“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
– Harper Lee
“Walk a Mile in My Shoes” is a timeless expression that carries a strong sentiment – don’t judge me – you have no idea what I’ve been through. It’s a thought that we as a society should examine further, especially in regard to the courage we see and the empathy we feel toward each other. As Senior Director of Community Voice, I get a chance to delve into what it means to be proximate on a community level. I glean awareness and understanding of individual situations. This allows me to facilitate and document collaborative and resourceful measures between partner agencies while intentionally challenging systems and biased behavior.
These experiences are sometimes difficult to write about. Putting my emotions into words has been a struggle. I’m moved by the work that Next Stage sets out to do on a neighborhood and community-based level. It is work that changes lives and I’m just scratching the surface. There are individuals and nonprofits who are planted on a daily basis in tough, raw and unfiltered interactions in order to improve the lives of others. They are the courageous ones, literally making a way out of no way. They are the instruments of social change that make us and the world better. Thus, I’m a community voice leader and champion who is on a continuous journey of learning and growth aligned with hope, understanding and appreciation. Not only for social good but also in response to a greater call.
Let’s Take A Long Walk
Jill Scott is a recording artist and has a classic song called “Let’s Take A Long Walk”. The music video for this song is set in the middle of her Philadelphia neighborhood – a place where she is fully known and embraced. She takes a walk unencumbered and the music captures the moment. Lyrics like “spark conversation” and “share our situations, temptations, education, relaxations, elevations” describe a love letter of sorts to a loved one or even the community itself. Yet it reveals that this walk was not just for the video but had been a part of Scott’s everyday life.
I am reminded of a similar walk that I decided to take when I was first assigned to one of our long-standing clients on a pilot project. The pilot sought to bring basic healthcare services to a community in need. Specifically, it was a neighborhood with diverse ages and ethnic backgrounds, where 82% of residents are employed with an annual household income around $17,000 based on the Charlotte/Mecklenburg County Quality of Life Explorer. For this pilot, collaborative partnerships were formalized and community healthcare workers were on the ground, building rapport and relationships with residents months in advance.
On the day of the launch, I decided to take a long walk – a distance of about two miles from my home to the mobile unit. I knew the vicinity of where the mobile unit would be and started trekking. While on my journey, I thought about a mom with two young children navigating skinny sidewalks and crossing busy intersections while carrying one child and holding the hand of the other. I thought about the elderly man and woman who may struggle with limited physical movement. I also thought about immigrants whose second language is English being challenged by limited communication. These individuals started as hypothetical ideas in my mind but became real to me as I walked in their shoes on my journey.
Continuing my walk, I became lost after turning down the wrong street. At that point, I became disoriented and nervous. That’s when I pulled out my phone to see where I was directionally and thought about those who didn’t have a phone at their disposal. As I was getting back on course, I passed a group of medical professionals who were eating lunch and asked for guidance. They graciously assured me that I was one street away with only a few minutes to go. Upon landing on the right street, I assumed that the mobile unit would be closer to a busy intersection, easily recognized and accessible. However, that was not the case. My walk took me deeper into the neighborhood. Once I got a glimpse of the mobile unit, I was excited and relieved to see it and familiar faces – the nonprofit partners, the community health care workers, the nurse practitioner, the project manager, and the driver of the mobile unit.
A pilot is a good way to test a project or plan before introducing it widely to others.
It’s an opportunity to design a framework, gather data and make assessments. Likewise, it’s a way to connect with individuals and families that you’re trying to serve. A pilot can sometimes be slow in the initial phase, which is why having collaborative partners on board is so valuable. It’s a chance to be resourceful and work together for collective impact. For instance, this pilot revealed that location matters – being visible allows neighborhood residents to stop by, ask questions and seek services. Likewise, it also recognized that transportation is a big issue. In order for residents to secure basic needs and medical treatment through the mobile unit and elsewhere in Mecklenburg County, transportation needs to be accessible. . Therefore, significant grants were extended for Uber rides through partner organizations. Eventually, this pilot ended up being a one-stop shop to respond to food insecurity, vision care, and more.
Being proximate or closest to the work is worthwhile and offers a different lens for meeting objectives.
This can include individuals with lived experience leveraging their social network. It can also include community-based organizations bringing their unique approach and voice to the table to align resources effectively. For communities that are not seen or valued, there is a belief at times that a top-down approach to resolving issues and problems is the best way. Not so! A rising tide has the capacity to lift all boats. Similarly, equity must be centered and top of mind. It doesn’t have to be a win-lose dynamic. It’s possible to instrumentally work together resulting in a win-win scenario.
Trust is essential, especially for individuals and families seeking resources and services.
I mentioned earlier that the community health workers were on the ground months before the pilot began. It’s a fact that communities, in general, lack trust with systems. For many who have been on the receiving end of broken promises, it’s even harder to build and cultivate trust. Therefore, residents want to be a part of the long game. They want honesty, transparency and consistency. They want actions and words to align which means don’t go missing without any feedback and follow-up. The latter will take time to build back, and it’s really a disservice to everyone involved.
Employing empathy is a pathway to understanding and kindness.
It takes courage to have empathy and go outside of your comfort zone to become a part of someone else’s world. To be changed for the better, you must take the long walk, dive into conversations and humanize people. Embracing empathy requires letting go of bias, ego and judgment. Likewise, it requires seeing our neighbors and the burdens they carry. Remember, we belong to each other.
Just recently, I began another pilot project with individuals experiencing homelessness. I had a desire to learn more about their respective lives and situations and how best to communicate with them. Professional training has been a good source, but engaging with nonprofit organizations like Care Ring, Block Love and Hearts for the Invisible are instrumental in providing resources and boots on the ground to respond to essential and critical needs. These nonprofits, as well as civic institutions, community-based organizations, and individuals, are changing how we embrace community. I wish for you to also embrace empathy, courage and change in order to become a part of the journey. It’s a walk worth taking…