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What’s wrong with this picture? HONY and the man from Detroit

Nothing but love for this story. Vidal, his principal Ms. Lopez, and the President.

Nothing but love for this story. Vidal, his principal Ms. Lopez, and the President.

Let me begin by saying that I ADORE the Humans of New York (aka HONY) blog and Facebook page. You should definitely check them out. I love the recent story about the young boy at the Brooklyn school who praised his principal, which set up a snowball effect of raising gobs of money for the school and a meeting with the president. Love the whole damn thing.

I also love the story of the man from Detroit, James Robertson, who was profiled for his ridiculously difficult commute, and then received several hundred thousand dollars in donations and a new car. Totally awesome.

Except that these stories won’t end like a Disney movies and that’s the tricky part. I recently finished reading the terrific book, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, about an extraordinarily gifted young man from a tough Newark, NJ neighborhood, who makes it to Yale on a combination of his gifts, determination, and the kind of no-strings-attached generosity that is demonstrated by the two stories above. And as you may have surmised from the title, Robert’s story ends tragically when he is killed in a confrontation with some other drug dealers. Yes, I said other drug dealers- Robert, despite all of his gifts and education, was unable to break free of the complex bonds and relationships that tied him to his neighborhood and family- in a word, he was a dealer too.

I have always found marionettes unsettling. Perhaps because the strings reveal so much about human nature.

I have always found marionettes unsettling. Perhaps because the strings reveal so much about human nature.

And that’s the problem I have with these two recent stories. Money is not enough. Even education, as much as it is the great equalizer, is not enough. Helping to lift an individual out of poverty is not about that individual alone. It must be about the entire community. Humans are like marionettes, they have strings attached- to children, parents, extended family, girlfriends, boyfriends, classmates, bosses, neighbors, creditors- the list goes on. The bonds across all of these relationships are incredibly interdependent, complex, and have many of the same properties that we use to describe bonds in chemistry. They may be flexible but strong, rigid but weak, fragile but critical- and no one knows the properties and complexity of these relationships except for that person at the center of all of them.

What I fear for Mr. Robertson, and Vidal and his classmates, is that we are fickle benefactors. There is a sense that, having donated or even just commented on their struggles, somehow gives us entrée into their lives, and when they make a mistake- and they will, many will tsk knowingly or shake their heads disapprovingly, with an “I told you so” air. These individuals, the students, the teachers, and staff from Vidal’s school- they will make mistakes, they will fight over money- in short, they will not live up to the standard that has been set by these snapshots of their lives.

None of us would live up to the expectations set by these two-dimensional portraits. Because we are human. Because we are fallible. Because making mistakes is how we all learn. Because sometimes the marionette strings that entangle us are too much for even the most gifted among us to break free from.

As good as it feels to be generous when we want to, when we feel someone “deserves” it- it is vital that we do not feel that this is enough. The education system that allows kids from low-income neighborhoods in New York City to be so incredibly disadvantaged relative to wealthier peers in better neighborhoods is broken. The infrastructure in Detroit that is so crippled that people can spend half their days commuting to low-wage jobs is broken. All of the individuals affected by these failings deserve help. Not just the ones that through luck or fate make it to the top of your Facebook feed.

In the charity world, it’s well known that making an appeal on behalf of a specific individual is far more effective than an appeal on behalf of a group of individuals. Show the world one starving kid and you’ll have a far greater return than if you show them an entire community. This is a not a criticism of this practice, just the reality. People make empathic connections on a 1:1 ratio. It’s hard to feel a personal connection to 10,000 kids or a million kids. Your mind starts to stack-rank them and without realizing it, you want to connect with the worst-off kid, even if the next 50 or 50,000 have negligibly better circumstances.

I fervently hope that the money raised for Mott Hall Bridges Academy, and for Mr. Robertson, and for the next person judged tragic-yet-worthy!, helps them surmount the challenges that surround them. I hope that the notoriety affords them sufficient freedom to chart their own course. But I am a realist. I know stories and endings like Robert Peace’s are heart-achingly commonplace. I know that breaking free from the burdens that poverty places upon you is a herculean struggle that few are able to do.

My ask is this- if, or when, James Robertson dents his car, or sells it, or quits his job and runs off with an old girlfriend- or whatever; don’t judge him harshly. The same goes for Vidal and Ms. Lopez, for that matter. None of us know what is written in the book of their lives, even if you have read the outline of it. Do not harden your heart against generosity because you feel it was wasted effort. Do not let the narrative of “charity breeds dependence” take root in your mind.

Rather, push yourself to think more broadly about the causes and effects of long-term poverty. The systemic challenges and barriers that we must work to eliminate. Whether it’s city infrastructure, failing schools, lack of childcare, lack of health care, adult education, violence, addiction, unemployment- you know the list. You are probably zoning out already, based on the magnitude of the challenge. Look, I donated $100 bucks to that guy- don’t kill my buzz. I get it. I feel the same way. I get overwhelmed and discouraged all the time, thinking about it. And yet we cannot give up.

Sure, he's in the zoo. But what if we are too? Maybe that's not a bad thing.

Sure, he’s in the zoo. But what if we are too? Maybe that’s not a bad thing.

When we help an individual, it is not like we pluck them from the wild and put them in a controlled environment like a zoo. That person still lives in their very real world, with all its attendant risks and dangers. Ironically perhaps, the zoo metaphor may be especially apt for the affluent. The more advantages you are born with, the more your environment is already controlled, adapted, and regulated for you. Do animals born in the zoo long for the wilds? Do they even see the bars of their enclosures? Do they thank the gods that put them there? Do we? It starts to feel a little uncomfortable when we examine our own lives through this lens.

So what’s wrong with this picture? What’s wrong with the snapshot we are seeing of Vidal or James Robertson? Are we looking out at them or are they looking in at us? Our great challenge is eliminating the barriers between us and recognizing our shared humanity and journey.

Thanks so much for reading and sharing!

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