As a 1996 echoing green public service fellow, I left the Harvard Ed School really believing that I could end the poverty in the Mississippi Delta through an after-school college access program. For some reason, I felt like college access was a difference-maker. I mean, my mom, was a high school dropout but later completed the GED, an associate’s degree and finally the bachelor’s. And with each level of education, it felt like our lives got better.
Though I was a high-achieving high school student, my college access story was less-than-ideal (I just showed up having never applied). And I simply didn’t want others to experience that, given the powerful role education plays in disrupting poverty.
Here are a few lessons I learned and tips to help you:
Your piece of the pie
The truth was that my after-school program serving around 100 students simply could not end poverty immediately. Having a realistic and emotionally healthier perspective could have served me well. Superman could only leap one building at a time or save one cat from a tree at a time.
TIP: Identify what your “super powers” are. And then determine how to do the best you can with what you have where you are. Then do that only.
You need cheerleaders
“They” may call you crazy for what you’re doing. And if they do, you will need understanding people to validate your work. I remember calling a mentor telling him to tell me that “I’m not crazy.” And he did (quite often). I later started a book club which swelled in membership. Through it, I was introduced to others “in the struggle” and found much needed validation for the work which seemed, at times, thankless.
TIP: Deliberately identify a support team – whether near or far – and communicate often. In this scenario, it is not necessarily vain, I believe, to strategically assemble a cheerleading squad. You will likely be tackled many more times than making touchdowns and you will need to hear, “That’s alright, that’s OK, we’ve got spirit anyway!”
Get off the cross!
Some people don’t want to be saved. Their decision-making may seem “cross” and peculiar to you. However, you must know that you are possibly disrupting what is comfortable to them. Cultural norms are indeed cultural norms. And as they say “culture eats strategy for lunch.” As an evangelical community educator (I just made that up), I figuratively nailed myself to the cross hoping that people would listen to the good news. It didn’t readily happen. Then I, too, wept…
TIP: Take the “help me to help you” approach with your time and resources. You could “go all the way” trying to help the first time, but meet them half-way thereafter.
Get out (occasionally)
I had a friend who work for an airline and I was on the “buddy list!” Because I was often surrounded by cotton fields in Mississippi, I scheduled a monthly trip to a large city with a magnificent skyline of very tall buildings. I would stay in hotels downtown, walk around the city and sometimes just look out the hotel window.
TIP: Physically extract yourself from the “mission work.” Renew, refresh and then return…
Focus on that “One day…”
My fellowship was for two years as a community educator. Then I continued the work at the state level and later at the national level. I sought to create milestones where I could re-evaluate whether I should continue or not. As I was doing the hard work, I would often think that I wouldn’t be doing this work forever… “One day, I will be…married and driving kids to school…or working four blocks from Capitol in DC…or visiting Paris…or opening a school.” Those things, all of which I have now done, gave me motivation to continue the work I was doing at the time.
TIP: Define a timeframe to re-evaluate your commitment to the work. Signing-up for something “forever” may not be realistic.