I've been thinking about philanthropy. I didn't start off in the philanthropic world. My start was in the nonprofit world. However, low wages, racial discrimination, vicarious trauma, and the nagging feeling that I wasn't helping people effectively made me shift my focus from direct service in nonprofits to public service and policy. Getting into philanthropy felt like a natural next step. I was no longer doing the "boots on the ground" work to help people in need, but for the first time, I had the resources to give significant amounts of my earnings to the causes I cared about.
The problem? I felt prematurely jaded about the inner workings of nonprofits. I'd worked for multiple nonprofit organizations. To put it graphically, I was intimately familiar with how the sausage was made. One organization I worked with was amazing! But another was unbelievably corrupt. Another, still, was so poorly managed I'm surprised it hasn't spontaneously combusted or something. So how was I to make well-founded decisions about where to direct my money? How would I know what to look for? What should any of us be thinking about when we make the decision to give our money in support of addressing a critical issue? These are some of the questions I still grapple with as I dive deeper into philanthropy.
I don't have any perfect answers, but I do have a few favorite pieces of thought-provoking media. Take a look and get inspired:
One distressing thing about DC life is the abundance of people experiencing homelessness. They're in the parks, on the sidewalks, riding the buses and trains. They're Black. White. Young, old. Some appear to struggle with mental illness, and many have physical disabilities. But I knew all of this before I came. My mother has spent her entire career fighting to end homelessness in Minnesota and the rest of the country. See the photo of eight-year-old me looking positively unamused as I watch my mother testify before the Minnesota State Legislature in support of affordable housing (this deserves its own story, but we'll save that for another time). I wish I had known the significance of the day so I could have been properly awed.
I remember my mother making my brother and me wrap endless Christmas gifts for children at the 410 - that's what the big Hennepin County shelter used to be called back in the day. I remember cutting strips of wrapping paper, going through spools of Scotch tape, carefully writing each child's name. I remember the big annual holiday party - the place settings, the trays of food prepared by volunteers, the elderly pianist in the corner playing holiday tunes. The work to end homelessness wasn't so clinical in those days. There seemed to be more smiles and less forms to fill out. I knew people were struggling, not having a house to live in. But the parties and the presents seemed like great fun to me as a child. I played tag with kids from the shelter, mostly unaware of how deeply our circumstances differed.
I remember my eighth grade trip to Washington, DC - a big deal. If you didn't know, social workers don't make nearly enough money. My mother moved mountains to make the three-day trip happen for me. I remember returning home, scandalized. "Mama - there's homeless people sleeping on the street EVERYWHERE. Even in front of the monuments!" She seemed annoyed at my shock. Raising kids in the suburbs of Minnesota is a tricky double-edged sword. I learned French and advanced math in kindergarten but was surprised that some people sleep outside? Yikes.
The lives of people experiencing homelessness remained largely on the periphery of my awareness until I was twenty years old, a fresh bachelor's degree in hand and a major recession looming over the country. I entered the social work field after receiving a raft of rejections for my preferred field: anthropology. "There will always be people having a hard time," my mother reminded me. "Organizations always need people to listen and help."
So I did.
For nearly five years.
I personally secured housing for over 350 homeless individuals and families during that time. The case loads were massive, the hours long, the pay laughably low. My clients were Black. White. Young, old. Many struggled with mental illness. A smattering had physical difficulties. I witnessed the aftermath of horrific domestic abuse, child abuse. I spent months, frozen, as a client battled HIV, and eventually AIDS. Some of my clients died. I worked with a client who was a neo-Nazi, his swastika tattoo prominent and angry. "It's science. Blacks are less intelligent than other races!" He was a single dad to an adorable young toddler, completely oblivious of the dark values soon to be imparted.
I battled with landlords who changed their tune upon discovering prospective tenants were coming from a homeless shelter. I broke bad news to people again and again. I dutifully attended hundreds of hours of training, thousands of hours of clinical supervision. This is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This is Dialectical Behavior Therapy. This is Motivational Interviewing. This is Meditation. This is De-escalation. These are your Boundaries. This is your Vicarious Trauma. My mentors told me: You will wake up in a terrified sweat years from now, remembering the Bad Thing your client told you - the story that made you vomit as soon as they walked out of your tiny Century Plaza office. My mentors were right, of course.
I shut the door on my social work career after a prolonged experience with racism that prompted a mass exodus of employees of color and one brave White ally who wouldn't stand for injustice. I told people I left because my white supervisor cheerfully said "Nigger" several times in a meeting (she wasn't sorry, and it was awful). I told people I left because I got tired of the housing program director ignoring our pleas for staff cultural competence training. I told people I left because I was too annoyed to answer my supervisor's outrageous question: "Risikat, why are Black women so angry?"...truthfully, I would've left the field even without those incidents. The trauma of the work was too much to bear. I was 25 years old. The System was too broken. "Working in this structure feels like painting a house that's on fire," I told colleagues.
I redirected my focus to charitable giving. I reasoned with myself. "I don't have it in me to do the work anymore, but I can give, right?" It felt like a good trade off. My clients' faces became fuzzier in my mind as I shifted gears. Research. Communications. Environment. These became my new reasons to be.
Homelessness became a policy conversation, rather than my own boots on the ground. I hadn't given it my full attention until I arrived in DC.
Today, I walked from Dupont Circle, headed back to my home for the time being. A man, homeless, sat perched on an upturned bucket. "Can you spare any change?" He held a sign with blue Hebrew letters, of all languages. Having no cash, I said, "Do you want some trail mix?"
"Thanks, I appreciate it!"
It wasn't a big deal. Living in DC has me hemorrhaging money, but there's still enough to buy non-perishable items to give away to people during the day. Bottles of water in the hot weather, trail mix, granola bars. I gave freely, not expecting anything in return - not even the warm fuzzy feeling that usually accompanies a good deed. What I didn't expect was to walk down the same path later in the evening and see the trail mix unopened and abandoned on the street. I was taken aback by my rage. I wanted to punch a wall.
"They don't want your food. They don't want your smiles. What they want is your money," says Marvin, my new DC friend. I'd admonished him at the time for being insensitive. However, seeing the trail mix on the ground turned my mind sour in seconds. I don't want to be this person.
It seems like a vulgar display of privilege to feel so indignant about a person discarding a token of compassion. It's only trail mix, after all! Why must people (read: me) attribute such personal feelings and intentions to complete strangers? Maybe the guy just didn't like snack foods. Maybe he didn't want to be rude by refusing me. Still, I felt slighted. "He left my kindness all alone in the street," I muttered bitterly. It was anger, then shame for being angry, then total despondence.
There is no perfect way to solve homelessness, no perfect way to engage with people experiencing housing instability. Maybe you're like my mother and devote decades of your life to eliminating homelessness (in the face of discrimination within the nonprofit sector, no less). Or perhaps you're like me - just doing what you can and hoping for the best. Some days, keeping a soft heart and a kind mind feels like a full-time job.
I have never in my life been mistaken for an adventurous person. I don't delight in jumping out of planes, playing chicken with deadly wildlife, or peering over the edges of tall cliffs. You won't find me trying the world's hottest pepper. I haven't once felt the urge to run toward a mob scene to “see what all the fuss is about”. However, despite these truths, I said yes when my friend Guerline called and said, "Risikat! Want to go on an adventure?" She had found her birth family in Haiti and was eager to reconnect after being apart from them for nearly twenty years. G's family had sent her to an orphanage at eight years old, hoping she’d have a better shot at life. The question, “Will you help me meet my people?” just isn’t something you say no to. So I said yes.
Preparations went quickly. I pride myself on finding creative ways to travel on the cheap, but I met my match with Haiti. I ruefully handed over $742 to Delta Airlines for a round trip flight from Minneapolis to Port-au-Prince, keenly aware that flights to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic (aka, the other side of the same freaking island) were less than $400 at the time. I made goodie bags with personal care items, toys, workbooks. I gathered all the items in my house that lie pristine, yet unused: a digital camera. Reusable water bottles. Survival gear. I got vaccinated for Hepatitis A, Typhoid, Rabies, and a flu shot for good measure. I started my anti-malaria pill regimen - complete with bizarre dreams featuring LeBron James (!) and elaborate action movie escape sequences. The weeks went by and before I knew it, I was walking off a cool plane and into a hot, chaotic scene at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport.
Ten minutes into being on Haitian soil, I was met with a surly airport employee demanding $10. "Can you tell me what this fee is for?" I asked in French, noticing that I had been picked out of the line seemingly at random. "You must pay," said the frowning man. Further attempts at clarifying the fee’s purpose were fruitless. Soon enough, a colleague sauntered over, a gun swinging from his shoulder. Long story short: I paid my ten dollars without a clue or explanation and stepped out into the world. I’d later find out from one of Guerline’s friends that this is a common scheme designed to get a few quick bucks from unsuspecting visitors. Corruption? Who knows? But there was definitely a lack of consistency across the board. Oof.
Guerline and I connected with her birth mother, her father, and a host of siblings and their children. We spent time in Pétion-Ville, Carrefour, Jacmel, and Port-au-Prince. Truthfully, Haiti cannot be boiled down to a simple list. But give me a little room to share a few of my observations and experiences:
Walk toward the light!
The energy situation in Haiti is a bit capricious. The power outages at our hotel, the unavailability of adequate street lighting, and the general lack of reliable electricity in homes and many businesses made for some unsettling nights. Guerline’s friend Remy, a Haitian translator for a local mission, recruited his friend Kakou to help drive us around on our first night. We drove through Pétion-Ville in search of a place for dinner. The car’s headlights illuminated masses of people at every turn. The noise of the streets was unfamiliar. Raised voices, shouting, music - a far cry from Minnesota life, to be sure. That first night, I witnessed four men roughly carrying a terrified woman by her arms and legs down a street even darker than the one we were on; no one stopped them. The next night, we got a flat tire. Haitian military men swung their guns around as they watched us negotiate with passersby to track down a jack, tire iron, and a new tire. Nighttime in Haiti is unpredictable. I felt acutely aware of the role light plays in helping people feel safe.
Rise and grind
Do you ever scroll down Facebook and roll your eyes at the multitude of the “I'm constantly making money moves! I stay on my grind 24/7” variety of posts? It isn’t that I don’t appreciate a good entrepreneur – but some people spend more time talking about how hard they’re working than actually doing the work. It reeks of disingenuity. However, Haiti turns the phrase “Rise and Grind” on its head. The poverty in Haiti is staggering – you must know this. But I didn’t see people begging anywhere. No one expected something for nothing. Every person I saw was selling or making service pitches. Used clothes, a cell phone cord, opened pens, four of the onions they’d grown, filling up tires with air, carrying your bag, helping you with directions – you name it, they were selling it. “Haiti is a jobless country,” says G's friend Remy. “People create usefulness in themselves however they can and with anything they find. Nothing here is worthless.” In short, people walked the walk. The night stretched on as we drank beers and watched people dance and stroll about, as Remy talked about all the reasons there were so few available jobs.
Breathe. Drink. Roam.
Like any decent traveler, I took precautions – I brought bottled water and plenty of medications. I was generally careful. And while I thankfully didn’t experience anything worse than a mild stomachache, I couldn’t help but internally recoil at the sight of garbage piled high along roads and choking waterways. What's the deal with waste management, here? Here’s the truth: Haiti’s natural environment is in a precarious position. The uncontrolled animal population adds to the trouble. Wild dogs roamed free in some places, snacking on garbage and drinking from pools of standing water in the streets. Veterinary services seemed nonexistent; pregnant, emaciated dogs were plentiful. Traffic consisted mostly of motorcycles and trucks – all spewing black, acrid smoke. Taking in a fresh breath of air anywhere in Port-au-Prince felt impossible. Where does trash go when you live on an island with finite space?
If nothing else, food.
The nuances of Guerline’s reunion with her family are complex – but food is simple. Visiting G’s mother near Carrefour required driving up a dangerously narrow road, improvising a parking spot, then walking up steep, rocky terrain littered with trash and bits of metal, all with curious street dogs at our feet. Her mother had lovingly picked out mangoes – one for each of us. I’m allergic to mangoes but I ate eagerly (followed by surreptitiously smearing hand sanitizer around my inner lips to kill the swelling. Gross, but it did the job)! In Jacmel, we visited G’s father and siblings. Food was scarce there, too. Her dad took great care to ensure every single person ate before looking to see what was left for him to work with. Being in Haiti made me ashamed to recall the scenes I’ve witnessed in US restaurants with American kids. The feeling of hunger was a constant distraction in some parts of the country. I'm certain my vegetarianism did me no favors (it's possible I ingested some form of rabbit), though I did appreciate Jacmel's plentiful fruit trees!
I saw him. Did they?
I saw a man dying on my way to the airport. He had been hit by a truck and lay sprawled on the road, a large pool of blood reaching out around his body. When I saw him, I groaned, "Oh, oh God" as I turned my face away. No one around me seemed to care. My hands started shaking. My sunglasses hid my expression well enough but I felt disoriented and sick.
And it isn't as though there were helpers on the scene. There weren't police. No ambulance coming. There weren't even gawkers. No one seemed to be asking, "Who is this guy? Does he have family? Do we need to call someone?" Instead, the people selling their fruits and veggies and wares kept on making sales. Pedestrians kept walking atop and around the trash piles. Every bus, truck, and van, including my own, gingerly weaved around the man's still body.
The air was thick with the smell of fermenting trash, diesel exhaust, dust, blood, animals. He wasn't moving. There was too much blood - who could survive that? But none of the people I saw reacted. Days later, I still do not understand this. No living being should have to die and be left alone like trash while the world just keeps moving around them. Still, I hesitate to condemn the dozens of people around. What could anyone do? It isn't like I leaped out of the car I was in to help, either. Is it possible that people turning away was a form of self-preservation? What does it mean when life is taken away so frequently and so violently?
What of the journey?
I didn't travel to Haiti to have some spiritual transformation or to "find myself". This trip was not a vacation. It was not about me or my personal growth. I wasn't aware of the landscape before I visited. I went only so my friend would have a friendly face and an understanding ear at her side. But thinking I'd just be a passive bystander in Haiti was completely wrong. I went, I saw, and I am affected.
As I sat in the airport, poised to fly back to Minnesota, I was practically jumping out of my skin. My brain screamed, “Get me the hell out of here!” quickly followed by, “You are so selfish. Some of the people here are really struggling and you’re just going to leave?!” I feel guilty about wanting, and being able, to flee. Things seem impossible – where to start? I think of the environmental concerns: water and air quality, land remediation. The child Restaveks I saw silently doing laundry, sweeping, and cooking, while their peers attended school. The people my age, brilliant and skilled, but with no jobs in which to channel their expertise. Who can change things? The corruption, poverty, and lack of opportunity are overwhelming. I have no bright ideas, no innovative solutions. All I have is this exchange from Scandal to remind me that getting depressed helps no one:
Olivia Pope: I don't know what the point is of this, of democracy and freedom and patriotism. If there are no white hats. If everyone is evil. If the deck is always stacked. If everyone I love is a monster. If no one is worth saving. What's the point?
Rowan Pope: There is, incidentally, a point. If there are no more white hats, if the deck is always stacked, and if everyone you love is a monster, there is, in fact, someone worth saving.
Rowan: Everyone! Everyone is worth saving! Even the monsters, even the demons. Everyone is worth saving. In the face of darkness, you drag everyone into the light. That is the point.
It is hard to acknowledge the monster in me. The privileged, unaware, self-indulgent person who doesn't have to care because I have all the resources I need. Haiti seemed like one of the darkest places in the world to live some days. I saw people in survival mode, doing whatever they needed to make it. Still, every act of indifference or cruelty coexisted with acts of extreme kindness. I showed up with rudimentary language skills. My new friends taught me. I showed up with no real understanding of where I was, and my new friends explained. People are people, wherever they are. I don't know what to make of the trip except knowing that I was there for my friend and that feels like enough for now.
I've been researching local videographers for a little project. Getting recommendations was easy - after all, everyone knows someone with a camera and an empty pocket. Finding someone who can tell a compelling story in a short amount of time has been much harder. Desperate for inspiration, I turned to some of my favorite short films. I think you'll enjoy them, too. (And if you know any enterprising videographers, get at me)