstead Decision guarantee rights for those with disabilities.

And yet, we still have a long way to go.  I just completed a two year effort as part of the Federal Advisory Committee on Increasing Competitive Integrated Employment for Individuals with Disabilities.  The results submitted to DOL Secretary Perez pushed the envelope further, providing a detailed road map for ensuring access tsam-keoo fully integrated employment at no less than minimum wage.

That is the next step, full participation in all aspects of society that starts in childhood.

What if we supported our children with disabilities (over 200 million worldwide) as they articulate their dreams and aspire to their highest selves? Do we think that people who live with a physical, psychological, or emotional disability have different aspirations and dreams than those who do not? They don’t. They have the same dreams as everyone else.

Ultimately, what would happen if we realized fully that “they” are really “we”?

The barriers that individuals face are much more likely to come from the environment in which they live rather than whatever is perceived as their impairment. I challenge us all to examine our own thinking about the abilities of those around us. What are our assumptions about people with physical, intellectual or developmental disabilities? From where do we get our stereotypes and assumptions? Are they true, and how do we know they’re true?

There are so many stories of people who have realized their dreams in spite of stigma or barriers that the environment places in their path. These stories are the driving force behind the work that we do at Fedcap. These stories are the reason we are in business. I look forward to the day, one day, when there won’t need to be laws or decisions or nonprofits that champion the rights of those with barriers. I look forward to the day when expectations and assumptions and possibilities are the same across the board. To me, that is the measure of social justice and a world where everyone has the opportunity to make a difference.

I welcome your thoughts.